50.50 – equal but different: a reply to Ruth Rosen

Something challenging and refreshing has begun to emerge in some serious publications. Women are claiming an equal right to exploration and debate, and helping to redefine the 'mainstream', but through gender difference, not through submerging

Congratulations to 50.50 writer, Ruth Rosen, for writing such a cogent piece about an important subject  - the extent to which women’s sections or sections devoted to a gender perspective, such as 50.50, are being siphoned off into spaces where they cannot challenge the dominant discourse. In ‘Gender Apartheid Online’ she lines us up as evidence alongside Salon’s Broadsheet, Slate’s DoubleXX, PoliticsDaily.com’s "Woman Up", IPS Gender Wire and even the New York Times’ online series called the Female Factor, and concludes that the “smart, incisive” material to be found there is still, “not on the ‘front page’ where men might learn about women's lives.”

For the sake of a general argument she has missed out some of the nuance of the 50.50 format on openDemocracy by describing it as " a separate section that focuses on news stories about women around the world". That just gives those of us who have been involved in editing 50.50 a rare chance to explain what we’re about. 50.50 is a separate section, but all openDemocracy section editors can publish daily on openDemocracy's front page. 50.50 also has a permanent highlights box on the openDemocracy front page, and our articles are regularly chosen by openDemocracy front page editors for the day’s top selection.

The 50.50 section explores issues of gender equality and empowerment at a global level. Jane Gabriel, 50.50 editor, says "we are committed to promoting human rights and democracy through dialogue and debate. But a global debate without the female half of humanity is neither global nor democratic. We seek contributions that can argue for the equal reality, importance and democratic implication of women's experience of the world.  Our goal is to make openDemocracy a current affairs forum which is written, read and used equally by women and men".

Communication is not a right but a chance to communicate, and in our case, to offer openDemocracy readers and participants the genuine difference of perspective on world affairs that a gendered awareness brings. Whether you are talking about editors or readers, there are of course men and women who are interested in that, but it's also the case that there are many women and men who are not. Our job is to persuade them.

Why do we believe a separate section works best in today’s world? To answer this, we need to take a step back in Ruth Rosen’s argument. She opens her piece by celebrating the ‘good news’ that the special women’s pages of forty years ago, solely concerned with, “fashion, society and cooking… cosmetics and wrinkle cream” have been replaced by online sections promoting a broad array of serious subjects from a strong feminist perspective. It is important to pause for a moment to consider this ‘good news’ in a little more detail.

Because what we are looking at is by no means a benign, inexorable and seamless progress: it’s a complicated story. What Ruth is registering here is a fundamental break with the binary dichotomies of gender which, within the same publication, used to like to place women in a safer, more domestic, and essentially trivial place where they could prepare themselves to be objects of gratification in all sorts of ways, ranging from the delightful to the life-threatening. Not that this has gone away. There are shoals of magazines, tv programmes, diets and catwalks dedicated to the same today. It’s just that something very different, challenging and refreshing has also begun to emerge in some serious publications. In some of these, especially online, women are claiming an equal interest in the world we live in, and an equal right to exploration and debate.

Equal, but different. Just because a significant breakthrough has occurred, it does not mean that the process of marginalisation and lack of awareness of what kind of challenge this poses to the status quo in a myriad of ways is at an end. Ruth is clearly frustrated with a world where ‘women’s responses to the Taliban or Islamism, reproductive health issues, …or the estrogenic impact of cosmetics on women's health’ are not deemed to be a part of ‘the news about foreign policy, national security… or health care’. I sympathise with her frustration. But I disagree with her proposed solution: that we should claim our own and enter ‘the mainstream’. For one simple reason.

The ‘mainstream’ is surely part of the problem, a filter for significance invented by the dominant discourse, which is an important source of power in itself. It prejudges all sorts of issues including what is relevant and conducive to the maintenance of sustainable power in the world, which often involves a calculated suppression of diversity and debate. Maybe forty years ago, when there was more of an illusion of one coherent national conversation, an aspiration to participate in that conversation would have been sufficient. But nowadays we live in irreversibly pluralist societies, and new media is media that has caught up with that essential shift.

