“’Two years ago,’ said Laura Bates in a recent interview, ‘I didn’t know what sexism meant.’ But, when, after enduring a spate of unrelated incidents, she began to ask friends and colleagues about their own experiences, a shocking fact emerged: every woman she spoke to had encountered sexism not at some point in the past, but earlier that week. Soon afterwards Bates set up the Everyday Sexism Project, a website dedicated to documenting people’s personal experiences of sexism, and now, more than 50,000 posts later, the project has spread to 18 other countries and Bates has emerged as a leading figure in feminism’s ‘fourth wave’.”

The Dublin Writers Festival opening blurb for the panel discussion on Everyday Sexism, with Laura Bates, Jenny Dunne & Dearbhail McDonal.

Dublin Writers Festival 2014

A few weeks ago, some friends and I were lucky enough to come away from an Irish Feminist Network quiz with tickets for the Everyday Sexism panel, which took place last Friday the 23rd of May. Although I think much of the talk retread old ground, it reinforced just how important projects like Everyday Sexism are and how much they do for raising awareness of the issues of sexism and the discussions they facilitate.

The Everyday Sexism Project, much like Fat, Ugly or Slutty, Hollaback and any number of “This is not _____”, “You are not_____” and “We are not ______” tumblrs, is often criticized as being little more than an exercise in insular victimhood and unnecessary complaining. This summation intentionally misunderstands the nature of what is being discussed and the silencing and victim blaming that is prevalent in society.

smashing patriarchy comic

Everyday Sexism’s main aim is not to become a catalogue of woe but a space where women, many of whom have never told their stories, can share their experiences of cat calling, workplace discrimination/harassment and in some cases, abuse, assault and rape. They can discuss how often societal norms made them feel that they had to keep quiet or just accept the behaviour as normal. It helps these women to see that what happened to them is not their responsibility or a personal failing on their behalf but a failing by society at attributing blame for sexual crimes and assaults to the perpetrator. The open and shared aspect of the project allows women who have been told to “learn to take a joke”, to “calm down, dear” or to simply “Shut up!”, to connect with others and have their feelings of disappointment or shame understood, their self blame removed and anger validated and redirected in a healthy way.

How could something that brings women from every background, culture, age group and class together in a safe space to discuss common experiences, where all input is valued, be an unworthy endeavour?

Feminist badges

Contrary to popular belief, it is also a politicised movement. Like the project’s founder, Laura Bates, many of the women who have contributed to Everyday Sexism had never been politically active in a feminist sense before, and some never being politically active at all. Through the simple way that Twitter and tumblr work women who had reached out for understanding and support found many others doing the same thing, and like all good grassroots movements, they got organised.

As a result, the No More Page 3 Campaign received huge support from Everyday Sexism contributors, as did the campaign to put Jane Austen on the £10 note. These may be small steps but both were accused of not focusing enough on the “important issues”–this phrase used to demean and belittle feminist activism since the beginning of patriarchy. When tackling the goliath that is embedded sexism, the representation of women is not a bad place to start, be it in the pornification of the everyday or the absence of recognition for inspiring women in public life. Ironically, these campaigns accused of being both meaningless and inconsequential received a breathtakingly disproportional backlash, with the founders and participants receiving numerous rape and murder threats. The Everyday Sexism Project was no exception to this treatment: in Laura Bates case, simply through reporting women’s “normal” harmful experiences, it was because she had the audacity to deny that sexism was dead.

everyday sexism book

In her book, also called Everyday Sexism, published in April of this year, Bates highlights the intersectional understanding of Third Wave feminism. She draws attention to the unique way that poor women, women of colour (WOC), migrant women, queer women, trans women and women with disabilities are targeted by our society. The discrimination they face is often more insidious in the workplace, more violent on the streets and in the homes of these women than for white, cis, middle class and straight women, with follow through of police reports of sexual harassment and sex crimes much lower in these groups as well. She acknowledges the place of men in the struggle against sexism and how men must take a leading role in challenging their peers when they use sexist language or reinforce patriarchal norms. She goes on to say these men must also be an example for boys in redefining the perception of what masculinity is.

In her last chapter, “People Standing Up”, Bates admits the limitations of her project without diminishing it. She makes an impassioned plea for women to move forward in fighting sexism and to get involved with local and national groups, to seek out other campaigns and projects, and to always see the ways in which we as women are united in our shared experiences, rather than divided by our differences.

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