Men Know Your Place

(Originally published at Feminist Times)

Mumsnet is sexist. At least, that seems to be the rationale behind the founding of Mumsanddadsnet, set up by Duncan Fisher and Jeszemma Garratt because parenting sites “exclude” dads – which conveniently ignores the fact that parenting sites already have male members and have done since the beginning.

The main problem with the idea that Mumsnet needs more men or that men are deliberately being excluded from parenting websites is that it fails to acknowledge the gendered reality of childrearing in the UK. It is women who do the majority of childcare, childrearing and family organisation, regardless of whether or not they work outside the home (a euphemistic phrase which implies that childcare and housework aren’t really work).

But marriage and childrearing is more than just a “second shift” for women. As Susan Maushart argues in her seminal text Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women, “becoming a wife will erode your mental health, reduce your leisure, decimate your libido, and increase the odds that you will be physically assaulted or murdered in your own home.”

Wifework isn’t just doing a couple of extra loads of laundry a week. Being a wife means taking on responsibility for the emotional and physical care of the needs of the husband at the expense of one’s own emotional and physical health.

Feminists have long since recognised the fact that marriage has a detrimental effect on women’s health and emotional wellbeing. Yet we are replicating the exact same structures within the feminist movement without recognising it. Feminism has stopped being about the liberation of women and has instead become about not alienating men.

We can’t simply talk about rape culture and strategize how to destroy it without every single statement requiring the caveat “we don’t mean all men”. We can’t hold conferences without including men. We can’t even hold Reclaim the Night marches without men demanding to be included, irrespective of the fact that the men who demand the right to attend rarely show up. Or that the inclusion of men means that many women don’t feel safe attending.

Excluding women from Reclaim the Night marches in order to include men is an anti-feminist position, but it is one that women are pushed into making because excluding men is somehow seen as unkind. Frankly, in the unkind sweepstakes, the reality of male sexual, physical and emotional violence against women and children is slightly worse than not being invited on a march. Liberating women from these structures should be the goal of feminism, not worrying about whether or nor men’s feelings are hurt.

We cannot fight for liberation if our physical and emotional time is spent placating men or worrying about their feelings. Our emotional health and our time are very precious resources that need to be allocated to other women. We need to allocate it to ourselves.

This is why I worry about feminist organisations like The Everyday Sexism Project praising men with their #everydayallies hashtag on twitter. We are praising them for behaving like human beings; not for doing anything to support women’s liberation or to end male violence, but for acting like human beings. This should be a basic requirement of humanity, not a cause for celebration.

This isn’t to say that men should not take responsibility for ending male violence against women and girls but that they need to take on this work themselves. More men need to become involved in the White Ribbon Campaign and supporting women’s liberation, rather than demanding to be included in work women are doing (and then trying to take credit just for rocking up).

Critiquing The Everyday Sexism Project for taking out a few hours from the brilliant work they do for women to thank men may seem churlish, but it is part of larger pattern of women caring for men’s feelings above their own. This is just another way women have to expand energy caring for men more than themselves.

Demanding inclusion of men, within the feminist movement and on parenting websites, also ignores the importance of women-only spaces. There is a tremendous amount of research, from Dale Spender to Margaret Atwood, into how men dominate public spaces and public communication. More recently, Ruth Lewis and Elizabeth Sharp’s research into the importance of women-only spaces, conducted following the North East Feminist Gathering in 2012 and published on Feminist Times, has documented numerous positive outcomes for women including a surge in confidence and reflexivity, as well as a safe place for debate and to challenge stereotypes.

The incursion of men into women-only spaces has a detrimental effect on women’s abilities to communicate and engage with one another safely. This should be something of concern to feminists rather than the feelings of men who feel excluded. Women-only spaces are important for women’s cognitive and emotional safety. We need to make sure that every single woman has this space.

This is why parenting sites like Mumsnet and Netmums are so popular. They are sites by women, for women, talking about every single issue that women are concerned about – from caring for a child to radical feminist politics to football. Men who demand to be part of these spaces aren’t engaging with the reality of women’s lives. They are demanding the right to speak over and for women. They are demanding the right to be the most important concern in the room. This is inherently anti-feminist.

Men who understand feminism don’t need our praise. They just get on with the work needed to undo the patriarchy. Feminism needs more men like this. We also need to reflect more on why feminism is starting to replicate the harmful gendered stereotypes on which the institution of marriage is based when it is feminism that recognised the harm in the first place.

Why has feminism become so concerned with ensuring men aren’t excluded rather than focusing on women’s exclusion from public life? Why are the feelings of a few men upset because a parenting website doesn’t include the word “dad”, when the reality is that women do the vast majority of parenting at the expense of our health?

Putting the needs of men, as a class, to feel included above the safety of women is an anti-feminist position. Feminism should be by women, for women, because women are important too – and our feelings of exclusion are grounded in reality.

– See more at: http://www.feministtimes.com/men-know-your-place/#sthash.ZArZxXyy.dpuf

Feminism cannot compromise on the liberation of women

(Originally published at Feminist Times)

Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Second Shift is a seminal text in women’s studies on the gendered differentiations of responsibility for wifework in families where both parents work outside the home. What The Second Shift demonstrates is the damage that compromise does to women’s emotional and physical health because it is always women who are required to ‘compromise’. Women’s work increases whilst men’s does not. Very little has changed in the lives of women since The Second Shift was published in 1989. Women are still responsible for the majority of wifework and childcare to the detriment of our health.

What has changed is the feminist movement. Rather than focusing on women’s liberation from patriarchal structures and male violence, increasingly the feminist movement is being required to put men’s feelings first. We are being asked to compromise on our goals and our beliefs in order to stop making men feel left out. Feminists who use terms like male violence to acknowledge the reality of domestic and sexual abuse are accused of ‘man-hating’. Feminists are consistently told that they should be campaigning about ‘something’ more important – a will-o-wisp term for something which can never be labeled or achieved. It is, simply, a derailing tactic.

Compromise is simply not possible as a feminist policy. Discussion and debate within the feminist movement are necessary but there must be basic tenets which feminism cannot compromise on. After all, compromise did not get rape crisis centres built or the funding for refuges. Compromise did not result in rape in marriage being made illegal. These were hard-fought battles won by second wave feminists who never compromised. Instead, feminists squatted in abandoned buildings to force the government to turn them over to be used for refuges. Feminists campaigned for the vote, for equal pay and for rape to be recognized as a crime against women, not a crime against men’s property, without compromise. Many times they had to be practical, as seen in the history of the suffrage movement, but this did not mean that feminists compromised.

Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women evidenced exactly how the patriarchy responded to feminist activism. We are experiencing a new backlash to feminist activism: one where sexuality is defined as the route to women’s ‘empowerment’ (but not liberation) and where compromise is demanded by men and women. If we don’t compromise and remain sexually available to men we are labeled man-haters. Now feminists believe that we cannot engage in activism for fear of being labeled man-haters. At least, this seems to be the crux of Natasha Devon’s article, demanding feminists compromise: we must compromise our goals and refrain from publicly being angry.

