“The deliberate withdrawal of women from men has almost always been seen as a potentially dangerous or hostile act, a conspiracy, a subversion, a needless and grotesque thing.” Thus wrote Adrienne Rich in 1976’s Of Woman Born, her seminal exploration of the politics of motherhood. From the workers gossiping in the spinning circle to old wives passing down knowledge of contraception and abortion, women gathered in isolation have long been considered untrustworthy. What might they be saying? What could they be plotting? And how, above all, might they be controlled?
It’s a problem that’s never gone away, though the context has changed. Anxiety over women’s speech – fuelling violent backlash in the form of witch trials and scold’s bridles – arose at a time when, to quote Marina Warner, “women dominated the webs of information and power; the neighbourhood, the village, the well, the washing place, the shops, the stalls, the street were their arena of influence, not only the household”.
One could say things are different in 2018. Changing work patterns and the greater separation of public and private space have led to a fragmentation of female-led domestic communities. As the protagonist of Elisa Albert’s 2015 novel After Birth puts it:
Two hundred years ago – hell, one hundred years ago – you’d have a child surrounded by other women: your mother, her mother, sisters, cousins, sisters-in-law, mother-in-law. […] They’d help you, keep you company, show you how. Then you’d do the same. […] Now maybe you make a living, maybe you get to know yourself on your own terms. […] And then: unceremoniously sliced in fucking half, handed a newborn, home to your little isolation tank, get on with it, and don’t you dare post too many pictures. You don’t want to be one of those.
She’s right. While the work of gestation, birth and mothering hasn’t gone anywhere, the gatherings that sustained it – and scared the hell out of men in the process – have disintegrated. Still, though. There’s always Mumsnet.
I bloody love Mumsnet (even if Mumsnet users haven’t always loved me). Whether you grasp the politics behind it or not, its very existence as a modern-day spinning circle/witches’ coven reminds us of female resistance to marginalisation and of the fear this provokes in others.
Like earlier attitudes towards gossips and hags, today’s attitudes towards Mumsnet mothers are a measure of how all mothers – and by extension all women – are perceived. By that, I don’t mean all women are Mumsnet mummies at heart, but that responses to those women provide a measure of what all women can get away with.
You might not wish to say or do any of the things the Mumsnet crowd do. The point is that you couldn’t without experiencing a succession of put-downs, misrepresentations, trivialisations and demonisations. This tells us something about the ongoing status of women’s discourse, and the way in which a woman’s credibility is undermined not by what she says, but by the context of her speech within female-dominated circles.
I started blogging in 2012, stuck in that embarrassingly clichéd “bored with small kids” rut. Shortly afterwards I remember telling my dad that I’d written some pieces for Mumsnet and was going to speak on a panel for them. His response? “But they’re all so middle class!” My dad is a barrister. Was he suggesting that we were not also middle class? I hardly think so, yet somehow I knew what he meant.
Mumsnet mummies were ultra-middle class – all designer change bags, underpaid nannies and champagne socialism – in a way we weren’t (after all, we were northerners!). I knew my dad didn’t actually visit the Mumsnet site. He’d got this idea from the Daily Mail, world-renowned monitors of both the tits and the wiles of womankind.
Back then, the Mumsnet mummy stood accused of two main crimes: being over-privileged (see also: yummy mummy, Highgate mum) and being foolishly obsessed with trivial matters (see the twitter account @Mumsnet_madness, in which Mumsnet users’ own self-mockery is taken seriously and held up for universal ridicule). It’s only in the past couple of years that the Mumsnet mum has progressed from twee to evil (or “tweevil”, a catch-all for how older women’s speech is perceived).
Are these early accusations justified? While the women I’ve encountered via Mumsnet have come from a range of backgrounds, I’d say white, middle-class women such as myself are indeed over-represented (but also misrepresented, reduced to misogynist caricatures for whom the very act of caring for one’s own child – or not, as the case may be – is recast as an expression of unforgiveable self-interest). As for the focus on trivialisation, well, this is just nonsense. What such criticism really represents is the prudishness and stigma still surrounding the thought of women – particularly older women and mothers, that is, women no longer considered to be fuckable – daring to be bawdy and lewd.
