“The sight of women talking together has always made men uneasy, nowadays it means rank subversion," Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch, 1971.
On the whole, I like Crikey and its editor Jonathan Green. Green runs one of the few lively and independent voices in big Australian media and I enjoy their skewering of Australian political and media sacred cows. However, I did not think much of the “serious question” Green asked on Twitter last week. Why, he pondered, don't women subscribe to the online newsletter? Crikey has about 15,000 annual subscribers who pay $100 or thereabouts for a news and current affairs email five day a week. 70 percent of these are male, says Green. According to Green the “unbalance was weird.”
There were five reasons I didn’t think much of his question.
Firstly I am disposed to be cynical and say this is a disguised advertising ploy. Green may want to get people talking, but it wouldn’t hurt to lift his readership by 5,000 people. Secondly there is an assumption that the ratio of male to female readers is somehow an important matter that requires fixing and not merely a reflection of individual taste. Thirdly, if Crikey’s content is geared toward males, then they can solve it themselves. Half of their newsroom are female, as deputy editor Sophie Black reminds us. Though Black wanted “more talk on this”, perhaps they would be better served with more action. Fourthly the question ignores the cost of Crikey and the time investment required to read it. It is a great publication but also a luxury that requires discretionary wealth and time to take up the subscription.
But the fifth and biggest reason I didn’t like it was that Green was doing the “annual airing” of the whole tiresome battle of the sexes argument without a clear agenda as to where it might lead. What then did Green want to see as an outcome if it wasn’t simply about getting more readers for Crikey? Did he not know that many women would use this as an opportunity to remind Green that equality of the sexes remains a distant dream in 21st century Australia. As “a journalist since before you were born”, there are issues Jonathan Green might have been able to foresee.
But there were many who did take Green’s question seriously, including Crikey’s own Scott Steel aka Possum. The writer of Pollytics was inclined to do soul searching about the gender mix of his own readership. He said the ratio of male to female comments on Pollytics and fellow Crikey pseph blog Poll Bludger ranged “between about 4 to 1 on a good day, through to 10 to 1 depending on the topic.” He also bemoaned the “lack of big female political bloggers” and would eventually run into heavy traffic when he damned Hoyden About Town with the faint praise that they “touch[ed] on politics occasionally”.
And then the argument spun off in all sorts of directions. Lisa Gunders took the question head on. Assuming an acceptance of Steel’s premise (which she did not necessarily share), she mentioned two factors. Women wrote about different forms of politics which wend “under the radar”, she said. But the biggest reason was a lack of time. “Women are still carrying the major load in terms of housework and the relational work required to keep a household running these days,” she wrote. “Much of this work isn’t recognised and is so piecemeal that it chews up hours without you having anything to show for it.”
Sarah Stokely noted the women bloggers were there but could not be seen. She linked to Geek Feminist’s question “where are all the men bloggers?” which effectively skewered this particular blindness. Larvatus Prodeo also used the metaphor of sight and the male gaze. Anna Winter’s post there suggested that women were creating alternative niches in the public sphere away from the sexism, the "shrill and angry tone”, and the dismissal of women’s experience they find in the “hard politics blogs”. Winter said that if men were noticing the absence of women wherever they go, then “perhaps the more relevant question is why they are avoiding you”.
Hoyden About Town also weighed in about invisibility. Viv (Tigtog) and Lauredhel’s blog is one of the heavyweight feminist Australian blogs and its comment ratio is closer to 70 to 30 percent in favour of women. But unlike Crikey, it seems to be happy enough with the split, and does not indulge in any hand wringing about changing it. Lauredhel posted five of the comments (three men, two woman) from the Pollytics thread which its readers ripped into. Softestbullet wrote that Jason Wilson’s “Big-p Political” comment means “about dudes.” Lauredhel pointed out that woman also post about gardening, and food, and parenting, and life. “For me,” she wrote, this was “part of that is a deliberate political strategy.”
FuckPoliteness, as the name of the blog suggests, was not inclined to give much truck to Crikey’s arguments. While the big P penis people discussed big P political issues, said the blog's author, women were “just discussing media, law, rape, issues with the medical profession, disability politics, invisibility, breastfeeding discrimination, conduct of politicians, live blogging elections, internet censorship, race politics, divisions in feminism, transphobia, homophobia, talk back radio, life/work/study/family/friends/leisure balances, and about a million other things.” She said that the public sphere that existed in the comment sections of blogs such as Larvatus Prodeo was a race to the bottom where women faced aggression and smug superiority.
That blogger may want to fuck politeness but she does want a place where she could discuss these issues in “open and respectful ways”. But males are everywhere and do not always behave well – despite the best efforts of Crikey, Pollytics, Jason Wilson or Larvatus Prodeo. In a snark-infested internet, perhaps an open and respectful public sphere can only be found in a forum moderated by women. As Lady Psyche in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Princess Ida reminds us:
Man will swear and man will storm-
Man is not at all good form-
Is of no kind of use-
Man's a donkey - Man's a goose-
Man is coarse and Man is plain-
Man is more or less insane-
Man's a ribald - Man's a rake,
Man is Nature's sole mistake!