What Devon doesn’t ask is: who are we expected to compromise with – those who profit from the abuse and torture of women’s bodies? Those who profit from women’s unpaid labour in the home and in the infamous “Big Society”? Those whose profits run into the billions selling women products to make them visible (and therefore fuckable)? Because women who do not pass the patriarchal fuckability test aren’t allowed to exist. We cannot compromise with these industries without causing irreparable harm to women and the feminist movement itself.

It is possible for feminists to wear make-up and be entirely critical of what Sandra Lee Bartky labels the fashion-beauty complex. Feminists do understand that women are punished for not “fitting” the prescribed role for women; one only has to look at the abuse directed at Mary Beard to see evidence of this. Or examine Veet’s new campaign, which labels women with body hair ‘men’. The control of the physical acceptability of women’s bodies in the media is part of the patriarchal control of women that allows domestic violence and female genital mutilation to remain. These are not separate issues but rather inter-connected as feminists can, and do, campaign on more than one issue at a time.

Equally, many women feel safer wearing make-up and ‘dressing up’. I know I do, and this is despite knowing what the fashion-beauty complex does to the mental health of women who can afford their products, and the physical consequences to the bodies of women who are forced to produce these products at subsistence wages and in inhumane conditions in factories. This isn’t compromise. It’s a practical response to a culture, which, fundamentally, hates women.

The success of the No More Page 3 campaign is because they have refused to compromise the goals of their campaign. Changing from ending page 3 to encouraging a wider variety of women’s bodies doesn’t engage at all with the issue that NMP3 is fighting: the normalisation of the objectification of women’s bodies in the media. I support the goal of No More Page 3 whilst simultaneously being critical of their stance on pornography. There is more than enough room in feminism for us to discuss our differences on the wider issue of pornography without either of us compromising our feminism.

This is the problem with discussions over feminism as a ‘dirty word’ – it assumes that debate is inherently negative as opposed to a wider process of change. The success of NMP3 has allowed space for more feminist debates on the pornification of society. This is a positive step forward, regardless of whether or not I personally agree with their stance on pornography.

Feminism won’t become a dirty word because feminists won’t compromise. Feminism has always been a dirty word to those who support the capitalist-patriarchy unquestioningly. We don’t need to concern ourselves with those who think feminism is a dirty word. Instead, we need to focus on the feminist movement and the debates within it. Each of us, individually and collectively, has to define the issues that we will not compromise on and understand why others don’t agree with us. We can disagree on some issues, engage in practical steps on others, but feminism as a movement cannot compromise on issues that affect the liberation of women.

– See more at: http://www.feministtimes.com/feminism-cannot-compromise-on-the-liberation-of-women/#sthash.1ewI5Br5.dpuf

The Best Rape Prevention: Tell Men to Stop Raping

This post was originally published in the Huffington Post. It was shortlisted for the Best Blog category and first runner-up at the Write to End Violence against Women Awards hosted by Zero Tolerance, White Ribbon Campaign, Rape Crisis Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid held at the Scottish Parliament.

 

Last week, New York defence attorney Joseph DiBenedetto made headlines when he used the phrase “I’m not saying she deserved to get raped but” live on Fox News. The comment was a response to a question about the rape of teenager Daisy Coleman in Maryville, Missouri. The case hit the national press because of how the criminal justice system in Missouri handled the aftermath of the rape rather than the rape itself; rape being such a common crime that it very rarely makes headline news.

Comparisons have already been made between the Maryville case and that of the rape of a young girl in Steubenville as both cases involve high school athletes, charges were originally dropped and the online harassment of both young women has been horrific. As with Steubenville, it has been public campaigns, which have resulted in the case being investigated by a Special Prosecutor.

The reaction to DiBenedetto’s comment has been one of outrage, which is interesting because DiBenedetto has not said anything different than many other people.

Victim-blaming is endemic in our rape culture. It is the cause of West Mercia Police’s “advice” for women that blames women for drinking alcohol rather than men for committing rape :

“Don’t let a night full of promise turn into a morning full of regret”, says the headline on West Mercia Police’s web page dedicated to tackling rape. “Did you know”, they ask “if you drink excessively, you could leave yourself more vulnerable to regretful sex or even rape?”

Oxford Police ran a similar campaign. The University of Kent and the University of Oxford’s Student Union have both come under criticism for anti-rape campaigns that focus on the victim rather than perpetrator.

Slate recently published an article by Emily Yoffe with the title “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk” which blames women who have been drinking for their rapes rather than the rapists. Yoffe’s article is hardly new though. The advice within it is the same advice women get everyday despite the fact that the only factor that makes people vulnerable to rape is being in the presence of a rapist. The article itself has been publicly criticised by a number of feminist organisations and publications like JezebelFeministing and Ending Victimisation and Blame [Everyday Victim Blaming]. It has also been criticised in more mainstream media outlets.

DiBenedetto’s comments aren’t new either; neither is his suggestion that Coleman has made a false allegation. The public’s reactions to these comments are new. The widespread condemnation of DiBenedetto’s comments is new.

We are at a turning point: we have the power to end rape culture and victim blaming.

The campaigns fighting rape culture and victim-blaming are incredibly inspiring, Rape Crisis Scotland’s anti-rape campaigns: “This is not an invitation to rape me” and “Ten Top Tips to End Rape” went viral because they inverted normal anti-rape campaigns. Parenting website Mumsnet’s We Believe You campaign was instigated by members angry at the prevalence of rape myths. End Online Misogyny was created in response to the rape threats directed at feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and MP Stella Creasy. Ending Victimisation and Blame [Everyday Victim Blaming] started in May in response to the press surrounding the Oxford Gang case. Reclaim the Night marches are being held all over the UK now, as are Slutwalks.

Only last week, the CPS published new guidelines for the prosecution of child sexual abuse in England/ Wales that actively challenges the existence of rape myths in trials. These new guidelines were in response to feminist activism and, whilst they aren’t as strong as they could be, they are an important start.

However, we need to do more and we need to start with more anti-rape campaigns which put the focus on the perpetrator rather than that victim, like Vancouver’s Don’t be that Guy campaign. We also need a fundamental overhaul of our justice system :

1. Anonymity for rape victims must remain a fundamental tenet.
2. Rape victims should never be required to testify in open court.
3. Rape victims should never be required to testify in front of the accused.
4. Rape victims should be entitled to their own legal advisor to protect them.
5. Rape myths must be legally prohibited from being used as a defence tactic.
6. The CPS and judiciary must undergo constant (re)training on rape myths.
7. Juries must be giving training on rape myths before the trial starts which includes the real definition of what a “false accusation” actually entails [since we consider rape victims who withdraw their complaints as “false accusations” this is absolutely necessary].
8. The “sexual history” of a rape victim must be banned. The defence should have no legal right to undermine the credibility of the victim by discussing their “sexual history”.
9. The press should be prohibited from publishing the specific details of the rape. It is enough to say: X has been charged with child rape.
10. Anyone who attempts to identify the victim should be prosecuted.

