This isn't new. Jo Freeman wrote about it in great detail for Ms. Magazine all the way back in 1976. She calls it "trashing."
"Trashing is a particularly vicious form of character assassination which amounts to psychological rape. It is manipulative, dishonest, and excessive. It is occasionally disguised as rhetoric of honest conflict, or covered up by denying that any disapproval exists at all. But it is not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy."
But this is not as straightforward as it sounds.
Both sides of the conflict surrounding the Equality for Women Page run by Charles Clymer, for instance, feel as if they are being "trashed." Neither feel as if they are "trashing."
What's clear, though, inside this vacuum and outside of it (I can't tell you how many times I've been told I'm a detriment to the feminist cause because I'm a housewife / stay at home mom. And I witnessed a friend of mine get dressed down because she dared get married. Which apparently oppresses women. Except she's one of the most vehement feminists I know.) is that feminism is confused. What constitutes an attack, and what constitutes defense? Is retribution ever okay? Can we move forward if we're busy sticking our swords into each other? And more importantly, why are we doing this?
Jill Filipovic argues that we do it because feminists are fighting for crumbs on the larger stage. That the movement itself is so confined and so marginalized that we compete with each other to get our one true version of feminism out there.
She rightly says:
"It's time we learned lessons that are now decades old, and have been faced by many other political movements. Feminism must be more genuinely egalitarian and representative. We need to understand that womanhood means very different things to the billions of different women on this planet. We must work against perpetuating the same inequalities we fight against.
And we need to do that not in competition with each other, but with the shared goal of improving the movement and world. We need to do it with the recognition that no perspective or solution will be universal, and no single woman will be anywhere near a perfect feminist."
The question is, how?
How do we take a movement that is so personal in its very definition and make it a coherent front? How do we take what we need from a solid movement pushing for equal rights while also championing individual choice (one of those rights)? We're at a crossroads, and no one quite knows which way to turn.
In my research, I've seen two large issues. 1) No one knows which battles are important and which are frivolous. 2) In choosing which of those battles to fight, most individual players end up fighting each other to defend their choices as opposed to fighting the establishment currently oppressing them. As an outcropping of these issues, people get personal, people get mean, and people get scared. And suddenly feminism goes from a lofty goal toward which we are all working to a he-said, she-said, smear campaign full of internet drama and unimportant fluff. The egos, as it were, inflate, until any outsiders looking at the points that were trying to be made have to put the stuff down for fear of losing their eyes in the back of their heads. Let me provide for you an example.
When I was researching my original piece on men as feminist leaders and whether or not the policy of banning people and deleting their comments off a personal page meant to forward the feminist movement was censorship, I came across many pitchforks, many witch hunts, and many vendettas.
Everyone, it seemed, had something to say.
I had no fewer than half a dozen women, and maybe closer to a dozen, try to tell me that Charles Clymer was a sexual predator.
Spoiler alert: He's not. Let me say that again so you don't miss it. I have researched and interviewed this man and those close to him for months now. He is not a sexual predator.
What's interesting about this is when I told the women that I would not be labeling him as such, they were outraged. What about the overwhelming evidence, they asked. What about such and such screenshot. These feminists threw everything they could at me to attack Clymer. The truth was there were two women who had actual screen shots of conversations that were completely consensual and in which these women were enthusiastic participants. The other complaints were either fabricated, hearsay or blind anger. They were looking for a vehicle to effectively express their rage.
Charles says, "Making these unfounded accusations gave them a way to get back at me for banning them, after I called them out for not upholding feminist ideals in which they purportedly believed."
They were really mad. And I get that. He silenced them, many times for no discernible reason. (Clymer and I disagree about what constitutes an abusive comment. He knows this.)
But in their personal anger, they gave me screen shots lacking in context. Some 'forgot' to mention that it was consensual at the time, and, honestly, none of the stuff said, when put into the big picture, was harassment.
"These people, they're like a cult in a way," says Clymer. "They've kind of banded together and gone to any post I make or any time I'm mentioned, and they'll shove comments into the comments section. This isn't just me ranting about being bullied with something I did wrong. This is about my reputation being destroyed by accusations for which they refuse to provide proof. It's completely unfair that my banning them for saying things I didn't believe were feminist has resulted in a deliberate campaign to accuse me of sexual harassment. I will readily apologize for things that I've done wrong, but I will not apologize for things I didn't do."
I asked them to come forward with their name, but despite all the vitriol they had for this man, very few of them were willing to step forward to say they'd been involved in any way with him. As the skeletons fell out, and those on all sides realized they weren't, perhaps as virtuous or innocent as they had thought they were, many calling for a public thrashing suddenly pulled back. "Don't use my name, I take back what I said, I didn't realize you were going to use this part of the story." These were just some of the statements I heard.
Many claimed fear of bullying for their cold feet, which brings us back to the original point. They were sure Clymer would come after them with all of his followers frothing at the mouth, trying to defame and ruin them.
A legitimate concern, since Clymer has been known to make statements on EFW denouncing those who go against him in the heat of the moment.
But, on the other hand, isn't throwing stones from the shadows (and hefty ones at that: harassment? Embezzlement?) then scurrying away bullying? Isn't planting seeds of doubt without context and trying to unravel someone's work because you're mad at them and pretending it's about real issues bullying?
Charles Clymer did not embezzle donation funds, and he did not prey on women.
