Where should a 20-something feminist go when faced with a online barrage of rape and death threats? Unsurprisingly, Laura Bates turned to an anonymous talkboard to ask for help soon after she founded the Everyday Sexism Project 18 months ago. Less predictably, perhaps, the childless campaigner chose to do so on parenting website Mumsnet. Within hours, Bates had almost 100 responses. They ranged from the serious to the scatological, but all of them were supportive. To her concerns that she was being followed online, BasilFoulTea wrote: “Well, if they’re stalking this one – hallo, nobbers. I bet you needle-dick wankers can’t get a woman to shag you on a voluntary basis because you’re all repulsive with halitosis and a total lack of sex appeal and charisma. <Waves>”
“That was the first time I’d laughed since the emails began,” says Bates, who is now feted by politicians and companies alike for her work tackling sexism. “I have a real soft spot for Mumsnet.”
Much has been written over the past few months about so-called “fourth wave” feminists, young media- and internet-savvy women like Bates, whose online petitions and direct action campaigns – from UK Feminista’s campaign against supermarkets displaying lads’ mags to No More Page 3, which has so far garnered 116,750 signatories asking the Sun newspaper to scrap its pictures of bare-breasted women – are tackling some longstanding issues.
Far less remarked upon, however, has been a quieter revolution that has been going on for some time, in anonymous forums, about all sorts of subjects, from baking to relationship advice to work crises – and very often, in spite of those who argue that retreating into motherhood is not feminism as they know it, on sites such as Mumsnet. The website, with its four million users, nearly all of whom are women, is possibly the most mainstream and politically important example of this slow-burn resurgence in feminist thought.
Natasha Walter, the feminist author, was struck by the supportive atmosphere of Mumsnet when she was writing Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism, a few years ago. “It was quite a dark time for feminists, before the current campaigns against Twitter and Page 3. It just wasn’t mainstream. People weren’t challenging everyday sexism. So I was really struck by the conversations on Mumsnet. I’d go on and listen and be heartened by the way women were responding.”
The sort of anonymity that has been so problematic on the web has also allowed women to speak out about sometimes appalling abuse. Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts says: “The original We Believe You Campaign [to raise awareness about rape and sexual assault] was a good example of this – a safe, anonymous space for people to post accounts of things that had happened to them, often decades ago, and say: ‘I was sexually assaulted and I’d always just shrugged it off/blamed myself.'”
Last month, Mumsnet looked into whether its members regarded themselves as feminist. Roughly twice as many (59%) identify themselves as feminist as those who do not (28%). More importantly, the 2,034 respondents are more likely to self-identify as feminists since joining Mumsnet, with just 47% doing so before joining.
Support for feminism is all over the site, on the busy relationship and advice threads, not just on the feminist talkboards set up in 2010. One member, who wants to remain anonymous due to her work with anti-violence campaigners, writes in an email: “If you look at the answers on the relationship threads, they are kneejerk progressive and pro-women … On porn and prostitution it isn’t feminist theory (boring!) but real-life stuff that’s happening. Again, answers to these are supportive.”
Many of the Mumsnet feminists I talked to said they had always been “feminists” but not “academic” ones – as if a discussion of intersectionality and gender theory were the real ways to define themselves as believing in equality, rather than the way they chose to live their lives. In the survey, 58% agreed with the statement that being part of the social network of other women made them more likely to “consider the feminist perspectives on everyday issues” (such as domestic abuse – 59% agreed that Mumsnet had changed their views about what constitutes such abuse), and a similar percentage said it made them think differently about “how I parent my children when it comes to gender roles”. Nicola Hillary, who lives in Gloucestershire with her two small children, started donating to Women’s Aid as a direct result of what she learned from others on the site. “I hadn’t realised what a horrible situation domestic violence is for so many women,” she says. “It was quite a revelation, I suppose, because it’s hidden in society and people don’t talk about it.”
