Feminist advocacy and social media (or how we achieved critical mass)

This is a guest post by Echo Zen. Echo is a feminist filmmaker, blogger, speaker and sexual health advocate, currently deployed in the States to counter the influence of Tea Party moppets. When ze’s not doing ad consulting for birth control, ze tries to blog semi-regularly for Feministe (partly to set a good example for zir sister).

A friend and I were talking a few nights ago. The topic of conversation was mundane – something about sports cars and middle-aged men. She ended the conversation with, “Alright, I’d better go. I need to take my whore pills before I go to bed.”

Whore pills. Slang for birth control. My friend doesn’t talk much about contraception, but she heard about “whore pills” via Facebook, through friends posting about the Arizona bill which would have allowed employers to fire employees for using birth control for non-medical reasons. The feminist blogosphere called out this obvious attempt to punish slutty slut-sluts for using “whore pills” – and I guess the name stuck.

That’s how social media has changed feminism since a decade ago. Social media is how SlutWalk satellites across the world have organised themselves from the grassroots up, without visible leadership or top-down direction. It is how we make ourselves heard when traditional media outlets ignore our voices. And it gives us a common vernacular for discussing the countless attacks on women’s bodies taking place across America as we speak. So when friends joke to us about taking their whore pills and dedicating them to Rush Limbaugh, we know exactly what they’re talking about.

Today it seems like commonsense that social media is the key to uniting communities in the fight for equality. But none of the activists who began launching the first feminist blogs back in 2003 knew this. Heck, I work as a social media consultant, and as recently as 2011 when my mates were using Facebook to organise the first SlutWalk rallies in the U.S., I had serious doubts about social media’s ability to effect real feminist change.

The problem wasn’t a lack of young feminists using social media to make their voices heard – the old canard that young women are too complacent to take leadership in today’s feminist movement is a patented falsehood. The problem was our voices weren’t reaching other young women who needed to hear us. They heard us, but dismissed us as hysterical little ladies when we warned that anti-women extremists were organising to criminalise our contraception, repeal domestic violence laws, and strip away funding for rape survivors.

Maybe they thought the misogynists on Capitol Hill would be content with simply outlawing abortion and gay marriage. That’s a mistake the traditional media have consistently made in failing to illuminate the true motives behind the opposition’s frenzied efforts to strip women of their reproductive, sexual and human rights. They claim it’s about “limited government,” “personal responsibility,” and “promoting a culture of life.” But anyone with a lick of feminist experience knows the opposition has zero concern for life, and a fanatical obsession with endangering, punishing and murdering women who refuse to subordinate themselves to the opposition’s 1950s doctrine of sexual modesty – as if modesty will keep rapists from raping people, or prevent misogynists from assaulting their partners.

Getting U.S. media to reframe the narrative, though, has been a fruitless endeavour. As individuals speaking in isolation, we’re easy to dismiss as isolated cranks – which is why women’s groups have historically had to rely on marches and rallies to raise the visibility and critical mass necessary to force media to cover our issues. This wasn’t easy, or cheap. They required ongoing leadership and material support, and since both were always in limited supply, our capacity for messaging was limited as well.

Social media has long been championed as an alternative channel, a solution to the traditional media’s filter on our views. The blogosphere and communities we’ve formed since the early 2000s are testament to that. But though we increased our visibility, we still lacked the critical mass to issue truly rapid, networked responses to attacks on our rights, because not enough people were listening… until now.

In hindsight there was nothing we could have done to get more people to listen. The consultant in me should have known – nobody listens until they feel something in their life is under attack. Let me reiterate: In politics, nobody listens, ever, unless they feel they’re under attack. The first feminist bloggers founded their blogs because they saw the attacks coming, and happening. They were ready.

And so, with other feminists who came of age over the years, we laid down the infrastructure. And as the war on women reached a frenzied peak in 2011, women finally realised their so-called “representatives” truly believe the greatest threat to America isn’t corruption or income inequality, but rather healthy, independent, sexually active women. As women began listening and looking for allies, they found the infrastructure we had in place to empower their voices, to initiate dialogue and to raise awareness. Critical mass had arrived.

It’s through our ability to network and educate each other that women today understand these attacks are hardly isolated, but part of a decades-long campaign to strip women of their constitutionally protected civil rights. This has become painfully obvious as states like Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma move to outlaw birth control pills through laws defining fertilised eggs as people, as other states repeal their laws against domestic abuse on the grounds that they’re a waste of tax dollars, and as lawmakers in the Senate refuse to reauthorise the Violence Against Women Act, claiming the law is “a slush fund for the feminist lobby,” and that it provides too much protection for women.

That’s why, in many ways, the hashtag is mightier than the sword. In 2011, we caught a glimpse of the ability of activists to organise rapid, networked responses to attacks on our sexuality. The first SlutWalk was held in Toronto, and soon spread worldwide through grassroots efforts of advocates on the ground – all without visible leadership or top-down direction. Now, four months into 2012, we’ve seen how our capacity for rapid, networked responses to misogyny has truly matured. When Susan G. Komen banned funding to Planned Parenthood in January, the social media response was so massive that Komen reversed course just four days later. And when one radio host attacked a young, articulate law student as a prostitute for testifying about her friend’s need for life-saving contraception in February, the networked reaction resulted in a virtual exodus of advertisers willing to sleep in bed with a public misogynist.

That’s what we’ve achieved with no visible leadership or budget. We broke through the traditional media’s filter and made our voices heard.

