The Evolution of Modern Feminist Activism: What We Owe to Women of Color

Joshen Mantai //

Everyone knows about the power that ensued because of the hashtag #MeToo that ignited a social media phenomenon, exposing the underbelly of sexism within various industries. A similar movement paralleled with #TimesUp, repeatedly showing how social media can be utilized as a space for women to be heard. Over 10 years before #MeToo was trending as a national movement, it was founded by survivor of sexual violence, Tarana Burke. The intention of the hashtag was to create a safe space for women with similar experiences to connect, breeding a sense of solidarity. The campaign shot into the public space when reshared by actress Alyssa Milano. After this celebrity tweet, the tool of the hashtag changed drastically, evolving into a weapon that could demand an end to misconduct. It was a necessary agent of change. 

Social media is a platform for marginalized women of global origins to be heard. #MeToo largely built off preceding historical movements that were based on coalition-building. 

Ida B. Wells — suffragist, feminist, and activist leader — was impassioned by achieving equality for women of color, founding coalition groups like the National Association of Colored Women’s club that brough together women of color for the first time in a communal setting. While efforts for women’s suffrage are largely attributed to white female activists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Black female activists like Ida B. Wells were fighting an intersectional struggle that led a revolution against the overlapping entanglement of sexism and racism. 

To this day, despite achieving the right to vote, women of color still face voter suppression at the polls in punitive voter ID laws, restrictive polling times, etc. This shows how imperative it is that we recognize the women of color like Stacey Abrams and Ida B. Wells who have fought for voter registration efforts amongst women of color. In the history of female suffrage, the stories of Black women are often erased, despite their efforts originating all the way back to 1850 when Sojourner Truth represented Black women at the first woman’s rights convention in Worcester, Massachusetts

Despite Black women being repeatedly excluded from movements by white suffragists in efforts to appeal to white followers, Black women have fought for the right to vote largely against the mainstream. Ida B. Wells took part in the first suffragist parade in Washington, D.C. in 1913 as the only Black woman in the Illinois delegation. She was asked to move to the back of the procession to comply with segregation rules, but half-way through marched to the front of the crowd, between two white supporters. 

Even after the passage of the 19th Amendment, Jim Crow laws prevented Black women from achieving full voting rights. White suffragist groups dissolved, leaving the burden on Black women to keep marching, which they continued vehemently. These voter education efforts continued into the early 1960’s in spaces from churches to beauty shops and bus stops. These brave female activists of color never achieved media stardom, but that did not stop their dedication to mobilize the masses.

It’s this kind of collective movement-building that has carried through time, allowing social media to be utilized within the feminist movement. Female activist Ida B. Wells may have jumpstarted feminist coalition building in her journalistic pursuits and organizing efforts, but this tenacity and consumption of media for positive change has carried on in women like Tarana Burke.

#MeToo resurfaced the need for feminism to focus on collective liberation, showing that we all need to share the discourse on how to eradicate sexism, living in a world free of #MeToo. Feminist activists like Emma Watson, Monica Ramirez, Dina Smailova, and Anna Vasileva have all utilized social media to bring about change and share their stories. 

Studies show that despite women being underrepresented in forms of media (only receiving 38% of bylines), women are more statistically likely than men to maintain a notable online presence. However, women still face obstacles and barriers in the cost of protesting on social media, more likely to be subjected to cyber abuse and harassment. In facing barriers in the public space as well, like legal restrictions, economics, and more, social media has bred as a platform that is largely more accessible. Feminist activism is placed under strict censorship in China, but social media remains as a space where grassroots activists can put up a collective front by protesting against unfair media representations of women.  

This new wave of feminism has been drastically democratized, opening up a space for any woman with a Twitter account to fight sexism, fostering a climate for awareness and dialogue. While skeptics argue that social media doesn’t catalyze any real change, many pieces of evidence point to the contrary. In 2012, #StandWithPP was created as a campaign after Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to withdraw funding from Planned Parenthood because the organization provides abortion services. The hashtag allowed Twitter users to rally their support for Planned Parenthood while pressuring the foundation to reverse their initial decision (which they ended up doing). 

It is apparent that social media has the potential to be a very potent force, especially in combination with traditional forms of protest and demonstration. Social media activism alone won’t solve institutionalized sexism, but in many instances, it does give a vital voice to the otherwise silenced.

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