Sunday, 8 March 2009

Women: beware the online ghetto

It's not particularly interesting, but it is a fact: in my final year at university I wrote a dissertation on how the mental processes by which we evaluate women and their contribution to society have not changed much in their fundamental nature, even if the way we express them has, since the time Kramer and Sprenger wrote their bestseller on how the best way to deal with women who didn't conform was to crack out the auto de fe equipment and a box of matches.

At the beginning of the chapter pretentiously entitled (forgive me, I was an odious undergraduate) "Eternal Recurrence as an Alternative to Progress", there is a quote from Ibsen's Ghosts:

"It is not only what we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that exists again in us, but all sorts of old dead ideas and dead beliefs ... They are dormant and we can never be rid of them ... And we are so miserably afraid of the light."

In this spirit, and to celebrate International Women's Day, I'd like to propose something a bit different from the emerging orthodoxy on the contribution of women on teh internetz, by having a look at the role we seem to be carving out for ourselves online with reference to debates on the women's sections in the Labour Party played out nearly one hundred years ago.

Today, there is a lot of commentary on why there aren't many women writing about mainstream politics on the blogosphere. Up goes the lament: why is there no female Guido Fawkes, Iain Dale, Tom Harris, or Tom Watson? Depending on which blog is mooting this point, the answers in the comments tend to exist on a spectrum between "well, women are a bit thick by nature and prefer reading Heat magazine and talking about boys" to "the blogosphere's predominantly male and women are intimidated by the bullying." Somewhere half-way between these two equally vacuous opinions is this one: women ARE making a huge contribution but they are doing it quietly behind the scenes, largely by talking to each other about how disgusting the first sentiment is and how the latter is dreadfully true.

Ignoring the women-are-stoopid-airheads argument on the grounds that in the post-Thatcher post-Condi era, well, do the math as our American cousins say, how about the "bullying patriarchy" points? Well, yes. The online political community is mostly male, and yes the language and personal insults can get a little fruity at times. But to argue that women are singled out for especial abuse on the basis of their gender ... well, firstly I'm not so sure and secondly, so what?

At the risk of sounding somewhat blase about online bullying, it's worth considering where we would be as women today if the Pankhursts had said, "Last week a rude gentleman strongly implied that Cassandra holidayed on the island of Lesbos. It was just too dreadful for words, let's give up this votes for women lark, join the women's section, and make scones for the Labour Party AGM instead."

It's also worth considering if in a, like, TOTALLY Web 2.0 way, whether we are manifesting exactly this sentiment nearly one hundred years on? Why are we standing on the sidelines complaining that nobody listens to us until, once a year, some kindly gentlemen allow us little ladies the use of his big website in order that we can tell eachother how simply dreadful everything is in the manner of - and with a similar impact to - a Liberal Democrat Conference speech?

And this is why I differ from Stella Creasy who, in an otherwise excellent article on LabourList, argues something that I'm not sure I can take. According to Comrade Creasy, women's contribution online isn't lacking due to our absence at the latest ho-down between Derek Draper and Iain Dale, because women are involved in campaigning and fundraising and activism. All behind the scenes of the predominantly masculine grandstanding on the political blogosphere and our contributions in these matters, as in others, tend to be different but equal.

Well, fair enough in one sense, except that this all sounds rather familiar: different but equal. The men go out and have the high powered careers, but we are providing an invaluable support service that - whilst its never commented upon - our party and/or society couldn't do without. Oh yeah? Try asking women of my mum and mother-in-law's generation, both of whom brought up their children in the eighties and nineties, how "invaluable" society found their contribution, and how they rewarded it. And if that doesn't convince you, how about this from Jessie Stephen, who was the Labour candidate for South Portsmouth in 1923 and 1924:

"The Movement need not think that the very individuals who do so much of their work in election periods and between, who raise money for the men to spend, are going to be treated merely as head cooks and bottle-washers. We are comrades, on an equal footing, and we demand that equality shall extend beyond the raising of cash, working for bazaars, and the hundred and one odd jobs that women comrades are expected to perform."

I'm just guessing, but I reckon that if anybody had asked Jessie to embrace cake-baking as her contribution to the deliberations of the Executive Committee, or undertake - instead of attempting to influencing the political discourse - an examination of "the online progressificalisation of radicalisation of the mainstreamification" she would have given them a two word answer. And if we're on the subject of intimidation online, it's worth noting that the most famous Conservative blogger, Iain Dale, continues to be the most famous Conservative blogger in spite of some questionable remarks from Guido's commenters that appear on a reasonably regular basis about gentlemen who prefer gentlemen. Has he run off crying? No? No.

There are plenty of excellent reasons why you may, as a woman (or, indeed, a man), decide not to get involved in online politics, why you might not want to challenge such sacred cows as Guido Fawkes, Iain Dale, Tom Harris or Tom Watson head on, why you'd think other endeavours are more worthwhile. This is fine.

But if you're not getting involved because you're afraid that your feelings are going to be hurt by a teenager posting something about the size of your arse in your comments, or because it's not a "woman's place" online, that we should - in effect - be undertaking the internet equivalent of being the "head cook and bottle washer" for the likes of our male counterparts, then you need to take a long, hard look at yourself. The women to whom we owe our political freedom today suffered sexual abuse, assault in the streets, and imprisonment. They weren't afraid, they didn't retreat into cosy ghettos of all female mutual reassurance.

And nor should we.

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