Gender and Digital Politics
Posted on July 7, 2011
The Hansard Society has a new report out today entitled Gender And Digital Politics in which, according to the press release, the three (male) authors examine the question: “Why are political blogs dominated by men?”
Now anyone who’s been following this blog for any length of time will no doubt be able to predict what my response to that question is…..
Yep, it’s “Erm actually, I don’t believe they are, so as far as I’m concerned the premise of that report is fundamentally flawed.” In fact I’ll go further, and state once again for the record that I don’t think the issue is one of a lack of female participation in political blogging: the problem is more to do with with how the men who make up the blokeosphere get to define what political blogging actually is, and how feminist blogging consistently gets either ignored, or marginalised and siphoned off into some kind of “other,” non-political, “women’s interest” or “lifestyle” category.
Interestingly, as if to illustrate exactly what I’m talking about, I was alerted to the report’s publication by a tweet from Jane Martinson, the Guardian’s women’s editor:
That’s Jane Martinson who’s excellent blog – The Women’s Blog – can be found on the Guardian site (as can any other feminist piece published by the Guardian), filed in the Life and Style section, along with ‘fashion’, ‘food’, ‘craft’, and ‘homes’.
According to the Hansard report:
“We start to see a slight difference creeping in around digital media use at the last general election and this is a trend that starts to accelerate as we go further into the world of digital politics. Eighty-five per cent of individual blogs featuring in Total Politics’ Political Blog Awards for 20105 were written by men, just 15% by women”
And yet, as I’ve already pointed out elsewhere on this blog, the Total Bollocks award is by no means an accurate indicator of the involvement of women in political blogging, because year on year it manages to ignore the 100+ UK feminist bloggers who also contribute to the www. And because it’s an award that relies on people nominating blogs, and as we all know, when it comes to blogging, and to writing in general, men promote men promote men, ad infinitum.
The report concludes:
“The balance between men and women decreases as the inherent level of contention or potential for conflict rises; women are marginally more likely to sign a petition (a passive process) but considerably less likely to stand for Parliament and significantly less likely to make comments on a political blog. This brief study suggests that gender imbalance online is the result of wider political exclusion, not digital exclusion and, where women are active in politics, they are equally as likely as their male counterparts to be digitally active.”
Unsurprisingly I disagree. I think there is digital exclusion when it comes to women. Not in the sense that women are excluded from using the Internet, but in the sense that oftentimes the spaces where we do contribute are not categorised by the compilers of lists or by the writers of reports as being political in the first place.
Until that changes and feminism is recognised as being political rather than seen as some kind of niche lifestyle interest, we’ll continue to see questions like “why are political blogs dominated by men?” being posed, when in reality the question should be: “Why do men always get to decide what is and isn’t politics?”
Incidentally, the photo I’ve used to illustrate this piece is of the Ellis Bookstall on Norwich Market. There are no shelves labelled: “Modern Fiction – Male Authors A-Z”. Make of that what you will.
AHHHHHHHHHHH – this is so annoying. My rss feed has at least 20 political (feminist) blogs by women and that isn’t even scratching the surface. As you point out feminism is THE political statement about the inequalities that women face every day all over the world. So yes, it is about time that this was recognised by the male establishment as politics. I could tear my hair out, I really could.
Maybe, since they’re so narrowly defined, the political blokeosphere’s topics should be called “monitics” rather than “politics”?
Cath – I’m one of the report’s co-authors, and I suspect there’s quite a lot we agree on about the problems around defining “political” blogging. The example I often use is Mumsnet – it’s not a “political” site under the sorts of definitions used when all sorts of different people draw up lists of political sites, but a lot of the discussion on it very much is about political issues.
However, one of the reasons we looked at wider sources of information was to try to deal with that issue (e.g. data on how men and women describe themselves what they do online – so people are classifying themselves rather than being classified by others). Overall there do appear to be differences which are not solely about the definition of “political”.
That’s why we report, for example, the research which shows female MPs use the internet in different ways from male MPs, with different preferences for the sorts of digital tools they use. That’s a very different – and also an important, I think – issue.
Hi Mark, and thanks for your comment.
I’m not sure that the report was clear about the info on MPs to be honest. For example, when you say that 80% of MP’s blogs are written by male MPs, doesn’t that just reflect the fact that less than 25% of MPs are women anyway, so the number of women MPs blogging are actually proportionate to women’s representation in Parliament? Or am I missing something?
i think it is a bit disingenuous, the reports’ remarks about why women dont comment. i dont comment on or engage with a lot of male written political blogs, because of the online bullying and silencing of feminist voices, not because i am ‘passive’.
