Saturday 28 June 2008

Blog Nation and men in feminist cyberspace....

Fashionably late to the party, this week I went to a massively interesting liberal bloggers' event at the Guardian. It was fantastic to finally meet people I've spent so long sparring with online; that awkward shuffling when a roomful of geeky people who know each other well but haven't actually met and are trying, shyly, to match faces to cyberspace handles felt pleasingly zeitgeist as always. It was the second part of the evening, the panel on women's blogs, feminist blogs and their interaction with the rest of the blogsphere, that really got my hackles raised.

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.


  1. Just an fyi:

  2. Good post, although

    Both arr problems faced by women in online communities

    Some pirate DNA surfacing here?

  3. Yarr! The high seas be the next sphere o' feminist takeover, matey!

  4. Cheers for the link, whatever the context. I have absolutely no disagreement that women should not be ignored and should not be abused online, but realistically perhaps there needs to be some acceptance that tackling the situation of "being ignored" may be most important even if in the short term it creates some kind of abuse?

    It'd be great if we could solve all problems at once and at the same time, but perhaps what I was looking for form the discussion was some idea of what priorities should be for pushing feminism forward. :)

  5. Lee -

    I understand what you're saying. As you actually mentioned in your original post, however, don't you think it's a bit disingenuous to propose that the huge range and scope of feminists and feminisms all suddenly start singing from the same hymn-sheet? There is more than one feminist priority in every sector of the movement, just as anti-racism has more than one aim. Asking online feminists to pick just one priority is rather insulting, really.

    unreconstructed love. xx

  6. This is superb. I want to make all of my friends read and agree and swear to stick to it, and to hold me to it also.

  7. Fantastic!

    If there were a single priority, I'd say this is it. Getting men involved.

    Mark my words, it'll change the world.

  8. 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.

    Well said. There was a thread on Socialist Unity blog a while ago, concerning Galloway's infamous "Kylie's arse" comments (a.k.a. the Kylie's Arse Saga), and the attitudes of some of the male socialists in that debate were frankly outrageous in their patronising, narrowminded dismissal of the contributions made by feminists to the discussion.

    It was a depressing sight indeed, in some ways a microcosm of what the left can be like: a cliquey boys' club where the ladies are welcome in theory but mustn't get ideas above their station...

    What pisses me off even more is how these people adamantly refuse to concede an inch of ground once they've made their bold statements about feminism being less important than the class struggle, or some such nonsense. As you say, all that is needed is a willingness to keep an open mind and to learn.

    PS. Have a look at my post about Girls Aloud. Go on, you know you want to.

  9. Hey it was great to meet you there Penny. We should link-swap. I also wrote about the conference here:

  10. The absence of a disadvantage is not in and of itself a privilege.

    For example, being sighted is not a privilege. It may be an advantage over the blind but it is in no way a privilege. Such reasoning lends itself to the absurd idea of judging everyone not in coma as privileged... after all, you can talk and walk and love yet they cannot! Privilege and advantage are not interchangeable concepts…because a synonym is not an equinym.

    Hence, talking of male privilege is inherently inflammatory and why many will oppose feminism. Privilege per se is a 'class' concept and applicable to both men and women... claiming all men to be privileged and to be unaware of this privilege is pointless. It will always evoke rancour for it presupposes that the benefit is tangible and deliberate. The vast majority of men are limited by the demands placed upon them and are not supporting this system in the manner so often implied. Likewise, women are interwoven with the system that places demands upon them and like many men they are unwilling to change. The reason is of course obvious... neither a woman’s nor a man’s movement can hope to supply even a partial answer. Only time and human endeavour can hope to change things.

    Gender will always dictate behaviour and assumptions but should never limit them or opportunities. Then again, you will never achieve equal opportunity because no human being (or human society) is greater than circumstance. The notion of equal outcomes is simply absurd... even without monetary system people will assess others in such a way as to restore differing outcomes, be they social, monetary, status…whatever.

    With reference to the quote from Anne Onne: I have lived in numerous countries and have been all too aware of the intimidating effect of my physical stature. I can do nothing about this... I no longer even try. I display the same attitude to both men and women and their response is up to them. Besides, statistically men are at a greater risk of violent attack than women yet generally exhibit less fear (note; the elderly – both male and female – are also more prone to fear). There is of course a neurological aspect to this difference in perception which is associated with perceived risk. (Don’t believe me?.. Google it!) Men often wrongly assume they are safe and women often wrongly assume they are at risk.

    You are responsible for your own feelings… However, the spin one adds to these points changes the implied meaning (and responsibility) of the situation.

    The world is not 'arranged' to suit men as a set but rather manipulated by a subset of men (and some women) for their financial and personal gain. This exploitation is common and as often as not directed at women... this does not mean that they are the sole victims of the system. However, it must be understood that the exploitation noted is a logical reaction to the system and not an indicator of abhorrent intent.

    That many men 'feel' a sense of injustice and the spreading of misandry does not mean it is (or is not) happening. Equally, the 'feelings' of women are not an indicator of reality. Both are important but only part of the inter-subjective nature of the human condition.

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