A Square of One’s Own: why Instagram is our feminist space

“A woman must have a smart phone and an Instagram feed of her own if she is to write fiction” as Virginia Woolf might well have concluded if she were alive now. Of course, she actually said “money and room of her own” were the essential requirements for a woman to fulfil her creative destiny.

But life has changed so much. For Woolf, money and a physical space were difficult for even privileged women to come by. Now we live in an age where even the so-called precariat, those people of any gender who are living hand to mouth in rented rooms on zero hours contracts, still have access to smart phones and apps that open the doors to untold creativity.

The smart phone and apps that accompany it are the greatest tools women have ever had at our disposal. Why? Because they provide a platform for us to speak. And speak we must.

The insistence by the patriarchy on silencing women has been evident throughout history. See Mary Beard’s lecture ‘Oh, Do Shut Up, Dear’ in which she identifies the first narrative account of a man telling a woman to be quiet (in the Odyssey when Telemachus flexes his maturing male muscles by telling Penelope, his mother to ‘go back to her room’.) Right up to the present day when David Cameron exhorted Angela Eagle to “calm down, dear” or some bloke on Twitter threatened to rape, bomb or behead …. well, any woman who dared to Tweet.

There are a thousand more subtle, almost unnoticed ways in which women are silenced everyday. The pay gap, the derision of ‘female’ academic subjects, the imbalance between the numbers of male/female elected representatives in government.

But rather than waiting for someone in authority to acknowledge and validate you, rather than be trapped by a lack of resources or kept silenced by the shut door of a members club, we can sidestep all of that now and shout out loud using technology. Whether social media, blogs or any other communication platform, the ability to be heard is within everyone’s grasp. Which leads to one very important question; what do we say?

A friend of mine (middle aged, male, no social media use whatsoever) wanted to know what all this Instagram stuff was about so I showed him my feed. The next time I saw him he mentioned that it was ‘very female’. He’s only a little bit of a patriarchal dinosaur and I thought it was an odd thing to mention, so I had a think about it. My particular IG community is female dominated for sure. In fact, IG in general is female dominated with latest figures putting it at 68% women to men users.

With these statistics, IG could be hot bed of radical and progressive gender debate. But it rarely is. Whilst there are definitely pockets of this, the ‘very female’ feel to it my friend was referring to was the dominance of the 5F’s: fashion, fitness, food, flowers and family. I know we can get all Devil Wears Prada over this and point out how much money the 5F industries are worth and how many people they keep in employment. But equally it’s important we don’t ghettoise ourselves. It reminds me of the original smartphone joke “In my pocket I have a device that can access all the history and mystery of the universe. I use it to watch funny videos of cats.”

We should also be aware of the financial power we hold. It’s long been mooted that soon our ‘labour’ will be less valuable than our ‘information.’ What we buy and why is the Holy Grail for industry. As consumers but also as publishers of what we consume, we hold all the cards, we just don’t realise it. We are giving away our most valuable assets every time we post a picture of our new shoes.  We still think that earning money from this is the provenance of the social media influencer, the stylish beauty with a trillion followers. But everyone’s information is vital. You may only have ten followers, but your information is coveted because you still buy things. My dream is that at some point, the millions of people posting on social media will realise they can band together and charge for this information. You wouldn’t work for free, why give your most precious asset away?

So, Ms. Pompous, I hear you asking what do you post? Well, pretty much the same as you. A mix of fashion, flowers and family. I’ve been on a faltering, stumbling journey as to what exactly, I use IG for. To be part of a community, as a diary, as a creative sketchbook? I’m still exploring and only just beginning to think about it in these terms. What I do know is that I’m blessed to have the opportunity to use as for centuries women were blocked from expressing themselves in the way that current technology allows.

With IG women have a platform they can use to challenge the patriarchy, develop new and radical lines of thought, to explore the foundations of a better society. We can use it to unleash our creativity. We can use it jettison the conventional standards of beauty. We can use it to alleviate loneliness and spread compassion. Of course we don’t have complete control over our Instagram feeds. Facebook/Instagram is a huge company that uses its algorithms and technological savvy to keep the upper hand. But remember, they need us as much as we need them.

Your Instagram square is yours and yours alone. Use it wisely.


(header image “A Girl Writing” by Henrietta Brown)