Almost every woman or girl I have met have told me a story outrageous sexism, like a thirteen-year old who had received a “dick pic”. An elderly lady who had been assaulted by her late husband’s best friend. A young black woman refused entry to a nightclub while her white girlfriends were waved through. A woman in a wheelchair who was told she would be lucky to be raped. My assumptions about the type of person who suffers particular forms of abuse and the separation between various kinds of prejudice quickly shattered.
The despondency of these stories continued like the man who had offered a friend of mine a coffee while waiting in an office foyer was disgusted when she told him she was there to give a talk about workplace sexual harassment, snapping: “For God’s sake, we’ve got to have some fun!” And the American woman who was publicly warned online that one day she’d come home to find her apartment burned out seeing it was a “coven of lesbian witches”. I have received threats from my social media feeds and at low moments thought of opening a coven of my own.
But there were pleasant surprises, too. I hadn’t anticipated the practical and emotional help offered by other women – solidarity from those of my own age and staunch support from older feminists who had seen it all before. And nothing could outweigh the privilege of being entrusted with so many people’s stories, often never heard before. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to make sure women’s voices are heard. Hence my blog.
Another joy was being part of a wave of feminism, standing alongside others tackling everything from media sexism to female genital mutilation. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned was how closely connected the different forms of inequality are. It is vital to resist those who mock and criticise us for tackling “minor” manifestations of prejudice, because these are the things that normalise and ingrain the treatment of women as second-class citizens, opening the door for everything else, from workplace discrimination to sexual violence.
To be a modern feminist, I have learned, is to be accused of oversensitivity, hysteria and crying wolf. But in the face of the abuse the project uncovered, the sheer strength, ingenuity and humour of women shone like a beacon. The dancer who performed for hours on the tube to reclaim the space where she was assaulted. The woman who waited five years to present her contract and a salt cellar to the careers adviser who had told her he would eat her paperwork if she ever became an engineer. The pedestrian who calmly removed the ladder of a catcalling builder, leaving him stranded on a roof.
That’s why I can honestly say that the experiences and lessons of the past two years have left me with more hope than despondency.