It's not all about choice: how I learned to stop worrying and love smashing patriarchy*

Monday, 11 November 2013

Last Saturday, many women bloggers spent the day at Mumsnet's Blogfest. I didn't attend - I was speaking at the Christian New Media Conference. It was a busy day for me and I didn't catch up with what had happened at Blogfest until Sunday morning. As it turned out, Blogfest hadn't gone so well for some people. Specifically, the panel discussion on feminism hadn't gone so well. There was shouting. There was Offence Taken. You should probably read more about it from Glosswitch and Sarah Ditum, two of the panelists, who know much more about exactly what happened than I do.

As I read tweets from Saturday afternoon and began to understand exactly why the panel discussion on feminism had upset so many people, I saw one statement repeated again and again: "Feminism is about choice." The inability to move beyond this definition, unfortunately, is exactly what makes discussions like the one at Blogfest on Saturday unproductive and frustrating. As Sarah wrote in her summing-up of the day:

"Feminism is not here to make you feel good about yourself. It does not want you to swim in a warm soup of self-regard. Feminism’s job is not to reassure you that you are a 'good woman'. Feminism is here to question what we mean by 'woman' and ask whose version of 'good' we’re adhering to. 

"The ultimate goal of feminism is not choice, however often people claim that it is: feminism shouldn’t need to laud you for making a decision while being a woman. Feminism is not your mum, here to take pride in everything you do and gently mop up your accidents."

Now this is not going to be a post about Blogfest. I wasn't there, and what I want to say goes beyond one panel at a conference, although it's from the furore around this panel that I've been compelled to write about it. It seems as though what we so often tend to get stuck on is seeing feminism as exactly these things and no more. Yet feminism is not some self-helpy concept designed to make you feel good about your life. It is supposed to challenge you. I think we need to talk about the way society and popular culture have contributed towards people requiring validation for every single choice they make. Why are many people so dependent on being praised for everything they do that they struggle to analyse issues objectively, or discuss anything without making it all about their personal experience and whether or not they feel it's being validated?

I've mentioned my frustration with this in other blog posts since becoming a parent. When you discuss parenting, or being a woman who is also a parent, people cannot help but take your explanation of the choices you've made in life as a challenge to  their own. Whether it's breastfeeding and bottlefeeding, weaning techniques, car seat manufacturers, sleep problems, returning to work, or childcare, expressing an opinion about why you chose to live the way you do will result in responses from people who feel invalidated or even attacked by the very fact that you are different to them. Instead of looking critically at things that may need addressing, we relate personal anecdotes again and again as if they are what define an issue. We take offence.

And this, I believe, is why people become defensive about their personal choices when they discuss issues related to womanhood and to motherhood. Women are so used to having their every choice analysed or criticised (in a way that men are not) that they can't help but do it at each other. We are actively encouraged to judge other women and form opposing camps. Our default mode is 'justification', even towards people who bear no ill will towards us but have simply chosen a different path in life. For so long, the decisions we make about how to live have been subject to debate about what impact they will have on society and whether or not they are the right thing for women to do. It seems as if this has contributed towards the sort of self-worth that sees a difference of lifestyle as an attack and makes every decision loaded with meaning about the state of womanhood in the 21st century.

When you discuss this with other women it becomes evident that they have all felt, at some point, felt attacked, belittled, or as if they're a bad person for making choices about how to live. It's not a 'society hates stay at home mothers' thing or a 'society hates bottlefeeding mothers' thing. It's a 'society makes women insecure about every aspect of their lives' thing and it has to stop. This rooting of our identities in 'my choice' and the 'celebration of choice', making it the be all and end all of womanhood achieves nothing, and will never contribute to a productive conversation about feminism. 'My choice' will never see the bigger picture. 'My choice' will never encompass women as a group. 'My choice' will only ever turn us inwards and then outwards again to judge one another.

It's 'my choice' that means we have campaigns purporting to reignite interest in feminism that actually constitute nothing more than vague 'be who you wanna be' statements about celebrating differences. It's 'my choice' that gives us articles and debates entitled 'Can you be a feminist and do x?' As Glosswitch wrote in her post about Blogfest, a question about whether you can be a feminist and a mummy blogger could have gone in a productive direction, but instead it prompted more defensiveness and justification of choices. Giving these 'debates' provocative titles is a tedious tactic that means women go in ready for battle, ready to be offended, ready to get annoyed at someone. When this happens, we need to shut it down before it propagates and find a better way.

To reduce gender equality to whether you like making jam, or wearing heels, or men holding open doors for you, or staying at home with your baby, or removing your body hair, or preferring skirts over trousers is missing the point. These are your choices. They are not feminist choices, just because you believe men and women are equal and that you feel you have made them of your own free will. Neither are they anti-feminist choices. They're just choices. We need to move past needing a pat on the back for every hobby we take up and decision we make, because quite frankly, they have nothing to do with achieving equality. What does have everything to do with feminism however, is acknowledging that choices do not take place in a vacuum. We are influenced by a host of factors at every turn, and denying it is to stick our heads in the sand.

If we make one choice, it must be the choice to step away from this way of doing things, this defensiveness as default. If we could talk about our lives without setting ourselves up against each other over personal preferences, what a difference that would make. My own personal journey of self-worth has led me to the point where I don't see the lifestyles of other women as an attack on my own lifestyle. I don't even see their choices as having anything to do with my own, because quite simply, they don't. It's difficult - because everything about us tells us we should have an enormous sense of insecurity about everything we do as women. I really believe that if we can reject this and refuse to be threatened by diversity of opinion, by those who question the factors that influence our choices, then things might change.

*about what other women might think of my life

#notblinkered: rebranding pro-life

Thursday, 24 October 2013


The past few weeks have seen a resurgence in discussions about whether or not we need to rebrand feminism - this time, thanks to Elle magazine and some competition in the USA. No-one loves a rebranding discussion. I imagine memoirs of the feminist movement in decades to come:

It is generally accepted that the downfall of patriarchy began with one key turning point in 2013: a corporate advertising campaign. The men saw that gender equality was unthreatening and compatible with body hair removal. And so began the end of misogyny.

Feminism, however, isn't the only movement that's currently toying with a rebrand. The pro-life organisation Life has launched a social media campaign, #notblinkered.

“Do you have a stereotype of someone who's 'prolife'? White? Middle aged? Middle class? Right wing? Religious? Anti-women's rights? Blinkered?”

Life have correctly identified that this is exactly the stereotype that people have of those who are anti-abortion. It's one that isn't exactly challenged by the sort of people who picket clinics and the sort of politicians who support them. The campaign's aim is to “challenge the stereotypes associated with prolifers” and prove that they're 'not blinkered' about the issues surrounding abortion, while acknowledging “the damage abortion has done to women, children, families and society as a whole”. So far, it features interviews with a feminist, an atheist and a socialist.

Despite writing about abortion rights on numerous occasions in the past and strongly identifying as pro-choice, I've grown weary of the way the debates on the subject nearly always pan out. I believe that both 'sides' can be incredibly blinkered and that the abortion debate consistently lacks nuance and consideration of surrounding issues. I don't find it helpful that anyone claiming the label 'pro-life' is liable to be branded a 'woman hater' by pro-choice activists. I don't find it helpful that pro-life activists harass women outside clinics and feel it's acceptable to give out misleading information about pregnancy and abortion. And I feel the label 'pro-life' has ceased to be helpful at all because people use it to mean so many different things.

