This has been a horrendous week in the war on free speech. A slew of cancellations has spread the web, including the banning of British gender critical feminist Helen Staniland from Twitter and Teespring deleting the account of Canadian activist Vanessa Vokey. Most disturbing, though, has been a pair of firings of women in the media—one on the left, and one on the right.
Lauren Wolfe, an editor at the New York Times, and Colleen Oefelein, a literary agent, were both fired this week after making political statements on Twitter.
Wolfe’s case has gained widespread attention. The editor, who has previously done work reporting on rape in war-torn countries like the Congo, was working with the New York Times without a formal contract on their “live updates” team reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic, protests, and the US election. While watching the preparations for President Biden’s inauguration on January 19, Wolfe tweeted, “Biden landing at Joint Base Andrews now. I have chills.”
The tweet attracted the attention of critics of mainstream media bias, including Glenn Greenwald. “Nobody is expecting any adversarial coverage over the next 4 years, but it's just a matter of personal dignity,” he tweeted.
Wolfe was fired a couple of days later, although the New York Times claims that the relationship was not severed “over a single tweet.”
Her story was covered in the Washington Post, and she appears to have gained about 60 thousand new followers on Twitter since last month. Liberals, many of whom have previously posted in favor of cancel culture, rushed to defend her and decry the New York Times’ decision.
Meanwhile, on the same day the Washington Post covered Wolfe’s firing, Colleen Oefelein was also fired from her job at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. According to statements by Jennifer DeChiara, Oefelein was fired because she posted about joining the alternative social media site Parler on November 12.
Parler gained widespread attention nearly two months later after the Capitol Riot on January 6. Critics argue that the platform allowed the insurrectionists to openly organize. However, there has been no evidence made public that Oefelein took part in organizing or attending the riots or that any of her activity on Parler was even in violation of any of DeChiara’s policies.
“I just got fired because I’m a Christian and a conservative,” Oefelein tweeted on January 25.
While Wolfe and Oefelein appear to be on opposite sides of the political spectrum, they suddenly have at least one thing in common: joining the growing ranks of women who have been apparently fired for expressing a political opinion online.
In August, literary assistant (and friend of 4W), Sasha White, was fired from a different literary agency over tweets expressing her gender-critical stance. Her story appears remarkably similar to Oefelein’s.
"While the issue is often framed as companies caving to the demands of a “mob,” rarely does there even appear to be a mob involved."
In the case of White, her former employer claimed that she was fired because she “did not specify her views were her own in her Twitter bio, thus suggesting and it was perceived she was speaking on behalf of the agency and those views are not in line with our beliefs.” In another statement, though, the agency said she was fired because “We do not have any room for anti-trans sentiments at TLA. Period.”
When I was fired in 2019 for writing an article on my personal Medium account criticizing “nonbinary” identities, I was similarly fired. My employer claimed that I had violated their social media policy, however, I didn’t have a Twitter, Facebook, or other social media account they could point to at the time. Instead, they argued that linking to my Medium blog on my own personal website, which also contained my professional portfolio, was a violation of their social media policy—despite the fact that no social media accounts were involved.
It’s clear that companies are using these policies as an excuse, and a weak one, to get rid of “problematic” employees. Of course, these firings are almost always preceded by a complaint against the employee from a random user on the internet (rarely even a customer) who has taken issue with the employee’s stance. While the issue is often framed as companies caving to the demands of a “mob,” rarely does there even appear to be a mob involved.
In the case of Wolfe, while the story was first framed as the Times giving in to pressure from a right-wing mob, later reporting was unable to find evidence of such a crowd. In fact, a much larger mob formed against the Times in response to Wolfe’s firing, including many calls to cancel subscriptions to the paper. For Oefelein, all it took was a single anonymous Twitter account complaining to her employer. In my case, the mob against me actually formed after I was fired as word of my article spread through the Philadelphia tech community. As far as I’m aware, I was also fired after only a single complaint.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that although women may legally be allowed to have jobs and opinions, especially political ones, we simply can not have both.
While yes, of course, men have also been “cancelled” and faced consequences for their opinions online, males seem to be granted a higher bar of what opinions are “acceptable.” Men are allowed to be whole, complete people with opinions, politics, and jobs. Women, on the other hand, are held to a higher standard. We must kill off all notions that we are real people and conform to the “Professional Neutral,” as feminist Dana Vitalosova recently termed the phenomenon. Of course, this ultimately fails, too.
It’s illegal in the United States to fire someone for simply being a woman. But a feminist woman? A right-wing woman? A left-wing woman? A woman who dared to speak her feelings out loud? A woman who had an original thought? All perfectly valid reasons to dump an “at-will” employee.
"A legal (or even Constitutional) right simply doesn’t mean much when the on-the-ground reality is that the right is only accessible to a privileged few. "
Now that it’s not just gender-critical women being fired for sharing their opinions online but also the likes of Lauren Wolfe, an ostensibly mainstream liberal working at a mainstream liberal outlet, will everyday women start to understand the threat?
The reality facing women who wish to be able to speak out on issues that matter to them is becoming increasingly clear. For women to have free speech, they must be willing and able to forego traditional employment. This means they may have to rely on a partner or family for support, have enough independent wealth or savings to cover their expenses, or be creative and resourceful enough to build their own sources of income. But each of these comes with a degree of privilege.
How many women can truly afford to take the risk of speaking freely? What about the single mom struggling to make ends meet? Can she afford to be fired? What about the woman trying to leave an abusive relationship? Can she still afford to leave him if she dares to make an opinionated tweet? What about the first-generation college student, scared she’ll lose her scholarship if she speaks out? What about the chronically-ill or disabled women who rely on their jobs for health insurance?
And if only the privileged few are reasonably able to speak out, do we really have free speech at all?
It’s time to stop denying the reality that women’s right to free speech is under attack in the United States. Sure, we have the First Amendment. But just as we’ve seen with abortion access, a legal (or even Constitutional) right simply doesn’t mean much when the on-the-ground reality is that the right is only accessible to a privileged few.
Some people are trying to change this, like White who founded the “Free Speech Fund” to provide material support for people who face economic consequences for non-violent, First Amendment-protected free speech activities. But while crowdfunding freedom is a powerful idea, it’s merely a band-aid on a very broken system. The forces of capitalism have conspired to undermine our freedoms. Improving our social safety net through policies like Universal Basic Income, Healthcare For All, and access to food and housing services should start being understood through the lens of providing freedom.
With women as politically different as Wolfe and Oefelein both impacted, it’s clear this is no longer a left-vs-right issue. The issue is that professions, with their fundamental drive to uphold patriarchy, are hostile to women. We may have gained full legal entry into the workforce, and even widespread societal acceptance in many professional roles, but employers now have a new tool in their belt to keep troublesome women at bay: cancel culture.
cover photo by by Deborah Feingold via Lauren Wolfe