Bringing Back the Pillory: The Public Shaming of Feminists by @VABVOX

(Written for A Room of Our Own by Victoria Brownworth)

            If it weren’t for Mary Beard and Nimko Ali, I wouldn’t be writing this.

I wouldn’t be writing it because of fear.

But then there’s Mary Beard and Nimko Ali and actually a host of others, including a gay man, Peter Tatchell, whose work I have long admired, and so I must speak out. Even as my heart is racing. Even as my heart is racing and I just had a heart attack due to stress less than a month ago and am supposed to be avoiding any new stress.

But there’s no avoiding stress if you are a feminist in 2015. Especially if you are a lesbian feminist in 2015.

So my heart races on and I write on.

A few days ago some 130 academics, feminists, activists, gender critical trans women and some gay men signed a short letter objecting to the new McCarthyism taking place all over the West. The letter was about the UK but it could as easily have been written about the US or France or Australia or anywhere where the governments are democratic but political correctness has taken a  fascistic turn.

The letter appeared on Valentine’s Day in The Guardian/The Observer and was titled “We cannot allow censorship and silencing of individuals” and subtitled “Universities have a particular responsibility to resist this kind of bullying.”

The letter was spearheaded by feminist writer and activist Beatrix Campbell. The focus was the no-platforming of a range of feminist voices including the recent controversy over Kate Smurthwaite being cancelled at Goldsmith’s College, London, and talk of Germaine Greer being no-platformed at Cambridge Union.

I’ve been a journalist my entire adult life, so free speech matters to me. Debate matters to me. Hearing alternative voices rather than just the endless chorus from one choir matters to me.

I’ve also been teaching in universities and inner city schools and prisons over the same years I’ve been a journalist. So I have that vantage point as well–of teacher and of witness to learning.

I have long respected the work of Mary Beard. Classics are a love of mine, as they are of most inveterate readers. I followed her on Twitter because, well, Mary Beard, classicist.

I never engaged with her. But after  I read a piece by her in the New Yorker last September about her experiences with trolling and misogyny, I was interested to see what else she had to say.

I first lived in London in the late 1980s at the height of the anti-gay backlash, before many of the current arbiters of who gets to speak and who doesn’t were out of Pampers. My partner was in grad school and I was reporting for a newspaper back in the U.S.

I was there when a scandal broke in London—girls were being mutilated by doctors in service to a tradition, female genital mutilation or FGM. I knew little about the practice except for what I had learned in a women’s studies course a few years earlier in college, but investigative reporters investigate and that is what I did. What I found was, not surprisingly, shocking.

I interviewed many different people for that story–a series of stories as it turned out–including a Somali woman who had been FGM’d and several women trying to protect their daughters from the practice as well as some doctors and other health care workers. The stories I was told–including one of a girl being held down in the basement of a Brixton home and the music turned up loudly while the “job was done” on her have never left me, more than 25 years later.

Which is why Nimko Ali is another reason for my writing this. Because she is, as co-founder of Daughters of Eve and a survivor of FGM,  the voice and face of the Stop FGM movement in the U.K. My respect for her and her work is boundless.

Both Mary Beard and Nimko Ali signed the letter. They signed because they are feminists, because they know about silencing–both historic and present–and because they have themselves often been the unpopular voice, the voice of debate that no one wants to hear.

The backlash over the letter was swift, terrible and painfully predictable. The many women of color on the list were tagged as pawns of white feminists. Gender critical trans women were called tokens. Peter Tatchell was said to have been duped into signing. I read that he had received death threats, although I could not confirm this. But it was Beard who seemed to receive the most repetitive attacks.

In a short response to the furor printed in TLS on February 16, Beard recounted how she’d received sixty messages in an hour’s time from one person. She had finally signed off Twitter sobbing.

Beard was targeted as either senile (she’s 61, the same age as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former PM Tony Blair, French President Francois Hollande, to name but a few) or duped (she’s one of the top classicists in the world, remember) or just, well, vile.

While Beard was getting the public treatment, a slightly less public process obtained–threats and doxxing of other women who had signed the letter or of “known associates” of those women. Columnist Glosswitch left Twitter, fearing for her own safety and that of her children.

The very McCarthyism being objected to in the letter was being conducted full-throttle on Twitter, Facebook and via email.

This has to stop. Really, it does. The silencing of women has reached a level of not-so-subtle violence. Every day there are threats delivered to feminists and lesbians online and off. It’s not just words being bandied about. It’s endless suggestions of what horrifying violence can and should be done to certain feminists and their children. These “words” are stressful at best, terrifying at worst. They can and do leave one sobbing or frightened or feeling as if one can never open one’s mouth in public again without fear.

Yet why are these attacks happening? The assault on Mary Beard and on other signatories is in response to a letter which only says debate must be a cornerstone of the educational process. It says nothing else. (You can read it here:

Yet in the current climate for feminists, to even speak about issues like gender or patriarchal dominance, prostitution or sex trafficking, or the silencing and no-platforming of feminist speakers is to be labeled a bigot and to be silenced.