Yes, that was going to be my next point Sian. Bearing in mind the amount of discussion there’s been on here and other feminist blogs about the abuse women are subjected to online when they do contribute, I’m surprised that the issue of online misogyny and its impact wasn’t raised in the report.
Agreed, Sian. A lot of the time it’s too much to bother with and completely unproductive.
Cath – thanks for blogging about this, I would have totally missed it otherwise 🙂
@sianushka | July 7, 2011 at 6:33 pm,
@Cath Elliott | July 7, 2011 at 6:54 pm
The abuse and silencing and even bullying thing is a two way street.
Here’s an egregious example from a well-known feminist blog…
“the problem is more to do with with how the men who make up the blokeosphere get to define what political blogging actually is, and how feminist blogging consistently gets either ignored, or marginalised and siphoned off into some kind of “other,” non-political, “women’s interest” or “lifestyle” category.”
If you’ll forgive an observation or two from the outside, Cath, I’m going to partially turn that comment back on you.
Part of the problem – and a sizeable part at that – is that feminist blogging is unfairly marginalised and siphoned off inappropriately into non-political categories.
Part of th problem is also that blogs with a strong ideological focus/slant, and that’s not just feminist blogs, tend to operate in their distinct political niche which unfortunately encourages a degree of solipsism. Maybe three or fours year back, Patty Boulaye appeared on the Question Time panel and managed to get right on my wick within a matter of minutes for no more reason than she prefaced every answer she gave with ‘Speaking as a Christian…’. That kind of relentless proseltizing doesn’t go down a bundle with me at the best of times, least of all because such claims are extremely hubristic – who’s to say her version of Christianity is the same as that of other Christians – and its extremely presumptious of anyone make an implicit claim that they’re speaking for a particular group or defining how that group necessarily has to view the world. (Frank admission, I’m not a fan of some of the ‘this is what “the left” should do/say/think” stuff at LibCon either but as Sunny means well, I try to be a little more indulgent there than I would in some other venues.
What I think is missing from the political blogosphere at the moment is female-oriented group blog which conciously tries to be ‘mainstream’ in its presentation. What we have got, on one side, are some very good individual feminist writing in the feminist niche, both from individuals and from the likes of the F-Word and, on the other, what we’ve had are desperately patronising ‘mainstream’ efforts like ‘Politics and the City’ – which has thankfully died on its arse – which push the ridiculous idea that engaging women in politics is possible only if you wrap the serious stuff up in fashion tips and other empty-headed nonsense. But there’s nothing much in the middle ground with a high enough profile to break into the current political mainstream.
Many of the issues that hold back feminist political blogging, from the inside rather than the outside, are presentational rather than political – and, again, I think this is true of most, if not all, niche sectors which operate along strong ideological lines. What can often lose not only a male audience, but a sizeable section of the female audience, is the tendancy to make absolutely everything an overtly feminist issue even if, in some extreme cases, the connection is rather tenuous and strained. That can be hard for a non-ideological audience to digest. Its a bit like having chips every single night – after a while you get desperate for a pizza. With that oftens comes a tendancy to put up feminist arguments as if they are self-evident truths when, in reality, the validity of those arguments may be hotly contested within feminism itself. It can also, again in extreme cases, result in a style of writing in which near enough every article either begins with or contains – from an outsiders perspective – an incomprehesible, ideological, stream-of-consciousness brain dump which only makes sense to anyone who’s spent the last three years thoroughly immersed in 20th century feminist philosophy but might just as easily be about quantum mechanics for all that many visitors have even the foggiest idea what its actually about.
So, and this is just my personal view, feminist blogging is excluded from the mainstream, and absurdly so when its pushed out into the realms of ‘other’, whatever that might be, but even if that changes it will only bring feminist writing into the main canon of political blogging as a niche, and if that’s as much as you want to achieve then that’s fine. But if you want to take it further then I suspect it will need a female-orientated, and feminist-informed project that consciously sets out to grab a mainstream audience, in order to make a major breakthrough. Something that’s broad enough in scope to prevent it being easily dimissed by detractors just by throwing the ‘Millie Tant’ stereotype at it.
Failing that, then I fear that what we’re likely to wind up with is the creeping horrors of HuffPo as the biggest female-run presence in the UK blogosphere, for which Dante would have to invent a whole new circle of Hell.
Cath: If you control for the number of male and female MPs, there are some differences – with blogging more popular with men and (other) social networking more popular with women. (The report referenced in footnote 7 has more on this from memory, though I’ve not got a copy of that report to hand.)
It certainly matters in terms of the image of Westminster political overall if the ranks of blogging MPs is male dominated, as that leaves a particular impression, but also it’s more than simply a reflection of the overall number of MPs being male dominated.
