Fear not the mythical Evil Twitter Feminist

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

In recent months people have been discussing the extent to which women who are new to feminism are potentially being "scared off" the movement by more seasoned feminists who are keen to tell them that they're doing it wrong and are, in fact, not feminists at all. The stereotype of the Evil Twitter Feminist has developed over the past year or so - you've probably heard of her. She's a better feminist than everyone else. She's a thought-policing bully who wants to dictate what words you use, is quick to jump to conclusions and quick to trample anyone who disagrees with her about the finer points of gender equality. She just loves declaring who is and who isn't a feminist, and she probably doesn't like you. Sounds a bit...exaggerated, right? That's because it is.

This stereotype has come about following a series of long, involved and drama-filled debates that have played out on blogs and on social media. In general, they've happened because well-known public figures who identify as feminists have said and done things that aren't so great. There have been arguments. There has been flouncing. And as a result, I've seen several people say they're feeling as if feminism's a secret society that they can't join.

All this is supposedly making women feel that they don't have a place in feminism and that if they don't say the right things and have the right knowledge, they'll never be part of some imaginary Special Feminist Club. This is really getting me down, and not for the reasons you'd think.

But as the myth of the Evil Twitter Feminist - henceforth to be known as ETFs - gets perpetuated, as articles are written saying "ETFs make me feel like I'm not part of their exclusive gang" or "ETFs are intimidating and they just seem to fight all the time", I think that people are beginning to believe it. They're beginning to see these feminist mean girls as exactly what's wrong with the movement and exactly why women don't want to get involved with gender equality activism.

I think a bit of perspective is needed here, so have put together some tips in an attempt to stop all these "ETFs don't want me in their crew" mutterings.

Try not to be put off by debate and disagreement

All philosophies and movements are the same. You'll find a range of opinions and from time to time there will be drama. People will argue. When I was a "baby feminist" and started reading feminist blogs, there was a lot of conflict surrounding the issues of porn and sex work - whether you were pro or anti. People were quitting and deleting their blogs; there was a lot of bad feeling. I thought I knew how I felt about the issue, but then I realised there was a lot I didn't know and a lot I didn't understand. I didn't try to wade into the arguments, but I didn't think "This feminism lark's not for me, thanks" either. I read the blog posts. I looked at sites that helped clear up my confusion and knowledge gaps. We are, after all, talking about the internet here - and the internet thrives on conflict. Different schools of thought within a movement are not just "infighting" or "a spat" - it's not a requirement that everyone comes to the same conclusions about every issue.

If you mess up, put things right

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people find this difficult. Particularly, it seems, high profile people. Everyone makes mistakes and often, we don't even realise what we've done. One of the main points to come out of the many feminist Twitterstorms of recent months is that a lot of people use words and phrases that are considered offensive by other groups of people. They get used because they're popular, they're slang, they're just what people say. And then someone calls you out on it and says "I'm not ok with that". When this happens, it's best to apologise, admit you messed up, and move on. Getting defensive and spending several days telling everyone that the racist/sexist/homophobic word you used was soooo not racist/sexist/homophobic and can't people just get off your case and stop trying to police your speech is not the best plan.

Be prepared to look at your heroes with a critical eye and accept that "big names" divide opinion

Let's say you're a big fan of a particular well-known woman. You think she's great and she's really influenced you. Maybe she's even helped ignite your passion for equality. Then you see some other women saying that they're not happy with something she's said or done. Actually, they think she's done something pretty bad. They think she's giving feminism a bad name. Fear not! This does not mean you are a bad feminist. You do not have to turn in your feminist card and slink off, shamed. It's possible to agree with some things a person has said, but realise that they've also said some pretty unfortunate things too. The key, again, is looking into what's going on and learning.

If you have a lot of privilege, listen to those who don't

Privilege. That old chestnut. If you're new to feminism you probably see it being discussed a lot. Where there is drama, there is usually an argument about privilege. This post has some great pointers for engaging with debates surrounding privilege - tips such as "learn to listen", "you aren't bad for having privilege", "it's ok to make mistakes" and "criticism is not hatred". Where a lot of people fall down is going on the defensive because someone has mentioned their opinion on something is coloured by privilege of some sort. It's easy for this to happen. You might think "This person appears to be hating on me for being white/middle-class/straight! I didn't CHOOSE to be this way! They obviously think I'm a bigot and I've done nothing wrong!"

Stop. Don't make it about you. Don't get huffy if they use words you aren't familiar with. Google is your friend. Part of the reason the stereotype of the ETF reacts with such anger to issues like this is because in general, feminists get a bit tired of people refusing to admit that someone might be better placed to talk about something than they are.

Remember why you're doing this

The answer is, of course, because you're passionate about gender equality and want to see it become a reality for everyone. You don't have to have the same areas of interest as all the feminists you know. You don't have to agree with them all or even get on with them all. You can align yourself with other movements and belief systems. You don't have to be out protesting every weekend and signing every petition and blogging about every outrage. Somewhere, you will find community and friendship and the things you feel most moved to act upon. And when you do, it will be awesome.

