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

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After the defeat of Hillary Clinton, what should the US left do next?

For disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters and others on the left, the big question is now: should they work within the Democratic party?

For the majority of the US left, Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat came as a surprise. Sure, they’d had doubts about her candidacy from the start. They’d expressed disgust at her platform, history, priorities and dubious associations – not least, at her campaign’s focus on cosying up to wealthy elites, courting the support of billionaires such as slum landlord Warren Buffett, at the expense of trying on to hold on to the party’s core working-class vote – but the general belief was that, however undeservedly, she’d still manage to pull it off.

After all, polling suggested she maintained a fairly consistent lead in key swing states even as Trump somewhat narrowed the gap, and there was reason to think that demographic trends would work against her competitor, who openly courted white supremacist votes.

Hindsight is 20/20, but many now feel they took their eye off the ball.  Leslie Lee III, a writer from Louisiana currently residing just outside Washington DC, argues that people “got so worn down by the polls that we forgot our message, that Clinton was the worst possible candidate to put against Trump”. For him, identifying what went wrong is simple:  “Trump promised people something, the establishment candidate was telling people America was already great. It doesn’t matter if he was doing it in a dishonest, con-artist, racist, xenophobic, sexist way – he said he’d fix people’s problems, while Clinton said they didn’t have problems”.

Leslie isn’t alone in believing that a wonkish focus on polls and data distracted from what was really going on. Everyone I speak to feels that the supposed ‘experts’ from the liberal mainstream aren’t equipped to understand the current political landscape. “We are witnessing a global phenomenon,” suggests writer Amber A’Lee Frost, who first got involved with the Democrats to support the Sanders campaign but voted Obama in 2008. “The UK offers the most clear parallel to the US. Nationalism, racism and xenophobia are festering.” Student and Democratic Socialists of America activist Emily Robinson agrees: “All across the world we’ve seen massive right-wing upswells, from Trump, LePen and May in the West to Modi and Erdogan in the East.” Whatever differences exist between these respective politicians, it’s hard to argue with the contention there’s been a widespread shift to the right.

US left-wingers argue that liberals fail to understand their own role in the current situation. From a British perspective, it’s hard to disagree. Repeatedly, I’ve seen discussions shut down with the claim that even acknowledging economy policy may have contributed to the resurgence of ethno-nationalist ideology amounts to apologism. Nor can faulty data be held entirely responsible for any complacency. In the run-up to the Brexit vote, polls suggested that the result would be too close to call; nonetheless, within the liberal bubble almost everyone assumed we’d vote to remain. The fact the value of the pound rose on the eve of the referendum was seen as evidence for this belief, as if currency traders have some sort of special insight into the mind of the average UK voter. Looking back, the whole thing is laughable.

Over in the US, the disconnect seems to be much the same. “People in the street weren’t following that stuff,” Leslie says of the finer details of both the Trump and Clinton campaigns. “Trump said he would fix their problems, Clinton said they didn’t have any. If we’d stayed focused on that it would have been obvious.” Instead, many of her supporters believed that it was Hillary’s turn and consequently dismissed substantive criticisms, sometimes claiming the vast majority of opposition was simply latent sexism. Even the campaign slogan “I’m With Her” seemed to be about what voters could should for Clinton, not what Clinton would do for them. As polls narrowed, party insiders continued to insist that Clinton was the rightful heir to Obama’s voting coalition, however little she actually did to earn it. 

A lack of message simplicity definitely seems to have been part of the problem. When I speak to Christian, who currently works in outreach and recruitment for the Democratic Socialists of America’s national office, he admits he was barely aware of the platform Clinton was campaigning on. “I’d ask my friends, and sometimes she’d talk about stuff, but it’s so vague,” he explains. “The average working-class person shouldn’t have to go to a website and read a 30 page policy document. It feels like it’s written that way for a reason, it’s muddled, neoliberal bullshit that lobbyists have written.” It’s true that media coverage probably didn’t help, with reporting frequently focuses on gossip and overblown scandal over substantive policy issues, but an effective political communicator must ensure their core messages cut through. Obama managed it in 2008, and however abhorrent we might find it, pretty much everyone heard about Trump’s wall.

It’s also hard to ignite excitement for the continuity candidate when many people don’t believe that the status quo actually benefits them. “I think neoliberalism no longer works as an electoral incentive to voters, especially working-class voters,” argues Amber. Emily tells me that prior to this election she’d worked on two Democratic campaigns, but before Sanders she’d been ready to give up on the party. “When they had the power to, the Democrats failed to implement policies that helped the working class, Hispanic, Black and Muslim communities, and women.”

