Instantly, I knew that my son was the one fussing, not the girls. ... Elliott fares best in situations that are orderly and precise; hashtag activism is anything but.
by Shannon Drury
Last spring, my 14-year-old son Elliott returned from middle school in a foul mood; apparently a group of girls at his middle school were (and I am quoting him directly here) "causing a fuss about #YesAllWomen."
I knew about the hashtag, of course, because much of my feminist activism these days comes from and is inspired by Twitter, the social media platform that has transformed the way news is both reported and understood. Twitter, with its intricate system of retweets, subject hashtags and trending topics, has the potential to amplify voices that decades ago wouldn't have warranted a mention in the last page of The New York Times.
My son required background on the topic, so here's how I filled him in: on May 23, 2014, a 22-year-old gunman killed six people and injured 13 in violent spree that was fueled by his hatred of the college women whom he claimed rejected his romantic advances. Outrage at the killer's misogyny led a defensive few to tweet #NotAllMen. Twitter user @gildedspine, a self-identified "Muslim magical girl," not a member of the mainstream media, created the hashtag #YesAllWomen for others to discuss the violence that not all men perpetrate but yes, all women fear.
Elliott stared at me blankly. I expected as much; it's difficult for the average adult, much less a young teen, to wrap their heads around the ubiquity of gender-based violence. I asked him to elaborate on what was actually happening at his school, and he replied that girls were "posting" their favorite #YesAllWomen messages the old fashioned way: to the walls with pens, paper, and pieces of Scotch tape.
Feminist middle schoolers gave me hope for humanity, I told him, but he remained unhappy. "Because I don't do any of that stuff," he said.
I told him I knew that.
"But all those posts made me feel like THEY think I'm like that, but I'm not," he said.
Instantly, I knew that my son was the one fussing, not the girls. A mathematically inclined kid from the day he stacked his first Lego tower, Elliott fares best in situations that are orderly and precise; hashtag activism is anything but.
We must have debated the subject for at least 30 minutes before I asked, "Elliott, have you ever made fun of someone just because she was a girl? Assumed she was ignorant or incapable because of her gender?"
"No," he said immediately.
"Have you ever teased a girl about her clothes or her body?"
"Gross," he said.
"Have you ever called a girl a slut?"
For a moment, he looked like he might vomit. "No way," he gasped.
"Have you ever hurt a girl? Physically or mentally?" It made me sick to ask, but the conversation required it. "Have you, Elliott?"
"NO!" he shouted, so loudly that my ears rang.
"Then you don't need to worry," I announced, "because the girls at school aren't talking to you. You're one of the good guys! But what you need to understand," I added, before his sigh of relief got too deep, "is that there will be times when feminism makes you uncomfortable. If you want to stay one of the good guys, your job is to listen, learn and let that weirdness happen. Then, if you still want to be part of the conversation, just ask what you can do to help. Can you do that?"
He paled slightly, gulped down a big breath, and ... nodded yes. He got it, finally. I hugged him tightly and thanked him for being my kid.
Shannon Drury's political memoir, "The Radical Housewife: Redefining Family Values for the 21st Century," was published recently by Medusa's Muse Press. She lives in Minneapolis with her family.