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I think back in time and I remember, very vividly, my history classes. The Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Modern Era—very different times in history and yet all have something in common: widespread misogyny. Any time the hierarchy of a given society was brought up during our classes, it became clear to me that women had muted voices and were relegated to subordinate roles. Throughout history, women were not autonomous and dignified human beings but accessories secondary to men, primarily valued for their childbearing and housekeeping abilities.
I can close my eyes and I can go back even further in time. I now see myself as a third-grader. Back then, I had no understanding of concepts like sexism or feminism. However, I can visualize myself with my pouty lips and folded small arms saying out loud, “That is so rude!” when our teacher talked about how women were treated in a particular period.
Being a student at a girls’ high school has shown me that girls can become anything they want if they put their minds to it. A math contest champion. A highly skilled computer programmer. A debater. A change agent. A leader. All the things that boys are “supposed to do,” girls do, and can do just as well. Speaking up convincingly. Calculating rapidly. Leading with determination and a goal. We’re told to chase our dreams and become strong powerful women who can change the world.
I wonder how the greatest feminists of the past would feel if they could be transported to this era with a time machine. I imagine Susan B. Anthony, Virginia Woolf, Wilhelmina Drucker and Rosa Parks teleported here, now, from the past. They were amazing women I admire immensely. Would they cry tears of joy seeing that women can now be executives of a company or members of the Senate? Would they be overjoyed knowing that their hard work has laid the foundation for women’s independence today? Or would they cry tears of frustration and disappointment seeing that the changes are exceptionally slow and that misogyny and gender inequality persist?
Undoubtedly, women today have enormous advantages compared to women living even 50 years ago. Still, we have a long way to go and any progress we make happens too slowly.
Going back to the notable feminists of the past I mentioned above, how would they feel seeing that there are so many conversations around feminism online? Social media has allowed feminism to permeate everyday language, which I believe is, all in all, a wonderful thing. How wonderful is it that we all have a shared vocabulary to discuss the issues we face? The resonance that the Internet has is unbelievable.
As an avid Instagram user, I have also noticed how common feminist hashtags are. But I wonder sometimes if “common” translates to “effective.” Talking the talk and walking the walk are two different things.
Tara Conley started the Hashtag Feminism website in 2013 “as a way to document and track feminist discourse, including emerging conversations and social movements online,” as she describes.
If we were to consider all the posts online, it looks as if we are making progress in the gender equality arena, but I also feel we still have many issues stemming from misogyny. If Hillary Clinton hadn’t lost to Donald Trump, would the US (along with the rest of the world) have recognized as urgently the imbalance of power that women in general have in the world? Did it take a qualified woman being disrespected by a male imposter for feminism to reemerge so vehemently? All I heard at the time of the election or during political debates among lay people was, “A woman can’t govern.”
Nowadays, the Internet is a crucial tool in the delivery of feminist ideas. The biggest example of this is probably the #MeToo movement, which has encouraged both genders to take tangible steps toward addressing the sexual harassment that women experience in their workplaces. Pretty much any time you open up a social media post these days, you’re likely to be greeted with an example. #BelieveWomen. #ImWithHer. #EffYourBeautyStandards. They help make me feel that the distance been any point A and point B in the world isn’t so big. I picture a vast bridge built around the universe with two slats of vertical wood, two slats of horizontal, layered on top of each other the way you’d draw a game of tic tac toe, but with curved lines. Two slats vertical, two slats horizontal, again and again, until the bridge is long and wide enough to connect every single one of us.
Feminism in the Internet era isn’t confined to just hashtags, though. The Everyday Sexism Project, for instance, is a website created by the British writer Laura Bates. It’s a collection of anonymous accounts of everyday sexism that anyone can post to. The site was started in 2012 and there are new batches of posts added to it every week. Scrolling through it is amazing. Talk about not feeling alone. Here’s just a sampling:
A sister of a University friend trained for years to become a Surgeon. When she started her first post she had to endure lots of sexist jokes. Rather than reporting them, she decided to tell some sexist jokes (about men) back. They reported her. She has since moved into research.