This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz, which sadly closed last week after four and a half years of great content and three and a half years of providing me with some wonderful opportunities.

In which I interview Courtney Kendrick

Monday, 14 January 2013

Courtney Kendrick is one of my favourite bloggers. I know this because I always look forward to her next post, even though since giving birth last year I've found it hard to keep up with reading the number of blogs I did in the past. This past year, Courtney Kendrick's blog has made compulsive reading.

Kendrick – “C. Jane” to her readers, has been blogging since 2005. I came across her in 2008, when she was keeping the blogosphere updated on her sister Stephanie Nielson, she who may just be the most famous Mormon Mommy Blogger of all. Stephanie, who blogs at NieNie Dialogues, had been involved in a plane crash that burned over 80 per cent of her body. She survived, but it took doctors three months to declare that she was “out of the woods”. Meanwhile, Kendrick was blogging on her behalf and caring for her children. When the children were reunited with their parents and Stephanie started writing again, Kendrick found herself with a much larger readership.

In recent months she has been chronicling the story of her life on the blog, a process that has involved dredging up painful memories as well as reminiscing. Among other things, she's dealt with body image issues, depression, her first marriage – to an abusive man, and her second, much happier marriage that came with its own challenge: infertility (the topic that was, initially, the main subject of her blog). She admits that it hasn't been easy.

“I have so much more resolution and peace now that I've examined it and written down and shared it. The process was painful and redemptive.”

One of the things that's most interested me about Kendrick's blog has been her complex relationship with gender equality and its outworking in her life. In 2010 she wrote a post entitled “I am not, it turns out”, explaining her rejection of feminism and why she did not believe in gender equality.

"Equality has never done any good for me," she wrote.

The post received almost 700 comments. While her more conservative readers cheered her on with exclamations of “Wonderful!” and “Thank you!”, what seemed much stronger was the backlash. Tensions ran high in the comment section, with some readers declaring they would stop visiting the blog altogether. In addition to commenting, I even waded in with a blog post on the problem of privileged women rejecting the idea of equality, inspired partly by Kendrick's sentiments, partly by the comments she received in support of anti-feminism.

Kendrick admits that anger about gender equality was something she'd struggled with throughout her life, “ever since I was a little girl”, and had reached the point where she felt like giving up the fight.

“When I wrote that post it was like a white flag, I decided I wasn't going to carry this anger around anymore. I was going to give up, resolve myself to a life where I no longer cared about equality between me and the men in my life. Giving up seemed like what the 'good girl' would do. That post, interestingly, was the beginning of my journey to feminism. Hitting publish was the zenith of my anger. ”

The comments Kendrick received in response to that post served as a “wake-up call”. Reading through them and seeing the intensity and frustration therein made her realise what “team” she really wanted to be on: Team Feminist. She started to meet with other Mormon feminists and study what scripture had to say about inequality, as well as praying about it. But it was, in the end, writing her life story that made her realise how things that had happened to her had given her a passion for equality.

“Telling my life story was like putting together a puzzle about my life. I was able to see how my body image issues connected with the abuse I received, which connected with my feelings on gender equality.”

“Feminists are my people. I am one of them,” she decided, finally “coming out” by way of a post last month. It was entitled “I am, it turns out”. She had come full circle.

“I feel 'home' when I say I am a feminist, it feels like me. It feels peaceful,” she wrote, detailing how she grew up believing that women were less than men, and that she could only achieve worth by getting married and having children. It was the journey from this mindset to working towards an egalitarian marriage of blurred roles and shared responsibility with her second husband, Chris, that saw some of the biggest changes in her feelings.

Kendrick says she is now trying to be more proactive about her passion for gender equality, but recognises the importance of self-care and choosing to step back.

“I am a sponge for those who feel hurt, belittled or betrayed. My greatest temptation in life is to pick up everyone's battles and fight them with them - sometimes for them. I learned that I have to put boundaries around my battles, and choose them wisely, considering the energy and time I have to devote.”

She adds that one of the things (in addition to her local community of Provo, Utah, and women in the LDS church) she will never give up fighting for is her children. After five years of struggling to conceive, she's now a mother of three, something she feels she is still adjusting to. What surprised her most of all about becoming a parent, she says, was the strength of the love she would feel for her children, the capacity of her heart. Everyone loves Kendrick's posts about her children precisely because this is so evident through her writing.

Dealing with comments as a high-profile blogger can be tiring. Dealing with comments as a high-profile blogger who identifies as somewhat progressive yet remains a member of a decidedly conservative faith seems exhausting. In 2011 I wrote a guest post for Kendrick's blog, on being a Christian feminist. Considering my post did not once mention the abortion debate, it was interesting how the comments soon ran into the hundreds, a pitched battle between pro-life and pro-choice. Other readers were keen to tell me how, as a young woman, as someone who was not (at that point) a mother, I had no idea what I was talking about when I said equality was a good thing. When Kendrick wrote about her decision to vote for Obama last November, you'd have been forgiven for thinking she'd confessed to some terrible crime, or perhaps devil-worship.

