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Emily May: A Woman Making History

March 29, 2010

In recognition of the 30th anniversary of Women’s History Month, Women’s Media Center is profiling 30 extraordinary women making history. Our goal is to raise $10,000 to support WMC Exclusives — every dollar raised will go directly toward hiring women writers to comment on major news stories and report topics often neglected by the mainstream media. Will you contribute $30? Click here to donate: or text WOMEN to 50555 to make a $10 donation. emilyheadshotMETRO Emily May: A Woman Making History by Rebekah Spicuglia When asked how she and a group of friends founded HollabackNYC, the revolutionary site dedicated to abolishing street harassment, Progressive Women's Voices alumna Emily May describes it this way: "We felt there was nothing we could do. If we walked on, we felt victimized. If we yelled, we further endangered ourselves...Then we realized – why not take pictures of these street harassers and post them on a blog?" And the rest, as they say, is women-empowering, harasser-outing, blogosphere history. The site provides an opportunity for women and LGBT individuals who have experienced street harassment to bring the shouters, whisperers, and gropers into the public eye. Literally. Contributors to the site take pictures of their harassers with camera phones and post them on the blog, along with stories that range from "I never power-walked so fast in my entire life. I'm just glad they didn't follow me home" to "I have to face the city attorney simply because I refused a man's advances." One of the most powerful aspects of street harassment is its intimacy; abusive language can include a whisper, murmur, or a whistle, making the interaction unfairly personal, and that much more difficult to counter with activism. In founding Hollaback!, Emily not only brings these interactions into the public sphere, but calls them what they are – harassment, not "appreciating women" or "having fun." This distinction reminds everyone of the fear, subjugation, and disrespect propagated by abuse. Perhaps the most dangerous way to treat harassment is as if it's no big deal. Emily fights this every day by amplifying her language; in an interview with Metro, Emily said, "It is fair to say that these crimes are at epidemic proportions." In addition to Hollaback!, in 2008 May co-founded New Yorkers for Safe Transit, a coalition dedicated to making public transportation safe for all New Yorkers. In an article pushing for subway ads against sexual harassment written with Hollaback co-founder Sam Carter, Emily says: "We understand that raising awareness and making perpetrators think twice are the best ways to bite the hands that grope us." Their campaign successfully put up anti-harassment ads up in subways just a few months later. By not only highlighting street harassment, but transforming the vocabulary around it, Emily is both making history and changing its language, changing the conversation from abuse to empowerment.