Debating digital equality at NetrootsUK

Monday, 10 January 2011

Westminster, as a rule, isn't too friendly to women and its culture is often accused of shutting us out, refusing to adapt and become more inclusive. Those who 'get in' become targets for ridicule and abuse from all sides and not simply based on their ability as MPs. They're patronised at every opportunity whether they're Blair's Babes or Cameron's Cuties. Their ability to function as a mother or wife is called into question because they combine it with politics and their clothes and bodies are analysed as if they're vitally important to the political landscape.

The result is marginalisation for the women outside of Westminster who see this happening. We saw last year's election hailed as the 'Mumsnet election', the one that would hinge on women's views. Why? Because they thought we might care about politics for once because of the welfare of families that was at stake. The media talked to women on the street and newspapers appealed for women who were concerned about the outcome of the election to come forward and talk to them. The result of this was one patronising feature after another (in the 'women's pages', of course) which again reduced women's concerns about the political landscape to worries about their children (not that there is anything wrong with women's concerns for their children, but we are interested in other areas of policy, don't you know).

The most coverage we saw connecting women and politics during the last election was tedious analysis of the leaders' wives and their sartorial choices. At the same time, the majority of major political issues were written about by men. Men were interviewed to find out what they thought about these issues and they appeared in the 'UK news' pages of the newspapers and on the major blogs, just like all good 'men's issues' always do.

So bearing this in mind, we fast forward to the beginning of 2011 and NetrootsUK and we're sitting in a room on the very top floor of Congress House. The burning question of the afternoon is "How can women get engaged online?" and everyone is pretty irritated because it's obvious that we are engaged online already. Lisa Ansell gives a fantastic breakdown of just why the focus of the discussion has been misjudged. She talks about the fact that the major political blogs focus on events and situations which exclude the majority of people from discussion. They focus on party politics and Westminster, ignoring all the other blogs and forums and social networking sites out there where people from all backgrounds with a variety of interests are engaging in political discussion outside of the cliquey world of political blogging, dominated as it is by white middle-class men and their preoccupation with the main parties.

It's obvious that plenty of women are engaged online and you don't have to look very hard to see evidence of this. A workshop at NetrootsUK wasn't the best place to ask such a question. The real question is: How can we stop the marginalisation of women who are engaged online?. How do we stop any issue a woman has an opinion on being sidelined as a 'women's issue' and therefore a 'less important issue', a 'non-issue' even? How do we effect change in the way women are treated online so they can take part in debate without being subject to disgusting insults or patronised by men who think it's amusing to call them 'dear' or tell them they're being 'hysterical'? How do we get people to listen so that posts and articles written by women get just as much attention for the right reasons and not simply because they're being targeted by misogynist trolls?

The situation is such that women can write about certain issues repeatedly and their opinions will be ignored or ridiculed. But when a man writes about the same issue, holding the same sort of opinion, the people who ignored women's views on it will hail him as some sort of visionary and congratulate him for writing such a spot-on piece of journalism. At the very least, no-one will call him hysterical, nor will they threaten to rape him. That's what we face and that's why so many women feel discouraged when they attempt to get more involved. That's why the major politics blogs have fewer female writers and commenters.

These are things which need to be discussed, but not just in one workshop attended overwhelmingly by women. As Lisa said, women all over the country of every political persuasion and none at all are suffering right now. They are going to suffer further and they are speaking up about it, writing about it and involving themselves just as much as men, but they will be ignored online as long as the current culture surrounding high-profile activism and blogging remains the way it is now, Westminster-obsessed and insular to the point where consideration of people who just might not have access to the internet is something of a rarity.

Incidentally I'm not making this post to snipe about that particular issue and I did enjoy my day at Netroots. It was a really useful day for me and provided some great opportunities to discuss and plan some projects for the year ahead - and I do mean that. But it was just today that I was reading a thread on Mumsnet where women were talking about how much they care about the political issues affecting the country right now - and just because they don't talk about ideology and party politics all day it doesn't mean they're less political or less educated about it all or that they have no interest.

