I am a confident writer, always have been. But I recently chanced on a column I’d written in 2004 by that hang-about village idiot, Bill O’Reilly, on Fox News, and my blood froze. That was the year I was first hit by online bursts of hate. I’d reached the 10-year point at which the wonderful U.S. journalist Michelle Goldberg has suggested that online feminist writers might well burn out. A decade of being called a “c—t” and an “ugly bitch”? It saps the soul.
But I keep writing about equal rights, and so do most feminist journalists. It’s worth doing, not only because it’s how we earn our pay, and not only for moral reasons. I’m thinking of our daughters, and granddaughters. Imagine the bleak future they’re going to have if we back down now. We’re headed into hard times, and they’ll be that much harder for women without power, without public voices.
Women’s rights are new in human history. I keep telling myself that, even though death threats and events at my home mean that I haven’t raised the blinds at the front of my house in seven years. I feel safer at work, where the building has security guards.
As Goldberg writes, “uppity women have long been targets of rage and contempt.” The online world—comments, Twitter, Reddit, email—has taken this to a screaming extreme. Digital technology brings speed and ease to our lives, including the arrival of sexual insults, death threats, torture plans, and the mighty peculiar contents of mailed brown-paper packages for female journalists. I sigh about the photo above my column; there is not one aspect of me that is not deplored: eyes, hair, forehead, skin, jewelry, smile. Women always smile. They want to look un-hurtable.
What worries me is that smart editors have told me they cannot find new young women to write opinion online. Women see how other women are abused online—including by other women—for speaking truthfully or even firmly, and it’s too terrifying. I take their point.
So here’s some advice on how to do it and keep it rolling merrily along.
Everyone advises you to develop a thick skin. Do not listen. I don’t want to write like a rhinoceros with a hide impervious to human feeling, and you wouldn’t want to read it. I long ago diagnosed myself as being “clinically sensitive,” which is massively unhelpful in life, but marvellous for coming up with fresh angles that the rhinos will never see.
Have a life apart from work. This is crucial. I read like a machine. I say to myself, “Whatever happens, I’ll always have my books.” I use them as drugs to soothe and offer insight. Also, I do physical things by rote—digging and clipping in the garden, working on collages, cleaning house—that take me out of my loud buzzing wordy head.
Do not read what is written about you, whether praise or blame. It leads to self-regard. Because I feel guilty if I don’t respond to kind people, I do read email but I wear sunglasses so it’s all a bit blurry. But you don’t have to read any communication sent to you.
Block freely on Twitter. You owe nothing to strangers. I am astounded by the way people see writers as a 24-hour hamburger stand, always open for customers. No. No hamburgers for you.
And finally, it’s not good to be alone. Family and friends help, just by existing. They’re an alternative kindly universe.
The joy of feminism is that you don’t ever have to be alone.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of SHE magazine.
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