“If I Can’t Have Them, No One Will”: Confronting Everyday Misogyny through Hashtag Activism
The following is a thesis I have proposed in pursuit of my Master's in Communication Studies.
University of Rhode Island
Statement of the Problem
Within this study, I plan to investigate the #YesAllWomen campaign, a form of online activism that occurred on the social media platform Twitter. This digital movement is an example of a specific facet of online activism. Social media users employ a hashtag to campaign for a specific issue in an online forum. Such “hashtag activism” first occurred in 2012, but has grown in recent years as a means of raising awareness on various issues and often to call individuals to action (Carr, 2012). The women involved in this campaign focused their attention on calling out men for their involvement in everyday expressions of misogyny, thus making #YesAllWomen one of the first instances of digital feminism, or the expression of feminist sentiments in digital spaces.
The #YesAllWomen hashtag was initiated in the summer of 2014 as a response to the Isla Vista Killings. On May 23, 2014, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured thirteen in a spree killing. Rodger was fueled by a deep-seated hatred of women, blaming them for his own sexual rejection and inability to get a girlfriend. He reportedly aimed his violence both at women who had supposedly failed to give him attention and various men who received their attention instead (Valenti, 2014). His motivations are evident in a video recorded prior to the killings, as well as a nearly 140-page manifesto that he penned and e-mailed to multiple individuals prior to committing his crimes. Within both, he expressed anti-women sentiments, as well as a disdain for the men who purportedly received their attention instead of him (Duke, 2014).
Within his manifesto, Rodger engages in misogynistic rhetoric and refers to himself as an “incel,” or involuntary virgin, subtly referencing women as the prime reason of his virgin status (Dewey, 2014). He also details his plan to viciously attack women residing in a specific sorority house on the UC Santa Barbara campus. Ultimately, Rodger’s misogynistic writings and rantings, followed by his violent actions, suggest the perpetuation of widespread societal misogyny. This is further evidenced by his participation in online chatrooms and forums, where he engaged in conversations with seemingly likeminded individuals using misogynistic rhetoric. Online, Rodger was obsessed with gaining female attention and expressed anger for his lack of it. This is demonstrated by his account on one online forum, a supposed pick-up artist website known as PUAhate.com. Here, he argued for “a world where WOMEN FEAR YOU” and rallied for a takeover of the “this oppressive feminist system” (Dewey, 2014). Rodger’s online communication display clear anti-women sentiments that were further reinforced by his violent actions.
These continuous expressions of misogyny evident by Rodger’s statements online, written manifesto, and resulting crimes gave rise to the #YesAllWomen movement. This campaign aimed to raise awareness on misogyny as an everyday problem faced by women in various degrees. The hashtag allowed women to express personal experiences of misogyny, albeit in different forms. These women acknowledged the issue as various behaviors and attitudes by men that are aimed against women. The tweets reference harassment, such as being catcalled on the street, and sexism, or discrimination based on gender, as well as instances of sexual violence, in the form of sexual assault or rape. The hashtag saw participation from as many as 1.2 million Twitter users during its height, indicating the significance of the issue and thus the potential implications of this study (Pachal, 2014).
Justification for and Significance of the Study
Few published articles can be found that reference the #YesAllWomen movement, indicating a significant gap in current scholarship on digital feminism. Notable literature that was found includes articles written by Kitsy Dixon, Michelle Rodino-Colocino, and Samantha C. Thrift in the fields of sociology, communication, women’s studies, and media studies.
In “Feminist Online Identity: Analyzing the Presence of Hashtag Feminism,” Dixon approaches the tweets as a means for women to redefine the feminist movement. She notes that feminism has traditionally been characterized by the incorporation of personal narrative, a phenomenon that is not lost when feminists occupy digital spaces.
Rodino-Colocino articulates the #YesAllWomen movement primarily as a call to action for both feminists and scholars in her article “#YesAllWomen: Intersectional Mobilization Against Sexual Assault is Radical (Again).” She argues that the hashtag and its resulting tweets spotlight an underlying societal problem, misogyny, that was made apparent by Rodger’s actions (2014).
Due to the overall limited number of articles that have been published specifically on the #YesAllWomen movement, this study seeks to contribute to current feminist scholarship, particularly by examining how this instance of hashtag activism has led to the development of digital feminism.
Furthermore, this study recognizes that it is also important to contextualize #YesAllWomen. This study will also consider current social justice movements, such as this past January’s Women’s March on Washington, the Pantsuit Nation phenomenon on Facebook, and various other instances of feminist activism occurring across the country, as these display a growing trend of activism in general, particularly in digital spaces, and thus further indicate the relevance and potential significance of this study.
