, , , , ,

Today the website Mumsnet announced that it had come under various forms of electronic attack, and that one of its employees had been harassed offline. They are advising anyone who has an account with the site to change their passwords, and are contacting some members who have definitely been hacked. This has been linked to a Twitter account called DadSecurity, which announced it was attacking the site and also gloated about the offline harassment before it took place.

I’m not an expert in tech, but this situation doesn’t seem to need much knowledge of IT to understand. Given the name of the Twitter account, and the hassle which Mumsnet has had with anti-feminists in the past, this looks like a straightforward case of women being harassed because they dared to have a space of their own. There’s a continuum to be seen here with all sorts of denigration which the site has had to put up with over the last few years: that the name is sexist, that the posters are “anti-man”, that their concerns are frivolous, that they have too much time on their hands. (As ever, critics of women’s behaviour cannot quite work out whether the women they are lambasting are trivial or deeply dangerous.) An attempt to disrupt Mumsnet is an attempt to break up women’s solidarity.

There’s a long history of men being uncomfortable with women talking to each other. The Bechdel Test, named after Alison Bechdel who proposed it as a satirical measure of modern films, provides an arresting glimpse at the arrangement of gender and speech in our media. A film passes the test if there are two named female characters, who talk to each other, and discuss anything other than a man. It’s amazing how many films flunk that low, low bar. Women talking to each other isn’t something our sexist society is in a hurry to dramatise or encourage.

When it does take place, there are all sorts of words men rush to use to describe it: “nattering”, “gossiping”, “yammering”, “blabbing on”. There’s a hurry to devalue women’s speech with each other, to insist that it can’t be meaningful or significant. This is a tendency which starts early: one of the surest ways the teachers at my all-boys school used to stop us talking and pay them attention was to call “Right, can we break up the mothers’ meeting?” Women can’t have anything serious to say to each other.

And “gossip” is a fascinating word. If my Middle English serves me, it derives from “godsib” or “god-sibling”, the equivalent of the modern “godparent” in a baptism. I’m not sure how early it becomes attached to women exclusively, but I can remember seeing it in entirely neutral form used for the women attending a mother giving birth, and then later in a seventeenth-century play to describe a group of old women sitting round the new mother’s bed, talking away whilst smoking their pipes and drinking down bowls of spiced wine. At some point that relationship – that connection which linked an older woman outside the family circle to a younger one – became stereotyped as a silly, chattering kind of talk. How interesting.

Specifically a kind of talk which involved talking about people behind their back. Because women’s speech to each other in private isn’t just stigmatised as foolish and unimportant, it’s condemned as suspect and morally damaging. Women in modern Christian cultures are often warned against the power of gossip to harm their community. Magazines which invade the privacy of celebrities are described as “gossip rags”. Women who gossip over the street or on the front step are the target of humour and disapproval. Apparently this trivial chatter is also terribly subversive.

What are men so afraid of, when women get together and talk amongst themselves? The clue to that might lie in one of the questions you see most frequently on the boards at Mumsnet, often attached to the most bleak and appalling stories: “Is this normal?” They have an entire board called “Am I Being Unreasonable?” in which people cross-check things that are bothering them in daily life with other commenters. Sometimes that’s the right way to do barbecues, or the irritation of parking spaces, but sometimes it’s about a partner’s anger, or their manipulation, or their embarrassing demands.

One of the most frequent places to see “Is this normal?” is the relationships board. It’s an incredibly powerful thing, a place where women can just casually ask “So, is this OK? Is this what everyone else’s husband does?” And that’s the context in which I read an angry man with the name “Dad” in his handle launching electronic and offline harassment at Mumsnet. A lot of men find the idea of women talking to each other threatening. They don’t want women to find that bond outside their home, to listen to the stories of other lives, and to share their feelings.

They don’t have to be an abusive husband to feel that. It’s something our society inculcates in men: that women getting together and taking are trouble. It reminds me of the stories female friends tell about quiet murmurs when getting ready for a party about which of the men who’ll be there tonight “Isn’t really safe in taxis, you know…” Gossip? Damn right it was gossip. Because if they mentioned that in public, they got “innocent until proven guilty!” “how can you say that, do you have evidence?” “that’s a terrible thing to say about a man!” etc, etc.

Or the account of the office worker coming up to a group of female colleagues and jokily demanding “So, what are you ladies all plotting, then?” What’s he so worried about? He probably couldn’t tell you. But something about women talking to each other quietly without a man around triggers a learned anxiety in him. That’s the mild end of the continuum which ends with “DadSecurity” making false phone calls to the police which send armed men to a house where a woman and her children are asleep. Mumsnet won’t be dismantled by this sort of disruption. But it’s worth asking why some men wish it would go away forever.