Illustration of pink computers and girls climbing on them
Illustration: Ellis van der Does

POOL PIONEERS

Did the internet create a generation of feminists?

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett considers how the fourth wave of feminism was influenced by tech

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By Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett on

If, 10 years ago, you had asked me if I was a feminist, I would probably have said no. Aside from a few university lectures, feminism just wasn’t a term that was on my radar, or that of my friends. We came of age in the post-feminist 90s, and were told that equality was a done deal, that we didn’t need feminism any more. Feminists were angry, hairy relics from another age, nothing to do with us.

But then another wave broke. Those in the know labelled it the fourth wave and we are still in the midst of it now. The past half-decade or so has seen a huge resurgence of interest in feminist activism and campaigning, especially online, and especially among my generation, the so-called “millennials”. To call yourself a feminist is not the taboo it once was – how could it be when Beyoncé has danced on stage in front of the word spelled out in giant lit-up letters? We’re even seeing teenage girls identify as such, something that was unimaginable when I was 15. Feminist comedians such as Sara Pascoe, Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, Bridget Christie, Michaela Coel, Katherine Ryan and Issa Rae have used feminist ideas in their acts and shows. In fact, feminism has now become so mainstream that it is being used to market everything, from designer slogan T-shirts (a look that has trickled down to the high street and become ubiquitous) to sanitary towels to shampoo. But more positively, the fourth wave of feminism has seen a whole new generation of women interrogating just what that term means, vocalising their anger at a system that continues to oppress us. And that is huge.

When I co-founded the feminist blog The Vagenda, in 2012, I had no idea how popular it would become, nor that the new wave of feminism of which it was a small part would crescendo in the January 2017 Women’s March  – a global act of resistance of an estimated five million people, in response to the election of sexist, bigoted Donald Trump, who boasts of grabbing women by the pussy and doesn’t balk at removing access to family planning for women in developing countries. That march saw fourth-wave feminists march alongside their mothers and grandmothers, as well as supportive men, in an expression of outrage, disgust and humorous defiance. As with much fourth-wave activism, technology was a crucial organising factor.

In fact, you could say the importance of tech is what separates the fourth wave from all the others. “I give Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman a huge amount of credit for turbo-charging fourth-wave feminism,” says Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman, which has been a much-needed champion for my generation of feminists. “Suddenly, publishers and editors could see proof that there was an audience out there, hungry for writing about feminism. But even before that, a community was building, based around sites like The F Word in the UK and Jezebel in the US. The rise of blogging and social media gave a platform to hundreds of women who would otherwise have struggled to make it past the traditional media ‘gatekeepers’.”

In a way, the internet allowed fourth-wave feminists to create an international solidarity movement. It taught us that we weren’t alone. Encouraged by US-based feminists, such as Roxane Gay and Jessica Valenti, as well as homegrown role models, campaigns began springing up everywhere: Daughters of Eve, The Everyday Sexism Project, No More Page 3 and Women on Banknotes, to name just a few. Daughters of Eve uses social media not only to raise awareness of the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation, but also as a much needed amplifier for the voices of the victims whose voices so often go unheard. The Everyday Sexism Project, too, helped to give women a voice by collating their experiences of sexism in vivid, distressing detail on social media. Its message was: “This happens, it’s everywhere and it’s time to take notice.” Meanwhile, No More Page 3 and Women on Banknotes utilised social media so effectively that they basically campaigned themselves out of existence. As I write, Page 3 is no more, and the first Jane Austen tenners are emerging from our cashpoints. At the same time, magazines, online and off, embraced the word “feminism”, with new ones such as Rookie, Riposte, Gal-Dem and Lyra springing up (not to mention The Pool and The Vagenda). A political party, the Women’s Equality party, was even founded.

To call yourself a feminist is not the taboo it once was – how could it be when Beyoncé has danced on stage in front of the word spelled out in giant lit-up letters?

“The internet has been the core of my activism,” says Nimco Ali, a Somali British social activist and survivor of FGM, who co-founded the non-profit organisation Daughters of Eve. “It has been a space to share ideas and find other feminists to work with. Social media and Twitter especially connect millions of women and girls who have been affected by FGM through one hashtag.”

Laura Bates, who founded the Everyday Sexism Project, agrees. “Technology has played a major role in the Everyday Sexism Project, partly because it enabled us to reach out and collate the testimonies of so many women,” she says. “In many ways, it is a digital version of the earlier consciousness raising efforts, but we were able to share the stories of over 100,000 women, partly because the internet allowed us to reach far wider than we otherwise could have done and partly because it created a forum in which those stories could be told safely and sometimes anonymously, without risk of persecution, ramifications, shame or blame.”

“The internet also means that far more people who didn't know about the problem have now learnt about it through the website or social-media feeds, and the nature of social media means that these stories now pop up daily in front of thousands of people who might never have thought about this issue or gone looking for information on it.”

Bates has since authored two books (Everyday Sexism and Girl Up), worked with Gloria Steinem and spoken about sexism all over the world – including at the United Nations. Ali, meanwhile, is a founding member of the Women’s Equality Party and was named by The Sunday Times as one of Debrett’s 500 most influential people in Britain. Feminist activist and author Caroline Criado-Perez, who was behind the Women on Banknotes campaign, has turned her attention to representations of women in public art (a mere 2.7 per cent of statues are of female figures), and recently learnt that her campaign for a statue of a woman in Parliament Square has been successful ­– a statue of Millicent Fawcett, designed by Gillian Wearing, has been approved.