It's no accident that openDemocracy is growing by extending its sections and building audiences who are not passive consumers of some tacit, mainstream agenda - but active participants in exploring and furthering certain - what shall we call them? -  'areas of interest'. Ruth is surely right that 'issues' isn't really the right word for a gendered perspective on the world, which is always a critique of self-announced 'mainstream' perspectives. And ‘areas of interest’ isn’t a much better designation. These are sometimes, as in the case of 50.50, life perspectives. But can she have it both ways? She wants people to be able to fully appreciate this difference of view, but not if it is in a different place from 'everything else mainstream'. What she is really invoking is a place where everyone already has gender awareness by fiat, with no chance, if you happen to have missed out on this or rejected it at some stage, to change your mind and broaden your horizons.

On openDemocracy, we believe our readers can, should and simply do make their own very different choices about how they want to explore the world. The really important point is that 50.50 is helping to redefine the 'mainstream' through its difference, not through submerging. And amongst the many ways we relate to the dominant discourses of our time, we also want to turn the ‘mainstream’ into a pluralist debating space. This is where our aims might overlap, for example, with those over in openDemocracy’s Our Kingdom, who are calling for a fresh turn to democratic republican politics.

This matters to 50.50 because, despite all appearances to the contrary, even in societies such as ours, we are really in the foothills of the impact gender awareness and gender equality is going to make on the status quo. The gender challenge is particularly misleading in this regard. Many people, including many young people, assume that women’s emancipation is pretty well a ‘done deal’ in a society such as ours. The premises seem to have been accepted. But yesterday morning, BBC Radio 4 listeners in Britain woke up to be reminded that during the last football World Cup, instances of domestic violence increased whenever the English team played, by 25%, rising to 30% when it lost and pulled out. And the first game England played in this World Cup, reports of domestic abuse to West Yorkshire police are alleged to have leapt up by 300%. What does this tell us about our society? A spokesman for White Ribbon UK, asked why this wasn’t getting any better, simply said, ‘We live in a culture that doesn’t respect women.’ Many of the premises of feminism have been not only accepted but absorbed; and yet, in terms of the challenge they pose to the status quo, whether in terms of equal pay, democratic representation, or intimate relations between men and women, young and old, we are just at the beginning.

On the positive side of gender difference, take this week’s 50.50 front page article by Marion Bowman on world population, migration and consumption. This enlightening piece is also a woman’s celebration of a ‘feminist tract’ written and delivered this year at the Hay festival by Fred Pearce. It challenges a Malthusian premise which has done more damage than most over the last two hundred years, in terms of fear-mongering and violence in the world. It is exactly the serious kind of article that Ruth Rosen would want to see on our front page. And there it was. But it gains an important dimension, both as a critique of dominant thinking, and as an analysis of a better way forward, from being identifiably part of a gendered perspective on the world. Equal to other perspectives, but different: different and connected.

Both for the negative reason of how far we have to go still, and for the positive reason of how much we have to offer, the 50.50 section values its participation in openDemocracy as a distinct argument in a larger space which knows it is pluralist, and up for grabs. Nor do we expect this position to dissolve away when some new consensus has emerged. 50.50’s interest in what it is to be marginal, for example, makes it a natural location, like many of the ‘sister spaces’ Ruth cites, for countering racism and bullying, whether in the misplaced animus against immigrants which is gaining ground in many democracies, or the often complacent relationship between the so-called developed and developing worlds. Equality successes always bring forth fresh challenges. And those too will have to be argued for. 

About the author

Rosemary Bechler is openDemocracy Editor. She chaired the National Peace Council and Peaceworkers UK and edited New Times before joining openDemocracy in 2000. For the British Council, she has edited four volumes of Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined (2003 – 2012) and written Unbounded Freedom – a guide to Creative Commons thinking for cultural organizations (2006). Her compilation from the Convention on Modern Liberty was published by Imprint Academic in 2010. Her PhD was on Samuel Richardson: she has reviewed literature for the TLS and politics for Political Quarterly.