Bristol, UK: Wednesday 19th January. Riven Vincent posts a desperate message on Mumsnet when she can’t get enough respite care for her six-year-old daughter, Celyn, who is blind, quadriplegic and has cerebral palsy and epilepsy. The story goes viral. Within 24 hours, it is national front page news and Prime Minister David Cameron has written to her personally to offer sympathy and support.
Mothers, it seems, are no longer content to keep mum. On Sunday 13th February, a few weeks after Riven Vincent’s blogged appeal, a million Italian women, old and young, gathered in piazzas from the Alps to Sicily to shout “Basta!” (“Enough!”) and demand change in what they termed the “Repubblica Delle Veline” (the “Republic of Showgirls”). Their slogans, “Italy is not a brothel” and “If not now, then when?” Their target: Italy’s “bunga bunga” president, Silvio Berlusconi.
“‘Moms,’ said Palin, over footage of her speeches to an adoring middle-aged female crowd, ‘kinda just know when somethin’s wrong’”
The anger and motivation of the Italian protests reflected the force and passion shown just a few months previously in the US midterms by Sara Palin’s “Mama Grizzlies”, a vocal and growing chapter of the Tea Party Movement.
But why are they shouting? How does a blogged personal plea like Riven Vincent’s become front-page news? And what, apart from anger, does the Tea Party, with its non-hierarchical, female-friendly, new-media-savvy radical conservatism, share with Mumsnet or the piazza protestors?
The answer is a powderkeg mix of moral conservatism, technological radicalism and newfound political self-confidence. If the Grizzlies count as feminists – and Palin claims that the women who make up 60 per cent of the Tea Party are America’s “true feminists” – then they are part of a backlash against liberal capitalism. And that’s happening in Europe too, albeit in a more progressive form. In the ’70s, ‘Second Wave’ feminism liberated women from marriage, inhibition and shame. But since that second wave ebbed, sexy young women have become the ultimate product in a new consumerism whose raunchy images and ideals are everywhere. Palin’s Mama Grizzlies are sharpening their claws on liberal, progressive America. But Mumsnet’s chummy mummies, with their sensible rejection of pink crop tops and high heels for little girls, also want to protect their cubs.
Like Riven Vincent’s plea, the short campaign video in which Sara Palin defined Mama Grizzlies struck a nerve and went viral. “Moms,” said Palin, over footage of her speeches to an adoring middle-aged female crowd, “kinda just know when somethin’s wrong.” It was a brilliant act of political branding which unified a very diverse message (some of the Grizzly candidates went rabidly off-message on the stump). Like Cleggmania in the UK, which did not convert into a larger number of parliamentary seats for the Lib Dems, the Grizzlies reared their scary heads over the media debate around the US midterms, but did not translate their visibility into an increase in female representation in US politics or, in many races, victories for Tea Party mamas. What it did do was create a brand that made the maternal political: a trend also evident in the Italian protest.
One remarkable thing about Italy’s huge, apparently spontaneous flashmob, was that the girls (younger, progressive women) were joined by their mammas. In conservative, still very Catholic, Italy – where many young men live at home until they marry – the mammas are the bastions of private life: they wield absolute power, but only over the pasta pan. As a constituency, they had tolerated and even indulged Berlusconi’s peccadillos as if he were an ageing, errant son. So why did they come out on the side of their daughters?
The answer lies somewhere in our cultural obsessions and the powerful taboos that you come up against if you take younger and younger, and sexier and sexier to its extreme, market-driven conclusion. Revealingly, Karima el Mahroug, the woman at the centre of the Rubygate affair – one of the major grievances cited by the Italian protestors – is one of the youngest women named in Berlusconi’s parade of showgirl scandals. It is alleged that the 74-year-old president paid for sex with the model when she was underage; at time of going to press he was standing trial on this charge, among others.
