Some Reminders for Women's History Month

Since it’s Women’s History Month, now is a good time to remind everyone how to support writers who do women’s history for public audiences.

There is a wealth of excellent public history to be found online, and much of the best writing about women and marginalized people can be found outside the pages of academic journals. But writing in public, especially by and about marginalized people, carries a significant risk. Writers are dogged by harassment in the comments sections of magazines and blogs, trolls follow them onto their personal social media and into their email inboxes, spewing hate and threats. We’ve dealt with our own share of this kind of abusive online behavior, and in addition to the concrete protections that platforms can and should implement, we’ve also identified ways that the academic establishment can use their online presence to protect and support those of us writing the history of marginalized people online.

These suggestions are addressed to the segment of academics who already think that “independent scholars,” graduate students, and even journalists have a right to write history. The other portion of the ivory tower, whose public disdain we and others have been subjected to at conferences and online, we take to be the regressive old guard who must take the extra step of recognizing the rights of people besides themselves to be interested in and to write history before moving on to the actions we describe. We recognize that debate about method and conclusions is essential to a living, breathing discourse of history, but we refuse to be shut out, or to silence others, because of institutional status, access to graduate education, or professional credentials. That’s not how we do things out here on the interwebs, grandpa.

So, you’ve accepted that we and our friends have a right to read books and write history, and now you want to help make sure we don’t wake up to inboxes full of rape and death threats in the morning.

The first thing you must do is realize that there is an important difference between harassment in comment sections on large websites and magazines and the types of harassment that happen on social media. Usually, authors can safely ignore a comment section if they choose, and the moderation and control of that comment section is the responsibility of the magazine’s editors. The ability of the author to potentially avoid the comments section is, however, not an excuse for lax moderation. Harassment in comments sections often migrates to social media. Social media harassment is directed exclusively at the author who often receives notifications for each abusive post. Think of it like getting text messages from angry and abusive users. Those of us who write in public think of social media, and Twitter in particular, as being just as necessary to our work and lives as our personal phones. Logging off isn’t an option.  

Social media harassment takes a number of different forms, and harassers use various tactics to intimidate, humiliate, and threaten writers. Be familiar with practices like doxing and high-profile users directing their followers to attack a writer. Women and people of color face specific types of harassment, including gendered and racial slurs and threats of sexual violence.

Other, more subtle forms of harassment can be just as damaging, especially in quantity and when persistent. We have seen academics engage in this behavior and we consider it harassment. We don’t expect other historians to jump into the middle of harassment when they see it on Twitter, for example, but if they do see it going on, sending a short message of support and encouragement can make all the difference. If the only voices we hear are the ones of trolls and harassers, we don’t feel supported or encouraged to keep writing. Another option is to use the block, flag, or report features that are built into social media platforms. This way no one has to personally engage the harasser, but they can anonymously take a step toward stopping it from happening.

It is important for organizations that encourage their members to write online to offer public and vocal support for these writers. Organizations should inform writers about the potential for online harassment, especially younger scholars and those writing in public for the first time. When asking people to write for the institution’s web presence, all organization websites and social media accounts should draft and conspicuously post strict comment policies and moderate all comment and social media feeds to protect writers.

Historians who use social media need to understand that criticizing or shaming another’s work on a social media platform is not the same as writing a negative review in an academic journal. In an academic journal, someone has the liberty and space to write a well-thought out review, either negative or positive, and the conventions and traditions of academic space ensure that negative reviews are very rarely seen as personal attacks.

However, social media, by the nature of the platform, does not allow for the type of nuance one can accomplish in a review. Often even legitimate criticism becomes a public shaming, as historians distill their thoughts into snide 140 character bites, which get tossed back and forth publicly. Not only does this discourage beginner writers in the field, but it reflects badly on the discipline as a whole. Many established historians who use social media have large followings that go well-beyond academic circles, and this type of public shaming of each other’s work shows the public that this is a correct way to critique someone’s scholarship and sets a harmful precedent for future interaction. On social media, historians can be an example of how to think critically and historically, but when historians resort to online shaming, the result is often the opposite.

Senior scholars who have an online presence should actively support the digital writing of younger scholars and those working in a more public vein. Senior scholars, especially if they are public figures, should find ways to use their clout and influence to support scholars writing online and call out harassment and abuse when they see it. If, for instance, you see that a comment section is unmoderated, send an email to the editor of the publication to inform them. Younger or less established scholars often feel like they don’t have the status to cold-call editors. Use your powers for good.

One of the most demoralizing consequences of online harassment is how much time and energy it takes away from work that writers love to do. Writing online can be hugely rewarding, and it is essential that humanists practice their craft in public as often as possible, but there are very real consequences that must be managed. Support from disciplinary organizations and other academic institutions can help to make online writing safer and more enjoyable, and ensure that the public has access to the best and brightest new scholarship.

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