Mum’s army

‘From roughly 2015 onwards, the Mumsnet feminist forum became a key platform for gender critical discussion—or, as one less sympathetic American magazine dubbed it, “the ground zero for British transphobia”’

Louise Perry

Reforming the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) was supposed to be an easy win for the government—cheap, swift, and an opportunity to present a liberal and compassionate side to “the nasty party”. The project of reform was begun in 2016 under Theresa May’s government and, after four long years of wrangling, has now been abandoned.

This September, Women and Equalities Minister Liz Truss announced the government’s intention not to pursue any significant reforms to the GRA and attempted to soften the blow to trans activists by making some minor concessions—for instance, waiving the £140 administrative fee usually charged to those applying for a legal sex change. But, crucially, Truss’s statement made clear that the government would not be adopting a system of co-called “self-ID”, as most LGBT advocacy organisations had urged.

Such a system would have permitted transgender people to change their legal sex with minimal gatekeeping: no psychiatric consultation, no need to “live as” the opposite sex for a period before making a formal application, and no necessity to undergo any medical interventions. In other words, under self-ID, any person, at any time, could have simply declared themselves a member of the opposite sex, and the government would have been obliged to officially recognise that declaration.

Feminist critics of self-ID—who describe themselves as “gender critical”, but are described by their opponents as “trans exclusionary radical feminists” (TERFs)—pushed back hard against the move, pointing out that although the reforms might make life marginally easier for transgender people, they would likely have a negative effect on natal women, and that this effect had not been taken into account by the government. Research organisations such as Fair Play for Women argued that women’s sports and single-sex services would be imperilled by the move, and groups such as A Woman’s Place UK organised public meetings to discuss the proposals, which were regularly besieged by angry protestors. Nonetheless, this campaigning effort cut through.

The grassroots feminist response to the proposed GRA reforms clearly surprised the government. As James Kirkup wrote in the Spectator following Liz Truss’s announcement this September: “. . . when the May government announced a consultation on GRA reform, a system of self-ID was effectively the default option. Most politicians paid no attention to the detail, instead outsourcing their judgement on a complex and seemingly obscure issue to officials who were often very (too?) close to highly-effective professional advocacy groups such as Stonewall, which has led the push for self-ID.”

Despite this initial hostility, not only did feminist campaigners succeed in persuading the government that self-ID was not the default option, they eventually succeeded in producing a U-turn on the entire GRA reform project.

A crucial player in this campaigning success was the parenting platform that this year turns 20: Mumsnet. From roughly 2015 onwards, the Mumsnet feminist forum became a key platform for gender critical discussion—or, as one less sympathetic American magazine dubbed it, “the ground zero for British transphobia”.

A new book by Sarah Pedersen, The Politicisation of Mumsnet, brilliantly chronicles the ascendance of the website as a force for political change. Pedersen, a Professor of Communication and Media at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, suggests that the GRA debate brought forth a new side to Mumsnet, previously characterised by researchers as a site of consumerist middle-class “choice feminism” dominated by discussion of aspirational expenditure: the best private schools, the best expensive buggies, and so on.

Nowadays, though, the feminism messageboard of Mumsnet leans decidedly towards the radical, and Pedersen describes Mumsnet’s relationship with groups such as Fair Play For Women and A Woman’s Place UK as “symbiotic”—the two activist platforms having developed concurrently in response to the threat of self-ID.

The politicisation of Mumsnet was in motion even before the GRA debate came along. Gordon Brown and David Cameron were the first party leaders to cotton on to the fact that Mumsnet contained an unusually high proportion of floating voters, and they therefore chose to participate in live chats with the site’s users that have since become a mainstay of election season.

