by Martha Rose Saunders
A few weeks ago, I discovered that the “other” inbox on Facebook existed. When I opened it, scrolling through the hundreds of messages sent to me by strangers over the course of five years, I started crying. Amongst the incomprehensible scam mail and bizarrely misguided attempts at flirting from mysterious sleazy men were the messages I’d been waiting to read all my life. They were messages sent by strangers and friends of friends who’d seen comments I’d written on Facebook threads or found my articles shared, thanking me for taking the time to call someone out on sexism or classism, admiring me for having the courage to stand up for what I believed in, wishing they had done so themselves. There were messages from men I’d deleted for their continued sexist behavior, sending me messages months later to tell me how much I’d made them think and apologizing for the harm they’d caused. Tears streaming down my face, I read paragraph after paragraph of praise, gratitude, support, and love.
The complete emotional collapse I experienced made me realize how much I had come to hate myself for my outspokenness. I know I’m something of a joke among both friends and enemies. I know you mock me both to my face and more viciously behind my back for my feminism and my proclivity for Facebook ‘debates.’ What I didn’t realize is how much I’d internalised that rhetoric and allowed it to harden me.
I can think of almost nothing that gets you more shit than being an outspoken young feminist. By the time I left sixth form I was hardly a radical, merely a normal teenage girl who happened to have Labour party membership and a vague understanding of sexism which didn’t extend to much more than actively complaining about having my tits grabbed by a stranger in a nightclub. By that point, I had already had a personal parody twitter account set up about me called Shut Up Martha (tagline “just shut the fuck up, nobody cares”) and a small cohort of boys who laughed and mimicked my voice if I spoke in Politics class and took it upon themselves to inform fellow men who deigned to flirt with me at parties that I was The Feminist and thus they should avoid me at all costs.
The Feminist – that was my identity now, and I could be nothing more. A radical change in people’s perception of my personality occurred. Never mind that my most frequently complimented traits before I became The Feminist were my sense of humour and my laid back, logical approach – that didn’t fit people’s idea of me, and my real personality didn’t matter any more. The Feminist is angry, shouty, humourless and irrational – so that’s what I am now. I’ve gone from popular, funny, chilled, and well liked to an “arrogant cunt,” a “cocky fucking bitch,” a “fucking pathetic” “Feminazi” who needs to “shut the fuck up, nobody cares.” Last week someone on Twitter informed me that “everyone knows about you and tells me about your fucking shitty pathetic internet activism.”
This isn’t unusual. Most of my outspoken female friends find their acquaintances taking to cyberspace to punch them down the second they get up and start talking for themselves, from the Tab commenters who spew misogynistic bile at Women’s Campaign members to my friend who found herself the subject of bullying tweets for appearing on a pre-election debate on TV this week – tweets by people who hadn’t even watched the show or heard what she had to say, but merely opposed her right to express political opinions full stop.
I won’t waste my time elaborating on why this is blatantly a manifestation of the archaic, sexist sense that women should not be confident, opinionated or strong. Nonetheless, somewhere along the way I absorbed it. I hated myself so much. Every time I put forward my opinion, shared something, commented on something, the core of me felt deeply, deeply ashamed. I would listen to the assaults on my character and believe them, go to bed after a Facebook debate in floods of tears and racked with self-loathing.
I cried that week in my little University room last term because those messages made me realise that I mattered. For every person who’d tried to stamp me out there were ten who rushed to support me, hold my hand and love me. For every man who’d felt threatened by the fact I dared to criticise him, there was one who’d written to thank me for the impact I’d had, tell me I had made a difference to him, and that he respected me.
I’d allowed people to turn me into exactly what they wanted me to be; an angry girl, hard as nails, tumbling through life lashing out and screaming into the wind. I saw myself as part of a constant losing battle against the few people who bullied me, instead of as part of a chain reaction of people, constantly touching each others lives, constantly changing one another for the better. But simultaneously, the vitriol I received in response to the most mild sentiments I expressed about gender only radicalised me further, proving beyond doubt that my sex was affecting people’s perception of me more than I ever realised. Most young, political, feminist women you’ll meet are tough, angry and cynical because we have to be. If I wasn’t, I would crumble in the face of the pure, unmitigated hatred I receive.
What I would want to share with people from my experiences, is this; next time you’re about to criticize me, or another outspoken woman, (or man for that matter) for being too “politically active” on the internet ask yourself;
“is what I’m saying about her coming from a place of misogyny? would I say this about any of the men on my feed throwing their opinions all about the place?”
“why could she be so angry and defensive about this? what kind of crap has she had to put up with, growing up in a sexist world? could I just be unhelpfully adding to a toxic culture that is constantly trying to put down outspoken women?”
“literally why do I even give the slightest shit about what this poor person is doing with her own time on her own personal social media accounts? what is making me care so much? what the fuck is wrong with me? do I need a hobby?”
And what I’ve learned, and what I want to tell the other angry girls on the internet – keep going, and know that you are loved. Know that you are making a difference to people. Know that every misogynistic twat who tries to knock you down is only doing so because by speaking against him, you make his dying order crumble. Know that every time you stand up for what you believe in, you are making a difference to people. Tell each other how much you admire each other. Become each other’s support system. And know that every day you are revered, quietly.
Know, finally, this – a message sent to me by a stranger in 2013.
“For each and every one of your comments, there were many more that were never written because of lack of energy or conviction that it would change anyone’s mind. You just made the world a little bit better and people like you deserve to be commended.”