Bridging the Opportunity Divide

How Digital Tools Are Helping In the Fight for Gender Equality

October 28, 2014
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How Digital Tools Are Helping In the Fight for Gender Equality
Courtney Martin
Courtney Martin speaks at the 2014 PopTech conference in Camden, Maine. poptech via Flickr
But we still need a larger plan, says activist Courtney Martin.

Courtney Martin set her iPhone down where she could see it. She had to keep an eye out for a possible text from her husband, who was with their daughter at the bed and breakfast where the family of three was staying while in Camden, Maine.

Martin, an author, speaker and activist, was in town for PopTech 2014, a social impact conference that drew 600 creatives together around the theme of rebellion. As a new mother, Martin arrived at the Camden Opera House with a different perspective than the one she had on stage a few years earlier for her popular TED talk, which focused on feminism and drew on the way her own mother inspired her path to where she is today.

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During that talk, Martin said that we need a range of people and solutions to advance the work of the mothers and grandmothers who have worked so hard to make life better for their children and grandchildren.

In an interview with NationSwell about the solutions that excite her most, the editor emerita of Feministing.com started by pointing to the way the web has created a cost for sexism.

“We’ve really figured out how to get people galvanized, in a sense shaming sexist actors into changing,” she says. The innovation in digital tools, such as online petitions and apps like Hollaback! (which has partnered with New York City to allow victims of sexual harassment to upload their experiences in real time versus dealing with the process of filing a formal complaint) is providing new and more effective ways to battle anything that falls short of equal treatment.

But now, Martin says that the question is how to keep that engagement going beyond the click of a button. “We need some kind of larger strategic goal and plan and way to work together collectively.”

Organizations taking us in the right direction include UltraViolet, a community that launches campaigns for equality — from petitioning congressional representatives to reauthorize and expand the Violence Against Women Act to organizing a rally that was part of what led Facebook to name the first woman to its board of directors.

Martin also points to Make It Work, a community committed to the idea that Americans should not have to choose between earning a good living and spending quality time with their family. Instead of preaching to the feminist choir, the organization works to make these topics accessible to everyone, like through their Make It Work quiz on what television show characters we channel “when work and life get crazy.”

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Martin explains that, despite the way she and her husband have been able to pursue freelance careers that allow them to spend more time with their daughter (who has been on 38 flights and counting), balancing it all can still be a challenge.

“I still have this deep conflict between doing what I love and being with who I love and how do I make it all work?” she says. “It’s ridiculous we’re so far behind on those issues and yet it’s been so difficult over the last decade to make a change.”

Fortunately, the window of opportunity to make major change in areas like maternity leave policy opens wider as elections approach. And with that timing in mind, there are organizations hard at work.

One such group is SPARK (an acronym that stands for sexualization, protest, action, resistance, knowledge), which empowers girls to be their own activists. Breaking the “protect our girls” mold, the organization elevates the voices of young women to discuss their own experiences. Martin, whose first book was Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women, points to SPARK as a solution that inspires her, emphasizing the value of teenage girls expressing how they relate to their own body versus women trying to advocate on their behalf.

Martin, who embodies the rebellion theme printed on stickers and tote bags in the room where she sat, says that she is also thrilled by a cultural shift in what defines a feminist. “For a long time the narrative has been let’s get men involved so they can help women,” she says. “But now we see they have a self interest in the liberation of men and women because were all constricted by these roles.”

Starting with her own husband, Martin points to men who have inspired her by adopting this issue as their own: Jay Smooth, who has put his voice to use not only through his hip hop radio show but also against misogyny; Michael Kimmel, a leader in masculinity studies who is also the founder and spokesperson for the National Organization for Men Against Sexism; and Jimmie Briggs, who started an organization called Man Up, which aims to involve young male advocates to advance gender equality.

Eleven months into motherhood, Martin says her daughter has only made her more passionate — radicalized even — around the issue of work-life balance. “I look at Maya and I just think I want the most equal, fascinating, safe world for her possible and I will do anything to make that happen,” she says.

As she pursues that world, Martin will support the solutions that are out there, while also putting into practice points she made at PopTech that took off in the Twittersphere, including showing up as her whole self and trusting her own outrage.

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