Social Justice

How the Yiddish Radical Press Helped Inspire a Feminist Phone Intervention

Talking with the co-creator of the viral phenomenon about community building, bell hooks, and making the world a safer place for women. Read More

By / June 18, 2014

If you’re a woman who frequents parties, parks, bars, libraries, college campuses, grocery stores—anywhere, really—chances are you’ve been asked by a creepy guy for your phone number at some point. What do you do when he asks aggressively, or keeps harassing you after you’ve declined? Maybe you give out a fake number, or apologize and say you have a boyfriend (which may or may not be the truth, but anyway, you shouldn’t have to say it). It’s a scary situation to be in, and one that women all over the world are confronted with every day.

Enter the Feminist Phone Intervention. Conceived by two Jewish feminists, it’s a real phone number you can give to potential “suitors”—but one that delivers automated quotes from the feminist writer/activist/theorist bell hooks. (i.e.: “If any female feels she needs anything beyond herself to legitimate and validate her existence, she is already giving away her power to be self-defining, her agency.” WORD.) It went totally viral this past weekend, but in the midst of all the buzz one of the co-creators, an anonymous Latina from the Bronx, took some time out to explain the genesis of the project to Jewcy.

How did you come up with the idea for the Feminist Phone Intervention?

In the last couple of months, we’ve been shaken by the Boko Haram kidnappings, the mass disappearances of Canadian First Nations women, the murder of Islan Nettles and other transwomen, and the Elliot Rodgers killings in California. Each of these tragedies was an act of misogynistic violence on a mass scale, and in the cases of Rodgers and Boko Haram, female students were specifically targeted.

Compounding the horror of the Rodgers shooting was its media coverage: for example, the New York Post printed bikini photos of a woman who had “spurned” Rodgers under the headline “Killer Crush.” This is one example of how the press sometimes sympathizes with misogyny, by exposing an innocent woman and portraying the murderer’s experience of “romantic rejection” (the woman was 10-years-old when they met).

In addition, a number of close friends have experienced stalking and harassment in their daily lives and in the workplace.

In the wake of these issues, I wanted to design a project that would usefully and creatively talk back to sexism in daily life.

How does it work, technically? What are the costs involved in running such a service?

Twilio, the service we chose, charges one cent per call—so for a $1 donation, you just blocked 100 creeps and/or helped spread some feminist inspiration! I think that’s a pretty good turn-around.

We are paying the phone bill ourselves, and since we had no idea that it would receive this much attention, we would very much appreciate any donations to keep it running. Money donated beyond the cost of the phone bill will be donated to the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.

The main creative issue for me was balancing its practical usability with its larger artistic/protest concept. For example, it would be safer to design a code to delay text message auto-reply, so that a person has time to leave the scene after giving out the number. But how long do we wait? Is twenty minutes enough? If we set it up to reply four or six hours later, well, you just got someone a booty call from “bell hooks.” So in order to mitigate the safety issue, we removed the text service, since it was the most provocative aspect of the project. As a result, phone calls have spiked.

This choice changes the experience for people who want to interact with the bot themselves and easily receive bell hooks messages for their own inspiration. But we had to prioritize the safety function over the artistic possibilities. Eliminating the text service also saved money, so we can buy more phone lines in other area codes and countries.

Are you surprised by how popular the concept is? (This post on The Hairpin post has over 45,000 shares already!) How did you get the word out?

So far, we’ve been contacted about 100,000 times! I am absolutely surprised by how quickly it spread and how powerfully people responded to it. I sent a note about my project to the feminist website The Hairpin because I always liked their work, and then it spread from there.

I am proud that it was able to travel so quickly, requiring very little explanation. I think it’s important to engage intellectually and theorize about gender, power, and society—but keeping specialized vocabulary out of the messages allowed it to work for a much wider group of people.

You don’t need to identify as a radical feminist to want to enjoy your life and move more freely in the world. We had to ask ourselves: are we interested in contributing to a better feminist movement, or a better world? If it’s the second, then feminist tactics need to be able to move out of academic and activist spaces with limited readerships.

Why have you chosen to remain anonymous?

The Feminist Phone Intervention is meant as a reminder that we don’t owe strangers our time, our names, our bodies, or our contact info, so the choice of anonymity fits with that.

In a larger, tactical sense, choosing anonymity also makes room for more collective action. We are setting up open-source versions, to make it easier for people to adapt our project to their own needs or regions. Not having a “face” associated with it will hopefully empower more people to make their own versions.

