IS THIS THE LAST WAVE OF FEMINISM?
In Crazy Stupid Love, Ryan Gosling’s character famously quips that men won the battle of the sexes when women started taking pole-dancing classes. You could make the argument that in real life women won the battle of the sexes when men started calling themselves feminists.
We’re now in the fourth wave of feminism, which most would argue reached peak mainstream influence when Beyonce declared herself a feminist in her now classic MTV performance of Flawless in 2015. Since then we’ve seen a rush from male and female celebrities, tastemakers and influencers to align themselves with the term and the movement. More importantly, we’ve seen real reform as companies and major institutions update outdated policies and review in earnest their treatment of women. Unlike previous waves of feminism, the discussion on whether women deserve equal treatment is over. We’re now navigating the difficult work of implementing the necessary shifts to make our institutions reflect these principles.
Technology has been a powerful catalyst of the fourth wave – accelerating women’s ability to integrate the ideals gained from previous waves, and transmit them to a broader, global audience. We’ve seen rapid growth of women’s ability to organize, at scale, resulting in tangible wins and changes in social norms. Tech enabled women-only groups to organize, strategize and iterate, which allowed their efforts to reach a critical mass while bypassing the male gatekeepers that control media and other avenues of communication. As a result, technology has been used as a means for consciousness-raising, communication, organization and activism.”Technology is giving women access to feminist thinking, and ways to become active in the movement, on a scale and with a speed that’s never been seen before.”
The Previous Waves
There have been three distinct waves of feminism. In the 19th century, the first wave ushered in suffrage and property rights; the second wave in the 1960s addressed reproductive rights and the equal rights amendment, while the third wave in the 1990s focused on individualism and intersectionality. During the second wave “consciousness-raising salons” emerged, small groups of 10-20 women – often privileged and wealthy – meeting in each other’s homes:
“Second-wave feminism spread through small consciousness-raising groups where women joined together to discuss how sexism affected their life, work, and family.”(1)
These groups “allowed women to verbalize feelings they may have dismissed as unimportant. Because discrimination was so pervasive, it was difficult to pinpoint. Women may not have even noticed the ways a patriarchal, male-dominated society oppressed them. What an individual woman previously felt was her own inadequacy could have actually resulted from society's ingrained tradition of male authority.” (3)
These meetings became a tool to identify oppression and move it from personal to political, and therefore actionable. Although powerful, the impact was limited because these groups operated by word of mouth, limiting attendance as well as diversity by factors such as race and class. However, the upside is that the only resistance they had to contend with was maneuvering their husbands out for the evening.
Women and Technology
The rising prevalence of technology has been a double-edged sword for women, creating both challenges and opportunities. While technology itself is impersonal and objective, what has become clearer with time is that a narrow segment of the population controls the design and development, resulting in tech that reflects social biases and conditioning, and contributes to replicating social biases against women, in online spaces. The design of tech has reflected the coded patriarchy in our society, with companies building platforms that contribute to a hostile and predatory environment for women online.
The rise of fourth wave feminism and its hybridization with technology is rooted in the tradition of consciousness raising - yet fueled by the harassment endemic in online spaces, which accelerated the need for and growth of women-only groups.
Technology was initially a powerful tool for fourth wave feminists. The proliferation of new social media platforms allowed them to bring previously unreachable, but like-minded women into the conversation, by creating content that was accessible, digestible and shareable. Starting around 2010, we saw a wave of women using blogs and social media to raise awareness about issues that were important to women. The rise of blogs like Jezebel, Vagenda, Feministing, ushered in a post-The Daily Show tone that used humor and incredulity to express shock at misogyny and give their audience the tools to deconstruct the daily barrage of white male hetero-normativity they were inundated with. The message wasn’t “isn’t this shocking” – it was “you’re not crazy, we see it too, we don’t know how this is still a thing.”[link] These blogs normalized the lexicon around rape culture, intersectionality and freeing the nipple, while giving greater visibility to everyday forms of sexism like workplace harassment, campus sexual assault and street harassment. They took on the assumptions around white male privilege and heteronormativity that was often endemic in the media.