She explains her disappointment during the early part of Obama’s first term, when the Democrats held the House, Senate and Oval Office. “They jumped away from the single payer option for healthcare, which would have helped the entire American population. The implementation of the DREAM act would have helped immigrant communities. There’s also a lot they could have done on policing and carceral reform, repealing federal use of private prisons, for example, and labour rights, by introducing federal protections for trade unions and effectively repealing so-called ‘right to work’ laws in many states. They did not mandate free, universal pre-kindergarten nor did they even attempt to work forwards free collect – or, at the bare minimum free community college.”

For Douglas Williams, a graduate student at Wayne State University, it was Obama’s relationship with labour unions that caused him to drift away from the party. “In 2013, Barack Obama appointed a union buster to a federal judgeship in the District of Columbia. I started to think, labour gave $1.1 billion to national Democrat party politics between 2005 and 2011, and labour got literally nothing from it.”

One left-leaning activist, who prefers to be identified by his blogging pseudonym Cato of Utica, campaigned door-to-door for Clinton. He explains in visceral detail his disillusionment with the party he’d worked within for roughly a decade: “I was heavily involved in North Carolina in places where the recovery never even touched. These were working poor people, and the doorbells didn’t work. If the doorbells are broken, what else is broken inside the house? What else isn’t the landlord taking care of? I looked at our candidates and none of the people I was pushing were going to address the problems in these people’s lives.”

Much ink has been spilled trying to pin down exactly what motivated people to vote Trump, whose campaign rhetoric was more explicitly xenophobic, racist and sexist than any other recent presidential candidate. Most of his supporters also voted Republican in previous elections, but two other groups are more interesting from a left-wing perspective: those who previously voted Obama but opted for Trump this time round, and non-voters who were inspired to make it to the polling booth for the first time. Overwhelmingly, both groups are concentrated in lower income categories.

“I think people voted for Trump because he acknowledged that there is something very wrong with America,” suggests Amber. “I obviously disagree with Trump voters on what is wrong with this country, and the fact that his campaign was fuelled by nationalism and racism certainly gave it a terrifying edge, but I know why they voted for him, even though he will ultimately betray his most vulnerable supporters.”

It would be absurd to discount racism as a factor in an election where the winning candidate was endorsed by the official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan and its former leader David Duke, but Leslie disagrees with those who claim it was the primary motivation for the most Trump voters. His earliest political memory is from around 4th or 5th grade, when David Duke was running for Governor of Louisiana. “As one of the few Black kids in your class,” he recalls, “it really makes you realise how important politics is early on”. One of his closest friends was a previous Obama voter who opted for Trump this election, and the common factor seems to have been a message of optimism.

“Obama offered something more important than these people’s prejudices: hope and change, basically. He didn’t deliver it but he offered it. Romney was seen as the establishment. Obama said, ‘I’m an outsider and I’ll bring something new to the table’. There’s a line between Trump and Obama in that vein – and my friend will tell you the same.”

At a time when many people have a strong desire to kick out at the political establishment, Clinton was the ultimate establishment candidate. Leslie is scathing about the extent to which she actively highlighted this in her campaign: “She talked about being experienced – what does that mean? It means you’ve been part of the establishment. She attacked Obama with her experience in 2008 so I don’t know why she thought it would work. It’s not like being the local dog catcher, you don’t turn in your resume and if you have the most experience you get it. You need to have a message and get people inspired, and she didn’t have it.”

Most of the people I speak to believe that Sanders would have had a better chance of beating Trump, and many poured significant time, effort and money into his campaign. They note that polling showing Sanders had consistently higher approval ratings amongst the general public than Clinton throughout the primaries, and argue that people citing recently released unused opposition research as evidence he’d have lost don’t understand voter motivations. The idea that Sanders’ experience of being poor and unemployed would have worked against him is seen as particularly mockable. Whatever the truth, the more relevant question now is what the left does next.

Opinion is split between those who think working within the Democratic Party is the best approach and those who believe its unaccountable, bureaucratic structures make it a lost cause. Emily is in the first category. “I think leftists should, in a limited capacity, be running within what is now the desiccated carcass of the Democratic Party, rather than naively attempting to build a party from the ground up and risking splitting the left-liberal vote,” she tells me. “They should be prepared to run for elections with a (D) next to their name, even if they refuse to bend at the knee to the neoliberal, imperial tendencies of the Democratic elite.”

Particularly exciting right now is the work of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organisation which aims to shape the future of the party in a leftwards direction. Membership had increased by a third since the election – aided partly by support from celebrities such as Killer Mike and Rob Delaney. “We’re planning on Trump being a one-term president,” DSA representative Christian tells me. “We have a 50 state strategy, but right now we only have chapters in 31 states. It’s not just about elections, it’s threefold: electoral, workplace and community organising to win on all counts.”