Very often, at the merest mention of someone being 'pro-life', people will jump to the conclusion that they believe abortion should be illegal, or at least that they believe in various pieces of restrictive legislation that will slowly make abortion illegal except in exceptional circumstances. I know this is not always the case.

What's interesting is that none of the 'stories' featured on the #notblinkered blog discuss legislation. What these pro-lifers believe about whether or not abortion should be legal, what their opinions are about an upper time limit, what they believe about medical abortions or social abortions or extreme circumstances isn't apparent. And I get that this isn't the point of the campaign. The point of the campaign is to get us to consider the whole picture, the grey areas. What of the women who feel pressured into having an abortion by their partner or family? What is 'choice' when you're so constrained by your financial situation that you can't continue with a pregnancy?

But many pro-choice advocates have been left unimpressed by #notblinkered. They see this 'challenging of stereotypes' as a gimmick to try to make us believe pro-lifers are harmless. That their beliefs don't see thousands of women die each year from unsafe abortions and endanger many lives. And this is why the pro-life movement might lead a few more people to look favourably upon them by launching #notblinkered, but why it could also do much, much more by suggesting - and becoming known for working on - ethical and effective solutions that are pro-minimisation of abortion:

1. Challenging the government on measures that have plunged more people into poverty and desperate situations – especially women.

2. Supporting comprehensive sex education that makes sure young people are well-educated about the mechanics of sex and conception but also about healthy and unhealthy relationships, and avoiding risky sexual behaviour. It's well known that the anti-abortion organisation SPUC are extremely opposed to sex education and view it as "damaging". Life doesn't hold an enormously positive view of current sex and relationships education (who does?), but I do feel there needs to be more of a consensus on what good SRE actually looks like. I'm not so sure that both camps could ever achieve this, but why not explore it?

3. Providing ethical, unbiased, and accurate counselling (we know Life have been challenged about this following a 2011 investigation – I truly hope that they have reviewed their training, materials and procedures since). There is no excuse for promoting untruths about pregnancy and abortion, whatever your stance on the issue.

4. Providing support to women in crisis situations who may need financial help or somewhere to live. I am aware that Life already does this. Pro-choice campaigners see this as being of key importance too - there is common ground. The real crisis here is the state of women's services due to cuts.

5. Challenging the negative and derogatory stereotypes that persist whenever conversations about abortion in Britain today take place - 'using abortion as contraception'; 'social abortions' (as if these are carried out for exclusively 'trivial' and 'frivolous' reasons); 'abortion as a lifestyle choice'. A common accusation thrown at the pro-life movement is that it cares more about policing women's sexual activity than it does about the lives of babies and children. It has to move away from judgemental attitudes.

6. If there is really no compulsion to 'turn back the clock' on women's rights, finding common ground with the pro-choice movement and working together on pro-minimisation initiatives rather than seeking reactionary changes in legislation without having looked into other measures first, and without considering the whole picture.

I'm not making these suggestions simply because I think the pro-life movement needs to make itself more palatable to its detractors. I'm making them because I believe that if you truly value life you must address the factors that contribute towards women having abortions, and see what can be changed. Many of these issues are important to pro-choicers too, and it is in this overlap that we should be able to understand each other a bit more and see what might emerge.

On fire, but also drowning

Friday, 18 October 2013


Part of the When We Were On Fire synchroblog hosted by Addie Zierman

2003

Summer

Final year of school. I'd completed the Alpha Course, and a follow-up course too. I'd gone along to school Christian Union and felt intrigued by the unfamiliar style of "Yeah, Lord, we just wanna" prayers and people who said "Mmmmm" in agreement as those prayers were being said.

Soul Survivor. I didn't know that thousands of other young people were Christians. It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. I was overjoyed when people made a decision to walk to the front at the end of meetings. My hands were perpetually raised during worship times. On the second night I prayed that I would understand God's presence and couldn't speak until I got back to my tent. Healing happened. I bought beads to string on a bracelet that spelled out S-A-V-E-D.

Autumn

Fresher's Week. F Floor. We all decided we would make posters for our bedroom doors, displaying a few facts about ourselves. The first statement on my poster, written with a glitter gel pen, was that I was a Christian. Before I departed for university, I'd brought a book about effective evangelism.

I joined the Christian Union. I didn't know that it wasn't really an ecumenical organisation; this confused me for a while. I felt it was a really important thing to be involved in. I went to Friday night meetings every week, initially, taking notes about evangelism and the importance of shining a light, being pioneers, making a difference. I got up at 6am once a week to attend a course about sex and relationships held over breakfast and absorbed everything without questioning. I attended hall cell group and felt intrigued when one friend said that at her church, women couldn't wear trousers on a Sunday, and bemused when no-one knew what my Catholic friend was talking about when he mentioned the stations of the cross, and slightly shamed when it became clear that going on nights out, drinking, was seen as "unhelpful", and condemned by the uncomfortable look I got from someone when I said that my boyfriend was coming to stay for the weekend.

I wanted to get stuck in at a local church, but I was shy. A couple of medical students who were married (married students!) and lived near campus gave me a lift sometimes. They invited me to things. I didn't go. I took notes on a Sunday and prayed that I would receive spiritual gifts.

2004

Winter

Mission Week. The week we were going to show our fellow students what we were all about and really make an impact. We had hoodies and t-shirts emblazoned with a Bible verse. We had little paperback copies of one of the gospels - I took a stack, enough for everyone on my corridor plus a few more (I found most of them in a box on top of a cupboard recently). Our Christian Union rep announced the hall's Mission Week events in the dining hall one night and I was upset by the gang of "popular" students who sniggered as he spoke, saying "Praise the Lord!" in mocking voices.

I placed a stack of gospel booklets in the kitchen at the end of the corridor, just in case anyone wanted to take one. The next day, they had disappeared, in much the same way that food from the fridge used to disappear, stolen and thrown away.

One of the Christian Union's student workers was going to come to our hall that week. I asked if she could run a little session in the kitchen on my corridor one evening. She could share her testimony and answer any questions people had; I would invite everyone along. I felt worried about it; so my best friend decided to scope out the situation and mention it to the rest of the corridor.

They weren't impressed.

"If that's what she wants to do, then she's going to be the architect of her own social death," said one of them. That's what she actually said.

The student worker came for her visit that evening - there was me, my best friend, and two more Christian friends from our hall, chatting in the kitchen and hoping someone else might wander in. They didn't.

I would desperately try to reassure myself that I was a changed person, but years of being bullied at school coupled with anxiety and depression had left me enormously contemptuous of others, when things went wrong. I really tried. I wanted to set an example. I made an effort to be friendly. But I couldn't really keep it up for very long. I was still a teenager, with the mood swings and irritations and inability to see nuance that this involves. I prayed hard and cried in my room as I listened to worship songs.

Spring

Our hall CU rep let me borrow her copy of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I thought it was over the top and silly and so American, but it made me worry that I'd done something wrong. I became more distanced from CU culture: I'd tried, but I didn't feel I fit in.

I decided I wanted to be baptised. My parents, who had me baptised as a baby, felt I was dismissing what they had done for me and the way I had been brought up. They wanted to know why I wanted to do it again. They were worried that the type of churches I was now attending were a bit strange, a bit extreme. Arguments followed. Angrily, I parroted little soundbites I'd picked up about some churches being "dead" and infant baptism being "wrong" and people just repeating liturgy week after week "without it meaning anything to them". They continued to feel unsure, but agreed to attend my baptism and support me.

