Monday, 8 February 2010

Conference report: Women, political blogging and the future of the left

I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time these days sitting in sessions about New Media and politics in which men tell women why women don't blog. The New Media debate at the Progressive London conference this month was exciting, and uplifting, and full of cutting-edge ideas about How to Use the Internet to Re-energise the British Left, and at the end of his speech, Andy Newman made a little, throwaway comment which made me feel as if all the air had been kicked out of my chest in one go.

"Not many women are really involved in blogging, because the blogosphere is quite pugnacious."

In other words, this brave new world of ideas is much too rough for girls. In other words, keep to your corner of the playground before the nasty boys push you around any more.

When men are telling women why women don't write about politics, they have a tendency to think of feminist politics as a niche subject, a fad, a schema somehow separated from the rest of political thought and action by a magical door of selective oversight. Coincidentally, whilst the New Media panellists were debating the apparent lack of female involvement in this new age of online activism, Matty Mitford was describing the progress of the Boris Keep Your Promise campaign in a much less well-attended Capital Woman session next door.

Boris Keep Your Promise is a multi-platform feminist, liberal coalition designed to embarrass the Mayor into keeping his election pledge to save London's rape crisis centres. The internet has been essential in this campaign: activists blogged, tweeted and made a massive hypertextual fuss, pointing out that the amount of money required to save London's one remaining rape crisis centre was exactly the same as Boris Johnson's £250,000 yearly salary from The Telegraph, a sum he described as 'chickenfeed'.

Mayor Johnson's 2008 manifesto, in which he had pledged the rape crisis funding that City Hall officials were later forced to admit had not been prioritised, was quickly removed from the internet - but to no avail. On the 21st of October 2009, The London Assembly voted by a large majority to demand that the Mayor of London deliver the £744,000 a year he promised in his election campaign. Boris Keep Your Promise has been a coup for the left in London, it has been a flashpoint for internet activism in Britain, and it has been a victory for practical feminism. By challenging the right on small matters like whether they believe funding rape crisis centres is less important than keeping £750,000 in the City Hall PR budget, the Left can win victories. This is valuable campaining territory that is being lost in the wash of misogyny that pollutes the liberal blogosphere.

The offhand way in which Newman's comment was made was what truly shocked me. Even if it were true that women don't blog, even if it weren't the case that thousands of brave, brilliant women from across the country and the world are right this minute raising their voices and debating online despite a great deal of targeted misogyny, Mr Newman and others on the panel made it seem that the presumed non-presence of over 50% of the population in the biggest conversation on earth was somehow a side issue.

Of course, the political blogosphere is pugnacious. It's ugly, and it's relentless, and it's full of spiteful misogynists, rampant rape-apologists, slut-shamers, and bitter men in lonely bedrooms across the world whose idea of a great night in is to shame, decry and otherwise tear apart the very personhood of remote, virtual women who they're never likely to meet. Nearly every female blogger I know has at some point spoken to me, half-amused, about her 'stalkers', and the strange and cruel things they've emailed to say they want to do to them. There is a reason that women bloggers moderate their comments, a reason why the majority of female World of Warcraft players choose male avatars, a a reason why we often feel unsafe in spaces where, as liberals or as conservatives or music fans or uploaders of inane vlogs about our cats, we should not have to expect hostility.

But when that hostility occurs, as it has for women since the internet began, most of us are big enough and tough enough to handle it, and handle it we do, quietly, exhaustively, relentlessly, fending off the misogynist attacks that any woman with ambitions to raise her voice above a whisper learns to handle. I have been called a cunt, a cow, a whore, a stupid little girl, I've been told that I deserve to be raped and beaten, I've been told I need to be taken in hand by a man who will fill me up with the babies that are the only thing my body and brain are good for, and I'm still here, I'm still writing, arguing and debating, and they haven't managed to shut me up yet.

The sort of repulsive, everyday abuse I'm talking about is perfectly anodine, and it's entirely expected, and it has all occurred within the liberal blogosphere. This isn't the nasty, evil Tories. This is the Left. The left urgently needs to clean its own house when it comes to misogyny and sexism online. The liberal blogosphere needs to stop marginalising women and condoning sexist attacks if we want our thousand flowers to bloom rather than strangling each other, weedlike, before we get off the ground.

Tonight, I am going to be attending What Difference Does Political Blogging Make?, a debate hosted by the Westminster Skeptics. The panellists - Guido Fawkes, Iain Dale, Nick Cohen, Sunny Hundal and Mick Fealty - are all men. And it's not like they didn't have women bloggers to invite. What about Cath Elliot, or Harpy Marx, or Sadie Smith? What about Jess McCabe of that phenomenal political campaigning platform, The F Word? If there's going to be any sort of future for the left, women bloggers need to be acknowledged as a central and vital part of the conversation.