But “bunga bunga” isn’t just a private party. Berlusconi’s political party too has long been run on bunga bunga principles: it promotes hot young women, not qualified older ones. The influence can be felt in the country’s wider culture. Turn on Italian TV and it looks like the whole nation is at a bawdy party. Women with wrinkles, professions and even clothes are culturally invisible: half-naked, tasselled handmaids to gameshow hosts predominate. This is, after all, the country which invented ‘Stripping Housewives’, the game show in which wives lose an item of clothing every time their husbands get a question wrong.
Sexual liberation was a vital achievement for feminism but, if it becomes virtually compulsory, then the G-string can be as repressive as the hijab. The Italian women who called “Basta!” complain that mainstream media is so pornified that girls aren’t allowed to be girls: they grow up wanting to be showgirls. Studies looking at media images of women and children’s exposure to porn throughout the West have all spotted the same phenomenon: the values of the sex industry are increasingly visible in the mainstream. In consumer culture, sex sells.
Glass ceilings and glass slippers
It’s easy to snigger at Italy, with its ‘Boob TV’ and lurid political corruption, but UK women can’t afford to be smug. Male MPs outnumber women by almost four to one. And, although you won’t see so many sequinned nipples on primetime, the cleavage between the pay that men and women earn for comparable jobs is, says the Fawcett Society, the deepest in Europe.
There is a material background to the new, loud, dissenting voices of older women. Women are plastered all over the media, in increasingly soft-pornified guises (wrinkly ones seemingly aren’t acceptable, as the sacking of ‘Countryfile’ presenter Miriam O’Reilly and veteran news anchor Moira Stewart made clear). But women are less upfront where it counts: in positions of power. The older you are, the worse it is. In the UK, the pay gap gets wider as salaries get bigger – the notorious glass ceiling. Women who work full time earn 17 per cent less than men but those who work part time earn 36 per cent less – the glass wall. And it widens inexorably as women get older, trebling for women in their thirties – let’s call this last one the glass slipper, as it is the price that Cinderella pays for having Prince Charming’s babies – and no amount of pelvic floor exercises will squeeze it back.
Women earn less for doing the same work in the workplace. And they spend more time doing unpaid work: housework, and caring for children, the elderly and those who can’t look after themselves. In the UK and Italy, which have conservative governments and cherish the maternal role of the state in a way in which the USA never has, mothers are a more progressive political constituency. Budget cuts to local authorities – which provide respite care among other services – and cuts to public services will hit carers harder. This is the raw nerve that Riven Vincent’s web post struck.
Feminism goes online
In the past two years, consumer group Mumsnet has become hugely influential. When it speaks, politicians listen and reply – and journalists broadcast its message. Its political campaigns, says founder Justine Roberts, are entirely generated from the grassroots of the message-boards. Posters tend to be funny, caustic and refreshingly unpompous. Their self-deprecating usernames (Aitch, Cod or Hunkermunker) hardly sound like those of a Bolshevik avant-garde. But, in our online consumer-driven world, today’s Mary Whitehouse might just be tomorrow’s Mary Wollstonecraft.
Mumsnet’s most high-profile projects are radically conservative consumer campaigns – which take issue with the objectification of women in the sexy products (inappropriate magazines at eye-level; high-heeled shoes and make-up) which surround their daughters or are marketed directly at them. This is a new phenomenon: ’70s feminists objected to blonde wife-model Barbie, but, as Natasha Walter pointed out in ‘Living Dolls’, Barbie’s a positive role model compared to new top-sellers Bratz: pouty, heavily made-up shopping addicts with hugely exaggerated pillow lips straight from porn-movie fantasy.
Women – especially older women – have typically been quietly conservative, viewing politics through the prism of family life. They were, in many ways, feminism’s forgotten constituency: suffragists initially campaigned for voting rights for single women, feeling that the married were represented by their husbands. They voted largely for Thatcher and every other Conservative candidate in the twentieth century – until Tony Blair came along. And it’s the great irony of universal suffrage that an all-male electorate would have returned a Labour government in every election post-World War II.
