Feminist Safe Spaces in An Unsafe World

Photographer: Julia Faragher

Last month, a friend invited me to join a Facebook group comprising of thousands of women, created with the purpose of providing a platform for feminist discussion, support and advice. Discussion threads include anything and everything – from sharing articles, discussing menstruation, offering book recommendations, recommending local doctors and other services, sharing contact details for good support services, and discussing topical events. These social media safe spaces have become particularly thriving hubs of contemporary feminist action. These groups have the potential to unite people from around the world – people with a range of differing opinions, lived-experiences, identities, and feminisms.

These social media safe spaces have become particularly thriving hubs of contemporary feminist action. These groups have the potential to unite people from around the world – people with a range of differing opinions, lived-experiences, identities, and feminisms.

It isn’t all smooth sailing though.

As public social media spaces have been infiltrated with comments of “political correctness gone mad” and trolling, the ‘safe’ status of these spaces has become increasingly important. For those unfamiliar, online safe spaces are controlled communities – say, a Facebook group closely monitored by admins – where members can discuss certain issues and where oppressive views are not tolerated.

But the protective control admins have over these communities comes with additional public criticism.

These spaces are often called echo chambers, insinuating that they are simply groups where people agree with each other instead of contributing new thoughts or expanding their perspectives. Another common criticism is that online feminist activism is often dismissed as not being “real activism”, as those who take to the internet to fight oppression are reduced to “keyboard warriors” who are talking, but aren’t really “doing” anything.

My experience with this group, along with other groups including the ANU Women’s Department, does not resemble these criticisms at all. These arguments are problematic for several reasons, most significantly that ‘talking’ and ‘doing’ are not mutually exclusive, and talking is incredibly powerful for education. Far from an echo chamber, these groups allow a platform for an array of voices, not merely made up of those who have been crowned feminism’s official representatives, which usually tends to be cis, able-bodied, white, straight women.

I have been exposed to a far more diverse group of people than those in my friendship group or at ANU just from being a member of these groups. I have had the privilege of being able to lurk on discussion threads and read the perspectives of other women with intersecting identities. I strongly feel that this has enabled me to be more aware of my relative privileges and to be a better intersectional feminist.

I was determined to see if my own experiences and opinions held up though, so I decided to investigate further by reaching out to two founders of groups like the ones I have mentioned.

Meet Lachrista, the woman behind the Instagram account @Guerrillafeminism, which currently attracts 115,000 followers. Guerrilla Feminism started in 2011 in Chicago as feminist performance art, utilising street-activist campaigning to post feminist flyers and images around Chicago. The project then moved online, in the form of a Facebook and Instagram account. Lachrista describes these as “curated safe(r) space[s] online.”

“Safe spaces are hard to find and especially hard to find online, so my goal for GF is to create a safe(r) online space for marginalised communities. To do this, I block/ban trolls regularly.”

Using an online medium, Lachrista has significantly more control over the space – who is in it and who participates in each discussion. She recounted that she recently “blocked 400-500 people in the span of two days.”

While acknowledging that digital activism may not be inclusive to those who do not have access to the internet, Lachrista believes that it is one of the most inclusive alternatives.

“On-the-ground activism is great, too, but not everyone is able to make it to a protest; not everyone is able to walk, etc. Digital activism is inclusive to many people who might not otherwise be part of activism.”

Further, Lachrista argues that online spaces give considerably more visibility to various communities outside of white, cis-het, able-bodied women. Lachrista’s account seeks to uplift and amplify the most marginalised individuals, and to give visibility to various often-overlooked communities and inclusive and intersectional forms of feminism.

But these spaces are not perfect. Some are deeply flawed. Interestingly though, the most problematic flaw has nothing to do with that which the echo-chamber, not real activism critics are harping on about. This flaw has to do with the membership itself, as these groups are dominated by those with privilege, reflecting pre-existing structural oppressions.

Meet Alice Zhang, whose Instagram account @yellowborders shares regular posts on intersectional feminism and self-love, attracting almost 4000 followers. Alice, who is Chinese-Australian, said: “I definitely think that online feminist spaces, as well as other kinds of feminist spaces, are dominated by white feminists. I think it’s the most palatable and easily digestible form of feminism as whiteness is held to be neutral, and thus the ideas that are being challenged in the feminist sphere do not fundamentally shake people’s view of the world.

“When we take into account that what we see as feminism is often white feminism, it forces us to confront the complexities of colonisation, ableism etc.”

Feminism and feminist spaces – and other forms of activism – are likely to always be somewhat flawed; feminism is a movement of people and people are flawed. This does not mean that online feminism is unnecessary, useless, or unimportant, but that we must think about it critically so that we can try to make it better.

The outcome of my chats with Lachrista and Alice was a strong awareness that there are clear limitations to online feminism and many things we need to work on to ensure it is accessible for marginalised women. Feminism and feminist spaces – and other forms of activism – however, are likely to always be somewhat flawed; feminism is a movement of people and people are flawed. This does not mean that online feminism is unnecessary, useless, or unimportant, but that we must think about it critically so that we can try to make it better.

In my opinion we need online feminism, despite its flaws.

We need to offer as many alternative ways for people to be involved with the feminist movement as possible. Accessibility is vital, and online feminism adds an unmatched layer of accessibility.

We need to enable privileged women, such as myself, to learn online and then act upon these lessons in ‘real life.’ Online feminism must co-exist with offline feminism. The two spheres are by no means isolated and the more I engage with these online groups, the more confident I feel sharing my opinions and experiences offline.

We need online feminism so that members can spread the lessons they learn within these safe spaces out into the unsafe world.