“For the world to get better, ordinary people have to feel more powerful.” So says Laura Townshend, Communications Director of the campaigning group 38degrees, during a panel on ‘The Writing of Protest’ at Birmingham Literature Festival. Townshend was accompanied by Mary Evans, Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics, and Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project. Playwright David Edgar chaired the session, lest any straight white men in the audience feel unrepresented.
And what better location for such a discussion than the Library of Birmingham; opened by Malala to great fanfare just two years ago, it has since itself become a site of protest. Threatened with constant cuts and job losses, the building has gained supporters from all over the country who have come to its defence.
Mary Evans believes before we can consider the language and intentions of protest, we must first understand the language and intentions of the establishment. She cites a line from David Cameron’s speech at this year’s Conservative Party Conference; “The British people are decent, sensible and reasonable.” This kind of statement immediately sets up a binary, says Evans, identifying the political spaces that we should all occupy, and tarring anybody else, anybody who might protest, as inherently indecent and unreasonable. Decency is not the same as docility, however, and Evans asserts that a great many historic accomplishments have been achieved by refusing to be sensible.
A Pain That Works
Laura Townshend acknowledges that often, victorious campaigns are remembered for a single heroic, charismatic leader, when in fact every voice matters. “It was, after all, people who powered the civil rights movement in the US, who got women the vote,” she says. “The hero of our story at 38degrees is you… Whether the villain is a massive, evil, corporate behemoth, or a politician with grubby intentions, we think that the best person to do something about that is you. The power lies with you.”
38degrees is responsible for preventing the cover-up of the MP expenses scandal, has challenged the policies of large retail groups who weren’t paying their employees a living wage, and has saved at least one hospital from closing. As one politician remarked to Townshend; “You’re a pain, but what you do works.”
As a member-led organization, it is crucial that 38degrees provoke a reaction. Townshend explains how the organisation leverages two very different kinds of storytelling to inspire their members; there are the success stories of past campaigns which act as encouragement, and then there are stories of crisis, which motivate and make people care. A story of crisis needn’t fall into the misery porn cliché; it must simply remind you that the struggling single mother on a zero hour contract, or the waiter whose employers are stealing his tips, could be your own brother, sister, or child. “Where we’ve been most successful in engaging people on an issue is by making it relevant to their lives, their families, and where they live,” says Townshend.
Similarly, the Everyday Sexism Project’s stories and conversations start online, with consequences which then filter out into real life. Founder Laura Bates recalls how Everyday Sexism emerged from a particularly bad week in 2012, when she was harassed by different men in various situations, including being groped on public transport, and even followed home. Bates believes that if these incidents had not occurred in such quick succession, she never would have given it any serious thought, as she had always thought “it was just part of being a woman.”
She decided to ask other women whether they had ever experienced anything similar, initially assuming that a small percentage might; what she hadn’t expected was for each and every woman she asked to have a whole litany of anecdotes, ranging from a sexist remark to physical assault. “It took that mass of stories to make me realise this was a really big problem,” she says. “But when I tried to tell those stories further, when I tried to say there’s a problem here, I got completely shut down; people said to me ‘sexism doesn’t exist anymore, women are equal now.’ Particularly men.”
But when Bates looked into it, she found that salary and leadership figures across all kinds of industries failed to back up this claim: “Everywhere I looked, the stories, the real lives of the women I was talking to, and the statistics matched up. What didn’t match up was people’s attitude that there wasn’t a problem. And I recognized that there wasn’t any point to going out and trying to fix the problem, if people didn’t acknowledge that it existed… Simply what I wanted was for other people to have the experience I’d had, hearing those stories together.”
Bates launched Everyday Sexism with no funding or advertising, thinking that perhaps 50 or 60 people would share their stories. Three years later, over 100,000 have come in, from all over the world, from women of different races, religions, and sexualities.
“These stories cut through in perhaps a way that statistics don’t,” says Bates, adding that such a wealth of anecdotal evidence also yielded more nuanced data. For instance, men who perpetrated assaults on women were often found to use the same kind of language as the men responsible for street harassment, indicating a very real link between the casual day-to-day interactions that women are expected to simply ignore, and what is universally recognized as a serious crime.
But it wasn’t just women writing in; men submitted their own stories too, and a correlation began to appear. Young girls were told not to pursue sports while boys were discouraged from arts subjects, women were denied promotions as they were deemed a “maternity risk” while men were ridiculed for requesting parental leave. “This was never about men against women, or about vilifying men,” says Bates, “it was about people standing up together against prejudice that affects all of us.”
Bates was then able to take this data offline, presenting it to MPs as concrete evidence of the pay gap, and working with theatre companies to transform young women’s testimonials into narratives which could then be used to start conversations around relationships and consent in schools. Now, the types of stories Everyday Sexism receives are getting more varied, as evidenced by one recent entry. While out running, a woman was grabbed by a man who stopped her and asked for directions: “At first she felt the usual emotions wash over her; panic and fear and the urge to run, but then she also felt the sensation of thousands of other women standing alongside her, and it gave her the strength to stop and take down his number plate and report the man to the police, who charged him with assault.”
As more of these positive narratives emerge, it becomes clear that the story of Everyday Sexism is, to borrow Townshend’s phrase, no longer just one of crisis, but also a story of winning. “One of the most powerful ways to help people believe that the campaign they’re taking part in can win, is to remind them that they’ve done it before,” says Townshend. “There’s something very powerful about that, it reminds me of the stories and myths and fables that are handed down from generation to generation, and told around campfires, wagons and caves.”
Parting words from all of the panelists were of a common theme; that these success stories are needed to make people feel truly capable of achieving change, which in turn will fuel even more protest narratives. Be it the tale of the Suffragettes winning the vote for women over a century ago, or a single woman in 2015 finding the courage to report harassment, it is impossible to predict what the ultimate combined impact of all these tales will be.