Laura Bates is the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, which in a few short years, has collected hundreds of thousands of stories from women all over the world about the sexism they experience on a daily basis. It’s eye-opening, maddening and sobering — and necessary. Not just for survivors of sexism to share their stories in a safe environment, but for everyone to read.
Just this week, she released her book, Everyday Sexism, in the U.S., and I had the chance to read it. Simply put, it’s brilliant. Bates has an amazing ability to synthesize a complex phenomenon into relatable, easily understood material. I’ve spent well over a decade as a feminist activist and writer, and have rarely come across such powerful words.
Read on for our conversation about sexism, politics, feminism and more. And run — do not walk — to pick up your copy of her book!
Q: The internet is a double-edged sword; it enables solidarity and story telling — as evidenced by the Everyday Sexism Project — but also helps perpetuate harassment, as you outline in the book. How can we collectively make progress against the proliferation of online sexism?
LB: I think the internet is still (relatively speaking) in its infancy and we haven’t ironed out the kinks yet! I feel really hopeful that online harassment is something we will get to grips with, it’s just a matter of time. Partly, I think social media platforms have a duty to do more to protect their users from abuse, partly I think law enforcement needs to catch up with those who are actively breaking the law by threatening to rape and murder people, and partly I feel very inspired by brilliant activism in this area like the new Women’s Media Center Speech Project, which is spotlighting the problem. I don’t think things will continue like this forever because it isn’t sustainable – women will eventually vote with their feet and start avoiding social networks, which is clearly in nobody’s interest (except the misogynistic douchebags trying to silence them!) I feel hopeful that we can act to stop that happening. And while I do think we should hold online companies to account, I also think it’s something every individual can have some impact on. In exactly the same way that I would encourage bystanders to play a more active role in combatting street harassment, I’d love to see the same thing online – other people stepping in and standing up for people who are being trolled or abused, offering support and making it clear that such behaviour is unacceptable. We learn what’s considered ‘normal’ by the way others react to us – and every digital citizen has a duty to help make it clear that abuse isn’t normal or acceptable online.
Q: What advice would you give a young girl experiencing sexism?
LB: I would want her to know that it was absolutely in no way her fault, because far too many of our project entries from young girls make it clear they’ve been socialised into believing that they somehow ‘asked for it’ or are to blame. I would let her know that there is no right or wrong response, because we should be stopping it from happening in the first place, not telling her how to respond. I’d want her to know that if she feels able to, she can tell someone she trusts, and that she should never feel like it’s just ‘normal’, or ‘part of being a woman’. I’d tell her that when people try to put her in a box by stereotyping her, or when they attack her with sexist jokes or harassment, they are only exposing their own smallness and fear, and it says a lot more about them than it does about her. That they are threatened by her power and strength and potential. That she has the right to be anything she wants and to do anything she dreams. And I’d let her know that we are fighting to make the world better and to change things so I hope she won’t have to put up with it for very much longer.
Q: How do we turn shared stories & experiences with sexism into concrete action?
LB: One of the most powerful things we can do is to raise our voices together. The project is powerful because it collates over 100,000 people’s experiences, which makes it a lot harder for people to dismiss or disbelieve them. You can’t be ‘making it up’, or ‘overreacting’ if a hundred thousand other women are all saying the same thing! We hear from so many men who are absolutely shocked by reading the project entries and have really had their eyes opened to a problem they hadn’t realised existed, and which they now want to help to solve. We also hear from a large number of women who say that they always thought ‘it was just me’ or ‘I was just unlucky’ or ‘I must be imagining it’ or ‘I somehow deserved it’. Seeing other women’s stories and feeling supported by the solidarity of this collective voice has given many women the strength for the first time to report an experience of workplace discrimination or assault. What we do next is take the project entries offline and put them in front of the people who have the power to change things. For example, we used thousands of our entries from women on public transport to help retrain transport police officers to better tackle sexual offences on trains and buses, and we use our entries from young people to run workshops on consent in schools, and our entries from women in the workplace to work with politicians on tackling the gender pay gap.
Q: Your chapter on women in politics is particularly timely here in the U.S., with Hillary Clinton running for president. She is consistently criticized on her looks, her ability to “juggle” being a grandmother and politician, even the volume of her voice during rallies. Do you think having more women represented in politics would help chip away at this particular grain of sexism? What are your thoughts on quotas for women in government?
LB: I certainly think that better representation would help, but it won’t necessarily solve the problem unless we tackle the ingrained underlying sexist beliefs that cause women in politics to be treated so badly in the first place. Having 50% female representation won’t automatically stop people from believing women are ‘too hormonal’ to be politicians, or prevent the media from telling us about their shoes instead of their views. It’s also not enough just to have more women – we need a diverse range of women to represent our diverse society – we need to see women of color, disabled women, trans women represented as well. We’ve been striving towards political equality for so long and progress is far too slow – women hold only around one fifth of seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives and at the current rate of progress it will be over 100 years before gender parity is achieved in Congress! With that in mind, I think quotas might be a short-term necessity in order to kick-start change. People get very upset about quotas, because they say it’s a form of discrimination, and that people won’t be appointed on merit. But the fact is, the current system is a form of discrimination, and ingrained, inherent sexism means that people aren’t all being appointed on merit right now either. It’s just an unofficial form of discrimination. If you really believe that everything happening right now happens on merit, you have to believe that men are four times better qualified to be politicians than women. Which is clearly ridiculous.
Q: If you had to choose, who is your #1 feminist role model?
LB: I couldn’t possibly choose! The thing I love and admire about feminism is the fact that it has so many different incredible women doing so many different incredible things – that is its strength, I think. I’m especially inspired by the women I see at the coal-face doing the hard, unacknowledged day-to-day work in women’s refuges and rape crisis centres and reproductive health clinics – women whose names we don’t necessarily see in the headlines, but who are battling every single day to help and support other women. I’m also hugely inspired by women from around the world who have spoken out, often at huge personal cost, and inspired thousands of others to do the same – women like Janet Mock, Mona Eltahawy and Malala Yousafzai.