#YesAllWomen: a digital chorus with the power to transform

In response to the recent Isla Vista shootings, and the misogynistic manifesto of the shooter, Twitter was inundated by #YesAllWomen – a hashtag appended to tweets detailing the many ways in which women’s experiences are shaped by misogyny, sexism and fear.  More than 150,000 tweets had already used the hashtag by 3am Sunday.

Social scientist Steph Harold in a 22 May, 2014 article reflected on her experience of online activism, creating a viral hashtag, and what she learned from it.  Ms. Herold used Twitter to appeal to women who had chosen abortion, asking them  to speak out as an act of challenge to anti-choice organizations and agendas, asking them to tell their stories and use the hashtag #ihadanabortion.  The thread exploded, with over 10,000 uses of the hashtag in the first day. This included people sharing their stories, as well as anti-choice activists using the hashtag to shame, while various media and advocacy groups weighed in.  The experience was a transformative one for Ms. Herold, causing her to think extensively about the power of social media and the question of how to measure its effectiveness.  She outlines four ways to create real cultural change around abortion, all of which she insists must be  grounded in hard work and activism, not just social media. 

I wonder, however, if the very strategies she identifies can’t actually be served by social media rather than being distinct from it. 

I remember reading about the role of consciousness-raising groups in second wave feminism—how the realization that what had seemed like individual inadequacies or inabilities were in fact common to many was instrumental in politicizing and empowering women. Frank exchanges of stories provided important context, perspective, and solidarity. 

As I witnessed the growth of #YesAllWomen and the responses to its messages I felt as though there was the potential for something beyond a viral twitter moment to result from this. 

The Atlantic says simply that “…that the vast majority of men who explore it with an open mind will come away having gained insights and empathy without much time wasted on declarations that are thoughtless” an insight eloquently articulated in Neil Gaiman’s tweet “the #yesallwomen hashtag is filled with hard, true, sad and angry things. I can empathise & try to understand & know I never entirely will.”

The feminist website Jezebel elevates the conversation swirling around the hashtag to an even loftier level stating “…now with trends like the #YesAllWomen hashtag, we are uprooting everyday sexism, the ideas that perpetuate systematic marginalization, outright violence towards women, rape culture, and demonization of women who deign to stand up for themselves, forcing it out and showing just how pervasive and destructive it is.”

Herold’s four strategies for creating meaningful cultural/policy change are:

  • ·         Address silence, shame and fear
  • ·         Increase visibility
  • ·        Transform negative attitudes, beliefs and stereotypes; and
  • ·         Deconstruct myths and misperceptions

When I look at the powerful acts of speech, visibility and witness that populate #YesAllWomen, it seems to me that we’re seeing precisely these strategies in action.  I don’t want to oversimplify, and I’m certainly not claiming that a weekend worth of Twitter posts will in and of themselves lead to social and cultural transformation.  That said, there is a big segment of the population who rarely do (because they don't have to) ever imagine what it's actually like to live as another gender (and/or race, ethnicity, sexual orientation…). 

It is my hope that the raising of individual voices in the digital chorus of #YesAllWomen, and the larger recognitions they inspire can help remedy that failure of imagination and facilitate the development of empathy.