(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

Apparently, "my politics" are the problem: Mumsnet, Vagenda and Feminism

I’ve been struggling to write a proper response to Holly Baxter’s guest blog for Mumsnet. I remain incredibly saddened that Mumsnet chose to run this particular blogpost by Holly Baxter from Vagenda as part of the 16 Days of Activism on VAW.* I am unhappy that they linked my bloghop, which I intended to be a celebration of women’s voices, with a blog post which erases women from the feminist movement. I am annoyed that they locked the thread on the blog post where many of us were raising our concerns. I am disappointed that they dismissed our concerns as irrelevant to the point where they locked a thread and did not return to it. But, mostly, I am hurt that my concerns have been dismissed because of “my politics”, as if my “politics” make me incapable of rational thought. I am hurt that the concerns of other women are also being dismissed. As Lynn Schreiber said when commenting on a draft of this piece “if it is your politics, then it is our politics, as we were just as dismayed and angered by the reaction of Mumsnet.”

There really is so much wrong with Baxter’s post that it’s difficult to know where to start. At best, Baxter’s post was extremely naive but, to be honest, I think I am being over-kind with that description. Using the violent murder of 14 women at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989 to start a debate about the role of men within the feminist movement is, simply, offensive. There are valid debates to be had about the role of men in the feminist movement. This was neither the time nor the place.

Baxter compounds this offence by failing to name the 14 women who were murdered.

Geneviève Bergeron, aged 21;
Hélène Colgan, 23;
Nathalie Croteau, 23;
Barbara Daigneault, 22;
Anne-Marie Edward, 21;
Maud Haviernick, 29;
Barbara Maria Klucznik, 31;
Maryse Leclair, 23;
Annie St.-Arneault, 23;
Michèle Richard, 21;
Maryse Laganière, 25;
Anne-Marie Lemay, 22;
Sonia Pelletier, 28; and
Annie Turcotte, aged 21. 

And, that is what is wrong with Holly Baxter’s blog. She makes it about the man rather than the women who were murdered. This isn’t unusual since this is precisely what the mainstream media does when violent men murder women. But, this isn’t a feminist position. It has never been a feminist position. Feminism is a woman-centred movement. 

What Baxter seems to miss is that the man who murdered 14 women for being ‘feminists’ was never going to be a part of the feminist movement. He was never going to understand that the reason he didn’t get into the Canadian airforce or the Ecole Polytechnique was because of his personal failings. Men like that don’t respond to reason or constructive discourse. The men who do, the men we want involved in the feminist movement, don’t need to be told what to do or have to be in charge. They are already involved although sometimes their ‘help’ can be of questionable value as seen in the ‘Walk a Mile in her Shoes’ marches. The point is we don’t have to make a special effort to involve those men. If they want to be involved, they will be. Yet, Baxter seems to be implying that if feminists spent more time worrying about the involvement of men in the feminist movement, then men would be less likely to kill us. So, really it’s our fault that violent, anti-feminist men kill women they identify as feminists because we aren’t nice enough. It’s just another form of victim-blaming. 

Frankly, I struggle to take any self-defined feminist who says this seriously: 

But it’s important to remember that feminism is about destroying patriarchal assumptions (which, incidentally, include the assumptions that men are naturally aggressive, animalistic and hypersexual – insulting, to say in the least.) It’s not about destroying men, or holding innocent men to account for the actions of people who share nothing in common with them except a penis. That’s just biblical.

Feminists are already aware that feminism is about destroying patriarchal assumptions. The thing is feminists aren’t the ones labelling men as “naturally aggressive, animalistic and hypersexual”. That is the position the Patriarchy takes in its efforts to minimise and excuse male behaviour. Jack Layton, one of the co-founders of the White Ribbon Movement in 1991, has been explicit that he was talking about male violence against women. The fact that the White Ribbon Campaign has become gender-neutral is testimony more to the power of those who want to ignore the issue of male violence than it is to men’s interest in the feminist movement. The men I know, who support the feminist movement, are more than aware that the vast majority of violence committed against women and children is by men. They know that the vast majority of violence committed against men is by other men. 


