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18 May 2022

Mumsnet’s founder Justine Roberts: “It is a place where women can speak the truth”

The parenting forum has become a powerful political force, and has been repeatedly accused of transphobia. Its CEO explains why she believes in “difficult conversations”

By Sophie McBain

In late March an American journalist wondered on Twitter why the “UK elite” contains more “Terfs” (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) than those of the US or Canada. “The answer is Mumsnet, I believe,” the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat responded. Not for the first time, the British parenting forum went viral on social media.

On Mumsnet’s “Feminism: Sex and Gender” discussion board, where much of the conversation on trans identity takes place, users were unimpressed by a group of American “beardy bros” exchanging theories about British feminism. “Do they ever even for a second think we have different opinions to them for a good reason, rather than being brainless, hate-filled crones?” asked one user. “So many men sad that women have a place (and space) to talk,” suggested another. A few wrote, however, that it was indeed thanks to Mumsnet that they had started to take an interest in trans issues: it was on here that they’d first encountered the argument that gender self-identification provisions threaten women-only spaces, such as bathrooms, refuges and prisons.

Over on Mumsnet’s other talk boards – there are dozens of them – business continued as usual. There were questions about Covid and about pregnancy. A woman was scared because she’d started bleeding at 11 weeks; another wanted advice about turning a baby in breech position. Relationship problems were shared. A woman wondered how she would cope with the funeral of her father, who had abused her for years: how could she stomach people expressing condolences over the loss of her “lovely” dad? You don’t have to go, some users advised: fake a cough, consider grief counselling. Then there was the usual, less serious stuff: questions about baby products, fashion and sex.

[See also: “It’s not shameful”: the fertility officer taking on work’s parent problem]

Mumsnet was founded 22 years ago by two friends who met at an antenatal class: Justine Roberts, a sports journalist, and Carrie Longton, a TV producer. It was intended as a way for parents to pool tips and expertise. The site recalls an earlier internet, the online chatboards that pre-dated social media, and yet it has survived the rise of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. According to Mumsnet’s data, the site clocks up 8 million unique visitors each month and 1.2 billion page views each year. Nine in ten users are women. Last year, the number of hours Mumsnet users spent on the site rose by 15 per cent; this figure has risen every year since 2000.

In the age of the global internet, Mumsnet remains a curiously national phenomenon: its 2021 census revealed that just 5 per cent of users are based outside the UK. The tone and humour are distinctly British. On the US discussion forum Reddit, another similarly anomalous early-internet survivor, one of the most popular threads is “Am I the Asshole?” The Mumsnet equivalent is the more understated “Am I Being Unreasonable?”, shortened to AIBU. Roberts likes to say that one reason there’s no Dadsnet is that men don’t tend to ask themselves that question.

Roberts, 54, remains at the helm (Longton left in 2018). She has four children, with Ian Katz, the former Newsnight editor (now the chief content officer at Channel 4) and started the site when her eldest two, who are twins, were toddlers. In its scrappy early years, the operation was run from her spare bedroom and the website was, she told me, “mostly me talking to me, under a host of different nicknames”. She has overseen its rise to become a considerable force in British politics, as well as its more recent entanglement in the fraught politics of sex and gender.

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Her manner, when we spoke over Zoom, was warm but brisk. She wore an office shirt and power spectacles, and kept her background blurred out. Any controversy over how the site hosts and moderates discussions about trans rights hasn’t – publicly at least – shaken Roberts’ self-assurance. In her view, Mumsnet’s mission and values remain clear: from the outset, it has provided a forum for women to share their thoughts anonymously. This is what has made it unique, and also radical, enabling conversations that would not happen elsewhere. “Mumsnet is a place where women can anonymously express their viewpoints and speak the truth, in a way that maybe they can’t on Facebook or elsewhere. Because they might come across as something we’re not supposed to be: a bit stroppy, bolshy and all the rest of it,” Roberts said.

And it’s true that here you’ll find women discussing taboo subjects such as maternal regret or sexual abuse. Many of the site’s political campaigns have grown out of its users’ conversations. In 2012, long before the #MeToo movement, Mumsnet ran a campaign called “We Believe You”, having observed how often users shared experiences of sexual assault they had never reported. A 2020 analysis of threads suggested users had helped at least 6,000 women escape domestic abuse in the previous three years. It is a site many stumble on in early motherhood, searching for ways to get some sleep, or googling odd post-partum symptoms. A friend said she’d recently ended up on the site after googling why she only felt like sex while ovulating (it’s a real phenomenon, Mumsnetters confirmed).