The events of the campaign have ultimately paralleled historical feminism. Throughout history, specific instances have inspired the progression of the feminist movement. For instance, the movement was formally sparked initially by the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Organized by Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, this was a meeting of 300 citizens calling for gender equality that led to the initial development of the feminist movement (“The history of the equal rights amendment”). While the second wave of feminism was largely energized by activists’ desire to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed during the 1960s, the Equal Rights Amendment was not actually passed until several years after this second stage began (Rampton, 2008). Albeit on a smaller scale, Rodger’s violent actions during the 2014 Isla Vista Killings similarly served as a catalyst for the development of the feminist movement. This particular event initiated #YesAllWomen on Twitter and thus further characterized digital feminism as a new kind of feminist activism. This is a sentiment echoed in an article by Samantha C. Thrift (2014) where she describes #YesAllWomen as primarily a ‘feminist meme event’:
… [The #YesAllWomen campaign] came to signify more than the original trauma of Isla Vista; a feminist meme event is a form of feminist media event that references not only an external event, but itself becomes a reference point (Carrie A. Renstchler and Samantha C. Thrift forthcoming, in Thrift 2014). #YesAllWomen asserts a critical, feminist intervention in how we conceptualize and choose to narrate misogynist aggression and gender violence in American culture. (Thrift, 2014, p. 1091)
Thrift’s interpretation indicates its significance as a digital parallel of historical feminism. The individual tweets created an ongoing feminist dialogue, transforming Twitter into a digital space of meaningful feminist discourse.
Methodology or Procedures
In this study, the concepts of “digital feminism” and “hashtag activism” will be dually addressed, specifically how the #YesAllWomen movement expanded the conceptualization of these terms. Initially, I will closely examine current literature published on #YesAllWomen with the aim of contributing to the current limited scholarship on the topic. Through a close reading of the literature, I will further characterize the movement and analyze how these articles help us to define the concepts of “digital feminism” and “hashtag activism,” both of which this thesis aims to examine.
Following this expanded literature review, I will analyze my artifact of study, a published collection of tweets that were classified within the #YesAllWomen hashtag (Caron, 2014). The tweets will be analyzed using cluster criticism, a rhetorical theory created by Kenneth Burke that focuses primarily on a rhetor’s specific word choices. The theory operates on the idea that a rhetor uses specific language to communicate ideas and to guide an audience. When applying this theory, I will examine key terms present within a sample of the tweets along with their associative clusters to reveal the speakers’ overall worldview (Foss, 2009). Clusters refer to both words that are repeated often within the sample and those that are emphasized, particularly if near a key word.
In addition to the identification of key terms and their related clusters, I will pinpoint any key words that also function as ‘God’ and ‘devil’ terms. A God term refers to any word within the text that functions to reinforce the rhetors’ dominant worldview, while a devil term represents those words that express themes in opposition of the underlying ideology. Burke identifies these terms in “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” where he analyzes Hitler’s rise to power, discussing the idea that Hitler employed anti-Semitic language and ideas as his devil terms. For example, “his selection of [the ‘international Jew’ as] an ‘international’ devil” (1941). In identifying various God and devil terms found within the #YesAllWomen campaign, I hope to further understand how its various rhetors reinforced the campaign’s overall ideology.
Ultimately, in applying Burke’s cluster criticism to the #YesAllWomen campaign to reveal its underlying message, the daily omnipresence of misogyny, as its driving ideology, I hope to further argue the campaign’s significance as a digital expression, extension, and refocusing of the feminist movement.
To complete this research, complete access to the University of Rhode Island’s library and online databases are necessary resources. As a graduate student of the University of Rhode Island, I have unlimited access to the library and its databases, as well as a computer. Additionally, I have purchased a published collection of #YesAllWomen tweets using personal finances that I plan to use as my main artifact of study (Caron, 2014).
Burke, K. (1941). Rhetoric of Hitler’s “battle.” In The Philosophy of Literary Form (pp.
191-220). Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.
Caron, E. (2014). #YesAllWomen: A collection. Williamsburg, Brooklyn: Thought
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Dewey, C. (2014, May 27). Inside the ‘manosphere’ that inspired Santa Barbara shooter
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Dixon, K. (2014). Feminist online identity: Analyzing the presence of hashtag
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Duke, A. (2014, May 27). Timeline to ‘retribution’: Isla Vista attacks planned over years.
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Pachal, P. (2014, May 26). How the #YesAllWomen hashtag began. Mashable. Retrieved
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Rodino-Colocino, M. (2014). #YesAllWomen: Intersectional mobilization against
Sexual assault is radical (again.). Feminist Media Studies, 14(6),
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Thrift, S. (2014). #YesAllWomen as feminist meme event. Feminist Media
Studies, 14(6), 1090-1092.
Valenti, J. (2014, May 28). #YesAllWomen reveals the constant barrage of sexism that
women face. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/28/yesallwomen-barage-sexism-elliot-rodger.
Winton, R., Xia, R., & Lin II, R-G. (2014, May 25). Isla Vista Shooting: Read Elliot
Rodger’s graphic, elaborate attack plan. The LA Times. Retrieved from