Profile: Stephanie Guthrie, WITOPOLI founder

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The recent spate of sexual assaults in Toronto left many women nervous, and Stephanie Guthrie wasn’t immune to the fear. The 28-year-old founder of Women in Toronto Politics admits that she even had trouble convincing herself to leave her house.

To her dismay, when she did peel herself off the bed and go outside on a warm evening in early September, she encountered just the type of situation she’d worried about. On the way to her favourite local bar, she and her boyfriend passed a group of eight men in their early twenties. Over the din of their collective conversation, Guthrie heard two of them joking with each other, one suggesting that the other needed to “stop raping women.” The comment, delivered like a punchline, prompted uproarious laughter.

“I said to them, ‘You know, guys, there are a lot of women being sexually assaulted in the city right now, I don’t know if you’ve seen it in the paper,’” Guthrie recalls. Their response was outright misogyny, yelling back at her “shut up, bitch!” and “suck my dick!” For Guthrie, that was the last straw.

“I lost it,” she says, “and I screamed ‘fuck you!’ at the absolute top of my lungs.”

When she recounts the incident months later, Guthrie wells up. “It was an expression of the frustration I was feeling with the fact that there are people who not only never have to think about that and worry about those things,” she explains, with a shaky voice, “but people who have no compassion for the people who do.”

This wasn’t the first time Guthrie unabashedly called someone out on his beliefs, and it probably won’t be the last. In the last year Guthrie has made a name for herself as an outspoken feminist who is determined to promote awareness of injustices.  She attracted media interest last July when she drew attention to a “beat up Anita Sarkeesian” video game, which involved punching Sarkeesian in the face until she was bruised and bloodied.

“It was a really eye-opening experience,” Guthrie says of having “sic’d the internet” on Bendilin Spurr, a 25-year-old man from Sault St. Marie, Ontario. Guthrie questioned Spurr’s actions over Twitter, and contacted his hometown newspaper to make sure they picked up the story. “In having those conversations I learned a lot about misogyny, and I learned a lot about the Internet. How, unfortunately, they seem to go hand-in-hand.”

The Internet misogyny she’s referring to is often recognized as “trolling,” but is definitely not harmless: it’s vicious, and the focus of its vitriol is women. Women who speak out on the Internet, usually about sexism and gaming, see a flood of hateful comments and tweets, and the not-so-occasional death threat.

Guthrie’s friend Karen Ho, an organizer of the Eaton Centre shooting vigil, admired Guthrie’s strength during the period when she was receiving hordes of hate-tweets from Internet gamers. “Steph made the issue hard to ignore,” Ho says. “She just pushed until she thought that people were paying significant enough attention to understand that this is not acceptable.”

During the Sarkeesian controversy, Guthrie was bombarded with hate tweets —and even a death threat— but she kept her responses measured, cool, and smartly written: instead of blowing off the messages, she systematically shut down the arguments of her “trolls.” She carries these characteristics into her life outside of the Internet. Everything she says during media interviews seems to have gone through a rigorous filter. Her words are slow to come, but deliberately chosen and delivered with authority and tact. Her goal is to change perceptions, and she does it by hearing people out — “feeding the trolls.”

“If you want to get people onside with something that you’re doing, beating the drum is not the best way to go about it,” says Guthrie, who grew up in (generally quite conservative) Peterborough, Ontario. “Engaging people in discussions about issues that matter is essential if you want to change the way that people think about things.”

Though she’s best known for holding Bendilin Spurr accountable for his game, which was taken down a day after he posted it to newsground.com, Guthrie’s determination and drive has other outlets, namely Women in Toronto Politics (WITOPOLI).

WITOPOLI grew out of a discussion with Neville Park, a regular #TOPOLI tweeter who goes by an online pseudonym, about how few women are considered influential in the discussion about Toronto politics. “The ones who get retweeted the most, who have the most followers, and who tend to have the greatest influence over the discussion are mostly men,” Guthrie says. In the course of their conversation, the idea of staging a panel on women and their role in the political discussion came up. Guthrie decided to organize it, and include Park as one of the speakers.

Guthrie’s pet project is off to a slow but steady start. It has received a lot of support from prominent Toronto tweeters, as well as a couple of big-name panelists like ward 27 councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam. In 2012, the organization hosted two panel discussions and a workshop focused on how to get women talking about ways to make the city better. They turned those recommendations into deputations at their November deputation party, and in December four women from the workshops presented their recommendations during the budget deliberations.

“I want to empower women to join the discussion about politics,” she says. “I want them to be aware that even if they don’t know the whole history of politics in the City of Toronto, and even if they find the language of the motions difficult to decipher, I want them to know that it doesn’t mean they don’t have something to contribute.”-KR

(Exciting news! The Spring 2013 issue of McClung’s Magazine is out, which I wrote this profile for. You can find copies on newsstands around Ryerson.)

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