The last year and a half (or so) have been marked by some uncharacteristic interpersonal drama, mostly in the form of internet harassment and (at least) half in response to columns that I’ve written. My Greek life column was met with the most serious antagonism, but I can’t deny that basically any piece of writing that I’ve put out in the world has resulted in angry emails, internet comments and some uncomfortable conversations. Recently, I’ve resorted to less controversial subjects, sinking my teeth into the heart-warming and uplifting spectrum of opinion writing.
A few weeks ago, I read Mary Beard’s essay “The Public Voice of Women,” and there was a special type of familiarity in the pages. Beard details a history of women being told to stop talking. From Penelope in The Odyssey to modern-day journalists on Twitter, most any attempt from a woman to speak outside the domestic sphere is met with a hailstorm of “go back to where you belong.” In seeking to avoid criticism or controversy, was I myself, in my writing, creeping back into privacy? In the words of Mary Beard, she “re-privatizes her voice.”
Nearly every day on Twitter, we can witness attempts to silence or androgynize female voices. Writer and professor Roxane Gay does a particularly great job of calling this out. Just this week, I watched her defend her words and her opinion to a devoted mansplainer, just as she does day after day. At a talk given at Cornell on Monday, New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman brought up her critics, calling the internet a “cesspool” and drawing attention to how difficult the climate is for women writers — on Twitter and beyond. She said she doesn’t ever flinch until they bring up her children. I often wrestle with how this particular type of abuse can be both baffling and utterly expected.
It’s not the online commenters that disagree with me that bother me. In fact, I welcome those who disagree with me. That sort of discussion energizes and impassions my writing. I would not have the grit to be a writer if I suffered so much over differing opinions. I’m more so calling out the comments that question my intellect, insult my character and extend far outside the bounds of a simple disagreement.
I’m often told by those close to me to ignore the angry crowd of voices at the helm of my inbox. And for the most part, I try to. But day in and day out, I am provided with more and more examples of how this crusade against non-male voices is violent. In high school, I rejected a boy at my school, which led me down a year-long struggle with death-threats, harassment and physical aggression against myself and those close to me. The words this boy used after the initial rejection ring with familiarity in many of the hateful comments I receive. Most of them tell me to shut up. Lots of them call me stupid. All of this for speaking my mind. The way in which I have been and continue to be talked down to, belittled and shamed for no more than sharing my opinion reeks of misogyny.
Beard says, “It is not what you say that prompts it, it’s simply the fact that you’re saying it. And that matches the detail of the threats themselves. They include a fairly predictable menu of rape, bombing, murder and so forth (this may sound very relaxed; that doesn’t mean it’s not scary when it comes late at night).” I couldn’t agree with this more; I can’t treat every threat as mere white noise all the time. I am thankful for Beard for giving me some sort of solidarity in this struggle. Women journalists are absolutely attacked at the slightest perceived transgression, the slightest tip-toe from the domestic sphere.
There are intersections here. Undoubtedly, some women also face racist, transphobic, classist or ableist attacks. I realize that my identity offers me great privilege, being a white-passing woman at an Ivy League institution, I am offered platforms for which I should feel deeply indebted.
I don’t necessarily believe one of my avid, dedicated internet trolls will read this column and experience a change of heart. But I do believe I have friends that have access to circles where people speak about women in violent ways, in ways that seek to silence them. Simply recognizing and calling out this behavior on sight is a great way to be an ally to the opinionated women in your life. I could be better at this as well. For example, sometimes at the dinner table, in class or in a one-on-one conversation, I catch myself repeating, “You’re not listening to me.” Maybe more effective would be, “Listen to me.”
So, I am asking for more listening. I am asking for questioning every instance of anger in response to a woman transgressing only in so much as she’s asserting her right to a voice. I am asking to watch misogynistic language, watch reactions to something as simple as an Instagram post, watch the ways in which you can seek to empower, rather than silence, the voices of women.
Sarah Lieberman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at email@example.com. Blueberries for Sal runs every other Tuesday this semester.