A feminist story with a happy end? Laura Bates is an exemplar of creating a movement before the scandal of #metoo and 2017-18’s feminist allure. Occasioned by a promotion of her new book Misogynation, Festival of Ideas organised a talk on everyday sexism, misogyny and all things feminism.
The new book started as a series of articles and represents Bates’ labour of anger and desperation. She regularly took inspiration from the newspapers, which seem to always report on “isolated incidents” of sexual violence against women and sometimes policing what women should be talking about.
Bates started her feminist involvement back in 2012 by launching the Everyday Sexism Project. The idea for this came after she was followed home by a man who wouldn’t stop harassing her, and around the same time another man grabbed her on a bus. Nobody on the bus had said anything, which sent a powerful message and propelled her to start researching the subject that led to almost an obsession. She then started a website for people to share their stories, without ever thinking it would reach the scale of today’s 100,000 shared experiences. But Bates recognises the enormous strength in speaking out, which provides catharsis for many. The extent of this impact should not be undervalued, as her successful project entirely proves. Within two weeks of starting the website, Bates was already faced with heaps of online abuse, and, looking back, she says that had she known it was going to happen, perhaps she wouldn’t have had the courage to start.
The Everyday Sexism Project wasn’t aimed against men, but for people standing up against prejudice. There are plenty of arguments in the ether about the importance of tackling the extraordinary male suicide rate rather than issues of gender equality, but in Bates’ opinion it’s important to figure out where an issue comes from in the first place. Is it possible that this alarming male suicide spree has developed because of the ingrained culture of “boys don’t cry”, for example?
The battle of the sexes is a media myth, as Bates nicely puts it, and equality doesn’t mean giving something up. She says her latest book Misogynation is about seeing these small things that happen every day as a continuum, as a power imbalance and a power dynamic. That street harassment isn’t about human nature, but about power and control. Bates is a strong supporter of the #metoo movement, which she finds incredibly powerful and classes as an iteration of work done by feminists for decades. The movement was criticised by many about the momentum it gained from the reporting of low-level behaviours, but in Bates’ view this only points to an existing fear of the reckoning, and that with #metoo, all we are doing is catching up after decades of unacceptable behaviour.
All the #metoo criticism is a real reflection of how important this movement is. And as someone experienced in the field, Bates also recognises the danger of the movement dying out and people considering being done with the topic. #metoo encouraged people to speak up about the “tiny” transgressions, which doesn’t exclude or devalue talking about the serious issues, such as rape, sexual violence etc.
Bates is now fighting for proper measures that can bring about change in the world of gender equality, which includes talking about these very issues at schools, which will help educating against gender stereotyping and pose different role models for future generations.
Her stand is that all the fighting so far has been about “seeing” the problem, and now it’s time to “fix” it. She’s also a fighter against arguments about polarised issues, and strongly believes there is space to find middle ground: on race, trans women etc.
Listening to Bates speak makes one both angry at the world and hopeful for change. Grassroot leaders are the ones empowering people to stand up for themselves and take things in their hands. Bates is one of those extraordinary world changers.