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Online Feminism: Is It Really Helping?

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If bashing equality-seeking movements is your thing, you'll already be down with the failings of feminism. Exclusionary, ineffective and irrelevant, we're a middle class movement which bolted the drawing-room doors against the masses as suffragettes, and has continued to alienate everybody with a load of intellectual blah-blah ever since.

Even the power of the internet can't help: our online methods are so flawed that Telegraph columnists are crowing in delight. "Is this seriously the best modern feminism can do? Nipples, notes and internet trolls?" giggled Dan Hodges last month.

As the News Editor of the feminist webzine For Books' Sake, I'm all for online activism, but when you're making Telegraph columnists giggle instead of seethe, then it's time to take a long, hard look at yourself. Especially when they may have a point.

I mean, it's difficult to deny Toby Young's belief that our campaigns have "nothing to do with defending the rights of those less fortunate" when the nature of online activism prevents swathes of the population from being able to participate in feminist campaigns at all.

The poor and marginalised are excluded by proxy: recent stats suggest that the elderly and the poor are unlikely to be on social media even if they can afford internet access, and Alexa shows low usage of campaigning sites such as change.org by the less-educated.

Those of us who can join in are often put off doing so by nasty little bridge-dwellers. As Angela Towers of No More Page 3 points out, "the feminists are often the ones...limiting their own reach and speech, in order to avoid being abused". It's very difficult to shout out when you'll get a rape threat of a reply within seconds.

If you're one of the lucky few who can afford internet access and who can stand abuse, you're probably not even bothered about what you're campaigning for. A 2011 study found people engaging in "clicktivism" were only slightly more likely to engage in politics off social media than those who weren't. No More Page 3 has over 100,000 signatures but only 12,000 followers on Facebook - numbers which may be a more accurate reflection of how many are truly behind the campaign.

The poor and marginalised aren't included, the middle-class who are aren't engaged, and the ones that are left are being picked off by trolls. Toby Young is right: we're all just engaged in hapless irrelevance.

Of course, he's only right if you forget the one thing he and the rest of the right-wing press have ignored in their anxious rush to chide us elitist feminists: online activism is working, despite all of the above.

The Bank of England will keep a woman on our banknotes. Twitter have introduced a report abuse button. The Irish Sun has taken bare breasts from its Page 3. Lose the Lads Mags has seen retailers refuse to stock Nuts et al. Facebook now won't allow sexist abuse. The judge who labelled an abused thirteen year old girl "predatory" has been stopped from working on similar cases.

While we're still not including all in our debates, campaigners are doing their damndest to. "It's not perfect", says Laura Bates of Everday Sexism, "but our project is by no means only online... the large elements taking place offline will hopefully enable us to reach an even broader sweep of people."

Angela Towers, meanwhile, points out how the internet has given a voice to people who previously had none. Referring to Clare Short's anti-Page 3 campaign in the '80s, she says "these women [who supported Short] never had a platform where they could communicate. That's what the internet gave us."

Towers is right, but it did far more than give us a method of communication: it gave us a democratic and on-the-record method of communication. Campaigns now become high-profile not because of one person's agenda, but because of everyone's, and once they're up and running there's no denying them: the tens of thousands of posts Bates has received on Everyday Sexism and the hundred thousand plus signatures against Page 3 are there for all to see.

There's no denying too that debate around the campaigns is as important to the activists as the campaigns themselves. Towers says of No More Page 3: "Just by asking the question, we've got people thinking. We believe that the debate side is one of the most important aspects of the campaign".

For feminism, a movement previously led by weighty tomes authored by the educated, this is a huge step forward: we are now our own leaders. If we're excluding someone, we let ourselves know about it with campaigns like #solidarityisforwhitewomen. If we're not aware of an injustice, one of us will pipe up with a petition and we're on it.

Online feminism is working because the internet is giving us the tools to demolish those problematic characteristics we've always had: our exclusion, our irrelevance, our ineffectiveness. People have been so kind in pointing these out in the past, but guys: it's okay, you can stop. Thanks for your concern, Toby, Dan. We've got it covered now. It's so nice to be able to reassure people.

Image by Felipe Tofani, used under a Creative Commons Licence