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Just the Internet?

By Jessica Megarry - posted Monday, 27 February 2012

You may recall the media attention garnered by #mencallmethings, the twitter hashtag created by Sady Doyle late last year. The hashtag allowed women with an online presence to name the threats that regularly appear in their inboxes, and what emerged was a harrowing picture of often violent abuse that women who speak online receive from men. Doyle has done a wonderful job of explaining why these threats are a gendered issue. Online misogynistic abuse operates to serve a particular political purpose: the silencing of women who dare to speak in the public domain.

Twitter may be transient by nature, but the commentary and debate ignited by Doyle's hashtag is pertinent for feminists, and indeed for any woman working in the public domain. Nevertheless, this issue is starting to drift off the radar again. And this is the part I find especially interesting, because women have always been 'called things' when they speak in a public setting. It's a particular form of sexist abuse that aims to silence women's views and ideas, and undermine their authority.

There are countless current examples in political life, from David Cameron's derogatory 'calm down dear' issued to a female MP in the Commons last year, to opinion pieces in Australia acknowledging the tricky terrain of language rules that women must negotiate: if PM Julia Gillard's speech "is forceful and direct she is too aggressive, if she's indirect, she's weak and indecisive."


But these modern events did not occur in a cultural vacuum, and nor are they historically unique. Feminist poet Adrienne Rich has noted that:

one serious cultural obstacle encountered by any feminist writer is that feminist work has tended to be received as if it emerged from nowhere, as if each of us had lived, thought and worked without any historical past or contextual present.

It seems that not only have the ideas of women been lost, but so has an awareness of the social forces which have worked so hard to keep them buried. In the battle for the right to define reality we need to remember the behaviours of those doing the silencing as much as we need to recover the voices that have been lost.

 Long before blogging, women were silenced. There were influential attitudes such as those of the French philosopher Jacques Lacan who stated that "women don't know what they are saying, that's the whole difference between them and me." There still exists the assumption that the problem of women's speech is somehow biologically rooted in us, the talkative and frivolous ones, rather than stemming from the necessity of having to use a language that is literally man made and embedded with cultural values that are not, and never have been, our own.

Australian feminist Dale Spender has completed extensive research on the ways in which men control and manipulate language for their own aims and purposes. She found that the public/ private divide saw women who were writing somewhat accepted, so long as they were writing for a female audience. It was when women moved into the mainstream that the real transgression occurred, making "the woman writer, like the woman speaker, a contradiction in terms."

Another interesting manifestation of the #mencallmethings coverage was the distinction between the world of the internet and the 'real' world. There were assumptions that what happens online was somehow different, somehow worse, than the attitudes we see in everyday life. Writer Karalee Evans' has said that sometimes the online abuse she receives from men is so bad that she has had to retreat "to the women's shelter of real life".


But how can real life be a safe haven for women when real life was where our voices were first lost? Misogynistic trolling did not emerge from nowhere; it didn't appear in a vacuum alongside technological advances. It is just perhaps a bit more brazen when awarded a faceless forum.

Many an argument starts with the notion that this is just the way the internet works. 'Women need to learn to play with the big boys.' You start to wonder if you have heard this all before. Isn't it the same line fed to the woman who doesn't like being felt up against her will in bars? Golly, that's just what happens in bars. To the rape victim who went home by herself at night? The street sure is dangerous, best to stay indoors.

Time and time again men assert their domains and police cultural attitudes towards them. We have seen this before. Whenever we think of the lost voices of history, we need to think of the role of those who silenced them, and how they got away with it.

And this is where we need to locate #mencallmethings, in a historical continuum of the silencing and oppression of women's voices and viewpoints. Back in 1985 Dale Spender said: seems to me that women's history could accurately be described at one level as the pendulum swing from silence to audible- and back to silence again. Currently we are audible, we are being heard in some quarters, but where do we go from here?

Sometimes the internet does seem too big to take on, as does patriarchy in our everyday lives. At least now, with a few clicks, women can call up the evidence of misogynistic online abuse, such as the experience of Sian Norris of the Bristol Feminist Network earlier this month who suffered an incident of gender based hate crime at the hands of online bullies. This public record of our experiences is unique and important, but the efforts to keep us quiet have the weight of history behind them and should not be forgotten.

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This article was first published on Gender Across Borders on February 21, 2012.

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About the Author

Jessica Megarry hold a degree in Political Science from the University of Melbourne and is currently pursuing doctoral research focusing on the harassment of women online. She has spent the last few years working in the NGO sector at the United Nations Association of Australia. You can follow her on Twitter: @jessicamegarry

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