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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.