Activists use Web to spread feminist message

Efficacy of hashtag activism debated


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The Twitter hashtag that popped up hours after the murderous rampage near the University of California at Santa Barbara a month ago has fueled a global response on social media about the victimization of women as well as a continuing debate about whether such Internet activism is helpful to the feminist movement.

The killings by Elliot Rodger on May 23 in the seaside college town of Isla Vista left six people dead and 13 injured before he apparently turned a gun on himself. Before the rampage, the 22-year-old recorded a chilling video vowing a "day of retribution" against women who had sexually shunned him.

The incident ignited grass-roots campaigns across the Web, including the phrase #YesAllWomen on Twitter and the "When Women Refuse" Tumblr, which shared the stories of women who had been injured or killed by men whom they had rejected.

Some believe that social media has raised the voice of survivors and women across the country -- including those in Pittsburgh -- more than ever before.

"Part of the reason that the anti-rape movement is heating up in a way that we have never seen before on college campuses is in two ways," said Caroline Heldman, chair of the political science department at Occidental College. "Survivor activists have been able to connect and social media has brought a voice to crimes that are usually silenced."

But some local and national organizations and activists have expressed different reactions to the "hashtag activism" phenomena.

In her recent commencement address at Dartmouth College, TV producer Shonda Rhimes said, "A hashtag is not helping. Hashtags are very pretty on Twitter. ... But a hashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not make you Dr. King. A hashtag does not change anything. It's a hashtag."

Sophie Zucker, an outgoing senior and president of Mobilization of Resolute Feminists (MORF) at Carnegie Mellon University, similarly raised doubts about the effectiveness of the hashtag movement.

"It's important to recognize that these social movements existed well before the Isla Vista tragedy," she said.

"Arguments against male entitlement and misogyny, discussions of the dangers of 'Men's Rights Activists,' conversations about violence and gun control discussions all existed completely and fully before the Isla Vista tragedy. These things are happening and feminists have always been talking about it. Unfortunately, it took the tragedy in Isla Vista to bring the conversation to a more public sphere."

Moreover, Ms. Zucker believes that "the core of the message is lost." #YesAllWomen was a response to the phrase "not all men" that was used when women talked about misogyny and sexual violence.

"As the message has spread, #YesAllWomen's message has been diluted," Ms. Zucker said. "Now, it's an 'all women experience sexism' message, which while important is a much weaker assertion, one that has more mass appeal but much less anger and relevance behind it."

Eleanora Kaloyeropoulou, a junior and president of Campus Women's Organization (CWO) at the University of Pittsburgh, feels differently.

"I think [#YesAllWomen] was really important. I know that sometimes Twitter activism gets a bad rap, but I think it was important for women to be able to share their experiences in a safe environment across the country."

These campus groups are working to promote Pittsburgh's voice in the larger feminist movement.

MORF's most widely attended event has been a sex education program called "I Love Female Orgasm," which CWO also has hosted. In the fall, MORF held an independent event called "Who Needs Feminism?" which was a part of a national movement that invited people to finish the sentence "I need feminism because..."

Both organizations use social media as a platform to share information about the events they are sponsoring on campus.

Among other organizations in Pittsburgh, the Women and Girls Foundation works to "develop female leaders of tomorrow, while advancing women's rights today," said Heather Arnet, the CEO of the foundation and the board chair of Ms. Foundation for Women.

The foundation hosts programs that teach girls about women's history, advocacy and enable students to become "change leaders" in their communities.

Ms. Arnet said she is "very excited about how technology has created a new space for more women to become leaders in our movement. From blogging to tweeting to posting videos on YouTube or creating and disseminating an online petition, women of all ages are interacting and leading efforts to defend, protect and expand women's rights nationally and globally."

She believes hashtag activism is a good way to raise awareness.

"The #YesAllWomen and #BringBackOurGirls campaign [about the school girls kidnapped in Nigeria] are fantastic examples of how the hashtag can provide a simple and clear context for complicated issues.

"And they can be used to quickly build momentum and support for an issue. At no other time in the world have activists been able to mobilize thousands and millions of people from all over the world to join their voices for one cause -- and often in a very short time frame. What is important is that we then mobilize this interest and support into action."

Kimberly C. Ellis, a Twitter activist and writer, is "grateful for social media instead of having the filters we used to have, largely via mainstream media, which provided far fewer testimonies and often filtered public reactions through slanted interviews and biased reactions."

Ms. Ellis, the niece of playwright August Wilson, said, "I think we will get better and better at merging our online and offline work to change the world for the better. Indeed, we are already doing it."


Golzar Meamar: gmeamar@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1390.

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