Earlier this week, a photo from UniteWomen.org of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accompanied by a scathing comeback she made to a reporter who asked her who her favorite designer was, went viral on Facebook. People who shared the photo also shared their approval of Clinton’s calling the reporter out for a potentially sexist comment.
While the photo attracted a lot of media attention, to some, the Clinton picture is just another iteration of a widespread phenomenon: It’s a perfect example of #everydaysexism.
The Everyday Sexism Project aims to harness the power of social media to raise awareness of the ways in which gender discrimination impacts women on a day-to-day basis. It collects reports of daily experiences of sexual harassment, job discrimination, and other sexist treatment from women around the world via email and Twitter. The website, which launched in April, is the brainchild of Laura Bates, a regular contributor at Women Under Siege and UK-based freelance writer. I spoke with Bates yesterday to discuss the website’s popularity, after noticing the @EverydaySexism handle popping up everywhere in my Twitter feed.
Over 2,000 stories have been submitted to the website in the past four months under real names and pseudonyms. Most of the women who write in are from the UK and America, but Bates has received submissions from all around the world, from women of all different age groups, from college students to working mothers to recently widowed and elderly women. “It’s a global project, because sadly it’s a global problem," she said.
Bates explained, “What prompted me to start it was mostly a gradual accumulation of experiences and realizing just how serious and widespread the problem was … I thought, if I could just find a place where women all over the world could write about their experiences that people would get a sense of just how widespread the problem is. Any one of these instances on its own is easy to dismiss … But if they were collected, people could read it and get a sense of how these things do add up, and it does matter, and it does have an effect. It does lead into much wider gender imbalances.”
The submissions on the website range from stories of street harassment and misogynistic comments in the workplace to experiences of rape and physical assault.
An anonymous submission reads, “I had my skirt pulled up numerous times in high school, I was flashed twice on my route home, I was groped between my legs in a club, and had a man masturbate whilst telling me he wanted to suck on my tits in the street in broad daylight. I was walking home from a grief counselling session. Countless shouted comments about how un/attractive I am over the years … I consider myself lucky, relatively.”
Another woman, “Antionette,” wrote, “I worked at a tobacco shop where the customers were chiefly men… [A] customer came in once and asked me, grinning, if I could help him win a bet. When I asked him how, he explained that he and his buddies had a bet going on how I'd styled my pubic hair. If I would just tell them I had a ‘landing strip’ as he'd bet, then he would win! Then he tried to hi-five me. My boss had to throw him out.”
“Josie” shared that at her school, she was “[t]old I should be a ‘pornstar’ and that I look like a ‘prostitute’ when talking about what we wanted to do when older, after I said that I wanted to get involved in politics.”
In the same post, she added, “My friend was beaten by her boyfriend and one of her friends asked her if she was going to stay with him until after the prom so she'd have a date.”
A woman who identified herself as “M” wrote, “As a lesbian, I have been made afraid of expressing affection to my partner in public. If we are seen to kiss (however briefly) we are routinely subjected to men shouting, leering, taking photographs, and asking to get involved. If I'm perceived to be a lesbian alone, then men suggest that they 'show me' how to be straight which to me is a terrifying threat of sexual violence.”
Many of the women who write in are initially apologetic or hesitant to share. Bates noted that many are not sure if they have a right to speak out about what they have experienced, if it even matters. She believes this is indicative of the normalization of sexism in the public sphere. Bates hopes that the aggregation of individual stories will create a “collective voice,” which can combat such normalization:
“A collective voice would be so powerful that people wouldn’t be able to write it off … And for women, who have heard so often that these instances are ‘nothing’, ‘not important’, that they are ‘overreacting’, it is really important that the site validates their experiences in the context of others, takes them seriously, gives them a place where they can experience the catharsis of writing down what happened to them and feeling that it has been acknowledged, particularly if it has been brushed off or ignored elsewhere. Not only for the feeling of closure this can help to bring but also to send back that message to women – no, this shouldn’t be normal, it isn’t ok and you don’t have to put up with it. It is ok to say no and to stand up against it.”
And many women are choosing to stand up against sexism through the Everyday Sexism Project. After calling out The Daily Beast for a post about her ‘puffy’ appearance in April, Ashley Judd Tweeted her support for the project on multiple occasions. An Everyday Sexism Twitter campaign against Sainsbury’s, a chain of UK grocery stores, convinced the stores to stop using gender classification in their magazine section. (The store previously labeled the Spectator, the Economist, and the New Scientist as “men’s lifestyle” magazines.) The Guardian quoted Bates in a recent article about a sexist One Direction fanzine. Just this week, the popularity of the website earned Bates a weekly spot at The Independent to write blog posts analyzing the problem of sexism today using examples from the site.
Women are not the only ones writing in, either. Bates noted, “I get huge numbers of messages of support from men, saying ‘I simply had absolutely no idea. I really didn’t realize nearly how widespread or frequent and insidious this problem was not having experienced it myself – Now that I’m aware of the problem, I’m going to be much more active about standing up and fighting it.’ We also get lots from men who have young daughters saying, ‘I’m absolutely terrified that my daughters have to grow up in a world like this.’”
Still, not all responses have been positive. Early on, the website was targeted by trolls, who barraged her with detailed descriptions of sexual assaults, posted pornographic material under her name, and issued rape threats and death threats. Bates eventually had to get the police involved. Now, she said, the antagonistic threats have died down, to ‘normal’ messages like, “Go get me a sandwich.”
The Everyday Sexism Project joins other similar social media initiatives to end day-to-day sexist treatment, such as Hollaback!, “a movement to end street harassment powered by a network of local activists around the world”, feminist blogger Sady Doyle’s #mencallmethings Twitter campaign, and The Microaggressions Project. Bates observed that social media is ideal for these kinds of documentary campaigns. Twitter, she noted, is a fantastic way to connect globally to work with similarly-minded organizations and individuals, as well as an effective way to work with everyday women and men.
“I know we won’t solve sexism overnight," Bates lamented, "but I hope that we can force people to stop pretending that it isn’t there at all, and to acknowledge the fact that it is still so extremely severe in its impact. I want every woman who experiences sexism, no matter how serious or small the incident, to be able to raise it and to be taken seriously and to have the matter properly sorted out, not brushed off. I want people to stop telling women they are overreacting or being militant or hormonal when they point it out and want to talk about how to tackle it. Right now, it feels like an invisible problem, and I hope to change that. So that nobody will be able to say that we can’t talk about it anymore.”