He did ask for donations, which does rankle some people, and he did flirt with some of the women. End.
The problem with Clymer is the same problem a lot of feminists have and the same problem a lot of internet users have: he's sensitive. Very sensitive. Too sensitive, in my opinion.
Let's address some micro issues in point form for those interested. For those not interested, take this information and apply it to specific scenarios in your own feminist circles; I bet you can find some that fit.
In March, EFW shut down operation. Clymer says his mod team banned more than 100 people, his mod teams says it was him. I can't find out for sure. No one has the records. So who banned and silenced those people?
The mod team disbanded, many upset at Clymer's leadership and ego at the time. Rightfully so. Some left with wounded pride. This team, which at first stood up for Clymer, and participated in shutting members with disagreements down, turned with vengeance on him because during discussions he'd played divide-and-conquer--and so would they. You see? It's all a bunch of inane miscommunication, manipulation and silliness. After their ire was mostly spent, and after they realized I wasn't going to come out and libel him, they backed off. Some have rejoined him, at least in private. Some now respectfully keep their distance. Almost none of them are willing to come forward with their previous complaints.
Former moderator Zoe Katherine now labels the ordeal as a "huge mistake" and says many involved are "sorry for the hurt they caused."
"I believe a lot of people genuinely thought they were speaking the truth at the time, so I am not willing to state that I or anyone else lied. I think that those who agree with me will say they no longer believe what they said to be true. They made a huge mistake and are sorry for the hurt it caused. It was not my intention to smear Charles or tarnish his reputation. I believed I was doing the right thing, and everything I said was in the public interest. I now accept that I maybe didn't think it through, but no one was thinking rationally. It was like a mass hysteria. I never deliberately lied. I never said anything I did not believe to be true at the time."
Now, this isn't to say it's all puppies and roses. There were two groups started after commenters got banned. EFW Blacklisted was headed by Eric Holodnak after he was banned by Clymer. Holodnak says he participated in the "I need feminism because..." picture series and his photo became popular. Clymer messaged him about it, and asked for advice about the page. After giving advice, Holodnak found himself banned. Clymer says the message about the picture was a pretext. He was actually putting out feelers to see if Holodnak was acting in an inappropriate manner with some of his mod team. Even though the mods, Clymer and Holodnak all agree that nothing overtly untoward went on, Holodnak was still banned. Someone on Team Holodnak was supposedly fired from their real-life job, though the name was not provided. EFW and EFW Blacklisted went back and forth trading insults, digging up personal information and posting it, and etc. Until they finally decided on a truce. EFW took down the posts and EFW Blacklisted dissolved.
I received this story from Holodnak on the record who later told me to disregard it, citing fear of Clymer backlash. I received this story from one of the mods on the record who later told me to disregard it. She feared retaliation from Clymer and from Holodnak. I received this story from Clymer who told me to use it. Are you starting to understand? I just do not have time for this. Either tell me or don't.
This is where bullying plays a large role in feminism. All this he-said-she-said, back-and-forth, and the point of the movement gets lost as former feminists wade around the murky waters of their own egos and trivial bickering. This happens on the internet, on the street and in academia too.
There was another group against Clymer, "People Banned by Charles Clymer (and their close friends)." It was started by Kathleen Ellis after a comment she left on EFW got her banned.
One of the mods posted about going out in a sexy dress, getting drunk, and still not being raped or harassed. Kathleen commented that perhaps she should be careful even so.
"I was attacked by Clymer and others," says Ellis, "accused of victim blaming and slut shaming. I proceeded to post that I believed any person should be aware and alert in their surroundings, and that suggesting that a person be aware of their own personal safety was not equal to victim blaming. I never inferred that anyone who acted as stated above 'deserved it' or any such thing. I never would."
It's a muddy bank there. Where does caution end and victim blaming begin? It's something a feminist page would perhaps do well to discuss. Still, with Clymer's delete-and-ban policy, she was gone. And not without private words between the two, during which they both became very heated.
Fans of Equality for Women ended up getting Ellis' group shut down as a hate group, which according to my research, it was not.
Even now, months later, tempers on both sides flare over this group and the banning policy. While some of the criticism is legitimate (from both ends), a lot of it is boring, ego-stroking mania. So many times I wanted to throw up my hands and say, "but, guys, really, who cares?"
I wrote about it not because of the specifics, but because of what they say about the greater picture. The bullies, the wounded, the sensitive, the blowhardy, the movement itself, they all get wound up in these very personal dumpings that are totally beside the point. And it's happening everywhere.
In the end, you've got a whole handful of no-one-cares, and two people supposedly on opposite sides of a battle calling for the same thing.
"When people see feminists trying to tear each other down, or fight in public, that makes feminism look like shit. It makes it look like we are fighting for crumbs. And that’s not true. They’re trying to be honest, to be genuine, but what happens is they perpetuate the stereotypes and that’s not good."
And Kathleen says:
"My advice to those looking to forward the feminist cause is to step back and take a look and realize that we are all sisters and brothers. Although we may see things a little differently due to our personal background, ethics, age, etc., we do have a common goal. There is no 'one way' to accomplish equality for all. We need to stop being so quick to label people and instead listen to what others have to say. We don't all have to agree with each other. Feminism is not only a movement, it is a lifestyle. Do not accept abuse ever, but be careful to avoid falling into mob mentality and becoming an abuser yourself."
Good advice, both of you.