Follow-up to Why are Women not Blogging Politics
As promised, this is the follow up to my last post on why women are not blogging politics. It has taken so long for me to get back to this, and so much has been written in the mean time, that there is probably not too much more that I can add. Jenny Ejlak, writing in the Crikey Daily Email on 25 August, made the point that I was trying to make so much more eloquently than I managed. Nevertheless, there are still a couple of points that I feel I could reiterate.
My last post was in response to a question raised on twitter by Jonathan Green and was quoted by Possum Comitatus on his blog post on the Crikey Blogs website. On Possum’s blog, Venise Alstergren, comment 86, accused me of “whinging” in what amounted at a personal attack. While the attack itself doesn’t bother me, (my family and I had a great laugh at some of Venise’s more outrageous assumptions), her comment and others demonstrate and raise a number of points that still deserve some attention.
The first thing to note, however, is that it seems that Venise has not understood the rhetorical devices in my writing and thus misinterpreted it as whinging (as, sadly, she misinterpreted dogpossum’s first comment on my post). Still, it is clear from the comments on my post, and on other blogs at the time, that most readers understood clearly what I was trying to achieve. The points that I and others made obviously struck a chord with many people, both men and women.
There are four points raised in the comments on the Possum’s Crikey post, in my own post, and in others that I have read elsewhere, that I want to deal with here. The first is the alleged nastiness of much political comment, the second is the perception that gender issues are no longer relevant, the third concerns time resources, and the fourth is to do with the narrow definition of politics that pervades mainstream commentary.
Venise’s comment demonstrates beautifully the first point. The question was raised on the Crikey blog as to whether the “snark culture” (Jason Wilson comment 2) of many political blogs is off-putting for some people and makes them disinclined to join in the debate. While there were plenty of women pointing out that they personally don’t mind “a good stoush” (Anna Winter comment 9, for instance), others, both men and women, indicated that they do find it less pleasant (daiskmeliadorn comment 5, fredex comment 17, marktwain comment 47, jen comments 53 and 64). It seems to me that Venise’s attack on me at comments 86 and 107 were an excellent illustration of precisely what these writers were complaining about; she attacked me personally without seriously engaging with any of the issues that I raised. The irony of this was noticed and responded to by newcoin, comment 93, who said “I think the absence of blogs written by women that fit into your category of politcal is pretty much illustrated by the comments here. Is Venise 86 for real? And Victoria 90, are you actually diminishing the contribution of women to the blogosphere to “hormones”?
Newcoin’s comment raises an important point about the propensity of some people to write off experiences not aligned with their own. Jen, comment 101 asks, “Oh ffs, really – is the Gender Issue in the “First World” truly a legitimate question anymore??” Now, while essentialist issues of who is interested in which topics (which is what I think Jen was referring to, as per the discussion on the Pollytics blog) may be seen as a fairly superficial issue temporarily distracting those of us privileged enough to have the physical and cultural resources to spend time debating in the blogosphere, it also detracts from the deeper gender-related issues raised. Women’s experiences under patriarchy have always been differentiated according to class, race, culture, and sexuality. To dismiss another woman’s experiences, decisions, or values because they do not coincide with your own merely perpetuates the inequality and discrimination that attaches to these other aspects of identity and further undermines solidarity.
The Australia Institute’s report, “The Impact of the Recession on Women,” avaliable here and launched by Sharon Burrows of the ACTU on Monday 24 August 2009, indicates that the gender is still very much an issue for many women when it comes to work and financial security. The report found that women were not affected by the recession as dramatically as men simply because “women in the labour market already faced chronic difficulties, which will be exacerbated by the recession” (p. 42). Women are significantly overrepresented in the figures for hidden unemployment and underemployment, and have consistently remained so over the past decade (pp. 7-9). The presence of young children in a household means that “men increase their involvement in the labour market but women reduce theirs” (p. 11), and when both parents are unemployed, men are more likely to be the ones to claim benefits (pp. 11-12). The main reason for women being out of the workforce entirely is due to caring responsibilities and this is a major factor in their ability to take up work or take on a better paying position, even when they want to do so (pp. 12-14). As the report states, “women with caring responsibilities do not find it easy to drop everything, make alternative arrangements and resume the life of an employee” (p. 36).