Media coverage of these live chats has often tended towards the dismissive, with particular emphasis on the one question that is always asked of any participant: “What is your favourite biscuit?” Of course, the “biscuit question” often gets a politicised response, no doubt formulated in discussion with special advisors. But it has a tendency to wrong-foot politicians who mistakenly assume that the Mumsnet audience are only interested in trivia. Thus, particularly in the early 2010s, live chats often revealed participants to be well prepared on childcare policy and other “softer” topics, but regularly flummoxed by more technical questions relating to the economy or defence.

And, within the last five years, live chats have become considerably more difficult for politicians as a result of the GRA debate. Pedersen describes one such incident:

A February 2017 webchat with Jess Phillips (Labour) and Flick Drummond (Conservative), co-chairs of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women and Work, was framed as an opportunity to discuss the Group’s first annual report, which focused on the issue of women returning to work—assumed to be of interest to Mumsnetters . . . 51 questions were posted by Mumsnetters. Twenty-five of these—almost half—were on the issue of self-identification, definitions of women and, in particular, the proposed changes to the GRA.

Phillips and Drummond attempted to avoid engaging with this contentious issue, but with little success. Phillips issued a pre-prepared statement on the GRA question that carefully avoided taking a side before pivoting to the biscuit question. The tactic didn’t work. “Wow,” commented one user. “Is this really a webchat with 2 women MPs completely ignoring the biggest concern women posting have asked questions on?” The chat moderators pleaded for calm—“we don’t want our webchat guests to be harangued”—but to no avail. Mumsnet users were not having it.

The strong feelings on this issue are hardly surprising. Although its users do include both men and childless women, Mumsnet’s political priorities are set by mothers and, given their life experiences, many have proved reluctant to accept the trans activist claim that the biological differences between men and women are unimportant. The radical tone of the Mumsnet feminist forum has led to an influx of women into the GRA debate, particularly since 2018, and these were often women who had come to the site for non-political reasons. Pedersen quotes one user who described her own journey: “came for the babies, stayed for the feminism”.

The Mumsnet format lends itself well to discussion of controversial subjects concerning women, particularly the issue of self-ID. The site is unusually large for a female-dominated platform and, unlike on Facebook, its users can be anonymous and, unlike on Twitter, are unlikely to be met with a flurry of furious responses. Mumsnet moderators have periodically attempted to censor discussion, partly in response to the threat of losing advertising revenue. But these attempts have been intermittent, half-hearted, and reliably met with fury from Mumsnet users. Despite widespread efforts to shut down the “ground zero of British transphobia”, Mumsnetters have prevailed.

The Times columnist Janice Turner—a consistently gender critical voice—has described the GRA debate as “gender’s version of Brexit”. She’s quite right, and not only because of the frequently toxic nature of the debate.

Personally, I am agnostic on Brexit. I voted Remain primarily out of fear for the economic consequences of leaving the EU, and I would likely vote the same way again if another referendum were held. But I am sympathetic to the interpretation that sees Leave voters as a “left behind” majority who had been consistently ignored by Westminster and dismissed by the cultural elites as backwards, stupid, and bigoted, only to be finally given the opportunity to have their voice heard on this one issue.

We might apply the same narrative to feminism, dominated for decades by a cultural elite who hold power in academia and the media, but constitute a small minority of women. It was this feminist elite that most vigorously embraced self-ID and in doing so failed to consider the effect on, for instance, women in prison who risked being housed with male sex-offenders as a result. When GRA reform was put on the agenda, there was an outcry from the much larger majority of women who weren’t willing to accept the outlandish claims made by trans activists. Those women, having finally been pushed too far, organised a concerted campaign—based mostly, but not exclusively, online—in an effort to have their voices heard. They were presented as backwards, stupid, and bigoted. They still won.

And they are newly enlivened as a result. As we enter a new year, my prediction is that the Mumsnet effect on feminism will only become more important. This group of politicised women have proved themselves adept at changing the political narrative, and they are unlikely to quieten down now. For, as Pedersen puts it, “contrary to popular opinion . . . women do not lose the ability to think once they have had a baby”. 

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