#YesAllWomen: Online Feminism, Religion, and Risk (@ the Table: Feminism Online)
By Megan Goodwin.
In “Social Media, Feminism and Public Writing,” Grace Ji Sun Kim compellingly argues the need for religious studies scholars and theologians to make their work accessible to the public, and to engage in online discussions about the things that matter most to us. Kim is absolutely correct: women’s voices are largely missing from online conversations, and this is not coincidental. But women scholars who enter these public forums assume a gender-specific risk in addition to the professional risks of publicly espousing political views.
This is not to suggest that women, scholars, or women scholars should avoid social media. Facebook can be a generative site for both professional networking and pedagogical collaboration. Writing blog posts for more general audiences has forced me to rethink, pare down, and refine the argument for my current project and broadened the scope of my thinking in useful ways. (Mary Hunt outlines the utility of scholarly blog posts in “Blogs and Us.”) Twitter has changed the way I learn about world, national, and local news, and the way I conceptualize class assignments (for example, my “Religion and American Politics” students will be live-tweeting Republican and Democratic primary debates this semester at #BatesRelPol). In short, social media has become professionally invaluable and arguably unavoidable. If these sites are to be useful tools for professional development and scholarly expression, however, feminists online need to develop thick skins and an acute sense of how social media works.
Strangers on the Tubes
The internet, like Sartre’s hell, is other people. Accessible religious studies scholarship makes valuable contributions toward shifting public thinking about complex issues – see, for example, Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer’s New York Times editorial demonstrating that right wing extremists, not Muslim fundamentalists, pose the larger terrorist threat to contemporary Americans. But opening scholarly conversations to public commentary presents different challenges than publishing in traditional academic venues. In addition to wrangling complex ideas into straightforward language, our pool of conversation partners expands exponentially. We cannot longer assume our readers share our training; often, our online readers and respondents are indifferent, even hostile, toward our positions. To illustrate:
Twitter, by design, invites conversation among strangers. This can be a great asset, in that it’s possible to hear from voices often underrepresented both online and in the academy. See, for example, Black Twitter, the network of users who draw attention to a wide array of social justice issues affecting African Americans, including #BlackLivesMatter (which draws attention to the systemic violence directed toward Black Americans) and #SayHerName (which highlights the media’s tendency to ignore or obscure the violent deaths of Black women).
Unlike Facebook, Twitter users do not necessarily limit the audience for their posts – unless your account is set to private or you block a specific user, all your tweets are available to the public. This can provide useful insights into classroom conversations – for example, when my Religion and Monsters students live-tweeted The Exorcist this May, Jason Pitzl Waters (founder of the Neopagan news blog The Wild Hunt) tweeted us to discuss the role of women’s spiritual agency in the film. But the public nature of such conversations can also invite unwelcome commentary – my tweets supporting #BlackLivesMatter this year frequently met with responses from conservative gun rights supporters and others opposed to the movement.
I can block individual users I find offensive, and I’m not famous enough to garner the vitriol (read: death threats, threats of sexual violence) faced by women who are more visible online. But in the context of these larger threats, the hostility of microaggressions is not easily dismissed.
Someone Is (Always) Wrong on the Internet
Scholarly blogging brings its own challenges. In my recent Religion Dispatches piece on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I offered (what I thought was) a fairly straightforward thesis: the show, while hilarious and insightful in a number of ways, perpetuated the trope of new religious movements as necessarily sexually abusive of women members. I pointed out that while yes, abuse absolutely happens in some NRMs, new religious also push gender boundaries in a number of important ways – and that abuse is in no way unique to American minority religions.
For my sanity, I actively avoid reading online comments about my writing (with the exception of the comments on my piece about Elizabeth Smart for the Mormon Studies blog The Juvenile Instructor, whose commenters were both insightful and kind). But with the Kimmy Schmidt piece, the comments came to me. Acquaintances of Facebook friends sought me out to tell me why my thesis was wrong, to insist that new religious movements are always abusive, that my argument invalidated their lived experience. One abuse survivor emailed the Dean of Faculty at my college to warn him that I was “ignoring the realities of misogyny and sexual assault in minority religions.” This provided an opportunity to think about how blame works on the internet, but if I worked at a less progressive institution, the incident might well have ended badly.
As a feminist scholar of religion, it is challenging—to say the least—to have strangers on the internet shrieking that I hate women and don’t understand the subject I’ve studied for the past decade. I remain convinced that engaging in online religious studies scholarship is valuable. But women expressing opinions on the internet—scholarly or otherwise—are uniquely vulnerable, and this must be part of our consideration when we encourage feminist scholars in their online efforts.
Megan Goodwin is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Creative and Innovative Pedagogy in the Religious Studies Department at Bates College. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality in contemporary American minority religions. Her current project, “Women and Children Last,” considers Americans’ sexual suspicion of Islam, Mormon fundamentalism, and religious witchcraft.
For more information on this @ the Table topic: Feminism Online.