There was an uncomfortable moment during the sermon on that day when our pastor explained that not all churches - and not all Christians - were doing things the "right" way, but we could be confident that we were.

I was consumed by depression and body image issues and anxiety about my relationship. I felt that being a Christian meant I shouldn't have these issues. What was I to do? I had long sobbing talks that were varying degrees of helpful with friends and women at church. There was a youth group weekend away, a night of teaching and prayer where all the girls cried and wrestled with their problems.

Summer

I took part in a week-long festival of social action and outreach. I enjoyed it, but still could't bring myself to go and talk to strangers and share my faith. I very much wanted this to be the week that I'd conquer my issues. It didn't happen.

If you just receive prayer for x, y will happen.

If you just focus more on this, that will be solved.

Almost a decade later I come across an article about this festival and see the comments below the line of several attendees who no longer attend church due to disillusion and disappointments.

2006

Momentum. Me, my fiancé, and three other couples. I could hardly bear to be around the other delegates. They all looked so happy and radiant and attractive. I wanted to hide in my tent, and I think I did on at least one occasion, beating myself up for not being more like them. I was a failure who looked disgusting and had dropped out of university and hadn't managed to hold down a job yet and wasn't like other women at church.

I had enormous anxiety about what I was supposed to do for the church. I felt that after several years, I still didn't understand what my gifts were and how I was supposed to contribute to church life. I had a sneaking feeling that I was supposed to deal with all my issues first.

I had prayer ministry, and a lot of things changed, but not all of them.

Into the present

Up and down. Enthusiasm and belonging and excitement vs looking for more and questioning and feeling alone. Biblical womanhood, or not. Disillusionment with the formulaic nights of teaching and retreats and events meant to fire young people up that talked about "pioneers" and "doing big things" and being "history makers" and that were the same time after time after time. Reassurance that other people of my generation were thinking about that too. A word for me about being a "woman of influence". A word for me and Luke about being a "pioneering couple". The disconnection from church that so often comes with motherhood. New networks of friends and encouragement and opportunities. New realisations and new frustrations.

The other posts from this sychroblog have thrown up a major theme: the impact of a certain style of teaching and Christian culture on young people, of easy how-tos and a way to belong when you feel like you don't fit in. A way you feel you can effect change at a time in your life when you're really quite powerless. A culture that sometimes focuses on hyped up experiences and instant results over slow growth and change, and can't always address big problems. The damage that can be done when young people are not mature enough nor supported well enough to deal with things. Youthful follies and empty platitudes and stock phrases.

A sense of moving on and growing up.

I particularly liked this excellent post:

"The problem with fire is that it gives the appearance of being a living thing–it breathes, it grows.  But it isn’t alive, and ultimately, it consumes everything before it burns itself out.  That’s not the kind of faith I want, and it’s not the kind of faith I want my children to have.

Better is a seed.  There’s a reason Jesus doesn’t use fire as a metaphor for faith.  He uses seeds–more than once.  Instead of a pseudo-life, a seed is the infant of a living, growing thing.  Unlike fire, which requires nothing but consumables in order to burn, a seed needs to be nurtured.  Active, not passive.  Something we must do carefully and gently over time.  Not a mad rush to throw more on the fire to keep in burning but a long, slow process of food and water.

I’m still nurturing that seed.  I’m not even sure what kind of tree it is yet.  All I know is that it isn’t burning–it’s growing."

We need to talk about Mumsnet feminists

Sunday, 1 September 2013


Mumsnet has recently published the results of its Feminism Survey, conducted in July with over 2,000 participants. Unlike the universally-panned (but much hyped by the media) Netmums feminism survey of 2012 that reported the movement was off-putting to most women and instead championed "the rise of the feMEnist" (I blogged about this) - this survey is actually a little bit heartening. It found that members of Mumsnet felt that being a part of the site had made them more likely to identify with feminism, more aware of feminist perspectives on everyday issues, and and had changed their opinions on what constitutes domestic abuse, as well as enabling them to understand different perspectives and choices to their own.

Everyone has an opinion about Mumsnet, particularly people who have never actually explored the site before. I seem to remember becoming aware of this around the time of the last general election, long before I knew much about it, in fact. A lot of mockery was going on: politicians trying to appeal to "Mumsnet types", having livechats and acting all interested in their concerns. There was justified irritation that some politicians seemed to be making out that the only political issues women are interested in are those relating to motherhood and children, but also plenty of stereotyping of the sort of women who congregate on Mumsnet:

For certain (usually reasonably right-wing) commentators, and most people "below the line", the site is full of silly, smug, middle class women with "baby brain" talking about their overprivileged, indulgent lives. They have the ability to form a hysterical, bullying mob at any given moment and make the lives of anyone who disagrees with them hell.

For certain feminists, Mumsnet's frequented by silly, smug, middle class women talking about their overprivileged, indulgent lives and worrying themselves with "trivial" issues as they "moralise" about society, assuming they're better than everyone else because they have children and attacking those who make different parenting choices to theirs.

So as the Guardian's report on the survey began to attract attention this morning, it was great to see so many people talking positively about it and acknowledging the work that Mumsnet is doing - through successful campaigns, for example. Yet at the same time (because this is Twitter we're talking about here) "God help feminism if it's being represented by bloody Mumsnet," said others, no doubt envisaging the overprivileged and overindulged being hailed as the new leaders of the movement.

Notable this weekend has been backlash against the Guardian's inclusion, in the piece, of Ticky Hedley-Dent's comment (from "a Twitter debate earlier this year") that "I think Mumsnet is key to understanding feminism. Feminism hardly comes into play until you have kids. Then you get it." Why are these women insinuating that having children is what really makes you a feminist? Why are they excluding women who don't have children? This is everything that's wrong with feminism, people.

I don't think that particular quote was the best way to illustrate what some of the women interviewed by the Guardian about the survey are trying to say. Of course gender inequality impacts you before you have children or if you don't ever have children. Who's going to deny that? But pregnancy and motherhood undoubtedly highlight new issues, and bring to the fore problems that may well have not been a feature of some women's lives before. No-one's saying that women, you haven't experienced inequality until you've had children. What they mean is that motherhood makes you much more aware of particular issues and aspects of inequality. And for many women, this will undoubtedly have the effect of "galvanising" their beliefs about feminism.

I've been meaning to blog about the way that "mothers", as a group, and their concerns are often dismissed and belittled by both the left and right for being "too middle class" and "trivial" for some time now, because I can't help but notice it any time someone mentions a campaign that affects children - backlash against the ubiquitous pink/blue distinctions between toys and the types of toys that are marketed as being "for boys" and "for girls"; backlash against lads mags and Page 3 being easily seen by children in shops; backlash against anything that's seen as presenting children with harmful messages about sex.

The middle class mother is a prime target for sneering, whether she's not working outside the home and therefore, apparently, living a pampered life funded by her husband, or else harming her children in myriad ways by "leaving them" to heartlessly pursue a career. It's a different sort of sneering to that aimed at working class mothers, but the comments aimed at both groups imply stupidity and the idea that their worries and concerns aren't "real" ones. Why would a woman, in this day and age, choose to define herself at any point by the fruits of her womb? Aren't we past all that? As I think I mentioned in a post I wrote while on maternity leave, sorry that some of us want to talk about things that are an enormous part of our lives.

