I came across the Mumsnet (‘MN’) website in 2011 while researching Sexual Entertainment Venues, as you do. (To be specific, I was sitting on a forthcoming Licensing Committee on the Council and wanted more information – from women.) MN’s strapline is ‘by parents for parents’ but this place is no trite mumsy parenting forum. This is more like a women’s space with rotating knives. Within that outer layer of the main parenting pages are nestled many arenas, in the form of its numerous talk boards – sites within a site, harbouring ever more fascinating and colourful treasures for those who look deeper inside.
Posters’ usernames are mostly anonymous nicknames, frequently eclectic and sometimes acerbically witty; the subjects they talk about are varied and can be, erm, startling. But I’m not here to write about the usual MN suspects of bewildering uses for receptacles and unhinged bridezillas. I want to look at the material that makes Mumsnet a political force.
The site has become massive in the last few years, and while many men have joined it remains a predominantly women’s space. As of 2019, hundreds of thousands of women share their thoughts on MN’s talk boards every week. Many more ‘lurk’ – they read but don’t (yet) contribute to the online discussions. The monthly unique user count is said to run into many millions. So Mumsnet is huge, women-centred and influential. Crucially, its users are more likely to vote than not. It’s a gift wrapped up in a bow for any astute politician, policy maker, pundit or writer.
Here’s five things I am particularly loving about Mumsnet this week.
1 The Politics of Brexit
Posters on the ‘Westminstenders’ threads have had such a prescient handle on the game-theory obsessed Dominic Cummings and the dangerously ambitious Boris Johnson, imparted with such dark humour and flair, it’s been a grim pleasure to read their conversations. Their political predictions are very often spot on – the general election ‘trap’ was foreseen before even Gauke and Blair were giving their interviews to the national media – and yet there is no gloating, just a pervading sense of astutely observed peril.
These threads are a window through which I feel I’m watching some very intelligent women watching the world and the current brutal pantomime that they know is going to damage their lives – a kind of bittersweet Brexoggle Box. So while these threads are entertainingly and analytically superb on a daily basis, especially on the motivations and game play of ego-riven men, there is also a growing sadness about them. It’s powerful stuff.
It’s considered poor form on Mumsnet to single out individual posters for notice, as the boards are not considered a popularity contest for the ‘cool girls’. However, credit where it’s due to RedToothBrush, the architect of ‘Westminstenders’, and to prettybird for this insight on the 1st September:
‘The more I think about it, the more I believe that the war gaming that Cummings has undertaken involved deliberately provoking the split in the Conservatives, uniting the Opposition and triggering a GE [General Election] in October – before B-Day.’
Having now witnessed, in the past 24 hours, mainstream Conservatives like Ken Clarke, Nicholas Soames and Rory Stewart being kicked out of their Conservative Party in the most spiteful fashion, the fury of Johnson in not getting his GE on a plate suddenly makes sense. Great threads.
2 Feminist and Women’s Rights (especially Feminist Chat)
This is a trail-blazing board, where Mumsnet’s owners have stepped up to host discussions of women’s rights where Twitter, Facebook, the BBC and a lot of Universities have failed. From safeguarding to women’s spaces to fairness in women’s sports, the posters of MN cover a huge amount of ground and do it with evidence, context and patience. Always patience.
This board is heavily trolled and subject to concerted malicious attacks. The women – and some men - posting here have nevertheless succeeded in creating one of the most distinctive and heavily used boards on Mumsnet and potentially one of the most important boards online, anywhere.
To be honest, Feminist Chat needs its own text book.
3 Female Voices Across Social Classes
Mumsnet has a reputation in some quarters for being ‘middle class’ and ‘a bit lefty’. That may have been the case when it first started out, but now on most of the boards – from recipes to childbirth experiences to medicine shortages – it’s obvious that, in respect of the UK, women from a wide range of backgrounds and political leanings are represented on the site. And the ‘Westminstenders’ threads aren’t the only Brexit threads that have been cuttingly incisive about the potential real life impacts for women, children and families without the protection of secure ‘middle class’ resources.
Prepping for No Deal Brexit, for example – and there are many threads on this – certainly isn’t all about Tuscan bean salads and jars of sundried tomatoes. Far from it. There’s more awareness of Jack Monroe’s Cooking on a Bootstrap than Nigella’s recipe for truffle foam. (I made that latter one up.)
There’s direct experience of Universal Credit related poverty, reliance on foodbanks and how hard it is to buy and store extra food for lone parents in small flats. What comes through loud and clear is the disproportionate burden on women to prepare for hardships, to live with and protect their children through these hardships, and to bear the brunt of economic uncertainty and disruption. It’s essential reading for any politician.
Special mention should be made of bellinisurge and her amazing food dehydrator (sounds like a Viz Comic character: ‘she knows how to dry out plums, that one’). I pay tribute to her calm, patient advice to women who may have very little in the way of resources on getting a buffer prepared for a few days in case of emergency.
4 Relationships and Inequality - and their Aftermath(s)
Sex and relationships education has been taught in schools for a long time now. It hasn’t worked, because society hasn’t taught itself how to change - hence why the Relationships board on Mumsnet reveals a painful-to-read pattern of women’s dependent misery. It’s woven time and again into the thousands of individual women’s stories that have been told there over the years, daily. One sees starkly how women are still expected by society to do the heavy lifting in relationships, and how these relationships grind them down; and then how difficult it is in reality for women with young dependent children to ‘just leave’ a financially abusive partner when the whole system within which they are supposed to leave is itself financially abusive.
Even after the end of relationships women get shafted economically and psychologically. Hundreds of different life stories build here in this section into a powerful and moving narrative of the abuse of women as a sex class by the system that is supposed to give them equal rights. From the scandal of inadequate enforcement of child support to sickening levels of unchecked violence against women, women’s lives are no Rom Com.
Fortunately there’s great advice on the Relationships board for women, from women, whether it’s help with leaving an abusive relationships or extricating themselves from an entitled, controlling, cheating knob. A key takeaway piece of advice for many readers has been, ‘Never become too dependent on a man’. Wise words for individual women – and a societal shift to make that possible and normal is long overdue. The MN Relationships board, in other words, is an education in itself, and to my mind could be a valuable tool in informing social policy.
5 The Politics of Food and Diet(s)
I really want to write more about this separately from a historical & archaeological perspective, but suffice to say that Mumsnet hosts some of the most interesting discussions I’ve seen online around vegetarianism, veganism, ‘paleo’ and keto eating, ethical food issues, food imports, and animal welfare. It’s certainly not all eating plans and weight loss. The poster for example who planned to raise her newborn as a vegan, while not herself a vegan and not exclusively breast feeding, pretty much got her arse handed to her (and shall remain nameless); while the discussions by women about the food and retail sector and ‘Just In Time’ supply chains and the No Deal Brexit risk have been a real eye-opener.
And so …
I love the unique tone of many of the threads on Mumsnet – nuanced, politically knowledgeable and historically aware – and the ways that discussions can be combative
without being toxic. (This assumes the reader stays away from the weirdness that is ‘AIBU’ or ‘Am I Being Unreasonaable?’ But that’s whole other story.)
Many political musings in particular do seem to be seen first on MN. I’m pretty sure that a lot of the threads are read (and ‘borrowed’) by journalists and broadcasters. Spads and MPs would do well to catch up. It’s never too late.