May 29, 2014

Mass Shooting Galvanizes Advocates for Women

David McNew/Getty Images

Student of University of California at Santa Barbara and the University of California at Los Angeles at a candlelight vigil.

Nonprofit leaders are channeling the eruption of social-media dialogue, especially by young women, in the wake of a deadly attack near the University of California at Santa Barbara into a more focused campaign to combat gender-based violence.

The swell in public attention has made women feel safer about sharing personal experiences online, creating an upward spiral in the numbers of those willing to participate, nonprofit leaders say.

“Lots of folks are involved, but young women are absolutely at the forefront of this,” says Lisa Maatz, vice president for government relations at the American Association of University Women. “To me, that is encouraging because if you want cultural change, it really needs to be something that starts with young people.”

Elliot Rodger murdered six people and injured 13 others in the college community of Isla Vista before committing suicide last Friday. He left behind a YouTube video and a 141-page letter faulting women for not being attracted to him and promising retribution.

Public conversation about the violence in Isla Vista, and about misogynistic attitudes more broadly, is playing out across social-media platforms, most prominently under the Twitter hashtag #yesallwomen. The hashtag has been used more than 2 million times, according to the Twitter analytics tool Topsy. It had also spawned parallel, sometimes contradictory, conversations under hashtags including #notallmen and #yesallpeople.

Ms. Maatz’s organization and others have jumped into the mix, sharing stories and statistics as well as practical information like what steps an individual should take if sexually harassed. It is a delicate dance of being sensitive to the raw emotions induced by the violence while also capturing an opportunity to create change.

“For those of us who have been toiling in the vineyards around this for a long, long time, you hope you don’t have to wait for the crisis in order to get the attention of the community, but sometimes it takes that,” says Nancy Kaufman, chief executive of the National Council of Jewish Women.

Jody Rabhan, deputy director of Washington operations for the council and a member of the steering committee for the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, says that a coalition of nonprofits and advocacy groups active on issues including gun control and gender-based violence are throwing their energy behind new legislation.

One piece of legislation they are mobilizing around is an amendment introduced in Congress on Wednesday that would provide $19.5-million in additional funding to accelerate the rate at which states register individuals barred from purchasing firearms with the National Instant Criminal Background Checks System, she says. Another bill would bar someone who has been convicted of a misdemeanor stalking charge from purchasing a firearm.

Some nonprofit leaders, who saw gun-control efforts fizzle after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 say the battle this go-around will be equally tough.

“I do think there will be more attention to mental-health issues and more dialogue about violence towards women,” says Marsha Marcoe, associate executive director at Domestic Violence Solutions for Santa Barbara County. “I think those are the two areas that we can hopefully have some new policy.”

Carla Goldstein, co-founder of the Omega Women’s Leadership Center, noted that horrific events have been the catalysts for some of the most important societal changes.

“I think at times like this people want to be respectful and also to honor what has been lost by taking up a commitment to do more so that this doesn’t keep happening,” Ms. Goldstein says. “This makes our work more urgent, and you realize we have got a long way to go.”