The Secret Lives of Women Online

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Private Facebook groups are a new way for women to find sanctuary online, but the consequences of honesty can be dire.

By Lyz Lenz

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(Photo: Florent Chretien/Flickr)

In her “Humans of New York” interview, Hillary Clinton addressed the perception that she is aloof or distant: “I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off,’” she said.

Clinton is hardly the only woman who struggles to balance public perception with personal protection. Author Suki Kim recently found words she spoke in private published in the New York Times. Author Elena Ferrante, who has long hidden behind anonymity, was outed in the New York Review of Books. Each of these incidents illustrates on a larger scale the public demands on the personal lives of women, which include unfettered access to their personal lives, correspondence, identities, and private opinions.

But it’s not just famous women who have found the boundaries between the public and the personal to be dangerously permeable. Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of the book You Just Don’t Understand, notes that, while famous women have often felt the pressure between public and private personas, technology is causing a trickle-down effect. “On social media, everyone is a little famous,” Tannen says. “So there is a separation of self — the person you are on Facebook, and the person you are at home are very different.” And that separation of public and private is affecting everyday women in a real way, specifically online, where women are under pressure to prove that they are perfect mothers, wives, co-workers, and so on. In response to this pressure, women are joining private Facebook groups where they go to be honest about their lives, children, work, spouses, and political ideologies. It’s where they say things they cannot say anywhere else, and where the most honest online versions of themselves exist. But the costs of authenticity are often steep.

“Women will always find new ways to speak, even when others are taken from us.”

This desire for connection was the driving force for Jennifer (not her real name) to create her own secret Facebook group. As a young mom living and working in a big city, Jennifer found herself wanting to talk about issues relating to work, life, and children, but was afraid of alienating friends and family on social media. So Jennifer created her private group with the sole purpose of creating a safe space for women who feel “caught between the working world and the home world, [between] our children and our bosses and our spouses.”

For Jennifer and her friends, the group is a release valve from the pressure and frustration that accrues in their everyday lives as wives, mothers, and employees. Jennifer articulates the tensions and contradictions inherent in joining such a group:

I think within most of us there is this single feminist don’t-give-a-fuck woman, but she happens to live inside the body of a person who has to worry about school supplies and vaccination forms and pleasing everyone with a delicious and healthful dinner. I think there is a certain level of shame within us that we have such first-world problems but at the same time, we are constantly examining our Rubik’s Cube of a life, struggling to make all the pieces click while wondering if we were actually handed a faulty toy (the toy in this metaphor being the myth that you can truly meet all your needs on all planes of your life).

For Jennifer and the women in her group, the place is a respite from expectations and performance — a place where you can complain about mansplainers at work, their kids being assholes, husbands failing to load the dishwasher, and in-laws who vote for Donald Trump. Jennifer explains: “We’ve talked about death, we’ve talked about substance abuse, we’ve talked about spousal abuse…. And then we also talk shit about our kids in a way that can be a bit taboo online. We’re not trying to be some hilarious Bad Mom Meme, but sometimes you just have to vent to your friends who get it.”

Jennifer’s group is one of many. Another group, with the tongue-in-cheek title “Mommy Wars,” had over 23,000 members before a screenshot of one of the posts went viral and the group shut down to protect members from death threats. When speaking to me about the Mommy Wars group over Facebook messenger, one of the members called it a place to be honest, “a place where we could go and let loose. Sometimes there were serious posts, sometimes we posted things on the Internet that we found and would create a discussion. Sometimes we would joke around.”

The exclusive, secret Facebook group, “Girls’ Night In,” (which requires new member approval by three current members) was another such safe place. In an article for Fusion, one of the members said of the group: “It’s my life. I rarely go on ‘normcore’ Facebook, as we call it. The group is my community, it is my support system. I almost always have the page open and am engaged in it most of the day between real life.”

Mary Sauer said that, as a new mother struggling with depression and loneliness, she found that secret Facebook groups saved her. “Joining a mom group on Facebook gave me a level of anonymity and the freedom to say, ‘This sucks!’ without worrying about what my friends and family would say. It wasn’t just voicing my woes that helped, either; it was having so many fellow moms echo back, ‘Yes, this does suck but it gets better.’ That really saved me during those difficult newborn days.” And often the benefits of online membership extend into real life. Kat Taylor Rutkin noted that, after posting about her private struggles with her high-needs son in a private Facebook group, she came home to find meals on her porch.

Tannen points out that secrets and raw open honesty are an essential part of how women are socialized. “Little girls are always whispering in each other’s ears, because for girls your best friend is someone you share all your secrets with,” Tannen says. “For boys, your best friend is someone you do everything with. So boys’ friends are more focused on activity. And, for girls, close friendships are focused on talk.” Thus, for women, the power of friendship is intricately tied to identity, secrets, and trust. But the exchange of secrets is also a trade in authenticity; Tannen explains that, by sharing secrets, women are known and understood and feel less alone.

For women, the desire to unburden the heaviness of our lives is nothing new. Women throughout history have sought secret ways to share their true selves. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the women in Hunan province in China used Nushu, a secret language to communicate with one another about their lives and marriages. In Quilts: A Great American Art, Patricia Mainardi argues that, in early America, quilts served a similar function in female bonding. “In designing their quilts, women not only made beautiful and functional objects, but expressed their own convictions on a wide variety of subjects in a language for the most part comprehensible only to other women,” Mainardi writes. “In a sense, this was a ‘secret language’ among women, for as the story goes, there was more than one man of Tory political persuasion who slept unknowingly under his wife’s Whig Rose quilt.” Tannen argues that even Pig Latin serves a similar function for young girls, seeking a way to speak openly and honestly to one another.

Yet while this search for sanctuary is nothing new, the consequences of honesty in an online world are. Recently, the Mommy Wars group disbanded, after a post that jokingly asked members if it was OK to cheat on a military spouse was screenshotted by a member and shared on a conservative public Facebook page. The jokes in the post were taken as serious, and the screenshots went viral on alt-right sites, with commenters vowing to seek justice against these women, many of whom weren’t even married. There was a deluge of rape and death threats, and many of the women abandoned Facebook altogether. A group that was created as a safe space for women had become just the opposite.

The fear of being outed for many women in Jennifer’s group for moms is very real. Jennifer asked that I change her name in this article, not to protect her identity but to protect the women in the group, who are her friends. This secrecy is an essential part of the contract of Facebook groups. I am in five such secret groups, and a key rule for all of them is that anyone who violates the secrecy of the group is banned outright. The rules of membership for “Girls Night In” states clearly: “EVERYTHING POSTED IN THIS GROUP IS PRIVATE, TOP SECRET AND SHOULD REMAIN IN THIS GROUP. SHARING INFO OR POSTS FROM THIS GROUP WITH OTHERS WILL RESULT IN EXPULSION FROM THE GROUP AND PUBLIC SHAMING.”

Public shaming and virtual mobs are a real threat against women’s ability to be honest on social media. But when asked whether she thought this would eventually drive more women off the internet, Tannen says no. “Women will always find new ways to speak, even when others are taken from us.” For its part, I’m told Mommy Wars has reunited under a new secret name that even I don’t know.

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