Yet, if someone in a family has to reduce their hours of paid work, or leave the workforce entirely, it frequently makes economic sense for it to be the woman. The report also noted that “women tend to be paid less than males, a fact that remains true even when adjustments are made so as to compare men and women in the same or similar work.” Furthermore, they are distinctly disadvantaged in industrial relations systems that favour individual arrangements (p. 23), as the current system in Australia still does as a legacy of the Work Choices legislation introduced by the Howard Government.
Lower incomes and greater time spent outside the workforce mean that women tend to accumulate less superannuation and fewer financial resources to see them through retirement, even though their longer lifespan (on average) means that their financial needs at this time are usually greater than those experienced by men (pp. 24-27).
So, on the basis of workforce experience alone, it is clear that for many Australian women—although obviously not all—gender is still very much an issue.
Looking beyond the paid workforce, it is still an issue for many more, and this is leads to my third point about time resources. The Australia Institute’s report also found that “many women (85 per cent) said they always, often or sometimes felt rushed or pressed for time, the main reason being the balancing of work and family responsibilities” (p. 24). This is a matter that I have previously posted about however for consistency and convenience it is worth repeating much of it here. The report that I drew on there was “Striking the Balance – Men Women, Work and Family,” published by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and available here.
The HREOC report found that “despite the overall increase in women’s participation in the labour force and a decrease in men’s participation, the distribution of unpaid labour has remained largely unchanged over recent decades” (p. 25). Even taking cultural and individual differences into account, it remains a fact that there are still gendered divisions and women cover 70 percent of the unpaid work (which includes housework and child care) (p. 26). As singles, women do slightly more unpaid work than men, but when they become part of a couple they end up doing even more (p. 27). Married women may do more additional unpaid work than women in de facto relationships, however, there is little difference in the amount of time that married men and men in de facto relationships devote to unpaid work; it’s just that men in de facto relationships are likely to spend more time on inside tasks (pp. 28-29).
Having children tends to double the amount of time that both men and women spend on housework and caring, however women are coming off a much higher base to start with (pp. 30). As the report points out, though, a focus on childcare eclipses the amount of additional work generated around other unpaid activities, which actually increases as the children get older (pp. 30-31). It is this aspect that Jenny Ejlak so beautifully captured in her piece in the Crikey Daily Email. Even when looking solely at child care, women take a greater share of those tasks, such as physical care, that are less pleasant and have to be done at certain times, thus constraining what else they are able to do (p. 32). While the total unpaid workload may increase for both parents, the total amount of housework that men undertake remains relatively consistent with what they did before parenthood, and this holds regardless of family type (p. 31). Of course, children require less direct care as they grow older, but the extra work that they generate remains, so the father’s unpaid load tends to decrease over time, in contrast to the mother’s (p. 32).
A more interesting point than the figures given in the report, was the finding that the increased necessity for multi-tasking experienced by both men and women as parents created feelings of time pressure, although this was greater for women who consequently also had less time for leisure (p. 34-37).
This HREOC report gives lots of official statistics on what, for many of us, is lived experience, and this is what I and many others have tried to get across on Memes, Crikey, and elsewhere over the last couple of weeks. It may not be the experience of everyone—and this itself was clear from some of the comments—but it is the experience of many of us. To simply write us off as whinging and bitching is to deny the validity of our identities, our values, and our decisions. We value our work, paid and unpaid. We value our partners. We value our children. We value our parents. We value our relationships with others. We value our communities. And we value the traditions, cultures, parenting experiences, and class heritage that make us stick with these even though trying to balance everything can be stressful. The fact that a recent Lifeline poll found that 87% of us are stressed—41% of us to an unhealthy level—indicates that it is not just a problem for women. For most of us, it is not a case of being submissive and then bitching and moaning about it; rather, we are working, men and women together, to hold it all together as best we can in a society that makes some choices and roles easier than others. We all have different physical, financial, social, cultural, and psychological resources to do the job, and that makes the balancing act harder for some of us, but it does not in any way make our choices or values wrong. Just because we give different expression to our feminist ideals does not mean that we are undermining feminism.