Rape has a purpose in our culture, as does victim blaming. We will not end rape culture, victim blaming or the oppression of women by continuing to focus campaigns on rape prevention that hold victims responsible for being in the presence of a rapist.

Most importantly, this change needs to start with a message to men: rape must stop. Men must take personal responsibility for their own perpetuation of rape culture and men need to call out other men who are engaging in sexually predatory behaviour.

We all have the power to change rape culture, but we need men to take a public stand now.

* The legal definition of rape in England and Wales requires the insertion of a penis without consent . Men and women can be, and are, convicted of sexual assault that carries the same tariff as rape. See Rape Crisis Glasgow for the definitions of rape and sexual assault in Scotland.

The problem is the capitalist-patriarchy socialising boys to be aggressive

(Originally published at Feminist Times)

The most common criticism of radical feminist theory is that we are gender essentialist because we believe that women’s oppression, as a class, is because of the biological realities of our bodies. Radical feminists define sex as the physical body, whilst gender is a social construct. It is not a function of our biology. It is the consequence of being labelled male/female at birth and assigned to the oppressor/sex class. The minute genetic differences are not reflected in the reality of women’s lived experiences. Gender is the coercive process of socialisation built upon a material reality that constructs women as a subordinate class to men. As such, radical feminists do not want to queer gender or create a spectrum of gendered identities; we want to end the hierarchical power structure that privileges men as a class at the expense of women’s health and safety.

This assumption is based on a misunderstanding of radical feminist theory, that starts from the definition of “radical” itself, which refers to the root or the origin: that is to say, the oppression of women by men (The Patriarchy). It is radical insofar as it contextualises the root of women’s oppression in the biological realities of our bodies (sex) and seeks the liberation of women through the eradication of social structures, cultural practises and laws that are predicated on women’s inferiority to men (gender).

Radical feminism challenges all relationships of power that exist within the Patriarchy including capitalism, imperialism, racism, classism, homophobia and even the fashion-beauty complex because they are harmful to everyone: female, male, intersex and trans*. As with all social justice movements, radical feminism is far from perfect. No movement can exist within a White Supremacist culture without (re)creating racist, homophobic, disablist, colonialist and classist power structures. What makes radical feminism different is its focus on women as a class.

Radical feminists do not believe there are any innate gender differences, or in the existence of male/female brains. Women are not naturally more nurturing than men and men are not better at maths and reading maps. Men are only “men” insofar as male humans are socialised into specific characteristics that we label male, such as intelligence, aggression, and violence and woman are “woman” because we are socialised into believing that we are more nurturing, empathetic, and caring than men.

Women’s oppression as a class is built on two interconnected constructs: reproductive capability and sexual capability. In the words of Gerda Lerner in The Creation of Patriarchy, the commodification of women’s sexual and reproductive capacities is the foundation of the creation of private property and a class-based society. Without the commodification of women’s labour there would be no unequal hierarchy of power between men and women, fundamental to the creation and continuation of the Capitalist-Patriarchy, and, therefore, no need for gender as a social construct.

Radical feminism recognises the multiple oppressions of individual women, whilst recognising the oppression of women as a class in the Marxist sense of the term. Rape does not require every woman to be raped to function as a punishment and a deterrent from speaking out. The threat therein is enough. Equally, the infertility of an individual woman does not negate the fact that her oppression is based on the assumed potential (and desire) for pregnancy, which is best seen in discussions of women’s employmentand men’s refusal to hire women during “child-bearing” years due to the potential for pregnancy, which is used as a way of controlling women’s labour: keeping women in low-paying jobs and maintaining the glass ceiling. Constructing women as “nurturers” maintains the systemic oppression of women and retains wealth and power within men as a class.

Even something as basic as a company dress code is gendered to mark women as other. Women working in the service industry are frequently required to wear clothing and high heels that accentuate external markers of sex. Sexual harassment is endemic, particularly in the workplace, yet women are punished if they do not attend work in clothing that is considered “acceptable” for the male gaze. The use of women’s bodies to sell products further institutionalises the construction of women as object.

There is a shared girlhood in a culture that privileges boys, coercively constructs women’s sexuality and punishes girls who try to live outside gendered norms. The research of Dale Spender, and even Margaret Atwood, dating back to the 1980s has made it very clear that young girls are socialised to be quiet, meek and unconfident. Boys, on the other hand, are socialised to believe that everything they say and do is important: by parents and teachers, by a culture which believes that no young boy would ever want to watch a film or read a book about girls or written by a woman. Shared girlhood is differentiated by race, class, faith and sexuality, but, fundamentally, all girls are raised in a culture which actively harms them.

Radical feminists are accused of gender essentialism because we recognise the oppressive structures of our world and seek to dismantle them. We acknowledge the sex of the vast majority of perpetrators of violence. We do so by creating women-only spaces so that women can share stories in the knowledge that other women will listen. This is in direct contrast to every other public and private space that women and young girls live in. Sometimes these spaces are trans-inclusive, like A Room of our Own the blogging network I created for feminists and womanists. Sometimes these spaces will need to be for women who are FAAB only or trans* women only, just as it is absolutely necessary to have black-women only spaces and lesbian women-only spaces.

There is a need for all of these spaces because socialisation is a very powerful tool. Being raised male in a patriarchal white supremacist culture is very different to being raised female with the accompanying sexual harassment, trauma and oppression. The exclusion of trans* women from some spaces is to support traumatised women who can be triggered by being in the same space as someone who was socialised male growing up. This does not mean that an individual trans* woman is a danger, but rather a recognition that gendered violence exists and that trauma is complicated.

It is our direct challenge to hegemonic masculinity and control of the world’s resources (including human) that makes radical feminism a target of accusations like gender essentialism. We recognise the importance in biological sex because of the way girls and boys are socialised to believe that boys are better than girls. As long as we live in a capitalist-patriarchy where boys are socialised to believe that aggression and anger are acceptable behaviour, women and girls will need the right to access women-only spaces however they define them.

– See more at: http://www.feministtimes.com/the-problem-is-capitalist-patriarchy-socialising-boys-to-be-aggressive-not-radical-feminism/#sthash.dTFaIOjm.dpuf

 

Why is the BBC filing Rolf Harris coverage in “Entertainment & Arts”?

(Originally published in Feminist Times) 

Rolf Harris has been found guilty of twelve counts of indecently assaulting four girls and women over three decades. Six other women testified to their experience of sexual assault during the trial, although Harris was not charged with these offences. As I write this, the police are now investigating numerous new allegations of sexual violence perpetrated by Harris.

Since the first allegations about Jimmy Savile’s sexual predation arose, a number of men employed by the BBC, including Stuart Hall and Freddie Starr, have been arrested for child sex offences. Not all of these men have been convicted but they all have one other thing in common: the BBC has chosen to publish articles on their cases under “Entertainment & Arts”. To be clear, the BBC categorises these articles as “news” but then also place them in the “Entertainment & Arts” section of BBC Online.