But the current crop of middle-class mothers – in their late thirties and forties, the oldest since records began, have had a very different cultural experience from their blue-rinsed grandmothers and boomer mothers. And the premature sexualisation of their daughters in an increasingly creepy Lolita economy has made mothers a powerful consumer group in the UK, even if it hasn’t yet made them into a political movement.
Girl Power grows up
In Britain, feminism became a bit of a dirty word in the late ’80s and the ’90s, partly because women seemed to be comfortably en route to equality, partly because Thatcher and Reagan’s market liberalism and Blair’s market socialism so successfully promoted the apparently un-gendered universal right of freedom of choice. ‘Freedom’ and ‘choice’ were heady illusions for an extended youth when it was easy to try on new styles, new partners and make money in new occupations.
“Mumsnet has power and influence because it is a brand whose core constituents are swing voters who decide elections”
The current crop of mothers is the oldest and best educated ever. And the contrast between the freedoms of the liberal economy and the demands and obligation of parenthood is consequently particularly stark for them. If you read Mumsnet posts it’s striking: many women have come up hard against the limits of personal freedom, like so many Truman Burbanks, sailing smack into the plyboard sky of a world they thought was real.
Girl Power has to grow up, because it wasn’t any sort of power at all – just a feelgood factor of feisty, flirty exhibitionism against the vaguely benevolent background of a Labour government which looked and sounded more feminine, with its touchy-feely style and its quiet, almost covert roll-out policies to lift children out of poverty and help working mothers pay for childcare. ‘Blair’s Babes’ (considerably better qualified than Berlusconi’s) helped double the number of female MPs to 120 in 1997 – which looked great. But, like so many indicators of equality, that number has practically stalled in the 15 years since then (there are currently 144 female MPs to 504 male MPs). The women who were, like Nick Clegg and David Cameron, born in the radical late ’60s, have recently seen their generation come into power and have found that, with the honourable exception of Caroline Lucas’s parliamentary party-of-one, they are not the leaders, they are the leaders’ wives.
Will Mum Power rise from the ashes of Girl Power? The conditions are all there. Mumsnet currently has 1.3 million unique users a month. For most of the 12 years since Justine Roberts and Carrie Longton set it up, it’s been simply a community where mums can chat, anonymously, about everything from miscarriages to sex during breastfeeding. But during the 2010 election campaign – which Gordon Brown’s electoral analyst Deborah Mattinsons branded the ‘Mumsnet election’, Brown, Cameron and Clegg all braved live and distinctly off-piste interrogations in its chatroom. It recently began campaigning in earnest. So far, those campaigns have been largely consumer-focused. That’s unsurprising: like all online organisations, it relies on advertising to break even and it has been influential partly because it is a clearly defined consumer group with cash to spend on family-friendly products. But, like Sarah Palin’s Mama Grizzlies, it is as a brand that Mumsnet is so radical.
Mumsnet has power and influence because it’s a brand whose core constituents, lower- and upper-middle-class women, are swing voters who decide elections and swing buyers whose endorsement of a product can make it profitable. One of the reasons that politicians and journalists like to talk about “Mumsnetters” is that they are a code for (and a conduit to) some of the voters who decide elections in those marginal middle England seats – just as Ed Miliband’s “squeezed middle”, Blair’s “Worcester Woman”, or Bill Clinton’s target group, “soccer moms”, are all code for swing voters.
What’s different is that now they can chat back. In politics and in business, you have to have a brand to have a voice. The radical potential of Mumsnet – and its Achilles’ heel as a campaign organisation – is that it is a self-made brand, not a synthetic personality that has been created, top-down, by a political party or business keen to flog its wares: it is not one voice, but many. The internet has removed the obstacles that prevented women with families from organising: you can’t necessarily take the kids on a demo, but anonymity and broadband could create a new generation of armchair activists – the clicktivists. As the Arab Spring has shown, the classic historical conditions for change (anger, inequality, new communications technology, a recession) are all there. It remains to be seen whether Mum Power will right the wrongs that Girl Power was having too much fun to notice. But it will be the mother of all achievements if it does.
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