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.