I’ve complained numerous times, as I believe it is utterly dismissive and minimising to place articles of child sexual abuse, rape and exploitation under the category of entertainment. It implies that the investigation and trials themselves are “entertainment”. It does tremendous harm to victims to see their experiences of sexual violence minimised in such a manner by implying that the former employment of the man charged is more important than the crimes committed.

In the most recent letter from the BBC in response to my complaint, the BBC claims that placing such articles under the heading of “Entertainment & Arts” is exactly the same as placing an article on the use of the internet to share images of children being sexually exploited, abused and raped under the heading of “Technology”. The fact that the BBC’s official response so clearly misses the point shows just how little they understand the impact of victim blaming and the minimisation of sexual violence on victims and on the ability to have sexual abusers and rapists convicted.

Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile were allowed to continue perpetrating sexual violence against children and women for decades because of an institutional refusal to recognise the seriousness of their crimes. It is clear that numerous people were aware of what Harris and Savile were doing but either chose to disbelieve the victims or ignore them. This is rape culture.

Yet the BBC still thinks it’s appropriate to place articles about Savile, Harris and other men under investigation or convicted of child sexual offences under the heading of entertainment. This is only a small part of rape culture but it is one that demonstrates an incredible lack of understanding of the consequences of child sexual violence. It is also something that the BBC could easily change.

I’ve started a petition here asking the BBC to stop considering the employment of the perpetrator (or person under investigation) when placing articles on BBC Online. Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile were allowed to commit child sexual violence offences for years because of rape culture and the privilege of celebrity culture. We need to make it clear that their jobs only gave them greater access to vulnerable women and children and the power to continue. The crimes they committed are not entertainment.

– See more at: http://www.feministtimes.com/why-are-the-bbc-filing-rolf-harris-coverage-in-entertainment-arts/#sthash.EuRBmbAR.dpuf

Reclaim the Night must remain women-only

(originally published in the Morning Star)

The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist group organised the first Reclaim the Night march in Britain in response to victim-blaming and poor practice by police officers in Yorkshire following the serial murders committed by Peter Sutcliffe.

The Byford Report into the investigation, released in 2006, made clear the serious failings of West Yorkshire Police which had actually interviewed Sutcliffe nine times during the investigation.

Very little has changed since 1977.

Only this week, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary has released a damning report on serious failings by the police to report crimes appropriately.

This includes under recording 26 per cent of rapes and sexual assaults reported to them. Considering less than 10 per cent of sexualised violence is reported to the police, this figure is an utter disgrace.

The West Yorkshire Police response to the brutal murders committed by Sutcliffe was to tell women to remain inside at night. This same “safety” advice is repeated by police forces across Britain to this day. Curtailing women’s freedom is a tried and trusted method of blaming women for being victims of a crime.

After all, no safety campaign ever suggests that violent men — and the vast majority of violent crimes are committed by men — remain inside in case they are overcome by the urge to commit violence.

Instead, we tell women what to wear, where they can go, and what they are allowed to drink.

If only women stayed inside at night (and if you work shift work, well, that’s your fault too) or wore longer skirts or were more polite to men, then men wouldn’t feel obligated to harm them.

Reclaim the Night is about women standing together and reclaiming public spaces. It is about women supporting women and raising awareness of the reality of male violence and the consequences of it on the bodies of women and children.

They were a reaction to police failures but also about a community of women.

Today is the 10th anniversary of the new Reclaim the Night marches in London. It is the largest march in Britain but also one of the few that remains women-only.

The trend now is to allow men to attend. Supposedly this inclusion is to ensure that men feel involved in the campaign. In reality, the inclusion of men makes a mockery of the spirit of Reclaim the Night.

Reclaim the Night is meant to be a safe space for survivors of male violence. Many of the women marching will have experienced rape, 90 per cent by a man known to them, and then were blamed for that rape.

Focus on male inclusion is at the expense of survivors of sexual violence. The concerns of these women are dismissed by the prioritisation of men’s feelings — and it is very clear that male inclusion is about men’s feelings.

I have attended numerous Reclaim the Night marches over the years. So many have been forced into including men. These men show up at planning meetings demanding the right to attend and silence any woman who objects by insinuating they are hysterical or silly.

They replicate the same male entitlement that results in rape culture and this is without addressing the men who see Reclaim the Night as their own personal dating pool. Nothing quite says sexism like a man propositioning women on a march about sexual violence.

One concession has been the creation of women-only sections at the front of marches. Women are forced to ask permission to walk in public with other women which rather negates the point of women reclaiming the street.

These sections mark survivors out as “other.” If you walk in one, you are the problem — not the men insisting on their right to access all women’s spaces.

At one Edinburgh march, a man following the women’s block kept banging into the women in the “safe space” in the march. He couldn’t understand why women were so angry at being touched, repeatedly, by a man in a march about sexual violence. He clearly thought he was a “feminist ally.”

The women he was touching without permission saw him as the problem. Women had come to march to end male violence but even in this safe space they could not prevent a man from touching them without permission.

Reclaim the Night marches must remain women-only — anything else is the capitulation of the fight for the liberation of women and the continuing violation of women’s boundaries.

Criminalising Pregnancy is simply Misogyny

(Originally published on Mumsnet as a guest post)

Right now, the Court of Appeal is deciding whether or not a council in the North-West of England can hold the mother of a six-year-old girl born with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome criminally liable under the Offences against Persons Act of 1861.

Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is an umbrella term for a number of diagnoses that result from prenatal exposure to alcohol. This exposure can cause problems with memory, attention, speech and language and behaviour, a weakened immune system, and damage to the liver, kidneys and heart. The long-term consequences include addiction, chronic unemployment, poverty, depression, suicide, and the criminalisation of the child themselves.

It is a horrible condition. I know, because my nephew has FASD. I have seen him struggle with his physical and emotional health. He finds everyday activities difficult, and his behaviour is very challenging. It is heartbreaking, watching him trying to navigate life with intellectual and physical impairments that could have been prevented. He finds school difficult because he cannot cope with unstructured learning, such as break time. He requires a very strict routine with clear instructions and finds choices difficult. He also has physical disabilities and needs a very strict diet – another control on his life that he does not fully understand.

As an aunt, I don’t want any woman to drink alcohol whilst pregnant because I worry about the consequences for their children. As a feminist, I am utterly opposed to the criminalisation of women’s bodies and any attempts to limit women’s reproductive freedom.

Criminalising mothers who give birth to babies with FASD would do nothing to support women, and would make accessing services even more difficult. How many women would inform their midwife of their alcohol consumption if they believe they’ll end up in prison? Even if women were to approach their midwife or doctor, there aren’t enough programs in place to help them. How many beds are there in rehab facilities that are appropriate for women with substance misuse issues? How many are there that cater for women with other children? I refuse to believe that criminalisation would be followed by investment in mental health services. Already, a vast number of women in prison are there as a consequence of trauma, and criminalising pregnancy would increase that number.

As an aunt, I don’t want any woman to drink alcohol whilst pregnant because I worry about the consequences for their children. As a feminist, I am utterly opposed to the criminalisation of women’s bodies and any attempts to limit women’s reproductive freedom.

