LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As mastermind of an online project to fight sexism, Laura Bates has faced death threats and vile abuse, but the rapid growth of Everyday Sexism has created a force that can drive change and is now prompting politicians to come running.
Fed up with being groped on buses and abused in the street, Bates set up a UK-based website and Twitter account called Everyday Sexism in April 2012 so women could share experiences of lewd comments, sexual harassment at work and sexual assault.
The project struck a chord with women and the Twitter account now has over 100,000 followers and will have received 50,000 messages by next week.
Amid huge interest, Everyday Sexism expanded to 16 other countries six months ago, including the United States, Australia, Denmark and Brazil, with 10 more in the pipeline, including India and Japan, all run by local volunteers.
Bates, speaking to Thomson Reuters Foundation on Wednesday at the Trust Women conference organised by TRF and the International New York Times, said her initial aim had been to show how widespread sexism is, despite equal opportunity laws and legislation against discrimination.
But the project has proved to have real value as a catalyst for change, said Bates, 27, a former actress.
She reels off a list of victories, from getting Virgin Mobile US to withdraw an advert making light of rape, stopping Amazon from selling T-shirts joking about rape, to working with London Transport to get more women to report sexual harassment.
The most successful campaign to date was in May this year when Everyday Sexism forced Facebook to remove images glorifying violence against women on the social network, after its followers complained to companies with adverts alongside these images.
Bates said the massive growth of Everyday Sexism had sparked a new trend - an increasing number of politicians who want to get involved and seek advice on policies impacting girls and women.
POWER IN NUMBERS
"At first I thought we would just be ignored, but we are so public and create such a buzz that companies and politicians have to respond," Bates said.
“Everyday Sexism has become such a massive collaborative voice, with followers that get very angry and passionate about issues, that it is hard to ignore."
She said the site had provided an avenue for women who had been taught not to make a fuss about crude treatment, and the strength in numbers gave them a means to fight back.
Bates said various British politicians had approached Everyday Sexism in recent months, seeking input to help shape policies as the next British election looms in 2015. The list includes opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband and Greens parliamentarian Caroline Lucas.
The rapid rise of Everyday Sexism has drawn comparisons to the UK's largest website for parents, Mumsnet, which politicians started to take seriously during Britain's last election in 2010 as they realised it tapped into a key group of voters.
Mumsnet's political potential was found to be driving single-issue campaigns relevant to its members, such as getting the government to drop changes to a childcare voucher scheme.
Josh Hansen, executive of London-based digital marketing agency Electric Dialogue and an ex-parliamentary staffer, said all politicians needed to take notice of social media that is used widely by women and also by a whole new generation of young people.
"Politicians have to take these social media networks more seriously because they can get left behind otherwise," he told Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Social media can be very powerful but it can also be very damaging if used wrongly or ignored."
Bates said she was taken totally by surprise by the success of Everyday Sexism, although its popularity does have drawbacks. She can receive up to 200 death and rape threats daily, and police have had no success in tracking down her abusers.
She said the surge in support was running parallel to a new wave of feminism in Britain, fuelled by rising misogyny online.
"Sexism is now hitting headlines and people are aware that this is an issue that is not going to go away. Politicians can also see that," she said.
Belinda Goldsmith is Reuters Chief Correspondent, Britain