Alongside anonymity, Roberts said, another pillar of Mumsnet was ideological diversity. The first paid staff were professional moderators, whose role it is to sustain a civil, supportive atmosphere while allowing users to express divergent views. Roberts argues that in a world of online echo chambers, Mumsnet has been designed to allow people to encounter new perspectives. “There’s no algorithm showing you stuff you agree with or like. You can’t follow people. We don’t have ‘likes’, and we do that for a specific reason. We think that the discussion of different and difficult viewpoints actually educates people, and is the only way you’re going to reach a compromise.”

The complication is that Mumsnet’s Sex and Gender board looks a lot like an echo chamber: occasionally a user will challenge the prevailing narrative that trans rights threaten women’s sex-based rights, but they are quickly shut down. The site’s online anonymity is double-edged: it can be liberating – and it can unleash hateful, trolling behaviour. Mumsnet has been labelled a “toxic hotbed of transphobia” (Vice magazine) where hate-speech spreads unchecked. A 2018 article in the US magazine Outline suggested that “Mumsnet is to British transphobia… what 4Chan is to American fascism.”

Roberts, unsurprisingly, resists this. “There are many things we do think are transphobic, and we have removed them. We ban people, and we moderate quite aggressively. But do we believe the expression of gender-critical beliefs is transphobic? No – and nor does the law, by the way,” she said. “We don’t think shutting that down would be in the spirit of the site… It’s difficult stuff that requires a resolution, and we won’t get a resolution by both sides staying in their zones, as it were. We have to discuss difficult issues around things like women’s sport, women’s prisons and women’s refuges.”

It is easy to follow Mumsnet’s logic: why should a site committed to facilitating discussion of all aspects of womanhood and motherhood not allow its users to share their views, and concerns, about issues such as gender self-identification? Shouldn’t a parent, seeking advice about how to support their trans child, have access to a range of viewpoints? Its critics would counter that Mumsnet does not host a range, and that trans people cannot feel welcome in a community where many view their demands for equality as a threat. The site’s goal of hosting a diverse and conciliatory discussion might be admirable – but in this polarised political climate, is such a conversation even possible?

Roberts is often infuriated by the way Mumsnet is portrayed. Before the site became known primarily for its discussions of sex and gender, it was often dismissed as too bitchy, too “irredeemably” middle class (three quarters of users have a degree). Its users are a “coven of poisonous women” (Daily Mail) or “the Mean Girls gang” (the Times). They invite endless references to hummus-eating and Boden: an Evening Standard profile of Roberts once described her, bizarrely, as a “tippy-toppy Bodenfrau”.

“It’s partly misogyny, but there’s something specific about ‘mum’. We all psychologically have some feelings about mothers which are not entirely fair – that they’re humourless and boring and dull. And actually Mumsnet is none of those things,” Roberts said. “The Sunday Times once ran a huge story on the fact Mumsnet users discuss sex: what did they think, that these were all virgin births?”

But the site’s reputation is not always undeserved – and it has long attracted controversy. In 2006 the parenting expert Gina Ford threatened to have the website shut down over “highly defamatory” remarks made by users who objected to her strict sleep-training techniques. Mumsnet settled with Ford for an undisclosed figure, and users have subsequently referred to her, Voldemort-style, as “She Who Must Not be Named”. Roberts says the incident reflected the failure of defamation laws to keep up with the internet, with regulators treating comments as comparable to newspaper articles.

Mumsnet has also attracted the ire of men’s rights groups such as Fathers for Justice, which in 2012 held a naked protest outside a London branch of Marks & Spencer’s (a Mumsnet advertiser) over the site’s alleged “anti-male agenda”. In 2015 Roberts was the victim of a “swatting attack”, when an anonymous caller falsely told the police that someone was prowling around the house with a gun.

In 2006 David Cameron, the new Tory leader, became the first politician to answer questions on Mumsnet. “He was very much into the idea of being a modern, new face, who could embrace the digital world and do engagement in a way his predecessors were awkward with. He was pretty good at it, actually,” Roberts recalled. Since then, appearing on Mumsnet has become a campaign stop for politicians hoping to woo “the women’s vote”.

But if Mumsnet has helped shaped motherhood into a political force, ministers often misunderstand what that means. “Politicians have had some weird idea that all Mumsnetters are going to vote the same way. You know, like the women’s vote is a homogeneous thing, which is just bonkers!” Roberts said. On subjects such as Brexit, users are split. But the website has offered a new way for women to organise around shared concerns such as high childcare costs, poor miscarriage care, or the sexualisation of young girls – three issues that have become official Mumsnet campaigns.

