In her speech today marking 100 years since (some) women gained the right to vote, Prime Minister Teresa May spoke of her concern that public debate was “coarsening”.
“It is online where some of the most troubling behaviour now occurs… As well as being places for empowering self-expression, online platforms can become places of intimidation and abuse,” she said, speaking in Manchester, the birthplace and home of famed suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.
100 years ago, much of the anti-suffragette propaganda focused on depicting suffragettes as embittered spinsters.
In an effort to offset these attacks on their personal appearance (that sought to undermine their message) Suffragettes deliberately dressed femininely – in billowing skirts, large hats and striking jewellery. To remind everyone that they were still women, mothers, wives…
The #MeToo backlash begins
Trying to wind me up the other day, my boyfriend reminded me that “nobody fancies a feminist”. I had been ranting (I sometimes rant) about the awful behaviour at the Presidents Club annual fundraiser, revealed that day by the Financial Times.
At times I have wondered whether to tone down my twitter activity, particularly on my work account, for fear of coming across as a “feminazi”. But then I remember I’m self employed and think, fuck it.
Today, my father emailed me a copy of an article in The Times, “MeToo feminism is victim culture, not courage”, in which the “most recommended” comments, mostly contributed by men, described the #metoo movement as:
- “Fickle and dangerous”
- “Culture of victimhood”
- “Opportunistic self-advertising”
These were on the whole the polite, educated criticisms of Middle England’s broadsheet readers.
I’ve seen far worse online. The suffragettes came up against cruel cartoons, but these days women who shout too loud are trolled on social media.
When broadcast journalist Cathy Newman attempted (unsuccessfully) to “out” Canadian Professor Jordan Peterson as an anti-PC dinosaur on Channel 4 news she was relentlessly attacked on Twitter by his alt-right supporters.
The attacks were so abusive and worrying the television network was forced to call in security specialists, and Peterson himself intervened, pleading for it to end.
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott received almost half the abusive tweets sent to female MPs in the run-up to last year’s bitterly-fought general election, according to Amnesty International. Among other things she was described as a “fat retarded black bitch”.
In her speech in Manchester today, Teresa May argued that online abuse is disproportionately targeted at female, minorities and LGBT people.
And writing in Huffington Post, Labour MP Harriet Harman observed that “misogynists now use the internet to threaten and abuse women under the cloak of digital anonymity”.
“If you voice feminist beliefs, people are going to call you lonely and undesirable, and ugly,” wrote Jennifer Wright, in Harpers Bizarre last year, after she had been a victim of trolling.
“They are going to tell you—in so many words—that no one could ever love you.”
She urged women to disregard it. Not to be silenced, or to self-censor, for fear of ending up alone.
“It’s a crazy dumb trick designed to make you shut up about wanting the world to be better for women.”
I for one am incredibly grateful to the suffragettes, to these brave women who fought for the right to vote 100 years ago. They endured imprisonment, torture and ridicule in the process.
I remember and honour them in remembering to exercise my right to vote, as should every other woman who is able. But while much has changed in the space of a century, the fight is not yet won and feminism – sadly – is still a dirty word in too many circles.