Sunday, January 22, 2017

Women's Voices

Last fall women went invisible.

After months of harassment on Twitter and Facebook, a young woman from Maine created Pantsuit Nation, an invitation-only "secret" Facebook group where women could share their stories.

It wasn't the only such group, but quickly became the largest. It was launched just weeks before the election and grew to 4 million women, "a troll-free internet oasis for Clinton supporters."

Not just Clinton supporters found their way there. For many reasons, the campaign season was rough on women who dared to express themselves in public spaces. When a presidential candidate says on air what Donald Trump said about Megyn Kelley, it's no surprise that his followers outdid themselves in pouring obscene scorn on any woman who chose not affirm their Twitter-troll-in-chief.

Pantsuit Nation has had a bumpy ride: the founder declared the group couldn't be used for activism, banned anything but positive stories, then announced she'd signed a contract to use posts in a book by the same name. A huge defection prompted some review, but in the meantime new secret groups were launched. I'm part of several localized groups focused more exclusively on action.

In a way, the phenomenon of Pantsuit Nation reminds me of the way women of a certain age have often left the dinner table to go to talk in the kitchen over dishes. Shut out of the primary conversation, they continued their own, in a separate space, far from the interrupting, sometimes belittling voices of men.

Last fall women withdrew for good reason. 

Writer Bethany Mandel described her frightening experience after unwittingly awakening trolls:
 After the South Carolina primary, I made an offhand remark on Twitter about Trump’s legions of anti-Semitic fans. It wasn’t my first time commenting on this; I’ve even written about the phenomenon in these pages. But the response was unlike anything I’ve seen before on Twitter. I was called a “slimy Jewess” and told that I “deserve the oven.” Not only was the anti-Semitic deluge scary and graphic, it got personal. Trump fans began to “dox” me — a term for adversaries’ attempt to ferret out private or identifying information online with malicious intent. My conversion to Judaism was used as a weapon against me, and I received death threats in my private Facebook mailbox, prompting me to file a police report. 
Bethany Mandel's experience was not unique, as a Women's eNews article makes clear: 
When women make strong comments or venture into political waters they face threats. Harassment of female journalists online seems to be growing at an alarming rate; and it dovetails with new research about women and speech.
The Pew Research Center, which has been following online activity since 2000, found in 2014 that threats are directed far more at women than men. And in 2006, researchers from the University of Maryland created bogus online accounts and then sent them into chat rooms. Accounts with feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7.
In the light of online abuse: 
Many women are simply going quiet, after being told that these threats are just from stupid trolls who are harmless. But women fear that someday, one of these trolls will climb out from under his bridge and actually make good on his threat.
In a way, threatening cyber behavior was mirrored in the televised interviews between Trump and Clinton. In the second interview in particular, set free from his podium, Trump prowled the stage, standing too close behind his opponent, grimacing over her shoulder, interrupting loudly and repeatedly: "No." "Wrong." "Wrong wrong wrong."

As a PBS headline observed: 
For many women, watching Trump interrupt Clinton 51 times was unnerving but familiar.
Tweeted Chicago-based writer Britt Julious: “Thoughts & prayers to every woman watching the #debates & getting painful flashbacks to dudes talking over them at work, school, home, etc.”
“The sad thing,” said Christina Emery, an author from Swansea, Illinois, “is that I’m so used to men interrupting women — especially when they want to change the subject — that I didn’t pay much attention to Trump’s behavior. . .
“Many women watching Trump’s treatment of Clinton feel a sickening sense of familiarity with patronizing behavior directed at them during every work day,” said Dr. Janet Scarborough Civitelli, a vocational psychologist in Austin, Texas. “Women become exhausted by the experience that no matter how much they accomplish or how hard they work, a man with a fraction of their knowledge and achievements stands ready to critique them.” 
For me, the great grief the morning after the election was the certainty that many had voted for Donald Trump not because of policy or position or reason or righteousness but because the sound of a strong, clear woman's voice is enough to make them angry.

Part of the emotional exhaustion, both before and since the election, has been tied to that certainty that no matter how hard a woman works, there will be attempts to undermine and silence her, not just by men, but by women who have believed the lie that power and authority belong only to men. 

For me, the Women's March on Washington was a healthy response to the months of going underground, of watching women reporters harassed, of choking on one more interruption.

Across the country, across the globe, women put words on poster board and traveled to sing, chant, laugh and cheer with busloads of other women.

Why march? 

To say what needs to be said:

We will not respect a man who can't respect women.

We will not be silenced or frightened into submission.

We will continue the work toward full representation.

Real power belongs to us all. 

We are all equal heirs in the kingdom of God. 

For me the marches were also a move to reclaim public space. Those women who went invisible joined others in planning, organizing and showing up to say this nation belongs to all of us, not just wealthy white men, not just those already in power. Women, girls, young, old, people of color, recent immigrants, those marginalized by gender or class, disability or background gathered to reclaim the public square.

At the end of the day, the many signs were left around the White House fence, a message for the man inside.

Will he listen?

Does it matter?

My prayer is that women will stay visible.

That our voices will stay strong.

That together we will insist on a world where every voice is heard.