[See also: How “trauma” became a front in the culture war]

In 2009 Gordon Brown found himself at the centre of a strange media storm for allegedly being unable to name his favourite biscuit during a Mumsnet webchat (he may not have noticed the question). A more recent Q&A with the Labour MP Stella Creasy and the Conservative MP Caroline Noakes was derailed when user after user asked them, “What is a woman?” For some gender-critical feminists, this question is foundational, because when politicians fail to give a straight answer (or rather the answer they want: “adult female human”) it appears to erase women as a political class. For Mumsnet’s critics, as well as for many casual observers, the encounter suggested that the site had become dominated by women whose focus on trans identity has eclipsed all other issues. (Roberts intervened during the Creasy-Noakes discussion to ask people not to keep asking the same question: “It’s clear how strongly you feel, but you can’t set the rules of the discussion,” she wrote.)

Mumsnet was not always like this. If you go right back, a 2013 guest post by the mother of a trans man drew universally positive comments from women who praised her support of her child. But by 2018, when another parent of a trans child invited users to ask her questions, the mood was more interrogatory: “When you say you have a son, what do you mean?” asked one. “When growing up did you encourage your child to stick to gender stereotypes?” asked another.

The public discussion had shifted in those intervening years. Sarah Pedersen, author of The Politicization of Mumsnet (2020), told me that users were discussing trans women’s participation in women’s sports, as well as prisons and bathrooms, long before these subjects were well-covered by mainstream outlets. In 2010 the site created a “Feminism” chat in response to its users’ request for a new forum to talk about the politics of sex and gender.

Partly, this focus reflects Mumsnet’s core demographic: a community largely defined by biological function and sex, and by giving birth and its aftermath. Academics such as Angela McRobbie have argued that Mumsnet projects a neoliberal, consumerist model of motherhood, more focused on “leaning-in” for personal advancement than on supporting less privileged women. Such a perspective, which gives little consideration to how race, gender and class intersect, lends itself more naturally to a narrow view of womanhood.

But this focus is also a function of how the internet is regulated. “This is a discussion that is framed as one that is very hard to have elsewhere on the internet, and that was particularly closed down on places like Twitter or Reddit,” Pedersen told me. In this context, Mumsnet’s hosting of gender-critical discussions became one of its “USPs”, she explained. It’s unclear how many users joined Mumsnet because they were banned elsewhere; but during the Q&A with Noakes and Creasy, the TV writer Graham Linehan – permanently banned from Twitter for “hateful conduct” – asked the MPs if Eddie Izzard is a woman. (Creasy gave him short shrift, writing: “Am bemused to hear from you and your view that a discussion around mums in politics needs to be framed by a question about Eddie Izzard.”)

The journalist Freddy McConnell, a trans man who recently gave birth to his second child, says Mumsnet is a forum he will stumble on while “googling things in the night” while looking for recommendations or reassurance – “and I’m grateful to those people for having those conversations”.

But he said he would click on any other site in preference. “I would never go near the Sex and Gender board. The premise of the site as a whole feels old-school – the idea that parenthood is shaped by ‘mums’ does not recognise that families come in all shapes and sizes, that they might be shaped by dads, gay or straight, by people of colour, that they might involve surrogacy.” (McConnell publishes a children’s picture book inspired by his own family, Little Seahorse and the Big Question, next month.)

He questions the site’s commitment to anonymity and to diverse voices. “The work being done around the online safety bill points to the value of moving away from anonymity. People are not going on to the Sex and Gender board to talk to people who don’t agree with them – they are looking for people who do agree. If I was at Mumsnet, I would question why my site has become such a welcoming space for bigotry and for misinformation around trans issues.” He cites Reddit, Facebook groups and the Slate podcast Mom and Dad are Fighting as “open and mixed” online communities where parents can have such conversations without entering a culture war.

Matters came to a head for Mumsnet in 2018 when Emma Healy, a former intern, tweeted that the “vast majority” of discussions about trans issues on the site “descend into scaremongering and hate speech”. She wrote that Mumsnet made “no attempt to keep this discussion civil or polite”, and that criticism was dismissed by senior staff as a “smear campaign by trans activists”. In a 2018 piece for the youth magazine Huck, another former intern described the site as a “breeding ground for transphobic voices”.

Later that year Mumsnet issued a new moderation policy that affirmed its commitment to “free speech and civil debate” and zero tolerance for posts that are “aggressive or derogatory” towards trans people. It specifies that trans people find it hurtful when people deliberately use the wrong pronouns, and that it will delete posts that use terms such as “trans-identified male (TIM)” or “cis” and “Terf” in an “inflammatory or derogatory way”. Some people claim there is a false equivalence between a word such as “cis” and terms such as “TIM” – but Roberts was not swayed. “There are a bunch of women on the site who feel very strongly that they are not cis women, they are women,” she said. “I wouldn’t delete cis as a rule of thumb. It’s when it’s being used aggressively, in the way that calling someone a TRA [trans rights activist] is not particularly conducive to discussion.”

