Hashtag activism: #YesAllWomen

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By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  May 29, 2014

Last week, a gunman killed seven people (including himself) and injured seven more in Santa Barbara, California, leaving behind a disturbing series of YouTube videos as well as a 140-page online manifesto that explained his violent actions.

As Conor Friedersdorf wrote at the Atlantic, “The perpetrator’s name and the contents of his rant are public if you’re interested. I won’t link or excerpt them here in hopes that my lonely approach is one day the norm—that would-be murderers will no longer expect a killing spree to help their manifesto go viral.”

That’s a lofty goal, and one few news outlets seem interested in working toward.

But something else went viral in the wake of the mass murder, which the suspect described in videos and in writing as “retribution” for a lifetime of rejection by women. The #YesAllWomen hashtag, originated by a woman of color on Twitter who stepped back into the shadows once the meme took on a life of its own, is a response to the “Not All Men” defense, employed by males who wish to point out that not all men engage in sexism, misogyny, rape culture, and attacks on women’s rights. #YesAllWomen gives voice to the idea what while not all men are entitled perpetrators of patriarchal oppression, yes, all women have experienced some form of gender-based discrimination and/or sexual violence. Here are just one example, out of of more than one million:

“Because every single woman I know has a story about a man feeling entitled to access to her body. Every. Single. One. #YesAllWomen” _@emilyhughes

When the hashtag started showing up in my Twitter feed over the weekend, I was initially skeptical. My reaction was akin to the one I’d had in response to #BringBackOurGirls (a reference to the 200 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram) — what good could this do? What was this other than armchair activism? How can a hashtag help? But the level of participation, the sheer volume of women (and some men) weighing in, changed my mind. 

The #YesAllWomen tweets are a sobering read, addressing everything from rape and domestic assault to everyday harassment and bias. While many of them relate to physical safety or women’s lack thereof, the platform is also being used to call attention to the lack of female representation in politics and business or the ways in which women are represented in the media. (Some have wondered if the discussion is too narrowly focused on the experiences of white women over those of women of color and trans women.)

Viewed in the context of Friday’s tragedy, the tweets represent a backlash against the blatant misogyny espoused by the alleged killer; beyond that, the hashtag is both enlightening and empowering, a grassroots public awareness campaign confronting societal narratives around female repression and vulnerability. The content of the tweets is not new (to anyone who’s been paying attention), but the overwhelming number of them makes them impossible to ignore. The dam was removed; now, the truth is flooding into people’s Twitter feeds.

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