In my first post-college job, the owner of my company frequently invited me to “client dinners” only to inform me once there that the client had cancelled. He once texted me directly asking what dollar amount it would take. I finally had to leave the job, because I was unable to juggle the responsibilities of my position and the confusing manipulation from my boss.
Husband just not understanding why it’s not ok that I had to give up my (more promising, more lucrative) career to make our home and look after our children. After 20 years and 2 kids together, saying ‘that’s the price you pay for being a woman.’ As a joke, but not.
My Facebook friend and neighbor posted a diagram – two umbrellas side-by-side the first umbrella had God on top of it with the husband first and the wife under the husband. The second umbrella had Satan on top of it and the wife was first and the husband was under her.
Last week, I dyed my hair from my natural brunette to a subtle purple. I posted it on one of my social medias and I quickly got a comment from another girl, saying what I’d done was stupid and silly. I asked why. She responded that I had only dyed my hair for a guy. I said “why the hell would I do that?” and she commented back “every girl does.” First of all, I was insulted she was making the assumption that I would do something like dying my hair permanently for a guy, but then to suggest that every girl who dyes their hair does it for a guy? I was disgusted. Because obviously me wanting to dye my hair because I like it isn’t a good enough reason, the only reason I could possibly have is dying it for a boy…
I was appointed to a lectureship in a British university on the basis of my PhD, book, articles and extensive teaching experience. They appointed me at the bottom of the pay scale – fair enough, I thought, it’s my first full-time job. A few months later a 0.5 post came up, and my partner (8 years younger than me, halfway through his PhD, no relevant publications, little teaching experience) applied, and got it. They appointed him to the top of the pay scale. We only realized when we compared pay slips.
There are so many posts and each reveals another layer of what we think of as sexism. It’s like watching a flat image being rendered three-dimensional. If you’ve ever had even the slightest twinge of being treated in a sexist way, you will probably find a post about it on the site. And if you do not, you can add it yourself.
Clearly, there’s been a helpful, community-building aspect to feminism. However, alongside that have come feelings of fatigue and frustration, as well as questions about class in regards to who has access to technology and who doesn’t. Some worry that hashtag feminism is only just that: a hashtag. There is literally nothing easier than adding a bunch of feminist catch phrases to the bottom of your Instagram posts. But how much of your actual life do you then align with your hashtag? What are tangible ways you’re thinking outside the Instagram box? And how much has the fourth wave become just another branding tool to gain followers and sponsorships? Just being aware of an injustice doesn’t mean you are doing tangible things to actually address it.
And personally, I’m feeling burnt out on hashtag feminism as it applies to my own life. There’s something boring and limited about the movement as it stands now. We’re living in such an exciting time for women and I think I’d like the movement to move beyond technology and into the real world. It’s time to make that global tic tac toe board real and littered with voices, fingerprints and footprints. We need action more than catchy hashtags. Maybe our hashtags need to start being less about what we think or feel and more about what we have actually done to address those thoughts and feelings.
Lastly, I have to admit that I have often been one of those who talk the talk and don’t walk the walk. I have been a passive bystander who witnesses gender inequality every day. I want to see changes, I want to do something, and I want to be an advocate, but I frequently feel lost and overwhelmed and wouldn’t know where to start.
For now, in a world where disrespect, sexism, and hate fly past me every day, I fight back with every key I type and every word I write. It is my first step into the circle, into the fight. My first step to become closer to all the things I wish I was. Where I leave the comfort of the crowd and join the women who have stood their ground all this time.
I imagine lighting the fire of my sky lantern and letting it set sail, joining millions of others, forming a radiant glow in the once-dark sky. Even if you think the fire light of your sky lantern will not be noticed in the already lit night, light the fire. Your light might be the brightest in the sky one day. We are all trying to figure it out. As the saying goes, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”