The most frustrating thing is that there are so many other things we could do. Research has shown us how to minimise the effects of FASD. For example, we know that access to a healthy diet has a positive impact, which is why poverty remains a major risk factor. This isn’t because women living in poverty are more likely to misuse alcohol – it’s because a healthy diet can minimise the effects of alcohol on a developing foetus.

We know how to prevent FASD. It requires a properly funded NHS to provide support for women with substance misuse issues. Access to a midwife and GP who understand addiction and its causes is the most important prevention method. We can’t see alcoholism in isolation. Amongst women, it is frequently linked to trauma following male violence – and we need a social care network that understands the reality and consequences of this.

This is why criminalising women is not just nonsensical – it’s misogynistic.

Despite the fact that our economy would be destroyed if women withdrew all their labour, society still believes that women have less economic value than men. The control of women’s reproduction – from access to birth control to abortion, from prenatal care to maternity leave – is about controlling women’s labour. Preventing the “bad” women – the drinkers, the drug takers – from giving birth means that they are free to do low-paying jobs, rather than depending on the welfare state. Of course, criminalising them is much easier than fixing the root of the problem by providing better health and social care, and it suits those who should be stepping up to the plate: the local council, which is refusing to take responsibility for its failure to support a vulnerable woman appropriately during her pregnancy, and our society, which is refusing to take responsibility for the harm caused by misogyny and violence against women.

The only effective way to tackle FASD is to create a culture in which women have equal value to men, where male violence is eradicated, and in which women have access to free healthcare without judgment.

I don’t want any child to suffer the way my nephew suffers. I also don’t want to see women imprisoned for substance misuse. If we genuinely cared about women with substance misuse issues and children born with FASD, we’d be standing on the barricades demanding better investment in social care, the NHS and education – that’s where the support and intervention for pregnant women should be. They won’t get this support if they’re forced into the criminal justice system.

My nephew deserves better than the criminalisation of his mother. And his mother deserves better too.

(Re)Creating and (Re)Defining Sisterhood Online: The Mumsnet Phenomenon

This is the extended version of a conference paper I gave at the FWSA (UK & Northern Ireland) conference: Rethinking Sisterhood: The Affective Politics of Women’s Relationships’

 

Mumsnet – we’ve all heard the name. It pops up frequently in the press as either an object of derision as that place full middle class Yummy Mummies who once harassed Gordon Brown about his favourite biscuit brand during a political webchat[i] or that “nest of vipers”[ii] who viciously bully any woman who doesn’t meet their “standards”.

Yet neither of these stereotypes addresses the popularity of Mumsnet with women across the UK and the world. Why is Mumsnet so popular with women across all classes, ethnicities, faith, sexuality and gendered identities if it is a space full of ‘bullies’? What draws women – a significant number of whom do not have children – to what is ostensibly a parenting site? How does Mumsnet get 60 million page hits a month if only women who care about biscuits or are bullies populate it?

The founding of Mumsnet [iii] is a well-told story across the media. Justine Roberts and Carrie Longton created it in 2000 after Roberts had a disastrous holiday abroad with infant twins. It was conceived as a way for mothers to share information about everything from holidays to infant feeding, car seats, and fashion. Since then the business has grown from a small organisation to a staff of 80[iv] with Talk boards which cover everything from current events, to domestic and sexual violence and abuse, feminism, caring for children with disabilities, purchasing a car and caring for fish. The webchats hosted by Mumsnet have involved everyone from Gordon Brown and the infamous biscuit question to Jamie Oliver, Nigel Farage, William Hague, Dawn French and Gok Wan.[v]

Mumsnet’s popularity is not because of the quality of information on the site but rather the members themselves who have registered for the free chat boards – a feature only added to the website by chance. It is the relationships developed amongst the women and how this has changed both the brand of Mumsnet but also how the women involved have (re)developed the theory of sisterhood, particularly outwith feminist discourse that I will discuss. This “sisterhood” is contested and challenged from a variety of sources – the members themselves, men’s rights extremists and trolls. Equally, many members would not recognise Mumsnet as a place of sisterhood – many would also not define themselves as feminists, further contesting the boundaries. The construction of sisterhood is both intersectional, as defined by Kimberle Crenshawe,[vi] but also anti-intersectional in that racism, disablism, classism, homophobia and misogyny are common across the boards. Mumsnet is certainly not unusual as a true cross-section of women will always involve both the negative and positive.

This paper is based on my personal experiences as a member of Mumsnet. I joined in 2007 following the birth of my second child. I had several interviews with a number of current and former Mumsnetters, whom I have chosen to keep anonymous in this paper. I then posted a request on my public Facebook account, in which I am friends with numerous Mumsnetters, asking for their responses to the issue of trolling. This self-selecting response is the first stage in a much larger piece of research which will include further interviews, as well as a large-scale survey of members of Mumsnet – as well as other online parenting websites.

Mumsnet both (re)creates and (re)defines 21st century constructions of the term “sisterhood”. The power of relationships developed by women whose only contact is online and through pseudonyms is surprising only to those who have never been isolated from their extended family and wider community. It complicates the division between “real life” and “online life” and how this division is based on fallacious assumptions of how women construct support networks, friendships, and the longevity of these relationships. We live in a culture where women are taught that other women are their worst enemy and one where competing with each other is considered normal. This is designed to erases male responsibility for violence but also ensures that women’s energy and work is directed at supporting men, rather than other women.

The very basis of Mumsnet’s success is women supporting other women and the power of women’s friendships online. This is why the media backlash to Mumsnet is both so obvious and so vicious. Denigrating Mumsnet as that place where women talk about shoes and biscuits erases the very conversations which make it a radical space. These conversations include pregnancy, miscarriage, infertility, bereavement, domestic violence, rape and sexual violence, child-rearing, caring for children or other family members with disabilities, education, healthcare and current events. These conversations – the sharing of information and support – give women a power denied to them by a culture that privileges men’s needs and desires above all else. It also develops women’s confidences in their own skills, as well as encouraging women to move outwith their comfort zones learning new skills, teaching these skills to other women and entering the public sphere.

There is a multitude of ways in which the women of Mumsnet support one another. One of the most powerful sections is the relationships board which features long-term support threads for women with a history of substance misuse, those who were raised by toxic parents, women currently living with domestic violence and survivors, and women surviving rape and other forms of sexual violence. This unconditional support offered by women contrasts with women who are apologists for male behaviour – those who are currently living with violence and not in a position to label it and those who believe in anti-woman myths propagated by men’s rights extremists. In order to offer unconditional support, women must start from the radical basis that women do not lie about male violence. As those working in the field of violence against women and girls are aware, believing women is a radical step towards sisterhood. It is a feminist position and there are contested spaces on the relationships boards where women who do not take the label feminist come into conflict with those who do even when offering similar advice. There are numerous occasions when women who believe feminism is bad for women define radical feminist positions on male violence as “common sense”. What is interesting is the ways in which these contested definitions of feminism, domestic violence and perpetrator responsibility have given women previously denied a voice a space where there words are considered worthy of response. For many women, this is a privilege denied daily.

