Sometimes, when women speak up, certain people can become quickly overwhelmed.

Sometimes, when women speak up, certain people can become quickly overwhelmed.

A few days ago, an acquaintance contacted me asking for some advice on entering the public fray. An unabashed feminist in her everyday life, she’d been wrestling with the fear of becoming more vocal because of the standard backlash meted out to loud, opinionated women (particularly those who speak out against oppression and patriarchal codes). As she said, “Something about feminism stirs a deep and abiding rage in people.” Given this week marks the first birthday of DailyLife.com.au, a website that has been instrumental in furthering feminist debate in Australia and giving voice to the rage and frustration women still experience as a result of deeply entrenched social discrimination, I thought it would be a good opportunity to encourage women to be brave about claiming their public space despite the inevitable onslaught that comes with it. 

It’s certainly true that women in public life receive an altogether more violent kind of feedback from their critics. Feminists especially are the targets of a bitter fury that manifests itself in various ways, from benign paternalistic mockery (‘try harder next time luvvie’) to more serious threats of rape and assault (‘I’m going to find you and give you a dose of masculinity’). I personally receive a significant amount of the former from the kinds of men who punctuate novella length emails with reminders of how silly and stupid I am, and then seem surprised when I either refuse to acknowledge the veracity of their opinions or simply ignore them entirely. I’m the target of numerous Twitter accounts run by faceless folk who drop by on a semi-regular basis to accuse me of hating men, being mentally ill and being ‘obviously’ deeply dissatisfied with life.

I’ve been interrupted while delivering feminist lectures by people who have evidently turned up to register their opposition, so apparently incensed that the issue of women’s rights is being elevated over the more serious issue of why feminists aren’t doing enough to fix men’s problems. (The best situation occurred while I was delivering a speech about the ritual silencing of women in public, and the limited ways in which they’re allowed to speak; a male audience member yelled at me mid sentence to express his vehement disagreement. Lelaina Pierce, I present this to you as an apt definition of ‘irony’.)

A photographer's depiction of what a Daily Life commenter may look like when inflamed with anger at a feminist piece.

A photographer's depiction of what a Daily Life commenter may look like when inflamed with anger at a feminist piece. Photo: sjharmon

And I have received rape threats before. One or two occasions have seen me paranoid about my personal safety in public, particularly given that I’m not especially vigilant about keeping my movements private. Thankfully, these incidents are rare. Most of the ‘violence’ targeted towards me is in empty insults - rudimentary attempts to embarrass me, dent my self esteem or simply make me rock back and forth crying over how unattractive I am. And even though none of those things have ever succeeded in penetrating the hide one must develop in order to open the computer day after day, it’s the knowledge that these people exist that truly exhausts. No matter how strong you are, no matter how much you can shake the acidic bile from your shoulders and keep on moving forward, laughing with your friends over the appalling grammar and imagination on display, there are moments when you cannot help but pause to contemplate the reality of your daily grind - that a life in which you have found happiness, professional satisfaction and a general sense of accomplishment seems to be necessarily accompanied by the tradeoff of anonymous messages such as ‘I hope you get raped by a hiv carrier’, ‘you sound fat’, ‘your as ugly as a dead dog on the side of the road’, and the cut-and-paste job favoured by discerning misogynists and sent to every woman with a voice on the internet at one time or another: ‘your to ugly to rape’ (sic).

Is it any wonder women hesitate to speak out for fear that they too will be subjected to the kind of commentary that reminds them their greatest assets are not their brains, their wit or their talent but their ability to cause and then marvel at an erection? That their words might anger someone so much that he (or she) suggests her mouth might be better employed elsewhere? Of course not. Such vitriol is exhausting and emotionally harrowing. It requires sometimes daily interaction with these words: fat, ugly, bitch, slut, whore, misandrist, man-hater, lesbian, feminazi, ball breaker, shrill, old, angry, jealous, hairy, stupid, useless. You’ll be reminded constantly that the cure for all of these things is a ‘good fuck’, consensual or not - as if the real source of your complaint is the repulsive effect you have on men who consider the sum total of a woman’s value to be in how compliant she is as a sexual object.

But when you look at it like this, these insults and assaults rapidly lose their power. Truth deflates a thought bubble quicker than a few tiny pricks can. Because what strength do those words even have? The majority are predicated on the idea that the worse thing a woman can be is difficult or disruptive. That her greatest aspiration is to be sexually desired, but as an object and not an equal. That her legitimate complaints can be dismissed as the rumblings of an angry old shrew. That her insistence on speaking is laughable and ridiculous, because women should know their place and be happy about it. These are all social codes that feminists fight against - so what exactly is there to fear in hearing them used against us? Give me emails calling me fat and ugly, send me missives that threaten me with degrading abuse, show me the depths to which frightened rats will scurry! Because this is how I know my side is winning.

And so to my acquaintance and all of you, I say this: Never let it be true that the words of a faceless detractor, issued in rudimentary insults and threats of sexual violence and/or disinterest, have more power than the words of women exercising their fundamental right to speak. Speak up often and loudly, and never stop; laugh at personal attacks, and recognise them for what they are - the childish jibes of people who think the best way to undermine you is to deny you the compliment of their dick. Stake your claim in the arid wilderness of cyberspace and don’t let the howls of wounded dingoes frighten you away.