One thing that has struck me about looking at the evidence is how little MPs and their use of Facebook tends to get talked about, enumerated or even put into league tables. Perhaps the historical emphasis on blogging when talking of MPs has therefore given an impression that – even if inadvertently – is gender-biased? Perhaps that’s now changing with the greater emphasis on Twitter, or perhaps there’s still an issue with Facebook being relatively neglected in such commentary?
Certainly don’t know answers to those questions, but I hope those are the sorts questions others will also be encouraged to ponder by the paper. They are at least the ones I will 🙂
If men get to define what “political” is, they define all radfem blogs out of existence.
Sheila Jeffreys reminded us, in a wonderful lecture on YouTube 2009 about Kate Millet, that male fiction of the 60s was not even considered political the way feminists looked at it. The womanhatred of DH Lawrence, Norman Mailer and Henry Miller was invisible.
“Sexual Politics” opened up the whole field of political insight into “great” male and leftist male endorced “sexual liberation”.
So I would not trust any man to define politics as I know it, and certainly, there is huge blog political women’s output coming on the internet. More women are writing politically than ever before. And more women are silenced on the male blogs by out and out male attacks and death threats against women BTW. Feminism is attacked all the time on male blogs, women have just changed the rules so we can communicate effectively politically without males defining ththe topics or how the topics are presented.
Sorry to derail slightly, but I have to ask Andy Wilkinson this.
Cath has described on this blog the abuse she’s received. Other bloggers such as Laurie Penney have described receiving rape and death threats. But the most ‘egregious’ example of bullying by a female you can find is me from TWO YEARS AGO telling Ally F that I think his motives for ‘helping’ women who’ve been raped – which he’d just boasted about, thereby revealing to the proportion of the world reading this blog that those women had been raped, – may be less than pure. Well I stand by those remarks, and let me add, I think any man who tries to earn kudos by boasting about how he has nobly saved the poor raped women is a bit of a shit in my opinion. Anyway it’s hardly comparable is it? Me saying in public that I think that particular remark he made was a bit crap, to sending someone a threat saying I’m going to rape you, or going to kill you, or the kind of abuse Cath receives. And let me repeat it was TWO YEARS AGO. And Ally F is a big boy, for all the pearl clutching that followed.
Or even just suggesting he should be hanged.
You need to develop a sense of proportion Andy. There you are, there’s TWO examples of me bullying people for you to complain about.
Andy Wilkinson – i don’t think anyone was silenced on that thread! silencing means that you don’t feel comfortable even starting to comment because the environment is so hostile.
Well the Guardian silenced me because I accused them of silencing women. I can appreciate the joke though.
At Comment is Free, the hate flows on. Here is how you slur your ex-wife and all women and blame women for it:
“My ex-wife is ten times more misogynistic than I am. When I challenged her on it she said ‘yes, because men aren’t assholes like women”.
And this propaganda is published over and over:
“Men and women are NOT the same. They are not only built differently, but their thinking/intelligence patterns are entirely different as well.
Men have NOT oppressed women. This is a nasty feminist lie. Some men have certainly oppressed other men, but they have never oppressed women
Domestic violence is usually reciprocal. When it is not, more women instigate it than men”.
Is this endless repetition considered harmless?. If not, how can a feminist newspaper publish it? I understand that the editorial policy has been suspended for comments but how is that possible? It means the editorial policy has changed, surely.
There is a communtiy standard barring sexism, I am barred for mentioning it. Sexism is not only permitted, the handful who consistently stand up against it are barred – ultimule, bitethehand, tinlaurelandhardy. Eibhear is currently being moderated to death. You can, with ease, count on one hand the regular female commenters at guardian.co.uk who hold any kind of feminist views. You can count on two hands the regular female commenters, of any opinion, and most of them are staff.
So Cath, what is the deal? Is the Guardian no longer a supporter of feminism? Why are you silent? I am not a feminist insider, I only stopped by on CiF because I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I don’t understand why feminists are letting the Guardian get away this.
My experience at the Guardian online tells me that feminsim is only operating in a distinct political niche becuase it, and women, are being forced out of the mainstream, with the assistance of the very people who claim to be their staunchest supporters. Cath, where is the noise? I don’t even know who I should be asking.
ditto what others have said about sexual politics: what men do to women, as a sexual class around the world *is* political.
women “doing” mens politics (male-centric politics on mens terms) is apparently what teh menz want, just like they want women “doing” male-centric sexuality, on mens terms. otherwise known as PORN. critiquing any of it is exactly what they dont want, and its what they cannot stand.