Douglas is sceptical about whether it’s possible to restructure the Democratic Party in the way he considers necessary, but he agrees with the DSA’s focus on community organising: “Why can’t an organisation be like ‘we’re going to sponsor a little league team’? Why can’t we open a soup kitchen? We’re making noise, we’re out here, but we heard your aunt is having trouble with her roof. We’ve got guys who can fix that, and then we’ll leave a little sign saying it was us.” Cato of Utica references something similar that happened in Flint, where the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union visited people’s homes to make sure their water filters were properly fitted.

“We need to rebuild the labour movement,” agrees Emily. “Not only to carry out all the normal functions of unions, but also to provide a community, and spaces for education, child care and other forms of support. If we don’t build solidarity among the working class – not just the white working class, but the Hispanic working class, the Black working class and so on – we risk allowing another reactionary movement caused by cleavages promoted by the ruling classes.”

Left-wing organisations traditionally target places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where it’s easier to build support. Christian argues that the Democratic Party, and the DSA specifically, need to “focus on the Rust Belt, where the Democrats lost, and the South, where Bernie lost”. There’s a widespread belief that Southern states which have been Republican for decades now could be winnable in future presidential elections, partly because of demographic trends pointing towards increasingly ethnically diverse voting populations. As for the Rust Belt, it’s hard to argue with the claim that a different candidate could do better than Clinton – who didn’t even bother to visit Wisconsin, which swung Republican, in the months preceding the vote.

The DSA’s 50 state strategy involves creating a national framework, but with devolved power allowing local chapters to focus on the issues most relevant in their area. “In Texas our chapter is really strong and we do a lot of work on immigration reform, working with undocumented communities, whereas Boston obviously doesn’t have to deal with that so much,” Christian explains to me. “In places like Kentucky and West Virginia, coal country, Republicans like Trump will say coal is coming back. We say we actually need to transition to a new economy and create green jobs, and places where people live where they don’t get cancer from coal.”

Christian believes that the unexpected success of the Sanders campaign indicates there’s an appetite for the kind of politics the DSA is offering, and that a similar candidate could gain the Democratic nomination in four years time. “Having a candidate announce earlier than Bernie did, and with a good ground game in place, we could have 50,000 volunteers ready to go. We wouldn’t be scrambling around this time, we’d be ready to go to war with [Trump]”. Like many on the left, he thinks that Keith Ellison’s selection as DNC chair is a crucial part of the puzzle. Ellison was the first Muslim elected to Congress and is chair of the Progressive Caucus. “He’s a way better politician than Bernie,” Christian contends. “He understands the intricacy of talking about labour, poverty and unions very well.”

Others I speak to argue that focus should be on working from the ground up. “I’m not even talking about state legislatures,” explains Douglas. “I mean city councillors, school boards, things like that. This is going to be a long-term project and has to start at the absolute lowest level and work its way up. People don’t even realise, in some of these cities you can get elected to the city council on 500 votes. We want to start on the big stuff but it has to be an independent, left local movement. We can run all the candidates we want, but unless we’re out here informing people ‘it’s not actually about Mexicans or Muslims, it’s your boss, it’s his fault you can’t afford to save the money to send your kids to college,’ what’s the point?”

Whatever disagreements about strategy exist, the US left seems to be united by two things: fear of Trump’s presidency and a determination to succeed. Many members of the DSA are worried about their involvement with the organisation being publicly known. Unsurprisingly, this is more acute for members of groups attacked in Trump’s rhetoric. “We see apprehensiveness with some of our Latino membership,” Christian tells me. “People don’t want to out themselves because that's risking your own livelihood. We’re a working class organisation and most people have other jobs.”

With Trump associates making noises about recreating the House Un-American Activities Committee, some fear left-wingers could be targeted as dissidents as in previous decades. However realistic the threat of government persecution, there’s already a far-right website, KeyWiki, that keeps tabs on members of socialist organisations. Everyone I speak to agrees that groups particularly vulnerable to being targeted by Trump and his supporters – including Muslim, Latino and African American communities – must be defended at all cost. “The aim of the left should be to make it impossible for Trump to govern,” says Cato of Utica. “Establishment Democrats are already making conciliatory noises. If the Democrats aren’t going to do it in the Senate, the people have to do it in the streets through direct action.”

When I ask Amber what happens next, her response seems to sum up the mood amongst the US left: “To be honest, I have no idea. I’m terrified but I am ready to fight.”