With a room full of big name bloggers from across the country, it's hardly surprising that the debate has already been written up all over the left blogsphere (jeez, but I utterly loathe that term). One particularly striking question, raised by a confused young man in the audience, was: what do you want from us? How are we supposed to respond when you're complaining both that more mainstream blogs ignore your comments and posts and that you're routinely taken advantage of online? How can you ask to be taken more seriously and not want to be pushed around or bullied? Or, as the clit-itchingly unreconstructed Mr Lee Griffin put it:
'I think it's an amazing feat to both be ignored and abused at the same time but even more complicated became the idea that feminists wanted more credit, and to be leaders of feminist issues...but while men were there to support the arguments in a debate where everyone is equal.'
I rarely indulge in the turf wars over topics like this, partly because Pennyred isn't solely a feminist blog but, rather, a plain old leftist blog, highly informed, as all liberal politics should be, by feminism. But the reactions of the men in the audience both at the event and after they'd got home, had their coffee and calmed down enough to type, were astounding. Let me make one thing clear:
In meatspace or in cyberspace, women should not have to choose between being ignored and being abused. Both are problems faced by women in online communities. The hypertextual, interactive nature of the internet, along with the anonymity afforded by avatars and handles, is just one reason that flourishing women's communities have sprung up across cyberspace, groundbreaking grass-roots activism and sisterly solidarity of a species never seen before - but the hostility feminist bloggers meet with outside dedicated feminist communities has to be encountered to be believed.
As a woman writing online, you come to expect a given amount of crass, rude, misogynist abuse in comments; you come to expect a certain amount of pointless lewdness and sexual bullying from posters using the anonymity of the internet as a chance to indulge their more tiresome and vindictive politics. You expect to be called a bitch and a slut, you expect to receive sexual threats and inappropriate propositions when you write about women's issues. I've had it, we've all had it. At the same time, Kate Belgrave and others expressed dismay that some of the key online feminist campaigns in recent months have been attributed to male bloggers, when females have put in much of the leg work. Whilst understanding that male feminists have an important contribution to make, this position is a far cry from table-thumping feminazism. Let me explain:
We need men in the feminist movement. We welcome their presence, and we value their contribution. What irks us is when men come into the movement and immediately expect to lead. We do not need leaders - what we need are allies. What we need are men who will listen to our experiences without presuming to tell us, first, what those experiences are. Anne Onne has a fantastic piece up at TheFWord this month:
'...The problem is, as a privileged group which isn’t used to hostility, it feels as if any criticism is personal. That anything directed at men means that we are criticising all men, no matter how wonderful they are. We are not, and every time you think this is the case, check yourself. Feminists have brothers, fathers, boyfriends and male friends and are sometimes even men. We know perfectly well that not all men are responsible for a problem. But we also know that if men don’t own their role in this, things won’t get better. In order to unravel privilege, you have to admit you have it, and admit that people may have a very real reason to fear people like you. Yes, it sucks that if you walk up to a strange woman in a deserted street, or are stuck in an empty lift with her, she will be nervous. But imagine what it’s like for her. Far worse.'
We need men who want to educate themselves in women's issues (for a crash-course you can do no better than a visit to Feminism101). We need men to support us and afford us the respect that we deserve. And we need men who are prepared to drop their weapons and come off the defensive, who understand that feminism and misandry aren't synonymous, that a rant against patriarchy does not constitute an personal attack on every Y-chromosomed individual out there in cyberspace. We need male feminists who will listen without wanting to lead. To call the feminist movement an unequal one because its women are anxious not to be drowned out is a feat of point-missage second only to the UK's Eurovision record.
And, guys? There will be times when you will get it wrong. You will make mistakes. You, too, are human. Don't mire yourselves in defensiveness for fear of making a mistake. We will make mistakes too, time and time again - we'll call you 'typically male' when we're tired and angry, we will even refer to you, when you've put in the effort to be kind and considerate at home, as 'well trained.' And when we display disgusting dregs of prejudice like this, we expect, respectfully, to be challenged. As we, in turn, will challenge you.
Set down this: the way that men, and male bloggers in particular, feel when trying to participate in the feminist movement is not dissimilar to the way that women feel when trying to participate in life. That cold tug on the solar plexus when you realise you're in a world that wasn't arranged for your benefit, where you didn't make the rules and where your voice might be less important purely because of your genital arrangement? Remember that feeling. Remember that feeling and imagine it applied to the rest of your life. Imagine not being able to shut down the computer and walk away.
After generations of struggle, we are still trying to build a better world, one where gender does not dictate behaviour and assumptions and opportunities. We would like you to share it with us. Online communities are one area where we're laying the foundations, and we would be immensely glad of your support, your energy and your ideas. We don't need your leadership and we don't want your bullying vendettas; all you need to do is bite down and try to understand and own your own privilege. It can be hard to swallow. But it's got to be done.