How Social Media Empowers and Emboldens Women

Woman Computer - H 2015
AP Images

Woman Computer - H 2015

In honor of International Women's Day, THR speaks to BlogHer advisory board members about how feminism has evolved online with the help of social media.

Social media and feminism have gone hand in hand this past year, with the rise of hashtag activism campaigns like #AskHerMore, #HeForShe, #YesAllWomen and #LikeAGirl. The newest one, #DearMe, was created in honor of International Women's Day on March 8, which has become exponentially more impactful this year thanks to social media.

Hollywood often has become involved, with Reese Witherspoon and Amy Poehler supporting #AskHerMore and Emma Watson creating the #HeForShe initiative. At the Oscars in February, gender equality was a big subject of the night following Patricia Arquette's passionate speech advocating for equal rights.

The following day, social media reacted strongly to Arquette's comments elaborating on her speech in the press room. "It's time for all the women in America and all the men who love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we've fought for to fight for us now," said Arquette.

Critics said Arquette was ignoring intersectional feminism and only advocating for white feminism. Intersectionality is a way of conceptualizing identity as the intersection of a variety of microidentities, including race, gender, sexual orientation and class.

A conversation subsequently unfolded online about whether it was destructive to criticize Arquette for her comments and risk silencing future women who wish to speak out about women's rights but fear they might be attacked for not representing women correctly. Elisa Camahort Page is one of the founders of blogging network BlogHer, and she says that despite the discord following Arquette's speech, it's important to focus on the fact it started a conversation.

"I think a lot of people had their eyes opened about intersectionality because of what Patricia Arquette said, and ultimately that's a good thing," Page told The Hollywood Reporter. BlogHer began 10 years ago as a way of connecting female bloggers. The company, now owned by SheKnows, hosts an annual conference with keynote speakers such as Arianna Huffington, Marissa Mayer, Martha Stewart and Katie Couric. Page said that the feminist media landscape has "changed pretty radically" since she started BlogHer.

Page explained that when BlogHer first began, the team was trying to answer the question: "Where are the women online?" She added, "Ten years later, I don't think that's a question anymore."

In 2012, DigitalFlash reported women made up 64 percent of Facebook users and 58 percent of Twitter users. According to a 2013 SheKnows survey, two in every five women create or share content at least once a day on social networks. "Women certainly are dominating the production of content to the overall social web, that's undisputed," said SheKnows chief marketing officer Samantha Skey. She said that women's issues are trending across platforms. "You don't have to go to the alternative publishers or the sort of leftist blogs in order to find a really robust conversation about women in society nowadays," said Skey.

In terms of hashtag activism campaigns like #AskHerMore, Skey said the campaigns that have the most staying power and are the most effective are ones that have deeper meanings. She said hashtags attached to movements that are a catalyst for both short tweets and long-form narratives are the most unifying.

"People can make fun of armchair activism and hashtag activism, but it does open eyes and change minds," said Page. "People won't stop talking about it." She said that is part of what has propelled feminism into the spotlight.

"Any time something becomes more mainstream, there's two things that drive it. One is a business imperative, and the other is when people won't shut up about it." Page talked about the effect mainstream feminism has had on ad campaigns. Page and BlogHer worked with GoDaddy to revamp their marketing, which has been criticized heavily for sexism in the past. She said companies changing the way in which they depict women in their campaigns isn't purely altruistic. "I also have to believe there is less profit to be made from disrespecting half of the population and probably more than half of the people who control whether the product is bought," said Page.

Amber Gordon, the founder of Femsplain, agrees. "Social media has helped us tell the people who are advertising or creating content what we want to see," she said. Femsplain is a content publisher for anyone female-identified that launched in October and was stamped with Lena Dunham's seal of approval in November.

The site is trying to change the way women are discussed through conversations, and Gordon calls intersectional feminism the rock at the bottom she is trying to build from. She said that while feminism may be mainstream, intersectionality is not, and she wants to be inclusive to all people. "The Internet is a powerful tool," said Gordon, "I found myself and who I wanted to be by connecting with communities on the Internet."

Gordon said that these connections are empowering to women, helping them understand that they are not alone in their struggles. Page pointed out that the Internet also helps give women role models. "You can't be what you can't see," said Page. "Women can find many other women online doing amazing things."

Of course, with increased visibility comes an increase in harassment by people like men's rights activists who criticize feminism. The online harassment of women is an incredibly serious and pervasive problem that is often prevalent on Twitter. Gordon said this, too, is something she wishes to speak about on Femsplain, by both sharing experiences with others and giving tips on prevention. "The more empowered we get, the more we can deal with these terrible people."

On July 16-18, BlogHer will host its 11th conference in New York City, tackling topics like Gamergate and intersectionality. For now, though, the advisory board members are focusing on International Women's Day, which is March 8.

Gordon said she sees it as a day "where everyone who supports this mission can come together and celebrate the work we've been doing and talk about all of the work we need to do." She added: "There's always more that we can do."