  1. Thank you so much for this. Even more than usual: thank you.

    You are wonderful, and you make the blogosphere a better place for being in it.

  2. I enjoy your blog, and you're on my blogroll.

    It just doesn't occur to me to think about a blog in terms of the gender of its author

    I think Iain Dale's & Guido Fawke's problem is that they're just tossers

  3. Just a few basic figures (potentially TRIGGERING for gender-related abuse or overwhelming empirical evidence of the world being utterly fucked up):

    Meyer and Cukier signed a load of bots onto IRC channels and recorded the number of malicious private messages they received just while sitting silently in the chat rooms. Bots given male names received an average of 3.7 messages per day. Ambiguously-gendered names, 25. Female? 100.

    I just bring these up because every time something like this comes up, someone immediately says something along the lines of "oh, I don't think women really get that much abuse, yr just being oversensitive". So to the person (man) who was about to say that, I'd like to a) suggest you go look up Chris Clarke's "How Not To Be An Asshole: A Guide For Men", and b) repeat his advice on the matter: shut the fuck up.

  4. I don't think you're being fair to Andy Newman.

    Description is not prescription.

    What I can't work out is if you really believe he's telling you to 'keep to your corner of the playground' - in which case I think you're profoundly mistaken - or whether you're just determined to be offended and so have wilfully taken description as prescription.

    I hope its the former.

    I suppose there is a third option - that he's uttered a truth that dare not speak its name (imagine a female Guido ? I can't. Wouldn't want one either, mind) and so your misrepresentation is somehow justified. Hope its not that either.

  5. Great article, as usual.

    @miyako: typo in your link it should be

  6. In fairness Andy is probably repeating something women have told him, Laurie. I remember having this debate on Labour MembersNet. The women on the site used to say that they didn't engage with other blogs because they didn't like the rough and tumble of debate.

    Thus his mistake is not have treated it as a side issue, it's to naturalize it - to assume that this is true for all women, and to assume that this is an innate difference between men and women. I'm sure different women have different reasons, and as you point out, it's not an innate difference - there are plenty of women who defy the stereotype.

  7. 觀音 (Guan Yin)9 February 2010 at 11:28

    For the sake of balance I think I should point out the the Penny Red blog itself can be very combative, opinionated and assertive. It isn't always men who are the most "pugnacious" or "bullish" residents of the blogosphere.

  8. "Thus his mistake is not have treated it as a side issue, it's to naturalize it - to assume that this is true for all women, and to assume that this is an innate difference between men and women."

    In fairness also, it was an offhand comment, we don't know if he actually thinks that. His words may have "come out wrong" (ooh matron)

  9. Of course it isn't the "nasty, evil Tories". Of course it's the Left. Hadn't you noticed that the Left has a far higher nasty quotient to it than the centre-Right?

    As for last night's thing, it's a shame you didn't contact JoK and ask to be let onto the platform. He might well have said yes. Since when has it been about sitting quietly and waiting for some man to make the first move?

  10. If there is some truth to this claim of a gender disparity in blogging, I am not sure we should be satisfied with explanations focusing on the 'rough and tumble of debate', which is really an unnecessarily euphemistic way of referring to the usual phallic domination games, abuse, stalking, etc. Women have to put up with crap in all walks of life, not least their own homes, but that doesn't prevent them from engaging. Why are most successful bloggers white, male professionals? My hunch is that part of the reason is because the blogosphere is parasitic on the existing corporate media, and the same patterns of exclusion and marginalisation that exist in the corporte media tend to be reproduced across the blogosphere as a result. The blogs that do well tend to be those that are promoted by in the print and, less often, televisual media. The blogs that are being promoted in The Grauniad and elsewhere, and not least in these ridiculous, pompous fora about political blogging, are largely the ones written in a style that journalists and editors can relate to. The style, and the kinds of concerns reflected in it, relates to a class perspective, a gender perspective, a racial perspective, etc (not necessarily in that precise order). Whereas most blogs that die, I suspect, do so because of a lack of attention. Other blogs don't bother with them, the big blogs ignore them. No one likes talking to themselves. There's also the question of who has time and resources to blog? 30 percent of households don't have the internet in the first place. This will be the poorest households, and we know that contains a gender bias. The majority of those who have internet access work full-time and don't have much free-time to dedicate to maintaining a blog, much less promoting it and ensuring it is widely read. Generally speaking, professionals tend to be the ones who have the leisure time, the resources and the technie skills to really get a blog running effectively. There's another gender bias there, given the under-representation of women in such roles. Then there's the division of labour in any given household. Most women who work also do the majority of household labour. And then there's the fact that women are under-represented in all forms of political life, which could be carrying through into bloggery. There are all sorts of socio-economic factors rooted in political oppression which could potentially militate against women running blogs, especially constantly updated, high-traffic current affairs blogs.