Marc Lepine was not an isolated “madman“. To imply that ignores the lived realities of billions of women across the world. If Lepine were one isolated man, millions of women each year would not by murdered by men. If Marc Lepine was an “isolated” madman, then we have an epidemic of “isolated” madmen causing devastation and mass murder on an almost daily basis. Or, we could start discussing the reality of male violence and start expecting men to take responsibility for male violence, particularly since there are already men willing to address this issue.
The Massacre at the Polytechnique in Montreal was Canada’s Dunblane. This is something that we will never forget. It is something that has changed us all. To conflate it with the issue of men’s participation in the feminist movement is, simply, disrespectful. There are very valid discussions to be had about the involvement of men but this isn’t the time and it is most certainly not the ‘hook’ to use to make a cheap political point.


* I am not going to address the personal attack made by Holly Baxter on Dr. Julia Long. Dr. Long has addressed the issue here. What I will say is that Baxter owes Dr. Long an apology and it’s telling that despite being factually wrong, Baxter has made no public statement retracting her personal attack.

Holly Baxter’s Guest Blog on Mumsnet: Some Unpleasant Victim-Blaming

This week’s guest blogger on Mumsnet is Holly Baxter from Vagenda as part of the 16 Days of Activism on VAW. I am genuinely at a loss as how to adequately express my rage and my disgust at the article Baxter wrote. Baxter has used the mass murder of 14 women in Montreal as a way of attempting to make a political point about the inclusion of men within the feminist movement. Now, I fundamentally disagree with Baxter on the issue of men’s involvement in feminism as I have explained here and here, but, even if I did, I can not begin to imagine how the inclusion of men in one feminist event is necessary because one violent man killed 14 women.

This is the image Mumsnet chose to run in conjunction with the blog. On a blog referencing the murder of 14 women.  I have no words for this.

Tonight, I am too angry to write a proper response to Baxters’ blog. Instead, I want to remember the 14 women who Baxter failed to name in her post; 14 women who were murdered by a man who hated feminists:

Geneviève Bergeron, aged 21;
Hélène Colgan, 23;
Nathalie Croteau, 23;
Barbara Daigneault, 22;
Anne-Marie Edward, 21;
Maud Haviernick, 29;
Barbara Maria Klucznik, 31;
Maryse Leclair, 23;
Annie St.-Arneault, 23;
Michèle Richard, 21;
Maryse Laganière, 25;
Anne-Marie Lemay, 22;
Sonia Pelletier, 28; 
Annie Turcotte, aged 21.



We Believe You

The FeMNist section of Mumsnet celebrated its second birthday this month. Since it’s inception, we’ve expanded from a few regulars into a large community with sub-sections on Activism and two monthly book clubs. FeMNists have been represented at FEM ’11, the UKFeminista Summer Schools, Go Feminism, Muff March, Challenging Porn Conference, Engender, LFN ’10, Reclaim The Night marches in London, Glasgow, Leeds, Edinburgh and Dundee and Million Women Rise London. Members have started new feminist groups across the UK. We have campaigned against Hooters in Bristol, Top Shop’s offensive t-shirts, Harvey Nichols’ Walk of Shame campaign, Pepsi’s End of the World pro-rape ads, the Boots “Here come the Girls” ads and literally thousands of letters and emails of complaints to MPs, MSPs and the judiciary about the suggested “anonymity” for rapists clause that the ConDems thought might be fun. We’ve actively supported Mumsnet’s other official and unofficial campaigns including Let Girls Be Girls against premature sexualisation of children, the Miscarriage Code of Practice, stopping the abolition of the DLA, banning Page 3, removing/ hiding “lad’s mags” from the view of children, better respite care for parents of disabled children, against Nadine Dorries anti-choice bill, and the fight to save the NHS. For this, we have been trolled something ridiculous by Misogynist Rights Activists [MRAs] from all over the internet [but mostly the basement of their parent’s house] and ridiculed by a small number of MNers always willing to stick the boot in. [It has to be said here that the Special Needs forum on Mumsnet is subject to the same vitriol; usually by the same group of trolls.]