As women who feel marginalised in all this we can sit and discuss it from our point of view until we're blue in the face and believe me, we did, both during the workshop and at length during the networking session after the conference as well as online. What we need is for the discussions to take place outside one workshop in one small room and in a space where those who contribute to this marginalisation can hear what we've got to say and hopefully take note, rather than roll their eyes and point out that they're as inclusive as they come before going back to talking about their proper, serious 'big' political issues. Laurie Penny pointed out that all issues are 'women's issues' and that they need to be treated as such by those that wield the power. She also pointed out that we must not forget our strength and the power we do have no matter how discouraging things get, which is something important to remember at times like this.

There were men present at the digital equality workshop and from reading their tweets at the time I know they were stirred by what they heard. I know they were extremely interested and inspired by what Lisa and the other speakers had to say. It would have been even better if more men had been able to be there to listen and to take part, which could have happened if more prominence was given to discussing digital equality and more women were given a chance to speak in general.

Going forward more consideration needs to be given to ensure even greater diversity and a commitment to equality (and not just gender equality) over all sessions and workshops at events like NetrootsUK, particularly in light of the way the cuts are currently affecting and set to affect women. Weighing heavy on our minds is the fact that over 70% of revenue from cuts to benefits and tax changes will come out of women's pockets. The fact that more women work in the public sector and the fact that their wages are lower than men's to start with. These points alone should have meant that women were better represented and given more of a voice at the conference instead of being given one session to themselves to discuss how they can get involved online.

On Saturday and since many people I know have been discussing the challenges of ensuring there is even more diversity at events like NetrootsUK and it would be great to see a commitment to making this happen next time. Otherwise there is little point in getting women together to discuss being marginalised, when those who can help stop that marginalisation are not there to participate and listen. We are engaged online - women use the internet much more than men - and a strategy to get more engaged isn't what's needed. What's needed is support, a commitment to acknowledging we exist and that what we say is worth listening to- and above all a commitment to treat us as equals, with respect and to call out those for whom using misogyny is routine.


weleftmarks said...

Good post - I love the diversity of opinion and experiences of the conference, but I think your summary is particularly articulate!

Not sure I feel as disappointed as some were with the session, partly because I felt somewhat excluded during the entire day!

I agree that the question being asked was probably not worded correctly, and I would've liked to have seen an understanding of the effect on women and other groups incorporated into all the sessions, because it's so fundamental.

If we're not fighting for and with the vulnerable groups, what are we doing?

[At the risk of sounding cynical, it seemed at times like some delegates were beating the drum for their own political causes.]


Mary said...

Brilliant piece. I've been following the apparent fallout over Netroots on Twitter, and your post has enlightened me as to what exactly I missed by not being there on Saturday.

I remember when this piece was published.

I was so happy reading it I almost cried, because I knew it would draw a much warmer response from the CiFers than if Cath Elliott or Laurie Penny had written it. This in itself not a good thing. I am delighted to have David Mitchell as an ally, but I wish women, and feminists of any gender were taken seriously, both online and in RL.

grahamsgrumbles said...

Its been very interesting reading up on people's reactions to the conference. I'm glad in a way I didn't go, simply because I'm sure I'd have been just as frustrated. Laurie Penny, amongst others, has communicated this very well. (I have her on a separate tab on twitter for a reason!).

I sometimes wonder whether your story of women being ignored and men being hailed as visionary for saying the same thing might not sometimes be more a case of women logging out of primary identities and logging on as their male secondary.

The party stuff nauseates me no end - non-hierarchical organising is something I'm surprised women don't pursue more of.

sianandcrookedrib said...

well said hannah. it's ridiculous to have a workshop asking how to get women engaged online, women are early adopters of blogging and social media anyway.

the issue is encouraging everyone to listen to women, hear our voices, don't derail and silence and make rude comments about our sex lives or physical appearance to shut us up.

we're here. we're on the net. you're not listening!

Hannah Mudge said...

Thanks everyone! I suppose that all of you have been reading the ongoing debate about the conference all week :P

I agree Lianne, i wasn't as disappointed with it as some but i do think it could have been much more productive.

Mary, i had that exact post in mind when i wrote that about men and opinion pieces on feminist issues!


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