  11. The Red (the long haired one)9 February 2010 at 17:43

    So far as using a male or ambiguous name goes, I find it incredibly useful. I talk to strangers over IM or on messageboards quite a lot, and find that I can get a much better standard of conversation when they don't realise I'm female. As soon as I admit my gender, about 50% of conversations go downhill into unpleasant and unwarranted sexual territory, or seem to assume that my brain has magically stopped working since "female, why do you ask?" appeared on their screens.

  12. "Description is not prescription."

    Well, in this case it becomes prescription because of not stating that the current situation (being described) is unacceptable and that we should find better ways (e.g. more pro-actively moderated spaces) of involving all aspects of humanity, not just the be-penised ones.

    If you don't make that statement then the "description" becomes a declaration of "and I see no reason why we should seek to change this". Almost inevitably, this leads in practical terms to the effect observed in the OP.

  13. I'd go along with Dave on this. I've heard it said by quite a few women bloggers that they didn't like going on left blogs because the comments boxes were full of hyper-aggressive willy-waving. This is obviously a generalisation - there are lots of left blogs that have a civilised level of debate, and I've seen a few feminist ones that were incredibly nasty - but on anecdotal grounds at least, there's something to it.

    Secondly: Andy may not have expressed himself brilliantly, but he's frequently said that there are too few women in the left blogosphere, and the level of vituperation in debate is terrible. Sunny, from a slightly different perspective, has said much the same thing. The problems are not identical, but there's obviously some connection.

    So there's a question of what you do about it. There's no easy answer to that, but if on the one hand you have people on the left leading by example - that's good examples, we already have plenty of bad ones - and on the other you have women bloggers identifying who their allies are, because if there's one thing worse than men trying to put women in a corner, it's women deciding to sit in the corner and complain about the corner.

    You can't set up a committee or pass a resolution. We're an informal medium by the nature of things. But I always think that, if you're willing to have a respectful dialogue, things will flow.

  14. well this is a bit disappointing Penny, because you don't mention

    i) that I gave a long and detailed response to your point, which discussed the fact that my comment had been informed by long e-mail conversation I had had with women bloggers. And within which I pointed out that there is a continued problem of marginalisation and ignoring of women's comments on blogs like mine, and that I actually don't know what to d about it; as it replicates patriarchal attitudes and power relationships from the real world.

    ii) my throwaway comment was itself in response to Helen Gardner of BorisWatch, the only woman on the panel, who qwaas the person who originally made the point that not so many women are involved in political bloggging; and I was offereing my opinion that the pugnacious and sometimes hostile atmosphere may have something to do wth it


  15. "Thus his mistake is not have treated it as a side issue, it's to naturalize it - to assume that this is true for all women, and to assume that this is an innate difference between men and women."

    No Dave, you have simply projected a political outlook onto me that I do not hold. It is a rather disretuable debating tactic to attribute a "mistake" to me without any evidence.

    Laurie herself knows that i do not hold the position you have attributed to me, becasue I expanded at length on the subject in response to her challenge.

    the problem lies not with women not being tough enough, but with men being sexist. Given the misogyny that pours on women on the blogs if they make a remark against the consensus, and given the fact that their points are often simply marginaised and ignored, I thnk it is entirely reasonable for many women to simply bow out.

    If this was happening in a face to face meeting in the labour movement, then an equalities aware chair would not allow it.BUt it is hard to moderate an internet converstion without ratcheting up the tension.

  16. ""If you don't make that statement then the "description" becomes a declaration of "and I see no reason why we should seek to change this".

    that is why this is so disapointing of Penny.
    Becasue she does not mention the long reply I gave her where I did address the fact that we shoud find a way to change this.

    This has left you with the fase impressin that I am complacent abouit it, when I am not.

    (BTW, very good points above by Lenin)

  17. Incidently, Laurie, given that you have pout this in quotation marks:

    "Not many women are really involved in blogging, because the blogosphere is quite pugnacious."

    it gives the false impression that it is what I actually said. It is of course not what I said, but your spin on it.

    I was actually talking about the robust and pugnacious nature of blog comments as a general prpoblem, and then I nodded t Helen Gardner and said, that this partially explained her point about why there wwere fewer women participants in mainstream political blogging .

    It is ironic to say the least that you have airbrushed the contribution by Helen out of the debate! given that this ignoring of womens' voices is one of the factors that leads to many women feeling marginalised and excluded

  18. Wow. Ouch. How will Penny respond?

  19. When I was in Grade Eight (Canada) I participated in a debate wherein I had to argue against women sitting as Members of Parliament. I couldn't think of one argument. My Dad helped me out - the bombastic, pugnacious world if politics was no place for women, he told me. I had no idea at all what he was talking about. Still don't.


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