Online feminism: why I stay out of the fight

Even in the safe havens of feminist-friendly networks, debate is angry, polarised and quick to judge. So I'm staying on the sidelines.

by Rachel Savage
Last Updated: 14 Jun 2016

I am a feminist. For me, that all genders should be equal is pretty uncontroversial. And you can hardly argue with the fact women have it worse. I have no time for those (usually men) who call themselves 'humanists' or 'equalists'.

I've never been much of an activist though. When students took to the streets in 2010 to protest about the trebling of university tuition fees I stayed in the library. My kneejerk reaction was that the government was wrong, but I also knew higher education was facing a huge funding squeeze. So I stayed on the sidelines.

But there is no question mark for me over the need to fight sexism. I've experienced misogyny both overt and unconscious, but had never realised it until I had an 'internet awakening' a few years ago. Everyday Sexism hit the mainstream and it became OK to admit you had been catcalled in the street and groped in clubs. You weren't alone. There were people who had been through the same thing supporting you online.

But, as anyone who has ever spent any time on Twitter will know, for every virtual friend there is a veritable army of anonymous eggs waiting to make your online life a living hell. I have so far escaped the worst of the Wild West that is the world wide web, the rape and death threats that many prominent women receive online. Yet online feminism is also a warm bosom no more.

Like many areas of the internet, it is easy to anger and quick to judge, brittle and often bitter. When MT published its annual 35 Women Under 35 list in July, amid the congratulatory outpouring were a few tweets complaining that the artistic and, if I may say so, beautiful cover shots were sexist. It's as if businesswomen should only ever be photographed in power suits. One even snarkily commented on the ubiquity of high heels, failing in their furious haste to see the flat brogues worn by one of the cover stars.

I also posted the list on Cuntry Living (CL), a Facebook group with which I have a love-hate relationship. I went for the chirpy, positive approach: 'The women on this list are truly inspiring (and I don't say that lightly as a generally cynical journalist!).'

The first response, about one of the 35 women - a malt whisky brand ambassador - made my heart sink. The group is private so I won't quote it directly, but it questioned why we hadn't found a black, LGBT whisky expert and accused us of ignoring discrimination.

That's right, even a list celebrating young businesswomen can be controversial. I managed to persuade the commentator that, no, MT does not wear rose-tinted glasses when it comes to the struggles women face in business. I also pointed out that at least a quarter of the list were women of colour. As for sexuality and gender identity, who knows? We didn't ask.

There's plenty to be pissed off about, from the gender pay gap to the prohibitive costs of childcare and the men who just won't stop taking credit for your ideas and then getting promoted above you. And that's just some of the issues working women face, let alone if you're a woman and black, Muslim, LGBT, disabled and/or any other discriminated-against minority.

And CL, which began as an online adjunct to an Oxford University feminist 'zine and has since swelled to almost 11,000 members, does provide thought-provoking debate. Members have pointed out focusing on increasing the number of female board directors helps a tiny minority of women who are already successful, while distracting from deeper structural problems. I do think there's a positive 'demonstration effect', but there's no doubt hiring more female non-exec directors is a low-hanging fruit. Plus, I'm bored of writing every few months that the proportion of women on FTSE 100 boards has crept up by some-figure-less-than-5%.

More significantly, CL is a space where people can vent without facing a barrage of hostile comments, where people feel safe enough to ask for advice on highly sensitive problems. But in creating that 'safe space', it has alienated many who are sympathetic to its general aims. Those who innocently try to debate are shut down if they are deemed to be offensive. CL's brand of 'intersectional feminism' (accepting that women who belong to multiple minorities suffer from numerous, overlapping kinds of discrimination) veers to the extreme left. I feel like I would be tying myself to the railway tracks if I were to express any kind of support for capitalism.

So while I'm grateful the keyboard warriors of Facebook and Twitter are there should I need their support, I tend to stay on the sidelines, as I always have done. For practical feminism that doesn't get itself tied up in knots over terminology, I'd recommend coming to MT's Inspiring Women conference on 19 November. This is a shameless plug - I'm moderating a panel, my swansong before I leave to freelance in east Africa in the New Year. But there really is nothing better than switching off your screens in a room of like-minded women.

Hear more from Rachel Savage at MT's Inspiring Women conference in London on 19 November. Get a 25% discount if you book before 1 November with the code IW25B. Or find her on Twitter: @rachelmsavage. 

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