The survey results and comments do not mean that all Mumsnetters are feminist, of course; that would be like saying all Twitter users are misogynists. A diverse site known almost as much for its bust-ups and bitchiness as for its parenting advice is never going to offer one view on life. But Mumsnet, and sites like it, are providing a platform for women to talk and listen to the views and lives of others. Making the personal political may have become a cliche, but social media has given it new legs.
Of course, many “old-school” feminists balk at the very name Mumsnet. In a Twitter debate earlier this year, for instance, novelist Judy Astley wrote: “Am 70s feminist. Have seen huge changes that you all take for granted. Feminism about so much more than mother (parent)hood.” Journalist Ticky Hedley Dent shot back: “I think #Mumsnet is key to understanding feminism. Feminism hardly comes into play until you have kids. Then you get it.”
Many women have spoken of the shock to your sense of self that comes when you have a child. In her book A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, for instance, Rachel Cusk writes that, “childbirth and motherhood are the anvil upon which sexual inequality was forged, and the women in our society whose responsibilities, expectations and experience are like those of men are right to approach it with trepidation. Women have changed, but their biological condition remains unaltered. As such motherhood provides a unique window to the history of our sex, but its glass is easily broken.”
In Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the illusion of equality, Rebecca Asher, a former editor on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, described how the “machine of motherhood transports us back to the 1950s … today women outperform men at school and university. They make a success of their early careers and enter into relationships on their own terms. So it might seem that equality is in the bag. But once they have children, their illusions are swiftly shattered.”
When I call her on her mobile, the unmistakable sounds of a noisy playground intrude. Motherhood galvanised her own feminism, she says. “It gave me an extra anger and really drove my feminism.” Why? She hoots with laughter. “There are, let me see, about three men here looking after children, and 20 or 25 women.”
Lisa Parry, a 33-year-old freelance writer living in Cardiff, dismisses the distinction between caring about issues – the politics – and working out how to live your life, the personal. “I don’t see any contradiction between saying women should earn the same as men and saying I want my son brought up well … I just don’t see that as less of a feminist thing. In fact, it’s a feminist act to bring him up to regard both sexes as equal.”
She cites the conversations she’s had on talkboards since having her son 13 months ago as changing her opinion that all feminists have to work outside the home. “Before I had a kid I thought feminists should work. But there are some people who can’t.” This realisation has “made me think about feminism differently”.
Yet Alison Starr, a keen Mumsnetter who is older than the average at 53, has been surprised at how many members still post suggesting they can’t be feminist because they stay at home to look after the kids. “There is a lot of feminist support but it’s probably with a small ‘f’ and not a big one,” she says wearily. (The sorts of labels put on “feminists” were most apparent in a separate, much smaller survey carried out by Netmums last year, which found that few of its members described themselves as feminist because they liked makeup and men).
Asher is less receptive to the idea that social media is helping mothers support each other, having experienced a “bullying side” to Mumsnet during discussion of her book. “Social media is as divisive as it is unifying. It can really polarise debate as people have very strong personal opinions about motherhood. And social media is all about social expression.”
If Mumsnetters tend to be “feminists with a small f”, as Starr says, they are also political with a small p. These women are more likely to unite over certain issues – pinkification of girls’ toys, for example – than their support for a particular party or person. In this way, the site echoes other online campaign groups and an increasing trend in our national life, where support for mainstream political parties has waned as specific campaigns – against fracking, for badgers etc – have united individuals.
The frontline of a new wave of feminist behaviour, or a site where middle-class parents gather to discuss schooling and Velcro shoes? Mumsnet is many things to many people, but its impact on the way many live their lives should not be overlooked. As Natasha Walter says: “Of course feminism still needs a radical edge, but the power of Mumsnet is that it’s a very, very comfortable space. Women can talk about baking and all this feminism, too. What’s wrong with that?” – Jane Martinson © Guardian News and Media 2013