The way Kendrick's blog often serves as a forum for incredibly polarised views was never more evident than last month, when feminist activism found its way into LDS church meetings, and a storm ensued. A group of Mormon feminists formed a collective called “All Enlisted” and declared December 16thWear Pants to Church Day” - a day for women to show solidarity, raise awareness of gender equality issues within LDS culture and increase the visibility of feminism in their communities. This provoked an astonishing amount of backlash from conservative church members and the members of All Enlisted found themselves on the receiving end of vitriolic attacks from men and women alike. One of the organisers received death threats.

Kendrick was one of the more well-known bloggers who came out in support of Wear Pants to Church Day, writing about it at length over several blog posts. Predictably, many of her readers weren't happy. Some comments were worded carefully and talked (in that way peculiar to the conservative religious blogger) of “disappointment”, some less so, calling her “pathetic”. So how does she feel the day changed things for LDS women?

“I went to lunch with some friends the other day and one guy said to me, 'Well, wearing pants to church achieved nothing'.”

“I said, 'What? Are you kidding me? It was the biggest moment in LDS feminist history! It was huge!' I had to realize that in my world, with my feminist friends, it achieved a lot. We are still talking about it, texting about it, emailing. It continues to inspire ideas and suggestions. And the extreme opposition, the heated comments, the death threats, I count as proof that there is work to do.”

Kendrick wrote about discussing the implications of Wear Pants to Church Day with her family, with mixed reactions. Her posts certainly have the potential to cause family conflict, so last year she took to emailing her relatives about the topics she was covering on the blog. She needed to explain her changing feelings on gender, church culture, and the family in the way she feels she communicates best.

“I gave up after a few months because I was too insecure and I often felt I was making things worse.”

Along with criticism of her feminist views, Kendrick receives a lot of pushback from commenters who take issue with the way she writes about her experiences. They have never, ever felt unequal to men, thank you very much, therefore her opinions on gender equality must be down to personal problems rather than LDS culture. In what's effectively a form of silencing, they accuse her of giving the church a bad name and being dishonest about the experiences of the LDS woman.

This almost certainly has a great deal to do with LDS blogging culture, typified by the oft-discussed stereotype of the Mormon mommy blogger, a blissfully happy mother-of-many who creates craft projects and hosts beautiful dinner parties, dresses in hip-yet-modest attire and lives an immaculately-styled life. Although she wants to make it clear that she only speaks for herself on this topic (there are, she says, “a bounty of Mormon Mommy Bloggers who would disagree”), she has a lot of feelings about it.

“When I portray myself as a traditional, creative, put-together, practically perfect woman I receive a healthy amount of feedback from readers of my faith thanking me for being a worthy representative of my church. It's like my people are accepting me into a place of respect and putting me up as a role model for their daughters or non-LDS friends.

“When I admit to challenging feelings, frustration, non traditional Mormon thoughts, or hint at ambiguity about church policy I receive a barrage of feedback to the opposite - I am a bad role model, I am damaging the reputation of my church, I am hurting the chances of our proselytizing.”

“Not all Mormon readers are this way, please know, I don't mean that at all,” she adds. “But the response is its own data.”

She admits that she doesn't always feel comfortable blogging about the more difficult aspects of life, but thinks it's time things changed.

“Mormon mommy bloggers should feel safe blogging from anywhere on the spectrum of humanity, but I am not sure they do.”

I wanted to ask Kendrick about her older sister, Page. Page appears occasionally on the blog – supporting her sister through the break-up of her first marriage, encouraging her on her journey towards feminism, spending hours at the hospital by Stephanie's bedside, mothering eight children. Commenters often mention that they wish Page had a blog. Kendrick admits she's one of the most important people in her life.

“Oh, my Page. She is a wonder. I honestly think Page couldn't blog because sitting down at a computer would contain her energy for too long. Really, she is one of the most complicated, intelligent, honest, earnest, intense, devoted and caring human beings I have ever met. She's a human whirlwind.”

When I ask if Kendrick has any final thoughts for me, she tells me how much she enjoys my tweets about public transport. It's weirdly representative of her personality, of the way she uses social media – from challenging to irreverent in an instant. Some people find it annoying, but I quite like it.

Anti-rape campaign fail (again)

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Just recently a lot of people, including me, have been reiterating that rape culture exists and that it is a global issue. In addition to the current high profile rape cases making the headlines, it's been pointed out that the past year hasn't seen a let-up in victim-blaming.

Last winter it was South Wales police. I had wondered if we might see less of victim-blaming rape prevention campaigns following Rape Crisis Scotland's excellent example of how to aim advice towards potential perpetrators. Alas it appears that Warwickshire Police didn't get the memo (h/t to @MediocreDave for this spot today):

Wouldn't it be nice if things were that simple? I am, at this point, tired of explaining exactly why these campaigns constitute a major failure to effectively tackle rape and sexual assault. Year after year they appear - and it's disappointing. Coventry Rape Crisis will be contacting Warwickshire Police in order to discuss this. Let's hope they take the feedback on board.

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