Some feminists assume that the voices of women who aren't white and middle class are ignored by these parent-focused campaigns and issues. This is a legitimate concern for those of us who observe the way the media has publicised activism in recent years, but to assume is dangerous and all too often inaccurate. If you don't spend time on Mumsnet and feel contemptuous about its members, how much do you know about them, really? And how much do you know about their campaigns?

This Is My Child aims to "support parents of children with additional needs, inform everyone else, and open up a conversation about how we can all act to make life easier for everyone caring for children with additional needs." The campaign has been debunking myths about disability and raising awareness of how we can challenge assumptions about the issues involved.

We Believe You, aimed at busting the victim-blaming myths about rape and sexual assault, was launched amid an overwhelming response to members being encouraged to talk about their own experiences and why they did or did not report them to police or tell friends and family.

Better Miscarriage Care put pressure on the NHS to provide more sensitive and responsive treatment to women experiencing early pregnancy loss. As someone with friends who have had distressing experiences with healthcare professionals while miscarrying, I know this is vital.

Let Girls Be Girls, a campaign that launched in 2010, was a response to growing concern about the way advertising, music, clothing, and magazines encourage a view of sex and sexuality that encourages girls to focus on appearance above all else, tells them that they exist to please boys and men, and tells them that their most important quality is how "sexy" they are.

Bounty Mutiny is asking politicians and the NHS to rethink the fact that Bounty sales reps have a presence on postnatal wards, pressurising women into giving out personal details and invading their privacy at a time that's at best a time for family, bonding with a new baby, and recovering from labour, and at worst, a time of worry, trauma, and possibly grieving.

I wouldn't describe any of these campaigns as "trivial" and "silly". Would you say the same for some of Mumsnet's forums, where you can find long-running threads on recognising the "red flags" of an abusive relationship, posts offering help and resources to women in abusive situations, and personal support to individuals as they go to the police, walk out on a violent man, or rebuild their lives? How much do you really know about the boards where women discuss their experiences of assault and rape, support members who are survivors, offer advice on workplace discrimination, and help each other thrash out some of their first, conflicted thoughts about body politics and equality in relationships? Do you really know much at all about all the consciousness-raising discussion? The "shouting back" about everyday sexism? The support for women who've gone through miscarriages and stillbirths or are coping with having a terminally ill child?

If you don't, but your first reactions to discussion of a community of (mostly) mothers online are sneers and "God help feminisms", then it's probably time, in the tradition of the internet, for me to direct you to Google, with the instruction that you're perfectly capable of educating yourself about all this stuff. Mothers are a vital part of your movement and are providing important comment on so many important issues. If you don't know this because they're "not on your radar", ask yourself why.

Further reading - Glosswatch: Why Mumsnet feminism matters

Image: full version here

Post-Greenbelt thoughts on faith, theology and all that's really deep (ahem)

Thursday, 29 August 2013


This afternoon I read this post about Greenbelt, written by Jonty Langley, that really resonated with me. The enormous struggle that church has been for me since becoming a mother; a lot of the things I've been trying to thrash out, in my own head, with very little success - this past weekend helped me to start making sense of some of them. I was overwhelmed by the programme as well as the number of friends I wanted to catch up with, and only made it to a couple of sessions each day - but the experiences and conversations I had last weekend came at the right time and are of enormous value to me. From the thought-provoking and incredibly intelligent panel discussion "What women (in the church) want", to Jim Wallis speaking on working for the common good, to a conversation about intergenerational feminism and learning from each other without hostility, to another one about meaningful church community - and then there was communion: emotional, life-affirming, and celebratory.

Last week I wondered, on Twitter (obviously), whether I should write a blog post about faith, church, theological discussion, and "feelings". For at least a year now I've had this obsession that I need to engage with theology at a deeper level. If I wasn't a full-time parent with a full-time-job, this would probably be much easier. I'd buy lots of books, and I'd read them. Part of it's due to the fact that I don't like having vague ideas about things; I like to know a subject well. I don't want to accept one version of events without coming to conclusions about it by finding about about several other versions of said events as well.

Some years ago, I stumbled across numerous articles about a controversial debate on penal substitutionary atonement that was causing a stir in the British evangelical community. At the time I was not aware that there was a debate about penal substitutionary atonement. But I needed to know what was going on and why. It horrified me that in my years as a Christian, there was so much stuff that had never been made clear to me. I remember seeing people defend subordinationism in never-resolved comment threads then seeing many, many more people brush it off as heretical. In the years since, I've managed to become more knowledgeable about a lot of issues. But I see myself at the beginning of a long journey of coming to my own conclusions in that respect. One that I barely have the time and energy for at present.

But when I wondered, last week, whether or not I should blog about all this I felt conflicted - about whether a desire for more knowledge in that respect would only lead to me becoming the sort of person I was feeling incredibly fed up with on that day in particular. I'd just seen yet another ridiculous post using snippets of things a well-known writer has said to "prove" that they are not a real evangelical, not really, so we shouldn't listen to anything they say. I was so sick of seeing people engaging in theological one-upmanship, demanding that others "prove" why they believe something is true and throwing their proof-texts, their texts of terror like so many smug little darts while on at another end of the spectrum, others try to out-theologize one another by wielding flowery prose and "stories" like a weapon.

It took a few of these excellent conversations at Greenbelt last weekend to see things in a new light. Marika Rose saying "I don't feel the need to prove that I have a right to an opinion and a voice". A very wise woman talking to me about theology and expertise. Discussing the people we are online with another equally wise woman. I know that knowing about things, and having made peace with how you feel about things, doesn't have to mean all of the mess of proving this and proving that and telling everyone else that they're wrong and dictating who they should believe and who they should listen to. But at the same time I can't step back and decide it's best not to know and best to just focus on all the positives and the surface emotions because thinking too much will only make me unhappy and we know where that leads, because that's not how I work. If there's one thing the past year or so has shown me, it's that if we're going to talk in terms of Fowler's Stages of Faith, I'm firmly in Stage 4.

As with everything faith-related and crisis-themed, I hesitated about writing this. But my experiences at the weekend made me realise that I needed to get one with processing it and dealing with it in my own way. So before I came home, I went to the Books tent. And I realised that whatever conclusions I come to and whatever knowledge I gain, I don't have it in me to become a thrower of proof-texty darts or a wielder of flowery prose.

Finally, just so you know and for anyone who'd like to recall:

I was beyond excited to spend the weekend at the festival as part of the Threads collective, one of ten contributors speaking on the topic of "When I'm 40, I hope...".

My talk was entitled "When I'm 40, I hope I'm not a brand", and reflected the fact that at the time I pitched my idea to the festival organisers, discussions among my friends about blogging, having an online presence, integrity and sincerity were giving me a lot of food for thought, adding to feelings I'd been having ever since I gave birth and stepped back from blogging somewhat.

I wanted to highlight the values I hope I can maintain a commitment to in future: authenticity, passion, right motives, and not building profile and presence out of a sense of competitiveness.

Authenticity: A Christian buzzword that often feels a bit overdone and meaningless now. But one we can all aspire to because we know too well that when it's lacking, we're turned off writers and bloggers. Real voice over personal brand.

Passion: A real interest in what I'm writing about rather than a few half-baked ideas that I'm turning into a post because I feel I need to add my voice to a debate. Quality over quantity. Not writing for the sake of it.