The main point is always and inevitably to silence.

How is that not fascism?

I can’t count the number of times I have silenced myself for fear of reprisals from people who have previously attacked me, slandered me, lied about me, attempted to (and succeeded in) no-platform me. I’ve been targeted by many of the same people who have targeted Mary Beard and Glosswitch. I ended up in the hospital with a sudden heart attack after a particularly grueling series of such attacks.

The question that never gets answered is this: Why is anyone claiming to be a feminist–as all these attackers and purveyors of abusive and sometimes violent language assert they are–why are these people targeting any women, ever?

As I tweeted the morning of the letter when the outrage was everywhere like a bad flu, I disagree with many women and yet I manage not to run round with a roll of tape silencing them night and day.

I can disagree with you and not threaten to kill you and your children or feed you into a woodchipper or sentence you to die in a fire or get ploughed or what any of the other common attacks suggest.

I can just not engage with you.

There can be no debate about whether or not women are oppressed. They are. If you disbelieve it, well, you’re ignoring history and reality. Women are designated second class at birth and they never leave that status regardless of whatever they achieve in life–witness the recent obituary of one of Australia’s most famous writers, Colleen McCullough, who was also a neurophysicist.

As second-class citizens and constant victims of male violence and repression and suppression worldwide, women have a right to speak out about that violence and oppression without suffering further violence and further suppression.

Women are no longer allowed to speak about our own lives without being told that we are insensitive bigots  for talking about our own lived experience. Which is, of course, silencing of the most insidious form and which is the most misogynist of patriarchal tenets–don’t talk about your bodies or your female experience.

It has taken women a millennia to be able to speak about our experience and that experience is broad and complex. Yet the very same people who demand that their life experience not be named or discussed would silence women trying to do the same thing.

How is that not fascism?

For me the Guardian letter was about debate–about being able to hear the voices of the silenced. It’s not about whether I agree with those voices or not. I’m actually not a fan of Germaine Greer and have never liked her dismissive treatment of lesbians. But other women think she’s a genius and just because I don’t doesn’t mean I feel the need to silence her. I can certainly provide a different perspective on her work, should I choose to. But I don’t need to silence her.

Nor do I need to silence others I disagree with.

What I do want silenced, however, is the violent speech and slander than abounds and which seems to always emanate from the same quarter. Violence, no matter what its source, is untenable, unacceptable and unconscionable. I won’t engage in it, I won’t promote it and I won’t stand for it.

This public shaming of women for being women must cease. This anti-intellectual bias against honest debate, by which I mean the simple presentation of ideas, whether or not we agree with them, must cease.

Some of us, myself included, have worked incredibly hard to be able to speak about issues that have long been the subject of patriarchal silencing. Rape, lesbian sexuality, women’s bodies, pregnancy, childbirth. I recently wrote here about the death of my child and was flooded with very personal responses from women who had also lost children but who had been unable to speak about it. I have written extensively about the complication of rape for women–lesbians in particular–and have gotten similar responses. The same has been true about my writing about my cancer experience and the cancer experience of other women.

University is where many get their first experience of disparate ideas. It’s where many learn that the world has a side other than the one in which they were raised–be that class, race, ethnicity or gender. All the complainants against the letter are university graduates. Would they be as adept at speaking out without that university experience? Likely not.

So why is debate suddenly anathema? And why, more’s the point, are the voices being silenced and no-platformed, those of women? Why would any woman want to silence another woman given the long history of patriarchal silencing–including stoning and burning at the stake (die in a fire!)–of women?

It’s simple and simplistic to say this is just unfair, although, of course, it is.. It’s unfair to further oppress women of color and lesbians. It’s also unfair to send a don who has worked her whole life to carve a space for women in academia to the corner with a dunce cap to sob herself to sleep after being harangued non-stop for more than 12 hours straight.

Any sentient feminist knows there are hierarchies within feminism. Lesbians and women of color are on the bottom. Straight white women are on the top. That’s a fact, it’s not an attack. So we must work to create a balance where one has previously been missing. But the way to that balance isn’t to silence women we think might possibly have more privilege than other women. It’s to open the door wider, not slam it shut on the heads of those we want to eliminate from the discourse.

In the end, no one benefits from censorship. No one. You can disagree with ideas all you want, but first you must know they exist and what they actually are. People who view themselves as marginalized are the ones who should be least willing to marginalize others.

People who try to shame others never seem to feel any embarrassment or shame themselves–that’s another basic tenet of patriarchy. But the pillorying of women must cease. We spent centuries being publically humiliated solely for being women–for our vaginas and our bleeding and our softness and our second-class-ness. We continue to be whipped and stoned and yes, burned to death, throughout the world simply for being female. That’s a reality you can neither deny nor shout down. Women’s collective history exists. Keeping it from the tender ears of university students benefits no one, but it does, quite definitively, perpetuate the very systems that oppress us all.


Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a columnist and contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review. Her reporting and commentary has appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer. Her book, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural&historical fiction. Her novel, Ordinary Mayhem will be published in February 2015. @VABVOX