In May of 1966, Marie Anderson, women’s editor of the Miami Herald, received a letter from an angry reader. It began politely enough (“Dear Miss Anderson”) then moved quickly to the point:
It is people like yourself who are making it so easy for the government to take over even the smallest details of our lives. With your permission; and the governments; I will assume full responsibility for the training of my 14-year-old daughter!!
The next few paragraphs (starting with “I am so enraged” and “Mothers, Wake Up”) continued the barrage against Marie, complete with more exclamation points and underlines.
And that was what the harassment of feminists looked like 50 years ago. Handwritten on stationery. Signed by Mrs. Paul R. Turner, who could be reached at PO Box 1026 in Marathon, Florida. And responded to by Marie Anderson in a short and snarky return note:
Dear Mrs. Turner:
Keep up the good work. If all mothers were like you there couldn’t be the problem of women being totally unprepared for their roles of homemakers.
Things are different for feminist writers today, especially online. A recent piece by Michelle Goldberg in The Washington Post outlined the abuse heaped on public feminists such as Jessica Valenti, Lindy West, Jamia Wilson, Jaclyn Munson, and others. These women write about reproductive rights, pay equality, and sexual violence, and are met in turn with vitriolic insults, virtual stalking, and threats of rape and murder. With no polite signature and return address.
It is worse today for a number of reasons. It’s a lot easier to be nasty when you’re anonymous. Social media sites continue to be ineffective in policing the abuse of trolls. And misogyny is now organized through groups like the Men’s Rights Movement and Gamergate.
These explanations for why it’s worse are little comfort to women pounded by daily abuse. Yes, they know that this kind of thing is now part of the job and that there are more serious problems in the world. But there can be real fear associated with the threats. And it can mess with regular life. As Jill Filipovic noted, “I have not figured out how to spend all day steeling against criticism – not just criticism, but really awful things people say to you and about you – and then go home and 30 minutes later you’re an emotionally available, normal person.”
As a result many women wish they’d never taken on the task of writing about feminism or they quit. And we lose important voices.
I hate that Internet trolls can influence our conversations in this way, but I totally get it. Though I’ve had a few disturbing comments on my blog, I doubt if my writing will ever have the circulation to inspire the kind of misogynistic vitriol these women have endured. But I’m quite sure that my skin wouldn’t be thick enough to endure this level of abuse. Or, to draw on another well-worn trope, the heat would probably drive me out of the kitchen.
The Washington Post article highlighting the online abuse of feminist writers was published on February 20. Two days later, at the Academy Awards ceremony, Patricia Arquette accepted her Oscar with a speech that included, “To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody’s equal rights, it is our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.” Loud applause followed because, hey, wage equality is a good thing, right?
Once Arquette elaborated on her remarks backstage, though, things got a little dicey: “And it’s time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.” With this follow-up, Arquette pitted the women’s movement against the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement – “we” have fought for “them” and now “they” should fight for “us.”
Beware of pronouns without clear referents.
Critics immediately pointed out that Arquette’s comments reflected the long-standing (and well-founded) belief that feminist movements have consistently ignored the concerns of women of color. During the first wave, Elizabeth Cady Stanton refused to support the vote for African American women. During the second wave, overriding attention was given to the concerns of upper and middle class white women. And now, it is rarely acknowledged that wage, workplace, and attitudinal inequities are much worse for women of color.
Arquette tried to clarify her position on Twitter the next morning. She tweeted that “If you are fighting against #Equalpay you are fighting for ALL women and especially women of color to make less money than men.” But what trended was #AskAWhiteFeminist” with calls for Arquette – and all white feminists – to understand the importance of the intersection of social identities such as gender, race, sexual orientation, and disability.
The criticism was deserved. Arquette should have known better. She had a great big stage and she obviously planned to use it to speak out on this issue. Several days later, on Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show, Fordham University professor Christina Greer said “We know with Patricia Arquette, when she says ‘women,’ she actually means white women.” Arquette claimed otherwise, but her words were – at best – not carefully considered.
And I appreciate this calling out because I’m a white feminist. I’ve studied the history of feminism and I see how it has failed women of color many times over. I read and listen to their stories and I understand the concept of intersectionality. But that understanding can never be more than conceptual. Like I said, I’m a white feminist. When I speak and write, there may be times when my privilege leads me to miss or downplay issues important to women of color. I hope this doesn’t happen much and I hope my readers will call me on it. I want to learn from others and attempt to be part of a larger feminist movement that is inclusive and cognizant of the complicated identities of many women.
But I worry about feminists who are not public figures of either the major (Arquette) or minor (me) variety. I worry about young women who are wondering about what feminism can mean and are confused by the issue of intersectionality. I worry about women wanting to speak and being scared about saying the wrong thing or saying it in the wrong way.
And this is where I come to the spot of connecting the first part of this post with the second. It’s a tricky business, and I want to be clear that I am not equating Internet trolls with the justified critics of Patricia Arquette. What I am saying is simply this:
Feminists get plenty of abuse both online and offline. So when we’re talking to each other, let’s try to give a benefit of the doubt. We should absolutely work to inform each other, correct misperceptions, and passionately argue about how to make all women’s lives better. But we should also do all we can to keep the conversation going. Let’s do that for each other.