Right motives: I've questioned my own a lot over the past year. At one point I wondered whether I should continue blogging at all. As Christians we're often made to feel that everything we do should be about God first and foremost - to the point that we brush off praise or pretend it doesn't make us feel happy. Having the right motives doesn't mean we can't feel pleased when we succeed in something we're gifted to do or that we should stop doing something we have a gift for because we're worried about the praise we're receiving as a result.

No more competitiveness: The digital world has, for me, been a place to find true community, real friends, become involved in grassroots activism and understand perspectives different to my own. Being collaborative is a joy. Encouraging community is too. There's no need to get involved in obsessing over rankings and who's got a book deal and who's writing in a certain style to 'make it' into the 'in-crowd'.

I also wanted to highlight the pitfalls of becoming a brand - not being able to or feeling able to adapt your voice when what's needed for a certain topic, is, for example, "serious" rather than "flippant". This has been a key feature of certain recent online arguments involving high profile writers. Then there's the prioritisation of controversy and hits over integrity and truth - I illustrated this point by talking about the downfall of Hugo Schwyzer and the criticism of mainstream websites that hosted his writing.

Finally, I spoke about the way in which the internet can mean we fail to look through a person's 'brand' and see the human being underneath, drawing on Rachel Held Evans's excellent post (linked below). None of us are immune to this, I admit I've done it on many occasions - but it's something we all need to pull ourselves up on from time to time.

Some posts I quoted, and posts/comment threads that inspired my talk:

An apology from OK! - why it was never just about Kate

Friday, 26 July 2013

OK! has apologised for its spectacularly misjudged cover that saw the magazine focusing on the Duchess of Cambridge's 'post-baby weight loss regime' in an edition that hit newsstands less than a day after she gave birth earlier this week.

The cover prompted a call to boycott the magazine by Katy Hill, and as outrage mounted, OK! attempted to avert what was clearly becoming a major PR disaster. The following statement was issued by the magazine's parent company Northern & Shell:

"Kate is one of the great beauties of our age and OK! readers love her. Like the rest of the world, we were very moved by her radiance as she and William introduced the Prince of Cambridge to the world. We would not dream of being critical of her appearance. If that was misunderstood on our cover it was not intended."

What the magazine has failed to understand is that everyone who saw that cover knows full well that the issue here is not about a perceived insult to Kate's appearance. You've got to be a pretty sad individual to take potshots at the looks of a woman who's just spent the best part of the last day in labour (and yes, screenshots of the musings of said sad individuals can be found on Twitter if you care to look), but that's not what OK! was doing. What was going on was, for women's magazines, the next logical step in the reader's "journey" through Kate's pregnancy and its connection to the way we're expected to control and scrutinise our own bodies.

Before she became pregnant, the focus was on her weight. As a woman who would obviously be looking to get pregnant in the near future, wasn't she a bit too thin? We saw headlines about "fears" for her fertility. As she was snapped with her stomach showing a slight bulge one day, it was speculated whether she was indeed pregnant or whether she'd just been pigging out on carbs. Did she look a bit rounder in the face or were we just imagining it? During her pregnancy, numerous stories about the size of her bump appeared. Was it "worryingly small"?

As Kate gave birth, the message to the reader was clear. How IS she planning to return to her pre-pregnancy shape? How can YOU emulate her? It's one of our priorities, as evidenced by the mileage women's magazines get out of celebrity baby weight stories every year. A focus on appearance, exercise and shedding weight at the time when what women need most is to rest, make sure they're getting enough food, and heal from the process of giving birth, is ridiculous, but it's not one that all women can ignore and brush off, as I hope Kate will be doing this week.

OK! magazine doesn't care that it's churning out this stuff - not to the extent of worrying about the impact on its readers. No doubt there's some concern that one of its biggest advertisers is reassessing its relationship with the magazine.No doubt there was also concern about another celebrity encouraging people to boycott the title. That's where priorities lie, and that's unsurprising, but depressing.

Possibly worse, however, than its cover, is a (now deleted) Tweet from the magazine, posted around the time that Kate left hospital.

One of the more bizarre things to come out of the birth of the Royal baby is the extent to which people - including newsreaders - seem unaware that when a woman gives birth, her abdomen doesn't ping back to its pre-pregnancy state immediately. Kate's being hailed as a heroine for busting the "last taboo" of pregnancy - simply for stepping out in public with a one-day postpartum stomach visible under her dress. They way women look as they walk out of maternity units across the land every day of the year is now, apparently, "being brave" and worthy of a pat on the head.

It's a sad thing that magazines are stooping to the level of the sort of people who take to Twitter to say "lol omg she still looks soooo fat". The fact that this particular magazine is one with a readership of 331,000 is possibly even sadder, because it shows that somewhere, somehow, people are buying into the sort of messages it gives out and the culture it's helped to create.

Three concerns about Cameron's porn plans

Monday, 22 July 2013


The announcement today that the government is to take action on a number of issues surrounding pornography have, predictably, caused an enormous backlash. The news that internet providers will block UK households from accessing pornography (introducing an "opt-in" system), that possessing pornography that depicts rape will become a criminal offence in England and Wales (as is currently the case for that depicting bestiality, necrophilia, and life-threatening injury), and that search engines will return no results for certain terms associated with pornography depicting the abuse of children, has prompted more discussion about censorship, free speech, and morality.

I started my life as a feminist speaking out against porn. Very quickly, I found out that people don't like it when you do that. I know a lot more now than I did then, and those debates might pan out differently. It's actually something I don't write about much now, because it often prompts so much anger from both sides of the debate and that's more than I can be bothered to get involved in. What I've seen today, however, is a lot of really great discussion and engagement between people holding a variety of opinions - and that's quite heartening. That's not to say that I haven't found some of the backlash against the government's plans unpleasant and some opinions from both sides dismissive of the concerns of all involved. But considering that my last blog post was actually quite down on the state of internet feminism, it could have been worse.

Many people have highlighted many valid concerns about today's announcement. I want to write about three of mine.

Forgive the corporate-speak, but I'm not convinced that today's announcement constitutes "joined-up thinking".
Cameron wants a Britain "where children are allowed to be children" and I'm not going to disagree with him (let that be noted) that children don't need to be seeing pornographic depictions of rape. Unfortunately, "children being allowed to be children" is all very well until you consider the wealth of ways in which they can also receive potentially harmful and also deeply misogynist messages about sex, relationships, and women in general. The Prime Minister has already received criticism for his refusal to support a ban on topless women appearing on Page 3 of the Sun. The screenshot below shows the story as reported by the Daily Mail today - a sight, as was noted by plenty of people, that is "beyond parody". Note three women in bikinis (one "barely-there", one "skimpy"), one mention of a sex tape, a story about one young woman's midriff, one about a "topless Instagram snap", and one Daily Mail Special - a story about a 16-year-old girl looking "Older than her years".


Some criticisms of the No More Page 3 campaign have focused on the fact that the sort of media and messages it's speaking out against also appear in abundance in women's magazines and in the fashion industry. Why focus on Page 3 when it's just one page in a newspaper? Why not cast the net wider and take issue with it all? This is an important question and in the same way, you have to consider the fact that today's announcements focus only on one aspect of a range of unpleasant aspects of culture, media, and material that's available. Our culture may condemn content depicting child abuse, but the abuse of women, along with unhealthy attitudes about sex and relationships, are practically mainstream. And all this contributes to childhood being "corroded", as Cameron put it earlier today.

