“I spent 2014 organising my life around court dates, defending myself against a malicious internet crank,” says Van Badham. “I thought the harassment could not get worse than this. But then a month ago a packet of clippings depicting gang rape and genital mutilation arrived in my letterbox and I realised: yep, it could always get worse.”
As a writer and commentator with a regular Guardian column, Van garners a lot of attention. When people envy her reach, she says, she wants to tell them this: “I’ve had them spy on my flat, follow me home from work, take photos of me, send me porn on the day of my father’s funeral – do you really want this life? Spend a day being me if you think this is easy.”
It’s tough on the feminist front lines. Van is one of a growing number of smart, articulate women who are using their platforms to speak out against sexism and social injustice. Backlash is part of the beat, but that doesn’t make it easier to deal with.
Clementine Ford, another writer and feminist with a high profile column in Fairfax’s Daily Life, has had her share of violent trolls as well. It’s not just those which take a toll on her mental health, though. “It upsets and frustrates me”, Clem says, “when people place unrealistic expectations on me. For example, a man recently commented to tell me that I was clearly exploiting people’s trauma for my bank balance because I’d taken a break from publishing a string of articles about feminism, violence and fighting back to publish a piece about television. What do you even do with that?”
“Some days you can feel drowned by the selfish systems of the world, and the greediness and darkness of humanity”, says Lou Heinrich of Lip Magazine. Viv Smythe, who for ten years has co-run the social justice and feminist blog Hoyden About Town, agrees. “News generally – not just feminist news – tends to take a negative slant. Bad news gets more coverage. Scandals versus lifesaving. So when you consume more news then most people than that slant becomes overwhelming”.
Feminist news, in particular, can feel very personal. If your job is to analyse the dynamics between men and women, and you are daily confronted with the worst abuses of that dynamic, then it is almost impossible not to take it home.
Online, says Van, lies a more brutal world than she ever encountered in student politics: “You find yourself smacking your face into a world view that has identified and contextualised you as something less than human”.
Viv agrees that confronting online abuse has affected how she perceives the world. “The first few times you come up against the hordes of howler monkeys, and the sheer viciousness and bone deep misogyny of the responses, just literally degrading you to tits and arses and your fuckability … it can be hugely confronting. So that can make you see the men in your life differently – are they hiding these attitudes as well?”
How, then, do they keep doing the work they do? There are the practical things that break up the onslaught. Viv cooks complicated meals and watches action movies; Van “is rarely at home”. “My Twitter feed includes Emergency Kittens”, says Lou. Clem has periods “where I delete all the social media apps from my phone so that I have enforced quiet time. You don’t have a responsibility to be accessible at all times”.
Deeper than the physical self-care, though, runs a strong current of optimism for their cause. In fact, the strength of the vitriol levelled against them is indicative of their power. “We – me, and Clem Ford, and the other feminists like us – are some people’s worst nightmares. It’s not only that we represent a different world view, but people really like us. They’re interested in hearing our points of view”, says Van, who describes her trolls as “fighting like cornered rats”.
And despite the hardships, it is clear that our feminist writers are influencing and inspiring a new generation. “A lot of people have said that some of the things I’ve done, or other people I knew from those early days of blogging, have encouraged them to write, and to examine things differently today” says Viv.
Clementine agrees. “I regularly receive emails from women and men telling me how my writing has changed their lives or opened their minds on issues. It’s that knowledge that makes it worth it – that in whatever way, it’s making some kind of difference”.
Van, whose faith preaches forgiveness and tolerance, extends that optimism even to the most hateful of her commentators. “If I’m coming into contact with these people, then these people are coming into contact with me as well, and their world is expanding. And maybe, just maybe, even if they’re not showing it to me, their world view is changing”, she says. “I have to believe that, or I would curl up and die”.