(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 Girlscampaign[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

2 thoughts on “(Re)Creating and (Re)Defining Sisterhood Online: The Mumsnet Phenomenon”

  1. Excellent piece, really captures MN’s essence. I also agree re:larrygrylls, if he were a new poster, MNHQ would have banned him, but because he’s been around for ages, he gets away with his trolling. He’s just one of a group who co-ordinate their attacks on Facebook. Nice hey?

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