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Hashtag Activism In 2014: Tweeting 'Why I Stayed'


This past year was a big one for social media activism. Just ask the folks behind the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. But there were many mini-movements that took root online as well, especially on Twitter. When a bunch of tweets are tagged with the same phrase and when the goal of those tweets is to bring about change, people sometimes call it hashtag activism, and it's not for everyone.

BEVERLY GOODEN: I kind of got on Twitter and I would joke about whatever was going on in my day. If I had some, you know, good coffee, I would say coffee is great, you know, #coffeeisgreat.

CORNISH: Bev Gooden was no hashtag activist. She was an HR manager in Charlotte, North Carolina. But on September 8, she, like many of us, saw the video footage of NFL player Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer. And suddenly, Bev Gooden found something else to tweet about - domestic abuse.

GOODEN: I tried to leave the house once after an abusive episode, and he blocked me. He slept in front of the door that entire night - #WhyIStayed.

CORNISH: And then she sent out this.

GOODEN: I stayed because my pastor told me that God hates divorce. It didn't cross my mind that God might hate abuse, too.

CORNISH: And a little later, this one.

GOODEN: He said he would change. He promised it was the last time. I believed him. He lied.

CORNISH: This is how Bev Gooden told her friends, family and all of Twitter she'd once been in an abusive marriage, abuse she never reported to police. Now divorced, she felt herself getting riled up over the way people online were talking about Janay Palmer.

GOODEN: I was watching these tweets in real-time, and they were overwhelmingly pointed at Janay. And they were asking why she stayed with Ray after, you know, the full video came out. And so everyone was saying, you know, well, she must want his money or she is stupid. And so in that moment, I was so angry, I kind of felt that guilt and shame come back. And I just kind of shut off these tweets just to kind of drive the point home that I had a reason, you know, that Janay probably has a reason, and that it's the wrong question.

CORNISH: Why is it the wrong question?

GOODEN: You know, it's the wrong question because there are so many other questions that are pertinent, such as are you OK? You know, how can I help you? What do you need?

CORNISH: Well, I want to hear some of those tweets as women found your hashtag and started adding their own versions, their own posts.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: @HToneTastic #WhyIStayed - Because his abuse was so gradual and manipulative, I didn't even realize what was happening to me.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: @BBZaftig #WhyIStayed - Because he told me that no one would love me after him, and I was insecure enough to believe him.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: @MonPetitTX - Because I had watched my mother stay and she had watched hers before that.

GOODEN: You know, when the first tweets started to roll in, it was a much smaller conversation.



GOODEN: But then hundreds started to come in.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (In unison) Why I stayed.

GOODEN: And thousands started to come in. And it was like it opened up a door.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (In unison) Why I stayed.

GOODEN: It was like we all just kind of greeted each other with this familiarity of violence, which is really sad, but also really hopeful.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (In unison) Why I stayed.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: @TheRealistOG #WhyIStayed - I stayed because nobody believed such a respected man could be capable of such horrible things.

GOODEN: @SassNotClass #WhyIStayed - Because I was so afraid to be alone.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: @Doughlicious (ph) Because 99 percent of the time it was perfect.

CORNISH: Do you recognize some of those?

GOODEN: Definitely, the afraid to be alone because sometimes you don't want to tell anyone what's going on. I didn't want to tell anyone what was going on. And so I related to a lot of that. One tweet that I saw, a woman said that #WhyIStayed because my word was my only evidence. And that is the story of a lot of us. A lot of - a lot of women don't report.

CORNISH: Now, within hours of your first tweet, two new hashtags emerged as a kind of rebuttal. All right. Someone else decided to post their stories using the tag #WhenILeft and then also #WhyILeft.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: @Givemeahand (ph), #WhyILeft - when I saw my face after emergency surgery to realign my jaw, after six screws and six weeks on a liquid diet, I knew I deserved more.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: @DiamondGirl5 (ph) #WhyILeft - He almost killed me.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: @notokmaybeok, #WhyIStayed - I thought my baby boys needed their dad. #WhyILeft? I didn't want them to learn to hit any woman ever.

CORNISH: Bev Gooden, one of the criticisms of your initial posts were that it kind of kept the focus on the victims. And similarly with these, that the idea is still kind of having the victims explain instead of focusing on maybe why the perpetrators are acting the way they do. How did you feel about the way the conversation evolved online?

GOODEN: Well, I think the development of the additional hashtags #WhenILeft and #WhyILeft was kind of the natural progression of the conversation. I was afraid at first that it would detract from the women who may not have left and kind of isolate them again. But I think with all the criticisms, the key for me is that #WhyIStayed isn't an endorsement of staying in an abusive relationship. You know, rather it's simply providing an answer to society's question. They asked and we answered. There are many reasons why someone would stay. And domestic violence isn't cut and dry. It's not easy, you know, to just say well, he hit you, you'll leave. It's very complex.

CORNISH: Did you ever regret doing this? I mean, now you're known as a woman who tweeted about why she stayed in an abusive marriage. You're no longer anonymous. You can't tweet about breakfast or...

GOODEN: (Laughter).

CORNISH: Anything superficial, right? I mean...


CORNISH: Did you have moments where you thought why did I do this?

GOODEN: I didn't have moments where I thought why did I do this? What really helped me understand that it was important is that the hashtag helped people realize the commonalities in abuser statements. That was huge for me, you know, because they'll always say I do this because I love you or you're the only one that makes me this angry. And that statement is easy to believe when it's just the two of you. And so seeing women realize that they're being told the same line that others are being told lets me we know that it was worth it.

CORNISH: But people can argue that this doesn't really change the lives of women who are still enduring domestic abuse. And what's your response to that?

GOODEN: You know, I think the beauty of hashtag activism is that it creates an opportunity for sustained engagement, which is important for any cause. So you never know what a hashtag has inspired someone to do off-line. You know, the hope is that the hashtag will inspire action. There was a woman who - I think it was two weeks ago now - she tweeted to me that #WhyIStayed helped her get out and stay out. And if that's not direct action, I don't know what is.

CORNISH: Well, Bev Gooden, thank you so much for sharing this story with us.

GOODEN: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.


CORNISH: Beverly Gooden, activist. She created the social media hashtag #WhyIStayed to talk about the issue of domestic violence.


CORNISH: Tomorrow, more on this year's hashtag activism. We'll find out how the kidnapping of a group of Nigerian schoolgirls grew into an international campaign to #bringbackourgirls. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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