This contested space is best demonstrated by threads about access and violent fathers – the feminist position on Mumsnet is that children do not need violent fathers. On the relationships board, children are classed as needing fathers but their mothers deserve protection from further control and coercion. Debates wage on whose needs should be prioritised: the mother or the children. Fragile relationships fall apart as participants tend to be in a place where personal experiences trump theoretical knowledge. Building sisterhood in such a contested space is difficult but women manage it – despite fears of their own situation, fears over giving another woman advice or support that might hurt her. Women on these threads are so very vulnerable and yet they reach outwith the limited time and energy they have to help women they have never met and likely never will.

The first thread I read on the relationships board involved a woman driving two hours in the middle of the night to collect another woman – a complete stranger – who need the space away from her abusive husband. This is not as uncommon a situation as you would think. We can all think of a million things which could have gone wrong here but the very success of the relationships board is that type of help: a woman dropping everything to help a complete stranger. More commonly, we see women sitting up all night with other women who are in fear of a violent partner, or whose child is missing, women who are miscarrying much wanted babies and women who have taken a pill to induce abortion. Historically, this type of support was common in many communities and it was a fundamental part of the second wave of feminism, but it is very different to online communities of women where the creation of a “perfect feminism” has created very rigid communities – some of which engage in abusive behaviour to other women as a way of defining themselves as “better” feminists. Online feminism is often hierarchical erasing the possibility of a sisterhood.

A section of the talk board for mothers caring for children with has similar stories of women supporting women. In many ways, we expect this of women living in these situations – the selflessness of the mother with a severely disabled child is a trope the mainstream media adores. We don’t consider the emotional involvement and time commitments these women put in to supporting other women. Women who are carers are far more likely to live in poverty than other women and have far more demands on their time, due to systemic failures to support them appropriately. Yet, these women give their time freely to support other women through a diagnosis of disability and then to negotiate the welfare system – a task which even professionals find difficult. These stories are replicated in sections for women who have had miscarriages, are dealing with infertility or suffered other bereavements.

Again, this idea of women supporting women is something we expect of women. Our welfare state is built on the unpaid labour of women caring for family members, volunteering in schools and hospitals, campaigning and fundraising for play parks and after school clubs. But, this labour is assumed to be done by ‘good’ women (that is to say white, heterosexual, middle class women) and there exists a hierarchy of women who do the labour and those women who are recipients of this labour. What makes the support offered by women of Mumsnet different is that there is no hierarchy: there are no women who do “good works” and women who must be “helped”. There are women who help women not because it is expected of them but because they want to.

This idea of a collective of women who have political power is very radical. Mumsnet The Business has built on the unpaid labour of its members to create an ethical, pro-woman brand. Mumsnet has successfully extended their brand beyond reviewing products to building a well-respected blogging network, a Mumsnet academy (although the classes are mostly London-based and expensive) and holding an annual award for family-friendly business nominated by its members.

Mumsnet has also given its members a political platform. The success of the brand and the support of the women for other women increased their membership dramatically. This mostly women-only space full of women supporting other women has radicalised large numbers who otherwise felt disenfranchised. These members have started the political campaigns for which Mumsnet has become famous: the Let Girls be Girls campaign[vii] which targeted shops selling a sexualised vision of girlhood which included Tesco’ selling a pole dancing kit for 7 year olds.[viii] Mumsnet has also campaigned for a miscarriage code of practise to be implemented across the NHS because of serious failures in the care of women (and in one rather frightening story, a member on Mumsnet diagnosing an ectopic pregnancy in a woman who had been to A&E twice with bleeding and serious abdominal pain).

The success of these campaigns is built on the relationships among the women on the talk boards. This is best exemplified in the “We Believe You” campaign. This campaign started on the feminism/ woman’s rights board following numerous discussions of what constituted sexual assault. Women were invited to post their stories of “small scale sexual assaults” that they had not reported. This very quickly turned into a thread full of women talking about being raped, sexually assaulted as children and groomed. Many of the women had never shared their experiences before and some did not know that their experience met the legal definition of rape. This mass testimony of sexual violence was only possible because of the way in which women’s relationships exist on Mumsnet. In the end, there were thousands of testimonies made and one member made an informal survey to show the breadth of women’s experiences. At the behest of members, Mumsnet started the “We Believe You”[ix] campaign challenging rape myths in the media. They took professional advice from Rape Crisis and built a formal survey. The campaign coincided with the arrest of footballer Ched Evans for rape and the hashtag #ibelieveher followed. This campaign could not have started nor succeeded without the relationship between members, which was essential after the media started reporting on the campaign using women’s testimonies without permission. Mumsnet HQ came into conflict with members with the business brand of Mumsnet leaving members who had shared stories feeling misused. We Believe You brought a lot of publicity to Mumsnet, something that was not a positive experience for some women.

There are a number of campaigns started by members, which are not associated with the brand of Mumsnet. The Let Toys be Toys[x] campaign challenges gendered stereotyping of toys and has had success in forcing companies to remove gendered labels and the “pink/ blue” divide of toys commonly seen in places like Toys R Us. There is now a spin-off campaign called Let Books be Books[xi]. There are annual charity runs raising money for numerous causes. There is even a Christmas secret santa which started as a way of helping out members in financial difficulties but was extended to members who helped others. This was originally run by members but grew so large that Mumsnet HQ was forced to take over. The financial generosity of Mumsnetters rivals the emotional support and time they donate to other women.

By far, the most colourful example of the way in which sisterhood is created within the space of Mumsnet is Woolly Hugs.[xii] Woolly Hugs started out as a group of women knitting a blanket for a recently bereaved Mumsnetter. It has expanded rapidly to include knitted blankets for children in hospital, children and parents who are recently bereaved, and has links with a charity working with children with cancer overseas. Some of these women learned to knit, crochet and sew in order to participate in this piece of collective feminist sisterhood. This transmission of skills builds on a long history of women’s sewing circles and communal quilting as a way of building friendships outwith the male gaze.

The above does not mean that Mumsnet is a completely safe space for women. The open registration policy of the Talk Board means anyone can join and Mumsnet has endured numerous invasions of male rights extremists – Fathers 4 Justice being a repeat offender going as far as attempting to publish a libellous advertisement because of Mumsnet’s “gender bias”. The fact that women still do a disproportionate amount of childcare and housework[xiii] and that many of the members of Fathers 4 Justice have histories of domestic violence isn’t something their membership was willing to discuss. The male rights extremists tend to stick to certain topics: feminism/woman’s rights, parenting, and the relationships board where the revel in telling women living in violent relationships that they are over-reacting – the team of Edd and Bob being rather infamous in their anti-woman propaganda. Mumsnet’s hands-off approach to moderating the Talk Boards resulted in these anti-women posters being allowed to remain far longer than they should.

