How the Powerful #WomenToFollow Hashtag Was Born

photo credit:  NeONBRAND , via  Unsplash  (cropped)

photo credit: NeONBRAND, via Unsplash (cropped)

As a journalist, I don’t usually elicit calls for action. Instead, I see it as my job to explain, analyze, and, when it’s warranted, expose the truth.

But sometimes good storytelling is not enough. We as women can write, win Pulitzer Prizes, and spark the powerful #MeToo movement, but an established boys’ network prevails.

On the first Tuesday in July, I had just finished a one-hour exercise class at my local Y. Of course, it was hot. I took a few minutes to sit with some water and read The New York Times at a small table in the air-conditioned lobby. I checked my phone, opened my Twitter feed, and the first post I saw was from a nonprofit I’d heard about.

GenderAvenger (genius name) had a piece with a headline that started "Men Ignore Women on Twitter…" and called for women to change this phenomenon. I read the Vox story, which was cited in the post.

What did it say? For starters, a study published by The International Journal of Press/Politics shows that of the nearly 3,000 journalists (broadcast, print, digital) credentialed to cover Congress, women reporters’ voices barely seem to count in the Beltway press group; men replied to men 92 percent of the time. Of the 25 reporters that men retweet the most, only three of them are women. The study’s sample included 1,299 men or 56.7 percent of the sample, and 993 women or 43.3 percent of the sample.

But what really struck me is that not only do men retweet and follow more men on Twitter — 62 percent of male journalists in Washington follow other male journalists — but women journalists also followed more men than women (also 62 percent).

“How crazy is that?” I thought.


We as women must change this. So, instead of merely retweeting Gender Avenger’s post, I heeded its call to action. I tweeted “Let’s get this Twitter Party started. I will name three smart women to follow with hashtag #WomenToFollow” and asked friends to name three more using their Twitter handles.

Simple. Direct. But not something I usually do.

After posting the tweet, I drove to the library to work on some writing projects, sitting at a table overlooking a courtyard with grass and shrubs. Quiet bliss.

But the notifications on my laptop and my phone kept alerting me that this post had legs.

First, it was retweeted by acquaintances I have made through social media wizard and great teacher, Sree Sreenivasan (@sree).

Some background: I started my career at the Associated Press and then worked for several newspapers and freelanced while I raised my children. On staff for a publication, you can get to the heart of issues and build a deep network of sources who trust you and will sometimes tell you things they shouldn’t. If you have a good ear, you can discern what’s important and can more easily break big stories.

That world of journalism is largely gone (many thousands of journalists have lost their jobs in the last decade), and it’s certainly harder to do investigative journalism as a freelancer, but in working for nonprofits and businesses in my local community, I’ve developed new skills. Your perspective changes. With four children, I have become more invested in making a difference.

So, instead of the work I set out to do that Tuesday on my laptop, I used my phone to retweet people who replied to my tweet and thank them. I checked the Twitter bios and feeds of many of the women named and followed them.

What started out as dozens of retweets began to mushroom. It kept growing, like the wild raspberry branches in my front garden. Analytics on #WomenToFollow showed a reach of 2.7 million as of Sunday morning which has grown to 9 million as of July 12th.

The #WomenToFollow thread turned into something delightful and unexpected.

photo credit: bruce mars from Pexels

Liza Donnelly (@lizadonnelly), a cartoonist for The New Yorker and CBS This Morning, retweeted other artists and they retweeted other colleagues. Erin Belieu (@erinbelieu), a poet I met at a PEN America rally on the steps of the New York Public Library after Donald Trump was elected, named poets and authors to follow.

In the Twitter party that developed this month, when someone on a post suggested Helen Clark (@HelenClarkNZ), former Prime Minister of New Zealand and former head of the United Nations Development Fund, as a “WomenToFollow, she liked the tweet.

People named people to follow that had followers numbering from a few hundred to thousands such as Nancy Groves (@Nancy_Groves, nearly 5.8K), head of digital media at the United Nations, or Octavia Nasr (@octavianasr, 1.7M), a journalist and activist against cyberbullying, smart women to follow in many fields, including politics, journalism, science, academia, poetry, and art.

At dinner that night, I said to my family, “I think I have started something on Twitter.”

The next day, Neil Parekh @neilparekh, who heads communications for United Way Worldwide in Washington and has been acting for several weeks as guest host of @sree’s Sunday #NYTReadalong, texted me. I met Neil in June at Sree’s social media weekend at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Neil asked if I had created the #WomenToFollow hashtag. I said that some industry groups had used it in the past but that what was happening on Twitter for two days appeared to have been spurred by my post. He asked me where I’d be that Sunday morning at 8:30 a.m.

Thus, I made my debut “broadcast” appearance on Facebook Live. One of my children said, “Mom, that’s in two days. Do you know what you are going to say?” When I told that to my friend, Margaret Bisceglie, who had taught my daughter dance for 14 years, she said, “Rose, do you think either of us ever has nothing to say?”

In my career as a writer, I never encountered a man such as Charlie Rose or Harvey Weinstein, but one manager dismissed some questions in my first weeks on the job as the same ones “my wife asks me all the time.” As a reporter in my 20s, the executive editor of a newspaper called me into his office to ask me, “Why was I getting all these front page stories?”

I smiled and asked, “Isn’t that what I’m supposed to be doing?”

Back at you.

Keep it going all of you men and #WomenToFollow.

P.S. On July 10, E.B. Boyd (Liza) @ebboyd, a journalist in the San Francisco area, started a #AmplifyWomenTue hashtag, also in response to the Vox article and blog post on GenderAvenger. PCMA, an organization for meetings industry professionals, started naming women to follow in a post in late June. We’ve struck a nerve.

P.P.S. Are you ready for profiles of #WomentoFollow in different fields / expertise each week? Rose plans to highlight a dynamic, smart woman each week with a Twitter thread. Keep an eye on #WomentoFollow to join in amplifying their voices!

Rose Horowitz

Rose Horowitz (@RoseHorowitz31) is a Pulitzer-nominated journalist and a public relations/communications/social media expert. She has been published in The New York Times, Forbes, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications and websites.