How Twitter Made Me a Feminist

The Twitter Inc. application and logo are displayed on a laptop computer and Apple Inc. iPhone 5s in this arranged photograph
The Twitter Inc. application and logo are displayed on a laptop computer and Apple Inc. iPhone 5s in this arranged photograph in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, April 25, 2014. Twitter Inc. is expected to release earnings figures on April 29. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

I was 11 years old when Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court. It was formative, not because I became a huge Nomination Nut, but because it was the first time I witnessed the forces of institutional misogyny dismantle and obliterate someone making public charges of sexual harassment. While I was probably too young to understand what was going on, I certainly didn't question it. If Twitter had been around then, though, I might have.

To recap: During his confirmation hearings, a former employee named Anita Hill testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her a decade earlier. Not only did Thomas repeatedly ask her out, Hill said, he also spoke openly about pornography, his sexual history and the size of his penis. There were allegedly four other women who were prepared to come forward to corroborate Hill's claims, but they were never called to testify. Hill took a polygraph test and passed; Thomas refused to take one. Thomas denied all charges and leveled some of his own, accusing white liberals of staging a modern-day lynching against an "uppity" black male whom they wanted to keep off the Supreme Court. Thomas was confirmed by a vote of 52 - 48.

I only know these details because I researched them. My memories of the event were much different: Hill was a wild-eyed opportunist who made things up about a former boss to bask in the spotlight. She was spurned, she was jealous, she was unstable, promiscuous, two-faced, delusional -- anything but honest. And there was something about pubic hairs on a Coke can. In general, that's what stuck to the cultural record. Her motivations, her veracity.

Clarence Thomas, on the other hand, is one of the most powerful men in America and will be until he dies. How f*cked is that?

My worldview has completely shifted over the past couple years, not in a vast, lumbering way, but in degrees of nuance, in understanding of the experience of others. And I have the people I follow on Twitter to thank. People like @SarahThyre, who calls out misogyny among comedians great and small; and @kellyoxford, who talks about beauty standards from the perspective of a former model and mother of two daughters; and @keplyq, whose delightful brand of down-home misandry is borne out of a genuine sense of justice and humanity. They're not activists or radicals or humorless prudes. They're just women.

Twitter is ruled by women. They're the best at it, the most engaged, the most informed, the funniest. Yes, the chattiest. While I was never one of those people who thought women are not as funny as men (how such a thing could ever be conceived, really, puzzles me), I'd never had the opportunity to be exposed to so many of them on such a regular basis, in such an intimate way. Intelligent, dynamic, thoughtful, passionate women whom I respected and looked up to. A wide spectrum of women, a great many of whom consider themselves feminists.

I was never anti-feminist; I just had no idea what it meant in the context of one's daily life. Moreover, I have a general distrust of people who identify themselves with a single, overriding label. Feminist. Vegan. Atheist. Gamer. Cat Lover. Foodie. Furry. Whatever. Because, to me, such full-frontal ideology sets off a series of dominos about that person in my mind that start with "I Believe the World is Composed of Absolutes" and ends with "My Inability to See the Flaws in My Own Worldview will Inevitably Lead to Hypocrisy and Delusion." In other words, nobody knows everything, so please don't rant at me about your one little slice of experience.

But, I've come to realize, feminism is not merely a political point of view. It is reality; a movement designed to reshape our reality. Not just for women -- who, I guess I'll just point out here, make up half of the human population and are responsible for such things as giving birth to babies and include my mom and my wife and my manager and therapist and closest friends -- but for all of us.

So many conversations are initiated and shaped by women on Twitter. Important conversations about terms that used to fly right by me in their ideological camouflage: Rape culture. Misogyny. Privilege, gender bias, slut-shaming. The first several hundred times I encountered these terms, they really meant nothing to me. They sounded extreme; they sounded shouty. And nothing turns me off faster than a shouty extremist.

In time, though, their message broke through the incessant stream of moral outrage and general anger that clogs so much of the Internet, and my perspective shifted. My first impulse when hearing that some public figure had been accused of a sex crime was no longer, "Man, it would suck if his accusers were making this up," but was now, "It must suck to be victimized once, and then have to face public abuse and scrutiny." Jokes about women no longer seemed unfunny and hacky, but aggressive and misogynistic. Female celebrities with plastic surgery no longer seemed vain and pathetic, but trapped and tragic.

I started seeing what feminists were talking about -- rape culture, misogyny, privilege, slut-shaming -- everywhere. Every day. (I was even compelled recently to explain to my 6-year-old son that the way Bill Murray was treating Sigourney Weaver when he showed up at her apartment was not a nice way to talk to a woman. Misogyny in Ghostbusters, for Christ's sake.) And if I hadn't had these wonderful women -- and some wonderful men, too -- to point it out to me, day after day, on Twitter, I don't know that I would ever have seen it in quite the same way.

The most powerful moment for me came with the #YesAllWomen campaign that followed the Isla Vista killings in 2014. On Twitter, women shared their own experiences with abuse and misogyny, for all to see. Hundreds of entries came in every second, from their constant endurance of street harassment to sexual assault by people close to them. It was overwhelming. It was depressing and illuminating. I scrolled through these accounts for hours. I could not conceive of the scale. The intensity. And when men started interjecting themselves in the conversation, either to defend their gender or to attack the other, it just made the point that much more painfully clear.

That movement profoundly affected the way I think about the average woman. Not as equal, which I always have, but as brave and strong and more attuned to the darker nature of men than I could have ever hoped to be.

Yes, men and women are different in some very important biological ways. And, yes, I still admire the female form from time to time. But it's hard, with hindsight, to understand how anyone could claim not to be a feminist. To do so is to state that you do not believe women are men's equals; that harassment is not a problem; that women are the sexual property of men; that women do not deserve fair wages; that they should be forced to wear masks and hover in doorways. Yet, I remember how little I understood not so very long ago, and I think I'm a pretty open-minded person.

No topic or movement or person is sacrosanct or immune from occasional joking or ridicule. As a comedian, and a third-generation smart a**, this would be unthinkable. Might I suggest, though, that we put a little care and thought into how and when we joke? If it adds nothing to the conversation, if it targets the victim in any way, or if it’s just plain not funny, perhaps the world could do without it. That is to say, shhhhhh.

So, I am a feminist. Not in a political sense, but in a human one. I don't really know its history or its theories (and I'm sure I sound ignorant to many of you who do), but I know what it means for me, for my wife, and for my two sons, whom I want to grow up as feminists without giving it a second thought.

And Anita Hill, if you're reading, I believe you. Just like I believe Dylan Farrow, and Jian Ghomeshi's eight accusers, and Bill Cosby's 14 accusers, and the thousands and millions of others who suffer abuse, in public and in private, in small ways and in horrific ones, every day. Twitter is a place to make jokes and complain about airlines, but it also has the potential to move and change and elucidate; just like all the shoutiest extremists always said it could.