Finally, I mentioned in my previous post that one reason many women lacked the time to engage in political blogging was that they were already engaged in activities in local communities, but that this was not recognised as serious political engagement. Concern over what is perceived to be decreasing political and civic engagement goes well beyond the Crikey writers’ questions about women bloggers, is long-standing in some quarters, and is heightened by the impact of Web2.0 media technologies and fragmenting national audiences.
In many ways, Australia is not a single nation. As demonstrated above, there are some areas or sections of society for which gender differences and sex discrimination no longer seem to be issues. In others, they are highly salient aspects of everyday life. Margaret Simons, in The Content Makers – Understanding the Future of the Australian Media, Penguin, 2007, points out that we have for some time now also been a divided nation in terms of the media we consume. Similarly, it is likely that there are people for whom party-political, conventional politics is their bread and butter; for others, local, cause-based activism is far more important. It would be a major mistake, however, to assume that there is no overlap between the two groups.
Judith Brett and Anthony Moran remind us that “life stage, age, gender and the shape of the person’s social and economic status” as well as where they have lived and worked, and the way that government has impinged on their lives, are all important factors in shaping a person’s political outlook (Ordinary People’s Politics, Pluto Press, 2006, p. 8). They claim that political elites see apathy, poor knowledge and lack of interest in what, for ordinary people, is “a reasoned response to experience.” They also claim that there is much evidence that “contemporary citizenry . . . is better informed about politics than its predecessors were” although there is much less identification with political parties (p. 303-5).
A large UK study by Nick Couldry, Sonia Livingstone and Tim Markham into the impact of the media on public engagement found that the biggest problem there “was not so much an absolute decline in political interest, or indeed public connection, but rather the lack of articulation between what governments and other public bodies do or think and what citizens do or think” (Media Consumption and Public Engagement: Beyond the Presumption of Attention. Consumption and Public Life. Houndsmills, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, p. 189). The point is made by Nick Couldry in one of his other publications that for political engagement to be meaningful, people must feel that their voices are being heard (“Communicative Entitlements and Democracy” in The Oxford Handbook of Information and Communication Technologies. Ed. Robin Mansell, Chrisanthi Avgerou, Danny Quah, and Roger Silverstone. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 394).
Given that many people’s experience is that Canberra-based, party politics is something that they have little ability to influence, even at election time, why should they engage with, or contribute to, the massive amount of commentary that accompanies it?
This does not mean that they are not interested in politics. Many are still greatly concerned about the state of the roads, waiting lists in hospitals, standards in schools, suburban planning, and lack of public infrastructure. Some of them, no matter how difficult the stress of balancing all their other commitments, will do something at this level because they can have an effect. Enough signatures on a petition can often get a local traffic hazard fixed or an extra bus in an under-serviced area. Progress Associations can influence, through involvement in the council planning process, the constraints placed on development. Neighbourhood security and sense of community can be enhanced by Neighbourhood Watch and Safety House programs, or services such as Meals on Wheels and involvement in local service clubs. The state and federal governments might fight over adequate funding for schools, but it makes a difference to the literacy development of 30 kids at the local school if a group of parents assist with the reading program each week.
All of this is politics in as far as it is concerned with the distribution of scarce resources, a process which is both influenced by and influences the relative power and life chances of different groups within society. There’s a beautiful example of this kind of politics in play over at Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony in her posts “Not a Blasted Wasteland” Part 1 and Part 2. This is politics at its most real, and the experiences of local politics that the kids in that area see at work around them now will very likely impact their views of democracy and engagement with politics as adults. Jo-Ann Amadeo makes this very clear when she says that “the every-day lives of young people are vital aspects of the development of democratic beliefs and civic identity. Adolescents are exposed to ideas, world views, and experiences through multiple sources, both manifest and latent.” (“Patterns of Internet Use and Political Engagement Among Youth.” in Young Citizens and New Media: Learning for Democratic Participation. Ed. Peter Dahlgren, Routledge, 2007, pp. 141-142).
As I said above though, it would be a mistake to assume that those of us involved in local issues and organisations, unrecognised as “politics” though this is, are not also sometimes engaged in the “rough and tumble” of more conventional politics—it’s just that we frequently have less time to maintain a visible presence there.