Larrygrills, a male member who remains despite his constant misogyny and gaslighting, does so because he posts just within the guidelines for the Talk Board. This allows Larry to suggest that women who have suffered birth trauma are over-reacting because he’s seen his wife give birth twice and she was fine. It is classed as “opinion” rather than gaslighting. Larry’s full posting history contains numerous statements minimising domestic and sexual violence and abuse and suggesting women are over-reacting to all manner of trauma. His posts do not include personal attacks and are viewed as fine. Larry is not by any means the only male poster to use Mumsnet to voice his anti-women rhetoric but he does appear to be the most dedicated. Conversations occur over and around Larry as women seek to minimise the harm he causes others but, again, this puts the onus on women to expend valuable energy pointing out the misogyny and gaslighting.

There is also the issue of what is commonly called “emotional vampires”, which are people who literally drain the energy out of you by coercing you to focus solely on their needs at the expense of your own.[xiv] Mumsnet’s reputation as a source of support for women – regardless of whether or not they are mothers – makes it a very visible target for people who engage in this behaviour. Due to the demographics of Mumsnet, the majority of “emotional vampires” are female.

The poster who used the pseudonym EthanChristopher claimed to be a teenage single parent who was trying to graduate in order to attend university. Many posters, including myself, gave up hours of our time helping EthanChristopher negotiate the welfare system, childcare, and student loans. She turned out be a woman in her mid 40s who was “bored”.

Dizzymare was a woman who claimed to be pregnant with twins with a young toddler. Much of her posting was about money with one of the more widely read threads on the subject of her “silly brother” only buying her a double stroller rather than a triple stroller. There was a clear demand for money and suggestions of how to manage 3 small children with only a double buggy were ignored. Dizzymare’s postings became more emotionally charged with stories of the miscarriage of both twins. Many bereaved mothers supported Dizzymare through her bereavement but she too turned out not to be real. Dizzymare has used the similar story across a number of other parenting platforms, including Bliss, leaving very distressed women in her wake; women who had literally sat up all night with Dizzy when she claimed to be miscarrying. The time and the emotional involvement in supporting Dizzymare was done by women who believed that sisterhood was essential – even if they would not have used that word.

You cannot tell if the person you are supporting is real or trolling and sometimes it is necessary to write a post for those reading it without commenting rather than the original poster – ensuring that accurate information about domestic violence, victim blaming or legal matters is posted. This is an easy statement to say but difficult in practise due to the emotional responses women have to other women in distress. SassySusan, who also trolled under alternative pseudonyms like WashWithCare, was a fairly vitriolic emotional vampire. She attacked women directly rather than the more passive-aggressive posts of Dizzymare. Perhaps the best example is a thread SassySusan started which, among other issues, suggested that women who don’t breastfeed deserve to get breast cancer and die. Infant feeding is a source of great stress for new mothers with both breast and bottle feeders feeling judged and unsupported. As such, it is an excellent source of entertainment for emotional vampires and other trolls. Yet, SassySusan was different to other emotional vampires as she had lost her only child to chicken pox. It is difficult to tell if SassySusan started trolling before or after the loss of her child but the simple fact is she was both a woman in need of support and a woman deliberately and maliciously harming others.

How should Mumsnet HQ respond to a deeply traumatized woman who viciously attacks other vulnerable women? Where is the line between troll and trauma? Do organisations like Mumsnet, whose reputation is based entirely on the women of the Talk Board sharing and supporting one another, have a duty of care to women like SassySusan despite their extremely abusive behaviour? Mumsnet made the difficult decision to ban SassySusan after she stalked and publicly doxxed another member off-board. Whether her behaviour was a response to trauma or a psychological condition is impossible to say but SassySusan remains one of many women who have joined Mumsnet with a view to causing trouble and who have revelled in the pain of other women.

Mumsnet may be an important place online for women but it can never be a completely safe space – and this is without discussing issues of racism, homophobia, misogyny, classism, and disablism of the members themselves. No site with open membership can ever be free of these harmful constructs. Where Mumsnet fails is that it depends on its members to educate others. At what point does a mother with a child with autism no longer need to defend her child to a poster insisting that children with disabilities do not belong in mainstream schools. How often do posts about golliwogs appear with people insisting they are harmless fun? How many times are there threads about applying for schools which completely ignore the fact that women living in poverty in estates with only one school have no choice. How often should lesbian mothers be expected to tolerate homophobia (the answer for one member of Mumsnet was several years of lesbophobic abuse before the other woman was finally banned).

The reality is that Mumsnetters who invest the time and emotional support for other women are dependent on Mumsnet being a safe space even though this safe space can never actually exist. The women who have used and built the virtual space and made friends within that space may not be representative of the women reading the posts on the site. It is also very easy to fall into friendship groups that feel exclusionary to newcomers. Mumsnet suffers the same problems with other women-only spaces not founded on feminist principles (and even then these are not always safe).

Equally, the way in which Mumsnetters have used this accidental space has changed the definition of sisterhood from women who meet in real life and have similar political goals – as seen in second wave feminism’s consciousness raising groups. – to a much broader definition. This definition is predicated on support for other women – with contested theories of friendship and sisterhood coming into conflict. In many ways Mumsnet has become a consciousness raising group, particularly for those women who cannot do “real life”. Coming together for campaigning does not necessarily result in the same friendships developed by women with small children. Both can be temporary friendships based on need at the point in the women’s lives but there is also a questioning of what sisterhood fundamentally means: is it unconditional support or passionate support as espoused by Liz Kelly. How do women negotiate online friendships, many using pseudonyms where it is possible to share everything without worrying about your next door neightbour finding out, when we are taught that women’s friendships aren’t “real” and that they are predicated on competition and hierarchies? How can we protect these safe spaces from trolls and men’s rights extremists without making it difficult for other women to find the support? How do we protect that sisterhood when it is under constant attack due to a patriarchal backlash? After all, much of the media stories on Mumsnet are about how horrible the women are – even the women knitting those beautiful blankets for children at York hospital with terminal illnesses.

 

[i]Brown takes break in biscuit quiz, BBC News Online. 17.10.2009 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8312215.stm) Acc. 10.9.14

[ii] Nick Duerden, “Why has Mumsnet developed such an awkward reputation?” The Independent 12.5.2013 (http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/features/why-has-mumsnet-developed-such-an-awkward-reputation-8607914.html)

[iii] Mumsnet: About Us. http://www.mumsnet.com/info/aboutus. Acc. 10.9.14

[iv] Lucy, Kellaway, Justine Roberts of Mumsnet. 20.12.2013. FT Magazine (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/aa1f78ea-66af-11e3-8675-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3DQ1ADIK7) Acc. 10.9.14

[v]Mumsnet Webchats (http://www.mumsnet.com/onlinechats)

[vi]Kimberle Crenshaw, Mapping the Margins, Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Women of Colour, Stanford Law Review, (http://socialdifference.columbia.edu/files/socialdiff/projects/Article__Mapping_the_Margins_by_Kimblere_Crenshaw.pdf)

[vii]Let Girls be Girls Campaign. (http://www.mumsnet.com/campaigns/let-girls-be-girls ) Launched 2010.