“The garrulous crone,” writes Warner, “was established as an allegory of unwifely transgressions, of disobedience, opinion, anger, outspokenness, and general lack of compliance with male desires and behests.” If nowadays one can’t put a woman in the stocks for introducing the world to penis beaker, one can at least imply that she is stupid, that she doesn’t quite get her own jokes. Those crazy, baby-brained Mumsnet mummies, what will they think of next? (Or not “think” – they’re probably only capable of “intuiting” these days.)
As any regular visitor to the AIBU threads will know, Mumsnet absolutely excels at scathing, clever banter, led by women who came of age when banter and “ironic” misogyny were all the rage among single men. There’s something quite delightful in finding that women – mere mummies, even – are far better at this than the overgrown lads who would use it to deflate us. Even the daft acronyms (DD1, DS3, DH, AIBU…) are just a form of trolling. Of course they annoy people! Mummies sitting around having these “secret” (but not very secret, and actually profoundly silly) code words for describing the shit and string beans minutiae of domestic life! Truly, finding out your mummy has a sense of humour about all the shit you throw at her is worse than finding out your parents have sex.
But what, I hear you ask, of Mumsnet’s dark heart? Yes, previous gatherings of women may have erroneously been held up as evil, but isn’t this particular one properly so? So says every rebranded witch-finder general since the dawn of time.
I’d absolutely agree that Mumsnet isn’t all penis jokes and Fruit Shoot reviews. Much of it – most of it, in fact – is deeply political. Both #webelieveyou and Let Toys Be Toys have their roots in Mumsnet activism. That many Mumsnet users take issue with contemporary gender identity politics – particularly in relation to the language used to talk about reproductive biology – shouldn’t surprise anyone.
While one cannot account for the motivations of each and every Mumsnet user who posts on this issue – or defend each and every approach – I would suggest that here, as elsewhere, the Mumsnet mummy comes up against the familiar assumption that she doesn’t quite grasp the implications of her own words. Mummies, it is felt, are just too thick to have read Judith Butler or Julia Serano. When someone who’s up to her arms in nappies decides to question a decontexutalised concept of gender, devoid of social interdependencies, she must just be doing it to be mean.
And yet, mean or otherwise, unless one takes into account the historical fear and demonisation of women communicating without supervision, it is frankly bizarre to see activists appointing themselves monitors of Mumsnet conversations on the relationship between sex and gender. It is both disproportionate and a distraction from meaningful work to dismantle stereotypes.
The political engagement of mothers and older women matters. Naturally it frightens people to think of what these highly-exploited groups might actually demand – and of the services they might stop providing – if a sufficient level of organisation could be achieved. This has always been the case, long before the internet came into being. This is the context in which we should see pushback against Mumsnet when compared to other, far more offensive but somehow less vilified social networks.
Of course you may or may not agree with any of this. You may see me as just some mummy going on about things she doesn’t understand when she ought to be getting the kids’ school uniform ready (and you’d be half right).
What I would say is this: imagine setting up your own community devoted to discussions of pregnancy, birth and the lives of those who’ve been through these things. It can be online or off, it doesn’t matter which. You just want this one place in which the class of people who gestate, give birth and perform the lion’s share of domestic labour share jokes, ideas, problems and political objectives, seeking solidarity in spite of all the things that divide them. It doesn’t matter what you call these people. You make no assumptions about their identities. That’s not what this community is for (and yes, you may not see the point of such a community to begin with. That is not a reason for it not to exist).
Now imagine your community five years down the line. Imagine it ten. Be honest. What would people be saying about it? How would they see your authority and that of your members? Would you really, truly have broken out of the demonic spinning circle, the witches’ coven, the suspect centre where those people convene?
Would your experiences and politics be granted a space on their own terms? Would you still get to hold the floor? And if you think the answer to that is yes, I dare you to do it. I would like that to work. While we’re waiting, though, the rest of us will have to make do with what’s there. AIBU to think that’s the least we can expect?