Don't be sniffy about "Mumsnet Feminism"

Anyone sneering at Mumsnet as a forum for feminist discussion probably hasn't visited the site very much, says Hannah Mudge.

Mumsnet has recently published the results of its Feminism Survey, conducted in July with over 2,000 participants. Unlike the universally-panned (but much hyped by the media) Netmums feminism survey of 2012 that reported the movement was off-putting to most women and instead championed "the rise of the feMEnist" (I blogged about this) - this survey is actually a little bit heartening.

It found that members of Mumsnet felt that being a part of the site had made them more likely to identify with feminism, more aware of feminist perspectives on everyday issues, and and had changed their opinions on what constitutes domestic abuse, as well as enabling them to understand different perspectives and choices to their own.

Everyone has an opinion about Mumsnet, particularly people who have never actually explored the site before. I seem to remember becoming aware of this around the time of the last general election, long before I knew much about it, in fact. A lot of mockery was going on: politicians trying to appeal to "Mumsnet types", having livechats and acting all interested in their concerns. There was justified irritation that some politicians seemed to be making out that the only political issues women are interested in are those relating to motherhood and children, but also plenty of stereotyping of the sort of women who congregate on Mumsnet.

For certain (usually reasonably right-wing) commentators, and most people "below the line", the site is full of silly, smug, middle class women with "baby brain" talking about their overprivileged, indulgent lives. They have the ability to form a hysterical, bullying mob at any given moment and make the lives of anyone who disagrees with them hell.

For certain feminists, Mumsnet's frequented by silly, smug, middle class women talking about their overprivileged, indulgent lives and worrying themselves with "trivial" issues as they "moralise" about society, assuming they're better than everyone else because they have children and attacking those who make different parenting choices to theirs.

As the Guardian report on the survey began to attract attention this morning, it was great to see so many people talking positively about it and acknowledging the work that Mumsnet is doing - through successful campaigns, for example. Yet at the same time (because this is Twitter we're talking about here): "God help feminism if it's being represented by bloody Mumsnet," said others, no doubt envisaging the overprivileged and overindulged being hailed as the new leaders of the movement.

Notable this weekend has been backlash against the Guardian's inclusion, in the piece, of Ticky Hedley-Dent's comment (from "a Twitter debate earlier this year") that "I think Mumsnet is key to understanding feminism. Feminism hardly comes into play until you have kids. Then you get it." Why are these women insinuating that having children is what really makes you a feminist? Why are they excluding women who don't have children? This is everything that's wrong with feminism, people.

I don't think that particular quote was the best way to illustrate what some of the women interviewed by the Guardian about the survey are trying to say. Of course gender inequality impacts you before you have children or if you don't ever have children. Who's going to deny that? But pregnancy and motherhood undoubtedly highlight new issues, and bring to the fore problems that may well have not been a feature of some women's lives before. No one is saying that you haven't experienced inequality until you've had children. What they mean is that motherhood makes you much more aware of particular issues and aspects of inequality. And for many women, this will undoubtedly have the effect of "galvanising" their beliefs about feminism.

I've been meaning to blog about the way that "mothers", as a group, and their concerns are often dismissed and belittled by both the left and right for being "too middle class" and "trivial" for some time now, because I can't help but notice it any time someone mentions a campaign that affects children - backlash against the ubiquitous pink/blue distinctions between toys, and the types of toys that are marketed as being "for boys" and "for girls"; backlash against lads mags and Page 3 being easily seen by children in shops; backlash against anything that's seen as presenting children with harmful messages about sex.

The middle class mother is a prime target for sneering, whether she's not working outside the home and therefore, apparently, living a pampered life funded by her husband, or else harming her children in myriad ways by "leaving them" to heartlessly pursue a career. It's a different sort of sneering to that aimed at working class mothers, but the comments aimed at both groups imply stupidity and the idea that their worries and concerns aren't "real" ones. Why would a woman, in this day and age, choose to define herself at any point by the fruits of her womb? Aren't we past all that? As I think I mentioned in a post I wrote while on maternity leave, sorry that some of us want to talk about things that are an enormous part of our lives. Some feminists assume that the voices of women who aren't white and middle class are ignored by these parent-focused campaigns and issues. This is a legitimate concern for those of us who observe the way the media has publicised activism in recent years, but to assume is dangerous and all too often inaccurate.

If you don't spend time on Mumsnet and feel contemptuous about its members, how much do you know about them, really? And how much do you know about their campaigns? Here are a few:

This Is My Child aims to "support parents of children with additional needs, inform everyone else, and open up a conversation about how we can all act to make life easier for everyone caring for children with additional needs." The campaign has been debunking myths about disability and raising awareness of how we can challenge assumptions about the issues involved.

We Believe You is aimed at busting the victim-blaming myths about rape and sexual assault, was launched amid an overwhelming response to members being encouraged to talk about their own experiences and why they did or did not report them to police or tell friends and family.

Better Miscarriage Care put pressure on the NHS to provide more sensitive and responsive treatment to women experiencing early pregnancy loss. As someone with friends who have had distressing experiences with healthcare professionals while miscarrying, I know this is vital.

Let Girls Be Girls, a campaign that launched in 2010, was a response to growing concern about the way advertising, music, clothing, and magazines encourage a view of sex and sexuality that encourages girls to focus on appearance above all else, tells them that they exist to please boys and men, and tells them that their most important quality is how "sexy" they are.

Bounty Mutiny is asking politicians and the NHS to rethink the fact that Bounty sales reps have a presence on postnatal wards, pressurising women into giving out personal details and invading their privacy at a time that's at best a time for family, bonding with a new baby, and recovering from labour, and at worst, a time of worry, trauma, and possibly grieving.

I wouldn't describe any of these campaigns as "trivial" and "silly". Would you say the same for some of Mumsnet's forums, where you can find long-running threads on recognising the "red flags" of an abusive relationship, posts offering help and resources to women in abusive situations, and personal support to individuals as they go to the police, walk out on a violent man, or rebuild their lives?

How much do you really know about the boards where women discuss their experiences of assault and rape, support members who are survivors, offer advice on workplace discrimination, and help each other thrash out some of their first, conflicted thoughts about body politics and equality in relationships? Do you really know much at all about all the consciousness-raising discussions? The "shouting back" about everyday sexism? The support for women who've gone through miscarriages and stillbirths or are coping with having a terminally ill child?

If you don't, but your first reactions to discussion of a community of (mostly) mothers online are sneers and "God help feminisms", then it's probably time, in the tradition of the internet, for me to direct you to Google, with the instruction that you're perfectly capable of educating yourself about all this stuff. Mothers are a vital part of your movement and are providing important comment on so many important issues. If you don't know this because they're "not on your radar", ask yourself why.

Further reading - Glosswatch: Why Mumsnet feminism matters

Children. Photo: Getty

Hannah Mudge blogs at We Mixed Our Drinks and tweets @boudledidge

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.