This brings me onto my second concern about today's announcements: if the government wants to take action to stop children seeing unhealthy and abusive depictions of sex and relationships, is it going to ensure that they receive more helpful messages through comprehensive sex and relationships education? Last month, MPs voted against an amendment to the Children and Families Bill proposing that SRE be made a compulsory part of the National Curriculum.

There is a need for young people to learn more about what constitutes a healthy relationship and how they can recognise - and deal with - an unhealthy one. There is a need for them to learn more about what constitutes sexual exploitation. Consent is such a huge issue and it is clearly one that, for many people, needs clarifying. But without fail, such proposals are usually met with noises about "protecting innocence" - or as I like to think of it, keeping young people in the dark and doing nothing to remedy the widespread problem of abuse in teenage relationships. In the same way, blocking people from accessing problematic material doesn't solve anything. It's not going to "get rid" of such content - it's going to brush it under the carpet. It's up to the consumer to decide whether they "opt in" to seeing it - which was incidentally Cameron's comment about why he does not support action against Page 3. There is also concern that educational material and sites completely unrelated to pornography could end up becoming inaccessible, stopping children and teenagers from finding important information.

Thirdly, although I do, in theory, support what Cameron's plans are hoping to achieve, I don't believe that his government truly have the interests of children, of women, and of the most vulnerable people in society at heart. This year, a report from the End Violence Against Women coalition gave the government "2.5 out of 10" for its preventative work against domestic violence and called current efforts to combat VAWG "virtually meaningless". To talk about all the ways in which the cuts and changes to benefits have affected women and children is another blog post (or perhaps a series of posts). Talking about "tackling the sexualisation of children" sounds good, and these plans to stop young people accessing explicit material may be helpful in some ways, but there's a long way to go before we make any headway with the issues that "sexualisation" is so intertwined with.

Further reading:
Salt and Caramel - Porn and posturing politicians

Evil Twitter Feminism 2.0

Thursday, 4 July 2013


Warning: this is a post about Twitter. And blogging. It's really, really meta.

At the beginning of the year I wrote a post imploring people not to let the stereotype of the ‘Evil Twitter Feminist’ put them off being interested in gender equality. I think a lot of people identified with it because the increasing prominence of debates about intersectionality, inclusivity and language were causing people a lot of bother. There was quite a bit of reassessment of the actions and motives of well-known women and writers happening. Things were getting fraught. I hoped that people who felt unsure could see past the drama and continue to find community. I didn’t believe in the Evil Twitter Feminist, this increasingly bandied-about stereotype that was allegedly to blame for why young women wanted nothing to do with it all any more.

Here we all are six months later. I’ve refrained from blogging about any of this for a long time because a) it has all become a bit tedious and b) things have been so fraught, at times, and I don’t want to be the subject of a pile-on. But let’s be honest here, things are a bit of a mess.

Some of these women who were being discussed and having their actions raked over at the beginning of the year – I don’t see their tweets any more. A lot of people have unfollowed them. They don’t retweet them. Mention of their names is met with derision. This is often the start of it. You’ve got to know who’s in and who’s out. You might unwittingly retweet something because you agree with it, and only discover when the pile-on begins that you’ve associated yourself and your beliefs with someone who’s not ‘in’. They might be friends with someone who’s beyond the pale. They might support a campaign that’s really divisive. But you’ve gone there, and you might well have to endure hours of ‘engagement’ from whoever first takes umbrage with you, all their friends, and whatever hangers-on are up for some drama, until no-one even knows what they’re arguing about any more and probably about three people have deleted their accounts, while everyone subtweets everyone else, and people self-impose social media breaks for the good of their mental health.

Much of this centres on campaigns, of which there are at least three high-profile ones associated with feminists happening at present, each one of them a huge source of division. You take a side, and find out immediately who your friends are (or more likely, aren’t). If you don’t want in, you might spot people saying “we don’t want you [in the movement]”. You might spot people asking when you’ve ever set up and run a successful campaign, thank you very much. You might even spot people saying you’re anti-women, as they all tweet each other saying how much they love each other because they agree on stuff. And if you sign up, people will start asking you if you haven’t got more important concerns. What about the recession? What about welfare? What about violence against women? As if you don’t care, which isn’t fair, because you do. You just thought this one petition was a good idea, and let’s be honest, not everyone is super-invested in every single issue (a lot of people who get so angry about so many things fail to be at all bothered, or even slightly intrigued, by campaigns about maternal health and pregnancy-related issues. Just throwing that out there).

There’s always a dominant viewpoint on a subject, even if it’s going against the grain. This means that you struggle to blog about the reasons you support some aspects of a campaign, because what’s ‘in’ is to be totally against it, and you can see why, but at the end of the day, you just don’t agree. And at the end of the day, you don’t want someone tweeting “LOOK AT THIS POST; I AM SO ANGRY!” with a link to your blog, do you?

People have always said that Twitter is full of people going round in circles getting riled about stuff, whipping up Twitterstorms and organising Twittermobs full of fury until the drama dies down and no-one cares any more. That’s not what it’s about. Recent campaigns, and the way that many people have found support, new friends, formed groups, and taken action against things serves to counter that claim. But this year, I’ve seen a move towards these circles among groups that weren’t like that previously. No-resolution argument and massive fall-out, a lot of capital letters and a lot of expletives, until it dies down and people wait to see what’s going to happen next, what’s going to set off the next bust-up. Drama llamas back in the enclosure but sniffing the air expectantly, if you like.

Over the past couple of weeks, things have started to happen. Many people have already distanced themselves from a lot of this. But now others are creating new accounts, unfollowing swathes of people they’d have previously considered their friends, bowing out of certain types of discussion, not bothering to engage. It’s got too much. The tribes, the sniping, the subtweets. The whole set of people we’ve blocked because they think x about y. The voices that consistently go unchallenged because people are too nervous or too jaded to bother. The same issues that have killed off forums with a more precarious existence than Twitter (Livejournal feminism communities, I’m thinking of you). The same issues that have dogged the US online social justice community (Tumblr is renowned for it) for at least a few more years and that used to make me think “Damn, I’m glad I’m from the UK”.

I don’t even know what the solution is. At this point in time, what’s probably needed is for people to take a step back and reassess their priorities. What’s the point? Are you building up or tearing down? Helping people find community or making sure they know they’re not welcome? Criticising constructively or living for the drama? More concerned about being one of the in-crowd than speaking your mind? Celebrating success or making it clear that you couldn’t care less even though you’re broadly down with the same cause?

Come on. Don’t sacrifice debate. Not everyone has to agree about everything. You don’t even have to like everyone. But passionate activists (myself included, even though things are kind of quiet on the activism front at present) are tuning out of the conversation, calling it fatigue, calling it self-care, saying they're done, retreating into smaller communities of friends that feel safe and free from unpleasantness. Alarm bells should be ringing. Are you intent on campaigns being all about the arguments because you're fighting for what little bit of positive media coverage the movement actually gets and want it to best reflect your personal views? I will never say a movement doesn't need or shouldn't have diversity of opinion, but you also need perspective, and we need to learn from the history of the movement when it comes to trashing.

This is not a post that's directed at everyone I know, or an incitement to more fighting. It's a response to what I've seen developing over several months, a call for reflection. It's a post I've hesitated to write because I'm too tired and too busy. I want to say "too disillusioned" but maybe that's too strong - or maybe it isn't. It's not a call to "Pipe down ladies, what WILL people think of us?!" or a call to stop discussing certain issues. It's just my opinion.

But how do we move forward?

