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Tennis '14 and Newlon '14: Don’t read the comments

If you’re a female writer, don’t read the comments.

We’ve both been opinions columnists for the majority of our college careers. Maggie currently counts herself as one of three female editors, leading a roster of columnists that is 42 percent female. Women are a strong presence in The Herald: writing, editing, arguing and asking tough questions. But if there’s one lesson we’ve learned, it’s this: Don’t read the comments. Especially if you’re a woman.

“Maybe if less (sic) women lied about rape and sexual assault, then serious cases would be taken more seriously,” wrote one commenter on a Newlon column. On another: “I’m not surprised they called you the Captain of Starship Neurotica.”

Ms. Tennis, clean your own house before tracking your muddy feet into mine.”

“I think you’re a disconnected rich girl, stuck in a rich girl bubble,” on an article by Herald columnist Elizabeth Fuerbacher ’13.5.

After advocating for a nationwide gun ban, Maggie received an email calling her a “liberal whore.” After writing about sexual assault, Cara received aggressive emails and a full spread in the Brown Spectator calling her a lying feminist. In general, The Herald’s female columnists have received comments and emails calling us the c-word, neurotic, bitch and whore.  People have discussed our appearance, speculated about our personal lives and questioned our intelligence. And to be quite frank, we’re sick of it.

Don’t get us wrong — our male counterparts receive their share of flack. See “Universal suffrage is immoral” by former Herald columnist Oliver Hudson ’14. But female columnists take the most heat for expressing our views in print. On the least offensive end of the spectrum are comments that adopt a patronizing tone, as if the commenter is speaking to a little girl instead of an Ivy League college student. On the most offensive? Sexualized threats.

Sexism doesn’t have to be conscious or explicit. Many negative comments on female columnists’ articles directly address the writer as “Ms.,” a seemingly innocuous reference to the author’s gender. Don’t get us wrong — we do appreciate when commenters attempt to be polite — but we rarely if ever see a male writer addressed as “Mr.”

And when it’s coupled with a house-cleaning request? Not so courteous. The use of any gendered address in online criticism seems to be an arbitrary reminder of our sex. The “Ms.” comments are frequently steeped in condescension — sexism on the sly. It almost seems as if the commenter is attempting to validate his criticism by emphasizing that the author is, after all, merely a woman.

More disturbing is the explicit sexism that appears in criticism of female writers. Misogynistic language, designed to degrade and humiliate us, diverts attention away from our words and onto our sexuality. It creates personal anxiety and fear that might ultimately preclude some female writers from speaking out again in the future. We’ve both personally felt scared and threatened. It’s unacceptable.

This sexism — implicit and explicit — is in no way limited to the The Herald. Amy Wallace, a prolific journalist and editor-at-large for Los Angeles Magazine, recently wrote an article in The New York Times about the abuse she and her female co-writers have suffered at the hands of commenters. The insults included, but were not limited to, “Evil Bitchweed,” the c-word and even threats of rape. After Wallace wrote a profile of a leading crusader for childhood vaccines, an anti-vaccine website photoshopped the author’s head onto the body of a scantily clad woman preparing to eat a baby.

“This kind of vitriol is not designed to hold reporters accountable for the fairness and accuracy of their work,” writes Wallace. “Instead, it seeks to intimidate and, ultimately, to silence female journalists who write about controversial topics. As often as not, even if they’ve won two Pulitzers … these women find their bodies — not their intellects — under attack .”

Critique is an important part of writing, editing and social discourse. A reader is allowed to disagree with a woman’s argument, just as they are with that of a male writer. But in our experience, readers judge women’s writing more frequently — and more harshly. Furthermore, articles written by men are critiqued rarely, if ever, on the basis of the author’s looks. Take issue with the content of our articles, instead of shaming our appearance, gender or sexuality.

Sexism doesn’t always have to be explicit — it can be as simple as being more prone to comment in a hurtful and offensive way on a female writer’s work. We believe that women take more flack for their columns than men — even if couched in terms of sincere criticism — simply because people feel more entitled to critique them. Indeed, this type of sexism — the type that might go unnoticed unless someone points it out — is just a part of life in a world that favors men. Even men who point out everyday instances of sexism are cast as saviors and liberators of the female sex, while women who dare complain are branded as bitter and hypersensitive.

We should note that women of color experience the same sexist comments, often containing additional elements of a racist nature. Such racism can take a blatant form, like prefacing a sexist insult with a slur, or it can be less obvious. Either way, it is intended to silence a writer on the basis of her race.

Many female writers at The Herald have considered quitting after suffering a bout of sexist vitriol. And many of us have ceased to write articles about sexism for fear of nasty comments, thereby sacrificing the opportunity to challenge the sexist culture that leads to them.

But we cannot let this culture go unmentioned. Columnists need to call out sexism, especially in its implicit, sneakiest forms. We should not be silenced by a misogynistic culture that continues to view women as sexual beings, valuable for their appearance and not their ability to think critically and write what they believe.

We can already see the comments: You’re overreacting. Feminists like you give a bad name to feminists everywhere. For god’s sake, calm down! Is it just me, or did their periods sync up? Ms. Newlon and Ms. Tennis, you are … sluts. Bimbos. Idiotic bitches.

Go ahead. You’re only proving our point.


Cara Newlon ’14 and Maggie Tennis ’14 will probably read the comments.


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