The importance of these women can’t be underplayed. They used tech to bring a modern brand of feminism to a new audience, updating it for the language and temperament of a millennial and later, xennial audience. Their work created the foundation for what lead to the rise of movements like the Women’s March, and later propelled Tarana Burke’s nascent #metoo hashtag into the center of a national conversation. More importantly, they reframed these topics by centering women’s concerns and perspective – in a way that wasn’t happening anywhere else in the media, and especially couldn’t be done when men were controlling mainstream media content. Unlike old media platforms where the draw was the author and content, these new platforms thrived because of the community. Readers knew to scroll down to the comments for the best reactions, or to jump in and join the conversation. While advertisers quickly learned how to spot the blogs with the most engaged readerships, the communities gained a sense of their own power.
Rise of Private Groups
It was in this environment, with it’s potent mix of technology, feminist awareness and active communities, that one of the first women’s online networks was born in 2010. Journalist, entrepreneur and Twitter ‘gender avenger’ Rachel Sklar had her fill when saw one too many stories about Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs that omitted women. Reaching out to 20 women she respected to see if they would help her raise awareness about this issue, she soon had a listserve that ballooned to 500 women. Now commonly known as “The List”, they’re known for having launched the #changetheratio hashtag, and criticizing all-male panels or “manels”. For its’ members, The List serves as far more than a space for activism. Members share resources, valuable professional introductions, and professional and personal resources. [link]
Soon a wave of online groups began to follow, as a response to challenges faced both online and offline by women. Groups such as Female Founders Fund, Dreamers and Doers, The Femps and Latinas Think Big focus on empowering female entrepreneurs, while groups like Tech Ladies, Women in Tech and Geek Girls focus on women in tech.
The release of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In in 2013, which went on to sell 2.5 million copies, further ignited the movement of women’s groups. Though many aspects of the book are considered controversial, the Lean In phenomenon sparked an important conversation around women, leadership and the workplace that wasn’t happening before in a serious way. There are now thousands of Lean In Circles in 160 countries, and millions of members (Lean in China’s circle alone has over 1.5 million members)
At a recent private forum discussion on gender and tech, Observer Research Foundation President, Samir Saran, questioned whether women only networks function as “digital burqas” – a type of technical ghettoization that places women where men want them – quietly out of the way and out of public view. However, contrary to Samir’s assertion, private groups have functioned as spaces where women organized their activism more quickly and efficiently than in the past. Rather than staying quietly out of the way, women honed their strategies and messages before taking their activism out into the world in new and powerful ways.
Although many factors contributed to the rise of women’s groups, one important catalyst was the 2016 election. Many the groups that already existed became lightning rods for activism, and countless new groups popped up overnight and mushroomed in the days running up to the election and inauguration in 2017. Pantsuit Nation grew to over 3.5 million users in less than 4 weeks leading up to the election. [link] The post that led to the Women’s March was sent to 10 friends, ballooned to 10,000 people overnight and 1.5 million people in two weeks, and became the largest political mobilization in history.. Ultimately 1 out of every 100 americans marched, and there were more than 261 marches abroad, and on all 7 continents. [link] To truly understand the impact of technology compare this to the first March on Washington organized by Martin Luther King Jr in the 1963, which took over a year to organize by telegram and phone: “[Carmen Perez is] the executive director of a nonprofit founded by Harry Belafonte, who was a part of the 1963 March on Washington. In Belafonte's office, Perez saw an old telegram from Martin Luther King Jr. about the march. She just had to ask how long it took to correspond by telegram. It took weeks, he told her. [link]
While the Women’s March and #metoo movement receive the most attention, what many don’t realize is that the they were enabled by the proliferation of private networks of women online. In the case of the contemporary #metoo campaign, it began early on as a list of predatory men circulated by women in private networks. For example, women who were fundraising in Silicon Valley would warn other women attending industry conferences about which VC or investors they should steer clear of. These “whisper networks” brought to light that often multiple women had had negative experiences with the same bad apples, leading many women to feel for the first time that they weren’t alone. It made them braver, as women shifted from anonymous allegations to naming names: “After the New York Times and the New Yorker published extensive investigations into media mogul Harvey Weinstein’s alleged acts of sexual assault, coercion, and harassment, women across industries began to say men had done similar things to them, too. Some of it was individual storytelling, keeping the perpetrators anonymous. But increasingly, women named names. When those names were recognizable enough, journalists investigated, verified, and published. And heads rolled. Men have lost jobs, board seats, starring roles, television shows, paychecks, their reputations. Finally, there seem to be serious social consequences for harassment and assault.” [link] Other lists popped up like the “Shitty Media Men” list [link] and were built and shared in networks of professional women. As the allegations about Justin Caldbeck and other accused men hit the mainstream press, these private lists were used by journalists to quickly build stories and corroborate timelines. The rest as they say, is history. The #MeToo hashtag went on to become a global phenomenon: “the hashtag spread around the world with over 1 million tweets in 48 hours and over 12 million posts, comments and reactions on Facebook in less than 24 hours” [link]
Another impressive example is the record-breaking number of women running for political office in 2018. Emily’s List was inundated with requests: “More than 20,000 have approached Emily’s List about running for office in the year since Trump’s election; normally the group has fewer than 1,000 requests at this point in the cycle.” [link] In this instance, groups like Emily’s List and the 2017 Women’s Conference became the central spaces for a new wave of women fed up with the outcome of the election and exasperated by the new administration’s efforts to roll back any progress on women’s issues.
Consciousness Raising 2.0
The new wave of women only groups go a step further than the earlier waves of consciousness raising – both revealing patriarchy and providing a space for women to unlearn toxic mindsets and behaviors that result from patriarchal socialization/internalized misogyny. One important thing women only groups address is the asymmetric way that women’s help is treated: meaning that women help others more, but benefit less, and often are expected to help for free. The result is that women are accustomed to being in non-reciprocal interactions with men and sometimes women.  Sheryl points out that: “When a man offers to help, we shower him with praise and rewards. But when a woman helps, we feel less indebted. She’s communal, right? She wants to be a team player. The reverse is also true. When a woman declines to help a colleague, people like her less and her career suffers. But when a man says no, he faces no backlash. A man who doesn’t help is “busy”; a woman is “selfish.”
As a result of this dynamic, women not only lose sight of their value, but are conditioned not to ask for help. Instead, women become accustomed to being a “resource” for others – instead of getting proper credit and compensation for their expertise. Katie Orenstein from The Op-ed Project succinctly describes the gendered language we use: women think of themselves as “resources” – who provide help when needed, while men are treated as “experts” – who deserve compensation and respect for their knowledge. Along with this re-definition of value comes, being in women-only groups removes the feelings of isolation. They lose the perception that other women have it together and that they are the only ones struggling in the male-dominated environment. It ultimately allows women to be vulnerable and ask and offer help more equitably, resulting in greater benefit to all.
Women-only groups also helps women unlearn unhealthy types of competition, like lateral aggression, that women internalize in their careers. Lateral aggression occurs in marginalized groups as a result of systemic oppression, leading to sabotaging behaviors within the group including bullying, gossiping and backstabbing. Lateral aggression arises in professional settings when women perceive that there are a limited number of positions available. Many women feel that they’ve experienced as much or more bullying from women, than men in the workplace – and they’re right. While men target both men and women equally with aggressive behavior, research shows that 65% of perpetrators in the workplace are women, and that 79% of those bullied are targeted because of gender. [link] Women-only groups are often the first time that women experience being in the majority with professional peers. Women are no longer competing with each other for limited spots in a male-defined space that; in a space designed/defined by women, they can experience each other as a network and community of unconditional support.
Out into the World/Conclusion
Technology has not only given women the ability to replicate the core tools of feminist movements – women-only salons, activism, education, organization – it has allowed them to do it with more speed and efficacy. We see a continuing trend of women carrying the impact of women-only online spaces offline and into the world, creating a powerful feedback loop that is carrying these feminist principles out into the mainstream. These spaces provide a testing ground to question and address forms of mainstream misogyny and create an effective playbook for the target audience.
Technology has allowed women to carry the work done in the isolation of small feminist groups in the past, incubate and iterate their strategies, and ultimately scale their efforts to create tangible changes in the world. Ultimately, this hybridization of tech and feminism has allowed women to create greater agency than ever: by reframing the conversation, establishing beneficial networks, reconnecting to our bodies, and demanding true parity at work and society at large. The last time this many women were excited about something – rock’n’roll was born. Feminism may just be the new rock n roll.