Following a fierce backlash, Toby Young has resigned from his new position on the board of the Office for Students (OfS). Here, freelance writer Daisy Buchanan explains why this is such a win for women.
A tweet can change the world in infinite ways. It can be considered or casual, clever, funny, kind, wise, mean, cruel or ridiculous - but it can be sent by anyone, from anywhere, and reach a potential audience of 330 million people. Arguably, Toby Young fired himself from his new job on the board of the Office For Students with his own old tweets. The misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic posts were standalone evidence that he is not the right person to support young people and influence their lives.
However, I believe it was the volume of furious women speaking out and objecting to Young that truly ended his career. Let’s not forget, this is a man who posted a “joke” about having anal sex with chef and New York Times bestselling author Padma Lakshmi (a joke that Lakshmi was the subject of, but not included in), tweeted a creepy comment about the “serious cleavage” of Labour politician Pamela Nash, and instructed Claudia Winkleman, via the world, to “put on some weight girlie”.
For hundreds of years, we’ve been living in a world built by men like Young, and we’ve only been able to access two survival strategies for dealing with their sexist attitudes: laugh it off, or ignore it. However, thanks to the growth of online activism, something serious is shifting.
Now, it’s not just a couple of us, alone in a boardroom with a table full of entitled, unchallenged, pin striped suits. You don’t have to live in a city to make a difference. You don’t need to work in an office, or earn a lot of money, or have a senior job title in order to take power. You can look at your phone or turn on a laptop and connect with millions of women like you, women whose fury has swollen and cooled, women who know that they’re not hysterical, they’re not irrational, that “calm down” is an euphemism for “shut up”, and they’re not going to listen any more. We know that sexism is everywhere, and it’s fuelled by our silence. And on the internet, everyone can hear us scream. We can hulk smash the system from cafes and corner shops.
At the Golden Globes awards, some of the most powerful women in the world came together and made a striking visual protest. As part of the Time’s Up initiative, almost every woman attending the event wore black for the red carpet. It was a simple gesture, but an extremely effective one. We’re used to seeing photo galleries packed with pretty pastels and primary colours, but every image reminded us of the sexism women experience both in Hollywood, and throughout the world. Activists joined the actors in front of the cameras, including Ai-jen Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Saru Jayaraman, president of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United & ROC Action and #MeToo founder Tarana Burke.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have gained so much traction during an era when social media use is constantly growing. For years, it’s been impossible for many of these women to speak out without fearing that they might get fired by the men who run the industry they work in. But women can use social media to build their own spaces, and use their own voices.
When Oprah Winfrey made her Cecil B. DeMille award speech at the Golden Globes, the world listened and applauded - and I think it helped that she was surrounded by women who had chosen to protest, and were demanding to be looked at and listened to after years of being silenced and ignored. Oprah told us that, “speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have”. She told the story of Recy Taylor, a black woman who was raped by six, armed white men, who tried to prosecute them with the help of NAACP worker Rosa Parks, but never saw justice. Oprah said, “For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up.”
If anyone can lead a call to silence sexism forever, it’s Oprah. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this rallying cry was issued just hours before Young’s resignation. When women come together, we’re greater than the sum of our parts. It’s not just about protesting sexism and misogyny. We can celebrate, support and amplify the words and work of other women. To some degree, we all know what it’s like to feel unseen and ignored, so it’s important to use platforms and spaces to show that we see and hear women.
If sexism has taught us anything, hopefully it’s that we recognise the privileges we do have - and reach out and make a space to make sure that all women are heard and included. Recently, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s brilliant book, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, was chosen by Emma Watson for her book club. Watson responded to earlier criticism of her “white feminism” with the words “[At the time I should have asked] myself questions like: What are the ways I have benefited from being white? In what ways do I support and uphold a system that is structurally racist?” When we’re online, we have the chance to connect with women everywhere. It’s our duty to acknowledge the infinite ideas and experiences that are different from our own, and make sure that we listen to and learn from as many different women as possible.
Activism can be about writing, challenging, and creating, but you can practise it by adding your voice to the chorus of women who care about the work that women do. If we’re able to speak out, we have a responsibility to yell. It’s not about us as individuals - it’s about finding strength in numbers, doing anything we can to speak up for the people who get shouted down, making sure that the work of women we admire and respect gets seen and shared. After all, we’re socialised to be shy about our achievements, but there’s nothing stopping us from showing off on behalf of the other women we love.
For the first time in a long time, I feel optimistic for women. I think of Tobi Oredein, the founder and editor of the brilliant Black Ballad. I think of Amika George, the 18-year-old activist who is leading protests and campaigns to end period poverty. I think of Deborah Frances White, the host of the hugely successful Guilty Feminist podcast, Juno Dawson, the author and trans activist, and Baddiewinkle, the style icon with over three million Instagram followers who turns 90 this year. I want to punch the air, and whoop with glee. I want to say thank you. And I want to work as hard as they work to make the world better, braver and kinder. This is our time. As long as we listen to each other, we’ll get the biggest, best results when we speak out.