November was a tumultuous time for feminism.
The results of last month’s midterm elections gave way to a Republican majority in Congress for the first time since 2008. A week later, TIME published a piece suggesting that the word “feminist” be banned for the year based on its overuse namely by celebrities who dare to support gender equality in public.
Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist, pointed out the bitter irony in the juxtaposition of these two events:
For the most part, though, the past twelve months have been a banner year for feminism in media. Take for instance #YesAllWomen, #YouOKSis and #GamerGate, all of which trended and garnered national media recognition. Then, there’s Beyoncé who stood firmly on the Video Music Awards stage with the word FEMINIST emblazoned on a screen behind her. Take also men like Aziz Ansari who announced to the world that men too can and should be feminists.
— la tula cuecho (@LissetteMiller) October 8, 2014
Though the word “feminism” has managed to permeate mainstream discourse, despite TIME magazine’s critique, we’ve yet to achieve anywhere near gender or racial equity in society writ large.
The fundamental principles of feminism; that all humans are equal and should be treated as such regardless of gender, race or class, is no more feasible politically now than from a year ago.
How can we reconcile feminism’s popularity of the past year with the principles of feminism that we carry out in our everyday lives?
Despite the fact that many are talking about feminism and declaring gender and racial equality and justice an important value, voting demographics this past election season don’t seem reflect these views.
Addressing the Disconnect
Critics of the millennial generation and those skeptical of social media as tools for organizing may consider this year’s voter turnout demographics as proof that hashtag activism doesn’t really matter. There has been no shortage of think pieces discussing popular hashtag trends and social movements posing the same question over again: “Does hashtag activism really make a difference?”
It’s a fair question. While #NotMyBossBusiness and #HobbyLobby swept across Twitter just a few months ago, politicians who voted against women’s health like Mitch McConnell and Pat Roberts were re-elected in the midterms. Wendy Davis’ filibuster in pink tennis shoes was all the rage on Twitter last year. #StandWithWendy trended globally, yet on November 4th she lost handily to Greg Abbott and captured a meager 32% of the white women vote.
#Ferguson has been a major trend this year ever since 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer on August 9th. When the Missouri grand jury announced late last month a decision not to indict Mike Brown’s killer, #FergusonDecision, #BlackLivesMatter, and #HandsUpWalkOut trended and sparked massive offline action.
Even now Americans are protesting in the streets outside of St. Louis and across the country mourning Michael Brown’s death and demanding that their voices be heard and seen. These protests, largely organized online and by young people remind the world of this country’s painful history of violence against black and brown people.
How is that we have mass protests around the country, where people from all walks of life demand equality, equity, and justice, yet there are still those who march to the polls, casting votes for politicians to repeal the Affordable Care Act, limit Medicare and Medicaid, give tax cuts to wealthy, and silence those most marginalized?
A New Kind of Activism
Let me state the obvious: tweets ≠ votes. But does that mean hashtag feminism or any kind social activism online doesn’t matter?
Of course not.
As @deray notes in this CNN piece on the power of #Ferguson, hashtags are a community, they are where we gather to share our experiences and hear stories we could not get anywhere else, whether it be in our own communities or from a cable news outlet. The Guardian calls hashtags a “rallying cry of a new generation’s quest for racial justice”.
There is no greater evidence of this rallying cry than what we have seen emerge along the #Ferguson and #YouOKSis tags. Both tags have been led and purveyed by feminists, particularly women of color, that have magnified stories and garnered the kind of attention mainstream media often ignores.
If media critics are still looking for hard evidence that social media activism matters but aren’t yet convinced by the sheer number of tweets this year, take a look at From #RenishaMcBride to #RememberRenisha.
Though hashtag activism looks different than other political and social movements of the past, this new(er) form of activism still faces similar challenges to previous generational movements. At times, activism can be a slow-moving, incremental process. There are always small victories. A surge of opposition doesn’t mean total defeat; it means there’s more work to be done.
Unlike movements before, hashtag activism doesn’t necessarily use the language of politics. It may not always use the language of revolution, resistance, rebellion either. More often than not, however, the power of hashtag feminism and hashtag activism lies in it’s real-time telling of intimate stories and ironic truths.
Hashtags have the power to locate the particulars of human experience. Though not always correlative in terms of congressional seats, hashtag activism locates where our stories are told overtime in 140-characters and measured by acts of empathy and resistance that follow. Our conversations, revelations, relationships, growth, and enlightenments: None of these should be discounted or discouraged.
What Comes Next
Despite those who argue that this generation of social activists are nothing more than social media users with strong opinions, one only need to look at feminist Twitter, where women and men go to bat for marginalized people and communities everyday, on and offline. Caring isn’t the problem, and neither is this new(er) form of activism.
— Elizabeth Plank (@feministabulous) November 25, 2014
this is why voting matters. voter registration is how they fill jury pools, including grand jury pools. serving jury duty is important.
— Fatniss Evaaahdeen (@meadowgirl) November 25, 2014
The Future of Politics and Hashtag Activism
Though this year was a setback in many ways for progressives and feminist political ideals, there have been some steps forward. Alma Adams became the 100th woman of the 113th Congress, marking the largest number of women to serve in Congress simultaneously.
A few things to consider for the future of hashtag feminism and its potential impact on the political landscape:
Tweeting about something does not necessarily bring about political change.
Hashtag feminism may preach to the choir, but we still have to take our choirs offline and out into the community.
Representation in the media is key and hashtags, in many ways, disrupt mainstream media narratives about marginalized communities and unjust legislation.
Online communication by way of hashtags can help birth a new generation of understanding, empathy, and acceptance.
What do you think? What does #F mean in relationship to politics to you? How does or should one affect the other? Can hashtag activism change the political system? If so, can it do so fast enough? Will a political revolution ever and ultimately be attributed to a hashtag? Has #Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter already proven the power of a hashtag to blend online and offline activism?