She had no patience for those who accuse Mumsnet of hosting hate speech. “We disallow hate. But if you think that discussion of biological sex and gender issues is hateful, then I guess you can say we allow it, so we’re hateful. But you know, I don’t think it is,” she said. “Mumsnet is basically women supporting women, 98 per cent of the time,” she added later, describing it as “much more civilised than it is below the line at the Mail”. (This is arguably one of the lowest possible bars.)

Roberts said that while many sites use automated moderation, Mumsnet employs around 30 people who are trained to moderate “based on values”. There are often “grey areas”, she acknowledged, but the site was doing its best to “allow discussions of different opinions and not allow the minority to squash the majority”. When Roberts has reported Twitter abuse herself in the past, she has received an automated response promising a decision within a week, and often never heard back. On average, she said, Mumsnet moderators respond within an hour.

In 2019 Flora pulled out of a commercial partnership, saying the site needed to do more to tackle discriminatory posts. Of this, Roberts said: “Look, it’s very easy for a few – and it’s only a few – trans activists to target our advertisers on Twitter. We’ve had a couple of companies who have pulled out of advertisements who have said, we know [you’re not transphobic], but we’re not interested in social media storms or controversy.” Despite this, Mumsnet’s revenues (mostly from advertising) were more than £7m last year. Roberts has resisted approaches from potential buyers.

Roberts told me her “personal view” is that “we need to embrace trans women and recognise them”, while acknowledging the potential risks for women should predatory men abuse gender self-identification rules. When I referred to Mumsnet’s discussions of “trans rights”, she objected to this framing. “I bridle at the idea that it’s a discussion about trans rights – it’s a discussion about women’s rights,” she said.

One increasingly frequent type of post is those from parents of trans children seeking advice. There has been an attempt to carve out a separate space for this group, by creating an “LGBT children” board, on which users are asked to be supportive. Nonetheless, the responses are often ideologically skewed. In a 2021 post the mother of a trans son said that she’d once described herself as gender-critical but had become uncomfortable at the level of “outright hostility to trans people”. She wrote that she was locked in a debate with Mumsnet over its moderation rules, and that simply banning personal attacks did not prevent “an incredibly hostile environment for parents like me”. There were “a lot of generalisations” about trans parents, that “we’re homophobic, we subscribe to sexist gender roles, we’re lying to our kids, we have Munchausen by proxy”, she wrote. “And as long as it’s not aimed at the individual, it’s allowed to stand. What other groups is it OK to do this to?”

[See also: Are you mentally ill, or very unhappy? Psychiatrists can’t agree]

But sometimes giving people space to say the unsayable can be quietly transformative. In March a user posted that they couldn’t cope with their child being transgender. Some responded that they would not “tolerate” this either, while others urged the poster to reconsider. “Imagine how hard it must have been for your child to feel like this,” one observed. Another wrote: “It’s up to you whether you ‘go along with it’ or not. However, you’ll have to face the fact that if you don’t you might lose your relationship with your child. Is that a hill you want to die on? Because it certainly wouldn’t be mine.”

It’s an exchange that would be hard for any trans person to read, and most people would wish that no parent is capable of denying their child. But if this mother had nowhere else to talk about her feelings, might she be even less likely to come to terms with her son’s transition?

How key, then, is Mumsnet to understanding gender-critical feminism in Britain in 2022? Its conversations about trans rights certainly reflect British society’s ideological fault-lines – and may have helped deepen them. Roberts argued that it is motherhood itself, rather than Mumsnet, that politicises women – though she thought the website had the power to change people. A 2013 Mumsnet survey found that 58 per cent of users said they were more likely to consider feminist perspectives on everyday issues as a result of the site, and 32 per cent had changed the way they parent.

Roberts’ twins are now 23, and her youngest child is 16. She told me she felt that the past 20 years had brought some progress: women had greater political representation; users reported a more even distribution of household chores; and the proportion of Mumsnetters who worked outside the home had risen, from two-thirds to around 80 per cent. At the same time, the site’s campaigns on domestic and sexual violence were as urgent as ever.

When I wondered how Mumsnet had changed her, Roberts answered without hesitation, but gave a politician’s answer. “I think it’s made me more sympathetic to other people, in other situations,” she said. “And I think the benefit of this honest and truthful discussion is you can see other perspectives, and learn and grow.”

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This article appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato