When TMZ released a brutal surveillance tape last month of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice beating his then-fiancé (now wife) unconscious in an elevator, too many cable news commenters sadly, yet predictably, questioned why she stayed.
Author Beverly Gooden decided she had enough. She turned to Twitter to take back the conversation.
I stayed because my pastor told me that God hates divorce. It didn’t cross my mind that God might hate abuse, too. #WhyIStayed
He said he would change. He promised me it was the last time. I believed him. He lied. #WhyIStayed
I stayed because I was halfway across the country, isolated from my friends and family. And there was no one to help me. #WhyIStayed
Gooden wasn’t the only one who took issue with the media’s treatment of Janay Rice. Within two days, more than 100,000 tweets revealing the complexities of domestic violence were shared using the hashtag #WhyIStayed.
A hashtag movement like this is not unusual. According to Twitter data, conversations about “feminism” have increased by 300 percent over three years. It’s hard to keep up with the various campaigns, from #EverydaySexism to #YouOKSis, a fight against street harassment, to #AskHerMore, a plea for more interesting questions to be asked on the red carpet.
Before the Internet, news outlets dictated the conversation: they told us what to think about, what’s important. Now Twitter users, simply by their sheer mass, are changing the conversation. Women make up 50% of the population, so it’s no surprise that feminist issues are “trending.” Matthew Slutsky, who runs partnerships at Change.org, told TIME: “What is interesting to me is how these issues are going mainstream. It’s not feminists, or even activists, talking about rape, or domestic violence, or abortion rights, anymore. It’s just people.”
#WhyIStayed gave a voice to domestic violence victims who are typically silenced. Over the past couple years, Twitter has proven itself a tool of empowerment for the marginalized.
In August of last year, feminist writer Mikki Kendall tweeted #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen in response to a rant by self-proclaimed “male feminist” Hugo Schwyzer. (Schwyzer admitted on Twitter that he mistreated women of color.) The hashtag quickly took off and started a nationwide conversation about white privilege among feminists, catching the attention of NPR, Al Jazeera and the Guardian, among others. One has to wonder how a topic like this would have been picked up by these outlets had it not been for social media. Social media reveals what the public wants, and what’s important.
Hashtag feminism reached its peak in May following a shooting spree by 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, who killed six people after uploading a disturbing, misogynistic “manifesto” to YouTube. Started by an anonymous Twitter user as a response to #NotAllMen, women shared stories of everyday sexism to demonstrate that while not al men are bad, yes, all women experience misogyny.
#YesAllWomen because ‘I have a boyfriend’ is more effective than ‘I’m not interested’ – men respect other men more than my right to say no
Because every single woman I know has a story about a man feeling entitled to access to her body. Every. Single. One. #YesAllWomen
#yesallwomen because the media will mourn the lives of ruined high school football players, but not of the girls they assaulted
The movement practically shut down the Internet. Within four days of its first use, #YesAllWomen had been tweeted 1.2 million times. And these women’s voices – though they may have been quoted as anonymous – made the rounds across mainstream media.
Sasha Weiss wrote for the New Yorker on May 26: “Reading #YesAllWomen, and participating in it, is the opposite of warily watching a man masturbate and being unable to confront him with language. #YesAllWomen is the vibrant revenge of women who have been gagged and silenced.”
The #YesAllWomen Twitter feed served to educate men on how women navigate misogyny in their day-to-day lives. But it also worked as a service to women: the stories reminded us of and helped us to realize the ways we might subconsciously alter our behaviors in the presence of sexism. Some of the changes – such as crossing the street to avoid a possibly threatening man – are subtle. But #YesAllWomen demonstrated that every instance of sexism matters. We didn’t need experts weighing in; we learned from real people talking about real experiences.
In a commencement speech in June, Shonda Rhimes, creator of Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, called on Dartmouth College graduates to be “do-ers,” not “dreamers.” She felt compelled to remind them: “A hashtag is not helping. … A hashtag is not a movement.” It’s easy to write a tweet, she said, add some type of activist hashtag and feel good about yourself for a minute before going back to watching Netflix. This is true, and hashtags should not be the end-all, be-all.
Still, we can’t forget that Twitter gives a voice to those who feel silenced, that it helps give the public the power to dictate the conversation and raises awareness. It’s hard to look at the noise made by feminist hashtags over the last year and say it’s not a movement.