The FeMNists are some of the most amazing and inspiring women I have ever come across. They are beautiful, strong, intelligent and real sisters but I have never been so proud to be a FeMNist as I am with the We Believe You campaign. This campaign is/ was ours. It came out of the hundreds of threads written by women asking for support in dealing with their experiences of rape and other forms of sexualised violence; threads where FeMNists were ridiculed for suggesting that most men are not sex-starved beasts. It came out of threads written by FeMNists discussing their own experiences of sexualised violence and encouraging others/themselves to believe that those “small” acts of sexualised violence weren’t really that small. It came out of the theoretical basis of feminism: women supporting women.

But, the real origins of the We Believe You campaign was the Julian Assange rape trial and extradition. Between Assange, Roman Polanski, and the suggested anonymity for rape defendents, the rape apologists were having a field day labeling women as lying whores. FeMNists took a beating from MRAs but also other Mumsnetters who kept insisting that *some* women lie and, anyways, famous leftist-socialist dudes don’t *rape* people. They are falsely accused by evil feminists. It was a distressing period and it did feel like Mumsnet was no longer a “safe space” in which to support one another through our experiences.

In the midst of this discussion and, frankly unnecessarily aggressive trolling by other MNers and MRAs, our lovely Christine de Pizan undertook an informal and anonymous survey of the experiences of sexualised violence of MNers. I don’t think anyone was prepared for the consequences of the survey. Yet, from these competing strands of debate and lack of support came the idea of a campaign about rape myths that Leningrad christened with the name I Believe You. FeMNists took this campaign across the talk boards of MN supporting and grieving with other women.

Last October, we asked MNHQ to run a formal campaign with 2 basic premises: to educate people about rape myths and to make the default position that rape victims are telling the truth. MNHQ more than surpassed our wildest thoughts on this issue. The support for the campaign has been phenomenal with so many amazing women standing together supporting each other. I am proud to be part of Mumsnet and humbled to stand with such an amazing group of supportive and loving women.

The media attention of the campaign, run in support with Rape Crisis and the End Violence Against Women Coalition has been incredible but, more importantly, the campaign’s success in the various forms of social media has given a voice to women who had previously been silenced. The twitter hashtags #webelieveyou and #ididnotreport have been trending with stories of sexual violence and supportive statements [and a couple of misogynistic asshats but they mostly make themselves look like pillocks]. These are just some of the blogs written: saltandcaramel, Gentle Otter, Bidisha, toomuchtosayformyself, Too Many Cuts, and Alreethinny.

What We Believe You has accomplished in just over 48 hours has been to make women’s voices heard.

The survey (completed by over 1,600* women) shows that, of respondents:

  • One in 10 had been raped (10%) 
  • Over one-third (35%) had been sexually assaulted 
  • Almost one-quarter (23%) reported being raped or sexually assaulted four or more times 
  • In two-thirds (66%) of cases the women knew the person responsible 

Many women felt unable to report rape or sexual assault:

  • Over four-fifths (83%) of respondents who had been raped or sexually assaulted did not make a report to the police 
  • Over one-quarter (29%) didn’t tell anyone at all, including friends or family, about the assault/rape 
  • Over two-thirds (68%) said they would hesitate reporting to the police due to low conviction rates 
  • And over half (53%) would not report due to embarrassment or shame 

The results also reveal that most women feel that rape victims are treated poorly:

  • Nearly three-quarters (70%) of respondents feel the media is unsympathetic to women who report rape 
  • Over half (53%) feel the legal system is unsympathetic 
  • And over half (55%) feel society at large is unsympathetic