‘My dad says that since I am a lady, I should be less assertive and I should not try to compete with men.’
‘During a disciplinary procedure at work, one male manager asked the other if I could “fuck him to make this go away”.’
‘My friend had some money stolen and went to the police as she knew who it was. Their response? “Fuck off you haven’t been raped”.’
These are just some of stories UK writer Laura Bates received in response to the Everyday Sexism Project, a site she established in 2012 for women to submit their experiences of exactly what its title suggests: instances of everyday sexism, from the seemingly minor (that leering guy at the bar) to the decidedly major (unreported sexual assault and rape). Despite having no funding to back the project, the site had 50,000 responses after just 20 months online; there’s now an Australian version (one among 18 countries to now have their own Everyday Sexism sites) and an Everyday Sexism Twitter feed with over 133,000 followers.
Fittingly, Bates has now written a book, Everyday Sexism…, that expands on her original concept. She’s collected submissions to her project, arranged them by category (including Women in the Workplace, Motherhood, Young Women Learning and Double Discrimination) and assessed their implications, highlighting our contemporary version of Betty Friedan’s ‘problem that has no name’: the fact that, as Bates writes in her introduction, there is ‘so much evidence of the existence of sexism alongside so much protest to the contrary’.
If this wasn’t already obvious to any woman today who’s inevitably had to fend off a legion of wandering eyes, assumptions about her intelligence and/or ‘hilarious and original’ jokes about her driving skills and proximity to a stove, it’ll sure become obvious after reading Bates’s book. Anyone who’s looked at the Everyday Sexism sites or Twitter feed will find plenty of familiar and ire-inducing material here, from statistics (30% of domestic violence starts or worsens during pregnancy) to project entries (‘2pm on a main road a man groped me. When I screamed no one bothered to help.’).
So what can we do to improve the equality stakes? Although Everyday Sexism… is compelling, engagingly written and undeniably important in terms of what it contributes to the cultural conversation about feminism and women’s rights, it doesn’t offer any real solutions to the issues it so definitively illustrates. Perhaps placing this burden of expectation on Bates is unfair (although this hasn’t stopped some reviewers from letting rip); she could simply have wanted to take her online project to a potentially wider and perhaps different audience by publishing some of the stories she’d received and offering her commentary.
And of course, if solutions to the issues the project raises were easy to find, we wouldn’t still be searching; but surely someone in Bates’s position could be doing more than just reiterating what the stories she’s received make so depressingly clear: sexism is alive, well and hanging on like a stubborn weed. Yes, we might have come a long way since Friedan published her famous Feminine Mystique back in 1963, but we’ve still got a long way ahead when it comes to gender equality.
While Bates’s book aims to demonstrate ‘how the push back on sexism is global; how it is taking place online; and how it has a big part to play in getting it right for younger girls’, I’m not sure how well it succeeds. Scrolling through entries on the Everyday Sexism website usually leaves me angry; reading Everyday Sexism… left me angry, too, and I was hoping for something a little more galvanising – we know there’s a problem, so where do we go from here?
Still, the fact that Everyday Sexism… is now a book as well as a global online movement indicates that the issues it purports to tackle are at least getting airtime, and surely the first step to improving gender equality is to let people know that it needs improving to begin with.
But after the talk comes the action, or we’ll carry on getting nowhere slowly. As former British First Lady Sarah Brown notes in her foreword to Bates’s book, you can ‘get so used to extra hurdles being put in your way that it becomes too exhausting to even think about clearing them – and then you forget you even can clear them’. Let’s not forget.