The breastapo, gobby women, and freaks of nature: breastfeeding as a feminist issue

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

It's National Breastfeeding Awareness Week and the debates it was supposed to ignite are in full swing. New research has shown that fewer women are initiating breastfeeding, and that in 2012-13, 327,048 mothers were not breastfeeding at all by the time their babies were six to eight weeks old. The Royal College of Midwives has voiced concerns over the lack of government support for what is undoubtedly a public health issue, highlighting the national shortage of midwives, cuts to breastfeeding support services, and England's lack of a national feeding strategy.

"Areas with high breastfeeding initiation and continuation rates tend to have strong Sure Start Centres, breastfeeding drop-in clinics, good peer support and community midwifery networks, where the midwife is the first point of contact for the mother and where there are good role models.

Research has shown that other factors, such as the availability and expert knowledge from midwives, especially community midwives and health visitors, who play integral roles in helping and guiding women about breastfeeding, are important," said Louise Silverton, writing for the Observer.

One particular area of concern is the regional variations in breastfeeding statistics that are indicative not only of varying levels of support offered, but also of links to affluence and class.

"In areas with high levels of social deprivation – such as Knowsley, Hartlepool and North East Lincolnshire – four in five mothers are not breastfeeding at all some six to eight weeks after their child's birth. By contrast, in Kensington, west London, 87% of mothers said they were partially or totally breastfeeding at the same stage," we were told in another story appearing in Sunday's Observer.

Here we go, you're probably thinking. She's talking about motherhood again. She who had no intention of becoming a Mummy Blogger. Next she's going to start talking about her personal experience of breastfeeding.

Here's the thing: breastfeeding is, absolutely, a feminist issue. It's guaranteed to bring out both the misogynists and talk of sisterhood. It's one of the issues that is guaranteed to get women talking. Four out of five women will at some point give birth and have to deal with conflicting information being thrown at them from all sides as well as prejudices and judgmental attitudes about every action they take during their pregnancy and while giving birth. They will see that you can't go out in public without seeing breasts in advertising, in newspapers and magazines as an important part of what being a woman is all about. And then they'll hear that women get asked to leave cafes because they've breastfed in public, that people deem it "unpleasant" and "gross", sneering asides that women who breastfeed around others are "just doing it to prove a point".

They will discover that breastfeeding is difficult, that it is a learned skill, and that most women really do need support to master it in the early days. They will discover that those early days and weeks involve near-constant attachment to a newborn, that it is time-consuming and can be physically draining. They'll hear about mastitis and blocked ducts and cracked nipples. That exclusively breastfeeding involves getting used to expressing when you need to spend time away from your baby and that this is also a learned skill that can be frustrating and stressful.

They will hear about the health benefits for themselves and their baby, about how rewarding it can be, about how amazing breastmilk is, about how it has ensured the continuation of civilisation through the centuries. It's likely that they'll want to breastfeed, but when the overriding message is how hard it is and little support is on offer, things might not go to plan. And if things do go to plan (as they did for me, thanks to good information and support), they'll still get people presenting formula as the solution to many a problem (Sleepless nights? That baby needs a bottle. Baby feeding a lot? Your milk might not be enough - try formula!) and expressing horror once they find out they're "still" breastfeeding their older baby (especially once said older baby gets teeth).

Depending on where you look, the big problem when it comes to attitudes about breastfeeding is the "breastapo", the militant lactivists who bully mothers into feeling guilty for giving up breastfeeding (or not starting it in the first place), or else the "gobby" anti-breastfeeding brigade who supposedly prize freedom, consumerism, and personal choice over breastmilk. I truly believe that the breastfeeding debate is the most toxic of all the "Mummy Wars", ticking all the boxes of playing on women's insecurities about their bodies' natural processes, their appearance, social class, their baby's intelligence, and the fear that somewhere, someone might be judging their parenting abilities and devotion to their children.

In reality, as is usually the case, members of these two camps are less common than the papers would have you believe. It's true that I deleted myself from a "breastfeeding support" community on Facebook because of the unpleasant direction the discussions started to take. Women don't need to be told in a patronising manner that breastfeeding probably would have worked out for them if they'd "just been more informed about the facts". They don't need to be told that formula is "poison". The final straw was the responses to a woman who wanted tips on expressing because she was going to be spending a day away from her four-month-old for the first time. "Why do you feel the need to give the baby a bottle?" - "Four months is much too young for a bottle! It will cause nipple confusion!" - "Don't do it!".

It's also true that on any given day you can search Twitter and find scores of people getting extremely disgusted by the fact they've spotted a woman breastfeeding in their vicinity. "No offence but does she need to do that in full view of everyone?" - "AWKWARD" - "No-one wants to see you feeding your baby!" Images of women breastfeeding are constantly deleted from Facebook and Instagram as they're deemed to be violating policy, while pages dedicated to grim misogyny abound. It was suggested in the Daily Telegraph this week that we "need" the Duchess of Cambridge to breastfeed and go public about it so she can be a role model for other young mothers. In the event of such a thing happening you can guarantee the buzz online would be more about the state of the royal tits - and Kate's desirability as a result - than anything else.

In light of all this, you can understand why it all gets too much. Lack of a national feeding strategy and recognition of breastfeeding as a health issue, with adequate support for new mothers and local networks providing advice and friendship will only mean that the misinformation, the judgmental attitudes, and the manufactured "cat fights" discourage more and more women from achieving their breastfeeding goals. It will continue to pit them against each other and encourage suspicion and shame. And who needs that when they've just gone through the rigours of pregnancy and birth?

Get Britain Fertile: another pregnancy-related guilt trip?

Monday, 20 May 2013



Kate Garraway is 'encouraging women to think about their fertility earlier in life after struggling to conceive at 45', and has been photographed made up to look like a pregnant 70-year-old to 'provoke debate' about what we think about when we think of 'older mothers'. She's an ambassador for Get Britain Fertile, a new campaign set to launch next month with a tour of the country, all 'powered by' First Response, the makers of pregnancy tests who, according to their website, 'want to be the first to advise you on getting fertility fit'.

This isn't the first time that some debate we're supposed to be having has turned out to be sponsored by some company with a product to sell. There's been a poll, of course. It's found that seven in ten women feel that having a baby in your 40s is 'too old'. Why the need, then, to have Garraway fronting the whole thing pretending to be a pregnant 70-year-old? As is generally the way, it's done the trick, and I've spotted people from student websites to various feminist blogs and, predictably, Mumsnet, discussing whether or not women need to be told to think about having children at a younger age.

Last year it was reported that the average woman in the UK gives birth to her first child at the age of 30. I’m not sure that there is, as some people seem to think, widespread ignorance about fertility. For every person who hasn’t really thought about the fact that fertility in women declines with age, there are many more that worry about it more with every passing year - even, as readers of these articles about Get Britain Fertile might be surprised to hear - women in their 20s. It seems patronising to assume that 'today's woman' doesn't give a thought to what her ovaries might be up to until it's 'too late'. For many women, I expect that everything else just gets in the way. Time passes by incredibly quickly when you're navigating our way through life's ups and downs. Being 'child-free by circumstance' is a Thing.

Judging from the reactions to the upcoming campaign it looks like encouraging women to have children when at their peak fertility is not the main issue to be addressed – this is backed up by the survey results, which indicated that women put pregnancy on hold due to their financial situation, or because they want to find the right partner. Many women would like to have children in their 20s, but are all too aware of the other pressures they face: finding a job that pays enough or an employer that will be supportive enough if they choose to have a child, for example. Affording childcare (the most expensive childcare in Europe, no less); support from family; actually being in a relationship, or achieving certain relationship milestones – living together, getting married, getting over financial hurdles. If these things stop women from having children when they want them, what are we doing to address it all?