In U.S. history, fame is often used as a destructive force against activist communities, a way of singling out one person and making her a spokeswoman, which erases collective efforts. Well-known examples include Kathleen Hanna and Gloria Steinem, both of whom were selected by the outside media to represent a much more complex feminist community.

Several journalists who contacted me about this project were primarily interested in discovering and disclosing my own identity, rather than engaging with questions of sexism and activist tactics. For a project concerned with protecting women’s privacy, the irony is striking!

You’re currently studying the Yiddish radical press. What influence has that had on this project, and your political activism generally?

I am a researcher and historian of the Yiddish radical press in the United States, and so I think a lot about the role of media in social movements. I am interested in the social life of newspapers and how the press of a minority language group can create community.

One aim and practice of Yiddish anarchist culture of the early 1900s was the cultivation of comradeship in everyday life, not just within the movement but in all human interactions. We can see this expressed in letters to the editor and in the extent of their social practices, such as setting up schools and mutual aid societies. A very popular book at the turn of the last century was Alexander Harkavy’s American Letter Writer and Speller, which taught immigrants how to write letters in Yiddish and English. The letter templates are not neutral documents, but shape the readers’ responses: for example, a woman is advised to marry a worker for love, not to break the engagement for lack of money.

Harkavy was a linguist and author of a trilingual English-Yiddish-Hebrew dictionary, and he also contributed to the anarchist press though his translations and editorials. I was always struck by their efforts to teach comradeship through the press and the books of letter templates, usually without the explicit vocabulary of anarchism or socialism. It shows a real attention to the particularities of life before abstract ideology, and it rejects the view of human nature as inevitably selfish. I think there’s also some quality of mussar practice there, in terms of the intense focus on individual ethical behavior.

So I would say that this project has in some sense been inspired by the media of the Yiddish anarchists of the past century, who labored to develop a method of mutual aid that would transcend their own social groups. I think we could learn a lot from their investment in cultivating a radical etiquette, and especially in using language that speaks to people outside of gender studies or a small group of activists.

What would your response be to men who respond to the Feminist Phone Intervention with confusion, even dismay? (Like, “I’m not a creep! Most men can handle rejection! Just say no!”)

I haven’t seen men responding that way, but I have seen quite a few comments from women saying, “Be mature and just say no!” I am very glad that they have not received the kind of harassment we are addressing. However, there are many occasions where a person must exercise judgment and may choose to share a fake number. It’s for those situations that we hope to provide another option.

The primary weight of scrutiny should be on disrespect towards women, not on the tactics women use to respond. So we should try to be generous when considering the strategies women use to make ourselves safer in public.

People who have been assaulted, harassed or hounded in public often become hyper-vigilant in their daily lives, or develop other strategies for maintaining their personal safety. It’s a natural protective response, but often the heightened awareness of threats which develops after trauma can constrain our freedom of movement, narrowing the fullness of our lives and interactions. There’s a great quote about the difference between getting by and getting free by Mia McKenzie: “Because the things we learn to do to survive at all costs are not the things that will help us get FREE. Getting free is a whole different journey altogether.”

What do you hope to achieve with the project? What do you hope other people get out of it?

I hope that it will contribute to the expansion of our political imaginations. Just because something happens all the time, doesn’t mean it’s inevitable or that we have no choice in how to respond. Just knowing that our feminist phone line has been contacted 100,000 times makes me realize the mass scope of both harassment and potential everyday resistance. I am moved to know we are confronting the same struggles; that cyber-comradeship is heartening to me.

Right now we are working on adding more languages and quotations from feminists specific to the region where the area code is located. We recognize the ways in which racialized violence combines with misogyny to target women of color. It’s a small gesture, but we are working to get the Feminist Phone Intervention messages to also be read in a native language for our Canadian numbers. In Canada, indigenous women (Inuit, First Nations, and Metis) are five to seven times more likely than white women to die from violence.

For those who want to set up their own similar feminist intervention phone lines outside the reach of our servers, we are developing open-source programming, which will allow people to create their own versions and address sexism in more local ways. [Ed. note: lines have been set up in Mexico, Canada, the UK, and Israel.]

I think this project has really touched a nerve. Hopefully it will make people examine whether their everyday behavior is threatening or aggressive, and for others, to remember that they need not feel alone when facing harassment.

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