The past two months have been quieter than usual for Seattle-based feminist writer Lindy West.
After a lot of deliberation, the 34-year-old long-time target for online abuse quit Twitter in early January.
Twitter, West said of her decision, was a place where “men enjoy unfettered access to my brain so they can inform me, for the thousandth time, they would rape me if I wasn’t so fat”.
“[Twitter] was important to me, but I did find myself getting sucked into it — I would spend hours a day arguing with people who wished me ill,” she tells ABC News.
“I’m definitely resentful and frustrated [about leaving].
“We pretend that behaviour is normal, and for those of us on the receiving end, we’re supposed to just put up with it and smile, and get a thicker skin? If a fraction of what happened to me on Twitter happened to me in real life, people would be in prison.”
West is currently in Australia to promote her book, Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman (she appeared at the All About Women festival in Sydney and is a panellist on Q&A).
But though the book has bolstered her profile as an online commentator on feminism, fat activism and as “the ultimate internet troll slayer“, it has also opened the door to more criticism.
Some feminist writers have claimed she’s just another white, middle-class voice in a movement that, in 2017, lacks direction and diversity in public forums: can speaking up — being “shrill”, as West puts it — really be considered meaningful action in the fight for gender equality?
‘Clit-lit’ and white feminism
In it, she excoriates portrayals of women in pop culture (why is The Little Mermaid’s villain, Ursula, a fat woman?) and the reaction she apparently provokes in “everyday situations” — like sitting in a bar — by “daring to be a fat person” who is happily married to a thin one.
(Women hit on her husband in front of her “all the time”, West says, and assume they’re roommates.)
But this genre — which includes Australian feminist Clementine Ford’s book Fight Like A Girl — has been criticised by women of colour for its dominance by authors seen to represent “white feminism”, a term that refers to the exclusion of women of colour, and trans and queer women, from public platforms.
For example, US author Roxane Gay recently claimed diverse voices were “exceptions, not the rule” in publishing: “I can’t tell you how many black women have told me their essay collection was rejected because [they were told] ‘publishing already has a Roxane Gay’,” Gay said recently.
Similarly, in her new book, Why I Am Not a Feminist, American editor Jessa Crispin argues feminism has been rebranded into a movement for white women smashing glass ceilings that does “little to address the struggles of poor women, rural women, working women”.
The gap between “mainstream feminists” and “the daily realities of most American women has grown wider and deeper” in recent years, Crispin, who is white, wrote recently.
That gap, she added, was “embarrassingly obvious in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s defeat”, when feminist commentators including Lindy West insisted Clinton “lost solely because of our culture’s deep-seated racism and misogyny”.
‘If your work is not intersectional, it’s just white supremacy’
“Of course there are problems with Hillary Clinton,” West says. “There are criticisms to be made and if she’d won, it would be my job to make them.
“[But] people’s fixation on her flaws, to the exclusion of everything else, is bizarre to me, and I can’t separate it from the entrenched misogyny of American culture.”
Indeed, 53 per cent of white women voted for Donald Trump in the US election (and the majority of white women usually vote Republican).
Hillary Clinton was able to pull some of those votes, but even one of her own staffers suggested, before the election, she may lose because people wanted change more than they feared the “risk” of Trump.
But while West agrees feminism without intersectionality — the inclusion of all women, including women of colour, poor women and trans women — is no feminism at all, she is clearly exasperated by critiques like Crispin’s.
“It’s really easy to position yourself as the ‘good’ kind of white lady by criticising other white ladies, but what are you actually [achieving]?” she says.
“I mean, I agree. If your work is not intersectional, it’s just white supremacy. I know that I go out of my way to make my work intersectional … I don’t write articles about the trans experience, or the black experience. If I’m invited to be on a panel and it’s all white women, I decline.”
Trump, and maintaining the rage
Of course, feminist divisions did just historically unite, in the women’s marches held worldwide following the inauguration of Mr Trump.
West uploaded her own snap to Instagram of her husband and stepdaughter at a march, with the caption “resist”.
But while she wasn’t able to attend (she was speaking at a fundraiser for an abortion clinic in Iowa), she felt buoyed by the huge turnout the marches attracted, and hopes it will translate to a reinvigoration of the feminist movement.
“I don’t think I ever want to say there’s a bright side to [Trump’s win], but it definitely has the potential to galvanise people who were previously checked out,” she says.
“It was so fortifying to know that so many people around the world were not just outraged by bigotry, but willing to get out in the streets and fight.
“As long as we maintain that energy, we have a chance of survival.”