However, as every feminist who uses the internet is acutely aware, there are downsides. “Twitter is both a blessing and a curse for feminism,” says Criado-Perez, who campaigned successfully for Jane Austen to appear on the £10 note and suffered distressing levels of abuse as a result. In 2014, two people were jailed for the threats they made, but Criado-Perez continues to receive awful messages every single day.  “On the one hand it has enabled us to find each other. It has made our feminism better, because the voices we can now hear are more varied. And it has made us stronger, because it enables us to join forces and fight.”

Unfortunately, as so many of us have been forced to discover, social media also gives voice to misogynists. “Twitter has also emboldened them, enabled them to join forces, amplified their voice,” she continues. “It has facilitated abuse in the form of rape and death threats at a horrifying scale – and, as someone who has sat staring at her phone screen as the most graphic detailed threats roll in one after another, I mean horrifying.”

Ali and Bates, too, have suffered horrible abuse online – mostly from men. “There is not a feminist sadly who has not been trolled, but without Twitter I would not have been able to access the support and those in power to make the changes that we have on FGM,” says Ali. It’s important to recognise, she feels, that social media is not the problem – it merely reflects the attitudes that are prevalent in wider society. “We need better education and mental-health support for those affected by trolling and those who think trolling someone is OK,” she says. “It is painful when you are in the eye of the storm and the hate is coming at you. But the reality is these people don’t know me and will never know me.”

Twitter is both a blessing and a curse for feminism

When you become a public face of feminism, one of the things that you realise is that sexist men really don’t like a woman who sticks her neck out. As the feminist journalist Laurie Penny has said, a woman with an opinion is the “short skirt of the internet” – “wear” one and, if you receive abuse as a result, people will say that you are asking for it.

“It still amazes me that so many people are so threatened by the idea of women simply telling our stories that they feel the need to respond with abuse, rape and death threats and attempts to terrify us into silence”, says Bates. She is optimistic, however, that it will not last for ever. “My hope is that we are seeing a teething problem. The internet is still relatively in its infancy and I don't think it's sustainable for us to continue with these platforms where women and other groups are persecuted and often driven off altogether by violent abuse.”

“It is my hope that law enforcement will gradually catch up with those who are currently free to break the law with impunity, and that social-media platforms will eventually be forced to truly confront this behaviour as it starts to affect their bottom line. It is frustrating that they haven't been motivated to get to grips with it sooner.”

Twitter, especially, has been heavily criticised for its response to online misogyny. Most recently, feminists have been furious that it suspended the actor Rose McGowan, who challenged Ben Affleck on his insistence that he was unaware of Harvey Weinstein’s disgusting sexual harassment of women in the film industry. Yet, report abuse and threats to Twitter and often the trolls will continue without rebuke.

The platform insists that it has been making progress in tackling it. “Abuse and harassment have no place on Twitter,” a spokesperson told me. “We've introduced a range of new tools and features to improve our platform for everyone, and we're now taking action on 10 times the number of abusive accounts every day than the same time in 2016. We will continue to build on these efforts and meet the challenge head-on.” As a woman who puts her head above the parapet on a regular basis – and who has received no small amount of abuse – I can tell you that the introduction of a mute button has made a huge difference to my experience of Twitter. But more needs to be done.

One of the frequent criticisms that is levelled at fourth-wave feminism is that it is all style and no substance, that all of this online-based activity fails to translate into the real world. It’s been dismissed as “pay gap feminism,” “glitter feminism,” “lipstick feminism,” and “capitalist feminism”.

“My concern has long been that feminism has become too concerned with surfaces, and not enough with structures,” says Lewis. “But it’s harder to fight a grinding, unfair system than it is to topple a single emblematic sexist. We need to remind ourselves that there’s a long way to go – the fight doesn’t end with a female prime minister, or women getting equal prize money at Wimbledon, or a few more women on boards. Feminism is supposed to be radical – going to the root. That means asking for nothing less than a complete reconfiguration of society to make it more equal. Not just a few baubles to distract us.”

All of the feminists I know are active offline as well as on. Bates, for example, goes into schools, universities and workplaces to discuss sexism, harassment and consent, and has worked with the British Transport Police on training officers on better responding to sexual offences. She, along with a range of other campaigners, also successfully lobbied to make sex and relationships education a mandatory part of the school curriculum. “I see technology as very much a part of a wider project,” she says. “I find the idea that 'online activism' is lazy or useless deliberately facetious and misleading – it is, of course, a powerful tool as part of a wider effort.”

This was certainly true of The Vagenda. Although the blog and the resulting book were a huge part of our campaign against sexism in the media, some of the most vital work we did involved meeting the young women and girls affected by it on visits to schools and universities. Seeing them gain the confidence to articulate their rights to equality was some of the most important work we ever did.

What, I ask Lewis, does she think fourth-wave feminism has achieved? “It created a huge number of connections – I know dozens of campaigners and writers I would otherwise never have met,” she says. “I know about issues that would otherwise have passed me by. It created a great wave of energy – not all of it positive, as women competed for a finite supply of money, prestige and influence.

“Perhaps most importantly,” she continues, “it reminded feminists that they weren’t alone.” She is not wrong – the response to Harvey Weinstein, and the way women are now less afraid to speak out about sexism, abuse and harassment, has meant that it genuinely feels as though we are at a turning point in terms of women’s rights. Without the fourth wave, this would not be the case. “I can’t think of any politician now who could make a sexist joke without being aware of the response it will generate,” says Lewis. “So there was a sense of solidarity [to fourth-wave feminism]: here we all are – come at us, bro.”

@rhiannonlucyc

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Illustration: Ellis van der Does
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