Emer O’Toole: Three ways for feminists to cope with the abuse we face

Broadside: Feminism is awesome but it is rarely easy

Happy International Women’s Eve. I am sure you are all putting your gender-equality resolutions in place so that we can collectively make sure we will be that little bit closer to full gender equality by this time next year.

Writing an International Women’s Day column has become a tradition for me. Last year I reflected on the state of the movement: its passion and strength; its fiery internal debates; my pride in a feminism that refuses to accept orthodoxies, that interrogates its own prejudices and that cares deeply about creating a community that listens to individual women’s stories yet studies structural oppressions.

This year, while reiterating that feminism is awesome, I would also like to acknowledge that it is hard. The scale of gender inequality is just so vast and complex: political representation; reproductive rights; domestic violence; workplace inequality; street harassment; the oppressive distribution of housework and care work; sexual double standards; rape and rape apologism; objectification; eating disorders and body issues; screens and stages full of stories by men and about men; study after study showing sexist bias in science, education, the media and the arts; and mindless gender stereotyping everywhere, pouring out of radios and toy shops and magazines, painting a divisive blue and pink picture of the world. At times I look at my work in its social context and it is hard to fight feelings of futility.

Some people say they can emotionally detach from their activism – switch it off at the end of the day. I can’t. Much of my energy and drive comes from emotional engagement with inequality: from empathy with victims and survivors and from anger at discrimination. There are days when I am all out of sauce.


And that is before you add in the personal abuse I take for talking about women’s rights publicly. Given Lewis’s law – which holds that the comments below any article about feminism justify feminism – I am pretty confident you will be able to see some of that abuse first hand a few hours after this is published. Honestly, you would think I ran over their grannies.

The journalist Laurie Penny once said that a woman's opinion is the miniskirt of the internet: if you have one, then you're asking for it. And "it" is intense. I recently wrote an article for the Guardian about sexism and Oxford Dictionary example sentences. Pretty benign stuff, really: using Wittgenstein's philosophy of language to argue for the cultural power of words. In response I was told to kill myself and was sent numerous delightful porno pictures. Just another day at the office.

As feminists, we need strategies for dealing with it all. And in honour of International Women’s Day 2016, I am going to share the oddest yet most effective of mine.

Step 1

Develop a crush on some long-dead feminists. Depending on your proclivities, may I suggest William Lloyd Garrison? He was a 19th-century American abolitionist who was considered extreme and divisive within the anti-slavery movement for his dangerous idea that women should vote. Or try Countess Markievicz and her sister Eva Gore-Booth, who were instrumental in gaining suffrage for women in the UK and Ireland, and also in inserting equality of the sexes into the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Read obsessively about the beliefs and activism of these historical hotties.

Step 2

Go for a walk and take your crush with you. Think of the world they came from. Remember how Lloyd Garrison was attacked by the pro-slavery lobby for his work on behalf of African-Americans; remember how he was ridiculed by fellow abolitionists for his feminist politics. Take him for a stroll around your city, and, as he points in wonder at mixed-race couples and women driving buses, tell him all about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Gasp in disbelief at his stories of the sexism and racism of the past. Tell him he was ahead of his time. Explain that race and gender discrimination still exist, but, because of the work of people such as him, in just over 150 years we have come so very far.

(Note: Steps 1 and 2 of the exercise can also be used to berate dead philosophers who make you angry. I spend far more time that I would like to admit pointing out examples of extraordinary female thinkers to Hegel and saying “See Hegel? See how wrong you were about the intellectual capacities of women?)

Step 3

Build an imaginary time machine. Set the dial to 150 years in the future. Find some feminists in 2166 and ask them to take you for a walk. Marvel as they show you a world where what it means to be a man or a woman has radically changed: where the idea that you should colour-code your children so that strangers know what their genitals look like is barbaric; where political and economic systems are no longer dominated by white men; where the idea of sex without sexual consent is as incomprehensible as the idea of forced marriage; where biological sex has nothing to do with your career opportunities, how much time you spend with your children, or who you are told you should fall in love with.

Listen as the 2166 feminists explain that things aren’t perfect in their time either, but, because of the work of people like you, they have come so very far.