I waited to try for a baby until I felt 'ready'. Yet there were other factors involved too - earning enough money to pay for childcare, and the fact I was keen to get a decent amount of experience in the workplace and off the bottom rung of the career ladder before I contemplated maternity leave. I had The Fear, that without being in the right sort of job first I would be expendable, disrespected, stuck in an unfulfilling job for years. The recession compounded that fear. Just before we made the decision to start trying to conceive, I remember sitting in a pub with Luke, 'calming' large glass of wine in one hand, reeling off a list of baby-related worries as long as my arm. Most of them involved money.

As women, all these ‘problems’ are highlighted to us over and over by the very same newspapers that warn us not to 'leave it too late'. As several women discussing it on Mumsnet posted, as younger women of the 1980s and 1990s, it was impressed upon them that getting pregnant 'young' was to be avoided at all costs – it would tie them down and ruin their lives as well as their careers. No, the ideal as they were sold it was to have everything else in place first: job, house, a good man, life experience, travel. As a teenager and in my early twenties I was the same and it remains a concern for a lot of women I know. By all means have children, we're told, but certain things must be achieved beforehand, the reasoning being that having a baby means you won’t be able to do these things any more.

This may be where we’re going wrong. It’s widely acknowledged that in the UK and the US we have this ‘total motherhood’ approach to parenting that makes women feel guilty and pressured from the moment they get a positive pregnancy test. Everyone who has given birth remembers the knowing remarks of other mothers, telling you that once your child has arrived you won’t have time to do anything any more, you won’t have time to relax, you won’t have time to have fun.

Women are made to feel guilty about sitting reading a magazine while their baby plays independently in the same room, or leaving them to cry for three minutes while they make a sandwich. The message is clear: children mean that life as you’ve known it is over – and that means hobbies, relaxation, and enjoyment. Children mean that you give your all to your child, and if you don’t you’d better feel bad about it. If you don’t want to go back to work you’d better feel bad about giving up on your career or inconveniencing your employer – but if you do, you’d best start beating yourself up about not being there for your child 24/7. Children will put strain on your relationship, your sex life, and your body. They’ll use up all your cash. It's a miserable state of affairs and one that, I think, has been exaggerated to the point that we need to step back and see it for what it is: that yes, children will bring enormous changes to your life and new responsibilities and pressures, but they won't ruin your life.

Is it any wonder that some people feel in a permanent state of not being ‘ready’ for a baby? For those of us who do feel ‘ready’, we have to be careful that we’re the right sort of potential mother. Teenagers, working class women, the poor and women of colour get criticised on a regular basis, while hands are wrung every time a middle class woman is interviewed about having ‘left it too late’. Particularly young women can't possibly feel ready to have children, some people say - yet at the same age they're also told they can't possibly have decided that they definitely don't want children either.

Zita West, pregnancy guru to the stars and another ambassador for Get Britain Fertile, is quoted saying "Women need support at all ages before they conceive", suggesting that the campaign has more of a focus on women preparing their bodies for pregnancy. It's support that should be the overarching theme here. Support, a better deal for women, an end to patronising nonsense that insinuates we don't know our own minds, an outlook on 'starting a family' that actually focuses on men and the part they have to play rather than blaming women at every turn for whatever their newest supposed 'problem' is. Making people feel judged for valid choices they've made about the age at which to have children - or not have children - will never do any good at all.

The return of Spare Rib: here to save a movement?

Sunday, 28 April 2013


This week we've heard that journalist Charlotte Raven is relaunching Spare Rib magazine. Reactions so far show that people don't seem too sure about what this means. Some are excited - and with good reason; the idea of a feminist magazine sitting "alongside Cosmo on the newsagent's shelf" is what many have wanted for years. Others are troubled - and queasy - at the idea of a launch event involving George Galloway and Rod Liddle dressed in costume and serving drinks (although it's currently unclear whether or not this is Raven's idea of a joke).

Putting that thought out of our minds for a moment, however, there are a lot of things to look forward to about the promise of a feminist magazine in print. Its tagline, 'Life not lifestyle', is a great nod to the fact that issues affecting women are invariably consigned to the 'lifestyle' sections of newspapers and websites. Its founder is citing Nina Power's One Dimensional Woman as inspiration for what she wants Spare Rib to be.

"SR will revive the spirited and soulful vision of feminism that SR once embodied, not the timid liberal one that dominates the mainstream media," said Raven this week, something that again should be something to look forward to, as long as the magazine doesn't become, like the mainstream media, a place for cliques of privileged friends to write about a narrow range of issues and speak up for each other at the expense of those who are less well-known, causes that are less fashionable, and groups of people who are less privileged.

That's probably something we should be wary of, with talk of the magazine as a 'member's organisation' according privileges to those who can afford to donate more than £100 to the cause, and monthly 'immersive theatre events' open to members only. Of course I'll have to reserve judgment on this point until the magazine gets up and running, but the red flag is there.

Sophie Wilkinson, writing for the Observer today, welcomes Spare Rib's return, but not just because there hasn't been a feminist magazine on the shelves for years. No, it's because it will provide an antidote to 'internet feminism'. In the past year, 'internet feminism' has become a catch-all term for over-the-top drama, Twitter bullying, hounding of journalists, the ostracising of women who aren't the 'right sort', and behaviour that's supposedly putting a whole generation of women off supporting the movement. While you can't deny that drama has occurred, the 'internet feminist' is threatening becoming another strawfeminist, the updated version of the dungaree-clad man-hater wielding a bra and a blowtorch.

Wilkinson describes the internet as a place where "lazy clicks equal approval, retweets supersede debate, feminism is twisting and turning in on itself". She writes about the way the internet, though a force for good that has had a democratising effect, has ultimately led to women being less supportive of each other, of more fractured debate. Spare Rib, she hopes, will save us all from internet feminism, a "guiding light" and voice of reason in a time of "idle clicktivism".

It's sad that in lampooning online activism she's failed to take into account the fact that much of this is related to, or translates into offline action from groups and individuals that have used the internet to come together, share information, and gather support. The internet is a space where we can learn about things that fall outside our life experiences and our comfort zones. It is a place where women who struggle to do much offline activism due to their location or their health or their job or their family circumstances can do something, and this is a point that must never be forgotten or dismissed.

In suggesting that feminism today has little to do with 'genuine activism', Wilkinson sadly ignores everything taking place across the country at grassroots level, the networks and organisations and campaigns, and focuses on Twitter-based so-called 'infighting' as the reason that the magazine will be a breath of fresh air. It's also ridiculous to assume that a more 'reasoned' approach to feminist thought in printed form wouldn't be divisive. The minute Spare Rib is published, people will be poring over it, ready to write and talk about which bits they liked, which bits they hated, which bits they felt were problematic. As someone who read the original said to me this morning, the letters page of the magazine in the 1980s was continually full of argument.

Sometimes it may feel as if circular 'dramas' involving the same 20 people are dominating 21st century feminist discourse, but the actions of countless women everywhere else should demonstrate otherwise. We're going to have to wait to see what Spare Rib will become, but in the meantime it's probably best if we don't position it as the saviour of a movement represented by clicktivism and Vagenda.


 

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