[viii] Tesco’s “Toy” Pole Dancing Kit. Mirror. 23.10.2006 (http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/tescos-toy-pole-dance-kit-646625)

[ix]We Believe You Rape Awareness Campaign (http://www.mumsnet.com/campaigns/we-believe-you-mumsnet-rape-awareness-campaign)

[x]Let Toys be Toys campaign (http://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/)

[xi] Let Books be Books (http://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/letbooksbebooks/)

[xii] Woolly Hugs (http://beta.woollyhugs.com)

[xiii] Susan Maushart,Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women, (Bloomsbury, 2003)

Arlie Russell Hochschild with Anne Machung, The Second Shift, (Penguin Books, 1989)

[xiv] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/emotional-freedom/201101/whos-the-emotional-vampire-in-your-life

Amber E. Kinser’s Motherhood and Feminism

History of motherhood starting at industrial revolution. In many ways, it is a ‘basic’ history of motherhood in the US. Or, at least, it should be a basic history but Kinser traces more than the usual history of white middle class women with its focus on Victorian values, Betty Friedan and the myth of suburbia. Instead, Kinser traces the real history of motherhood looking at how issues of class, race and homophobia/lesbophobia challenge the dominant discourses of motherhood.

Her inclusion of the history of reproductive rights and mothering of Chicana and African-American women is a much needed addition to the feminist movements understanding of history and the complexities of real reproductive justice in a culture where racism and classism create categories of good and bad mothers; which punishes women of colour for becoming mothers.

Kinser also examines radical feminist texts on motherhood and labels them as radical feminist. Usually these texts on women’s history and feminist theory try to erase the term radical feminist and situate women like Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde out with their theoretical heritage. Shulamith Firestone is simply dismissed. Kinser writes about the history of motherhood as a patriarchal institutional and the challenges to it through an intersectional lens actually addressing issues of race, class, gender, and identities.

Radical Feminism and the Accusation of Gender Essentialism

(This is an early draft of an article that was published in the Feminist Times)

 

The most common criticism of radical feminist theory is that we are gender essentialist because we believe that women’s oppression, as a class, is because of the biological realities of our bodies. The assumption that radical feminists are essentialist is based on a misunderstanding of radical feminist theory, which starts from the definition of “radical” itself. The term “radical” refers to the root or the origin. It is radical insofar as it contextualises the root of women’s oppression in the biological realities of our bodies (sex) and seeks the liberation of women through the eradication of social structures, cultural practises and laws that are predicated on women’s inferiority to men. Radical feminism challenges all relationships of power that exist within the Patriarchy including capitalism, imperialism, racism, classism, homophobia and even the fashion-beauty complex.

Radical feminists do not believe that there are characteristics that are uniquely male or uniquely female. Women are not naturally more nurturing than men and men are not better at math. Gender is not a function of our biology. It is a social construct created to maintain unequal power hierarchies. The conflation of sex with gender is another common misunderstanding of radical feminist theory. Sex is the reality of your body with no negative or positive characteristics attached to it. Gender is a social construct that privileges men/ masculinity above women/ femininity. Radical feminism is accused of gender essentialism because we recognise these power hierarchies and seek to destroy them. We do not, as frequently suggested, believe these are natural. It is a silencing tactic.

Women’s oppression as a class is built on two interconnected constructs: reproductive capability and sexual capability. Gender is created to grant men control over women’s reproductive and sexual labour in order for men to profit from this labour: whether this be unpaid labour within the house, in public spaces and childbearing/ rearing. Or, in the words of Gerda Lerner in The Creation of Patriarchy, the commodification of women’s sexual and reproductive capacities is the foundation of the creation of private property and a class-based society. Without the commodification of women’s labour, there would be no unequal hierarchy of power between men and women fundamental to the creation and continuation of the Capitalist-Patriarchy.

When radical feminists use this language of reproductive and sexual capability, we are derided for failing to include women who cannot get pregnant or who do/ do not experience sexual violence. Radical feminism is not about the individual but rather the oppression of women as a class in the Marxist sense of the term. Rape is used as a weapon to silence women as a class. It does not require every woman to be raped to function as a punishment. The threat therein is enough. Equally, the infertility of an individual woman does not negate the fact that her oppression is based on the assumed potential (and desire) for pregnancy, which is best seen in discussions of women’s employment.

There are countless studies that discuss men’s refusal to hire women during “child-bearing” years despite not knowing whether or not that individual woman can conceive or carry a foetus to term (or the fact that it’s illegal to discriminate against women for pregnancy in the first place). It is the potential for pregnancy, which is used as a way of controlling women’s labour: keeping women in low-paying jobs and maintaining the glass ceiling. Constructing women as “nurturers” maintains the systemic oppression of women and retains wealth and power within men as a class.

Just this week, New Hampshire state Rep. Will Infantine (R) has stated that women deserve to be paid less than men because men work harder. The Equal Pay has existed since 1970 and yet women are still consistently paid less than men based on gendered assumptions about the value of women’s work. This is without investigating the intersections of racism, classism and misogyny, which result in women of colour being paid substantially less than white women for similar work.

Even something as basic as a company dress code is gendered to mark women as other. Harrods requires women staff members to wear make-up – a fact that became public when former employee Melanie Stark complained to the press about being hounded out of her job. British Airways requires all new recruits to wear skirts because women cannot be expected to look professional whilst handing out meals and pillows in trousers. High heels are frequently required as part of a ‘professional’ appearance for women despite the fact that they cause permanent damage to women’s feet and lower limbs.

Women working in the service industry are frequently required to wear clothing that accentuates external markers of sex, particularly their breasts. On the other hand, breasts displayed for the purpose of feeding an infant are considered a disgrace to basic human decency. Sexual harassment is endemic, particularly in the workplace, yet women are punished if they do not attend work in clothing that is considered “acceptable” for the male gaze. The use of women’s bodies to sell products further institutionalises the construction of women as object.

In the UK, two women a week are murdered by former or current partners. Male violence is a major cause of substance misuse, self-harm, and homelessness in women. We know that women are the vast majority of victims of domestic and sexual violence and abuse. And, we know that men are the majority of perpetrators, yet we talk about “gender-based violence” as if men and women were equally perpetrators and victims. Radical feminist theory requires naming the perpetrator because it requires understanding and challenging hyper-masculinity within our culture which results in violence against women, children and other men.

If radical feminists were truly gender essentialists, we would believe that women deserve to be paid less than men. We would support hiring policies that privilege men. We would believe that women’s value is based entirely on their fuckability and childbearing/rearing. If radical feminists were gender essentialists, we would believe that men commit violence because they are born that way. Radical feminists are accused of gender essentialism because we recognise the oppressive structures of our world and seek to dismantle them. It is our direct challenge to hegemonic masculinity and control of the world’s resources (including human) that makes us a target of accusations like gender essentialism, which have no bearing in reality.

Radical feminism does not believe there are male/ female brains or that there are characteristics and behaviours that are innately male/ female. We believe that socialisation creates gender with the express purpose of maintaining current power structures. And, this is why radical feminism is so dangerous to the Capitalist-Patriarchy: we seek to destroy rather fiddle with the margins.