Success follows when awareness translates into action – and Komen and Limbaugh are but a taste of our capacity to translate awareness into action. The old joke is that the world’s supposed to end in 2012 anyway, according to the Mayan calendar. Of course, folks of Mayan descent understand this is bollocks, that 2012 merely signals the start of a new era. I do know this year marks the most active mobilisation of women I’ve ever seen in defence of our rights as human beings. This is our era. This is our time.

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15 Responses to Feminist advocacy and social media (or how we achieved critical mass)

  1. Lauren says:

    I thought about this the other day, when the terms victim-blaming and slut-shaming were used in the latest episode of L&O:SVU. Terms that originated right here with us are becoming part of the lexicon.

  2. Athenia says:

    I think a real turning point was the Komen debacle. For me, that really showed me what the power of not only social media can do but really the power of pro-woman interests. No matter what the mainstream media says or what the government does, this country really does value women’s health. And that was really great to see.

  3. stef says:

    Great post. Social media and Twitter are one of the best ways to get involved in activism and stay connected to fellow feminists.

    One of my personal favourites: Laurie Penny, journalist, feminist and all-around awesome chick.

  4. D says:

    wow great article
    cool to see more viewpoints from feminists outside the US.
    int.youtube channel too:

  5. Great article- definitely motivating! I think we are using social media for social change and I am impressed by how much it actually affects change, though I know those who are against gender equality and women having the right to make choices for their bodies are also using it. I think there’s also still some catching up to do within the population. Most people at least have e-mail and probably Facebook, but a lot of people don’t do too much more, so how to get people involved who haven’t yet become addicted to the many avenues the Internet affords us is a question. I see strands of this starting to happen, but I hope someday the online organizing creates more cohesiveness and more opportunities to make off-line community. It’s a long war against women and a tough one- I hope the online push can connect us with the support we need on line and off. Thanks for the post! -Liza Wolff-Francis, Matrifocal Point

  6. Mxe354 says:

    I loved this article. The pessimist in me says that we still have a very long way to go, but I’m glad to see that social media has become instrumental to social activism.

  7. ahimsa says:

    I hope this is not too much of a tangent (moderator, please delete this if it is).

    For those who are in the USA, is anyone going to attend one of the “Unite Against The War On Women” protests that are planned for tomorrow, April 28th? I wish I could but won’t be able to go.

    See http://www.wearewomenmarch.net/ for details.

  8. ahimsa says:

    Oops, I think this is a better link (shows the list of events planned):


  9. Jackie says:

    I was so excited when Slut Walk was mentioned on the Law & Order SVU episode Street Revenge!

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  11. From Echo Zen’s writing, this phrase —

    the countless attacks on women’s bodies

    — sums up so much about the continuing need for feminism today.

    Whatever we decide about our choices to practice sexuality (or not), the process of exercising agency over our own bodies is inherent to women’s freedom.

    It may still be trending in the news, but a related point is the mixed hilarity and sadness of the Vatican publicly upbraiding (scolding and mansplaining) American nuns for too much social justice and too little preaching against abortion and contraception. Pope and bishops call the good sisters “radical feminists.” Who knew!!!

    As I’ve read that graffiti in women’s public restroom stalls before Roe v. Wade used to say (decades before it became necessary in this century to reclaim the rights supposedly already won): “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” If men could get pregnant, whore pills would have zero side effects, be 100% effective, and cost nothing.

  12. AMM says:

    At the risk of sounding old and crotchety, I’m not convinced that on-line social media were the essential ingredient for the recent organizing successes. After all, the civil rights movement in that ’50s and ’60s and the anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s managed to build a pretty high profile despite similar lack of support from the press, and they had nothing more high-tech than telephones and the odd “underground” radio station.

    You don’t need high tech to build a movement. What you need is a substantial fraction of the population that believes that the goal is self-evidently right and necessary. The anti-war movement of the 1960s happened because the generation born after WWII had grown up with the idea (arising from WWII) that acting morally was what the US was about and found the US’s immoral behavior in Vietnam unbearable.

    In this case, what you have is an entire generation which has grown up in a society which pays at least lip-service to the equality of men and women and in which the availability (at least for middle-class white women) of abortion and a variety of birth control methods has always been a part of the landscape. Women in this generation who want to fight the “war on women” don’t have to seek out people who agree with them; pretty much everyone they know is on their side. The only thing that needs discussing is tactics and organization.

    On another note, it’s worth remembering that a lot of people who might agree with these causes don’t use social media, either because they don’t have access (is it practical to use FaceBook or Twitter if your only computer access is the public library?) or because they aren’t interested in spending their time on social media. (Yes, Virginia, there _are_ middle-class people under 25 who have no interest in FaceBook at all.) If these movements are to go beyond a subset of white, middle-class, young women, there are going to have to have organizers who go out and network with people with different backgrounds, lifestyles, and life circumstances. AKA old-fashioned Organizing.

  13. Athenia says:

    If these movements are to go beyond a subset of white, middle-class, young women, there are going to have to have organizers who go out and network with people with different backgrounds, lifestyles, and life circumstances. AKA old-fashioned Organizing.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with your assessments, but I do think social media does allow people from a variety of backgrounds to participate. (Of course, whether or not they’re interested in participating is another matter) But, you don’t necessarily have to be certain physical location to have your voice heard. A feminist in Wisconsin and a feminist in New York can both join the internet outrage.

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