The home of the Dangerous Women Project is the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH).
Founded in 1969, IASH promotes creative and interdisciplinary thinking and acts as an incubator for new research. We work with arts organisations, participate in festivals and cultural initiatives, and we offer reflective and accessible forums for the general public on important and sometimes controversial domestic and international topics.
Put simply, IASH helps ideas grow.
One of our partnerships is with the Scottish branch of PEN International, a not-for-profit organisation that champions freedom of speech and literature across borders. Each year, IASH and Scottish PEN organise a symposium on women’s writing to celebrate International Women’s Day. The symposium changes theme each year, and when we sat around the planning table for the 2016 event, we suggested ‘dangerous women’, and our colleagues unanimously agreed.
It was in this environment of civic engagement, creativity and world-class research, that the first seeds of the Dangerous Women Project were sown.
Women’s voices and the digital space
In recent years, we’ve watched a series of high profile acts of sexism and misogyny play out in the digital space.
In March 2014, Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge, gave a lecture in the London Review of Books series recorded at the British Museum. Titled ‘Oh Do Shut Up Dear!’, Beard traced the public voice of women through history—or more to the point the silencing of those voices.
In her talk, Beard discusses the Homeric idea that ‘an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species’. Her lecture drew connections between that ancient attitude and the vitriol directed at women who speak out publicly today, particularly on social media.
As the year rolled on, more high profile examples evidencing Beard’s points emerged in the digital space.
It was to be the year of the Gamergate controversy, for example, where several women working in the video games industry (that year worth £3.9bn in consumer spend in the UK alone and fast growing) were targeted by a collective harassment campaign threatening violence, rape, murder and the exposure of their personal information publicly online. Female commentators on video game production and marketing, including Anita Sarkeesian, were also attacked for highlighting the under-representation, stereotyping and exploitation of women and minority groups in games.
2014 would also see a spike in young female celebrities being threatened with the public release of private photographs showing them naked. From Jennifer Lawrence, known for her frank outspokenness about the policing of women’s bodies and the gendered pay inequalities in Hollywood, to Emma Watson after she gave her UN Goodwill Ambassador’s He For She speech, these women’s privacy was held hostage or outright violated. Roxane Gay rightly reminded us that this public shaming and harassment of women existed before the internet. But digital spaces provide tinder for wildfires—just a single spark can burn to ashes reputations, livelihoods, and self-confidence, and compromise safety and security on and offline.
Among others, these events ensured that Mary Beard’s LBR lecture remained at the forefront of our minds.
Then in 2015, we were reminded of another way women’s public voices are undermined—by portraying them as dangerous. In April 2015, the Daily Mail ran several headlines characterising the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, as ‘the most dangerous woman in Britain’, prompting widespread debate in the media on the label and its accuracy. Before Sturgeon, in the UK it was Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, who was marked with the ‘dangerous’ brand.
But what does it mean for a woman to be dangerous? Who, or what, does she present a danger to? Who gets to say she is dangerous? Why do they want to say it? Does she consider herself dangerous? And what do the answers to those questions tell us about societies past and present? About our social and political structures, about our everyday lives, and about our very identities?
And how does all this play out in the digital space?
We wanted to examine these complexities further, and to do so in a way that was interdisciplinary and intersectional. We wanted to cross political divides, geographic boundaries and demographics. Perhaps most importantly, we wanted an initiative that could be sustained beyond our annual women writers’ symposium. We wanted to start a discussion that would continue long after International Women’s Day had faded from the headlines.
Thus, the Dangerous Women Project was born.
What does it mean to be a dangerous woman?
The Dangerous Women Project asks that single question.
There will be many different answers. We’ll publish 365 of them between International Women’s Day 2016 and 2017, but we don’t presume to know them all.
What we do know is that it’s a question with resonance. The more people we talk to about the Project, the clearer that becomes.
When we approached Mary Beard with the idea, she told us she thought the Dangerous Women Project ‘is a great chance to explore what we expect of women, of how they should behave and of what counts as women ‘stepping out of the line’.’
Online, Beard herself has been subjected to slurs, threats of rape and violence. These attacks tend to focus more on her being a woman exercising her voice, rather than debating the content of what she says. Beard’s navigation of the complexities of being an outspoken woman online saw the New Yorker bestow her with the moniker ‘the troll slayer’. True to form, when we corresponded about the Dangerous Women Project, Beard quipped: ‘Speaking personally, I’d rather be dangerous than safe!’
And did one of the main inspirations for the project, the alleged ‘most dangerous woman in the UK’, offer her own take?
Yes she did.
Since becoming First Minister I have looked to use my position to send out positive and strong message to girls and women that there should be no limit to your ambition. Terms like ‘dangerous’ belittle the positions of women in power by implying that we should be feared, not trusted or not skilled enough to do the job. I want to challenge the status quo and set an ambitious agenda to make Scotland a fairer and more prosperous nation where opportunities are open to everyone and where everyone is able to contribute their talent, skill and commitment.
–Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland
We’ve also been truly humbled by the responses we’ve received to date from remarkable women both in the UK and around the world.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America and the first woman to serve as director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State (2009-2011), agreed on how gendered the notion of ‘being dangerous’ could be. ‘Why is it that bold and powerful women are still so often seen as ‘dangerous,’ when the same traits in men command our admiration?’ Slaughter asked. ‘Women have made great strides toward equality over my lifetime, with many conscious and explicit barriers to their advancement being swept away. But subconscious bias continues to shape our perceptions, a danger that the Dangerous Women Project seeks to surface.’
Early on in the Project, we’ll publish a response from Verónica Cruz Sánchez, the first Mexican human rights activist to be awarded the Defender of Human Rights award from Human Rights Watch. She explained why she is immediately got on board:
I am participating in this project because I believe it is very important to change the message, to tell the flesh and bone patriarchal system that women are not afraid and that it will find us very dangerous indeed when we start tearing down the global wall of the sexist, violent, discriminatory culture against women.
Another of our initial contributors, Bidisha SK Mamata told us why she embraced the concept of being dangerous:
A dangerous woman is a woman who is in touch with her rage, her pain and her sorrow at the world we live in. A dangerous woman has decided that speaking the truth about what she’s experienced and witnessed is more important than the diplomatic silence which lets oppressors and abusers get away with it. That’s why I, and all women who speak out, are dangerous – and it feels great.
Sepideh Jodeyri, Iranian poet, literary critic, translator and journalist, said that for her, being dangerous was an aspiration, and one that meant embracing rather than denying her femininity:
To be a woman—and to try to keep being a true woman in the macho world of every field—in its essence is dangerous for the society who has got used to being a macho society. Since my adolescence, I’ve been always dreaming of being such a dangerous woman. So, I’ve tried to write any of my poems, stories, essays in a feminine mode, to look at my body and my sex as my ink, as my identity, as my reason to stay alive. As a dangerous woman, or at least, a woman who would like to be a dangerous one, I am so eager to take part in this project of the University of Edinburgh. Such a great idea!
As we begin a ‘year of dangerous women’, we hope that you, too, will join the discussion.
The Dangerous Women Project team
Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities
The University of Edinburgh
International Women’s Day, 2016