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Sexism and female only spaces

20 November 2012

‘Do you think there’s a difference in the way that you and your female colleagues are treated?’. It was a tricky question for a man to be asked in a panel discussion with an audience of three hundred women. But Guardian journalist Tim Dowling replied without hesitation: ‘Oh yes. I get away with murder.’

This was at the Mumsnet blogfest, a meeting for members of the Mumsnet bloggers network  to share practical tips, discuss ideas and celebrate the joys of blogging. It was also an opportunity to discuss challenges. Tim Dowling acknowledged one of them: how can women be writers when there are such double standards for men and women? The Mumsnet network aims to tackle this, subverting traditional communication channels and creating a discursive space where women are taken seriously as having something to say.

The problem was identified as ‘finding your voice’, the title of the first session of the day. Everyone on the panel had encountered sexism online. Zoe Williams talked of how some of the angriest comments on her articles amount to ‘You’re a woman! Stop saying a thing!’ It is clear that women commentators in most online forums are not on an even playing field. For many, Mumsnet offers a haven from this. Keynote speaker Miriam González Durántez, who has faced criticism for her feminist credentials in the press, said that Mumsnet had helped her to be herself. Mumsnet offers a supportive community, where issues that affect women are not dismissed as irrelevant and sexist ‘trolls’ are taken to task. The honest communication Mumsnet enables make it an incredibly valuable resource.

Functioning as a space dominated by women, Mumsnet is controversial. These kinds of spaces are routinely seen as inappropriate, threatening, or simply ridiculous. Daily Mail journalist Liz Jones launched a blistering attack on the Mumsnet event, dismissing it as a ‘giant WI meeting’. The implication is that a women only space is irrelevant and impotent. But the WI are a key example of how this is not the case. The WI has a long history of activism- and I for one will be attending the Reclaim the Night March with my local WI next week. At the Mumsnet event I met Kaye McIntosh, the editor of the WI magazine, WI Life. She told me of how the WI were instrumental in kick-starting the public library service in this country, using a mode of radical communication by women and for women to bring about massive social benefit for all.

The ongoing controversy of female only spaces was tackled in the press last week by Julie Bentley, the new chief executive of Girlguiding UK. Their female only policy is regularly questioned and rigorously defended. Bentley stood firm in an interview with the Telegraph on Friday: ‘It is right and proper that girls and boys mix across society’ she said, ‘but girls need freedom to be themselves and have fun with other girls without stereotypes’. Young women are vulnerable members of society; if we want them to have a voice we have to give them a platform.

Organisations like Mumsnet, the WI and Girlguiding UK offer us a valuable lesson in communications. Speaking at the blogfest, Suzanne Moore spoke of her experiences writing for the Guardian and the Daily Mail. ‘The internet is a male dominated space’ she explained, ‘so there will be attempts to silence you’. These groups acknowledge that they are on the back foot, but use this as an incentive to rethink, regroup, and shout extra loudly.