Rosemary Bechler: 50.50 – Equal but Different: a Reply to Ruth Rosen

[Rosemary Bechler is a Contributing Editor for openDemocracy.]

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,’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....

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pages of forty years ago, solely concerned with, “fashion, society and cooking… cosmetics and wrinkle cream” have been replaced by online sections promoting a broad array of serious subjects from a strong feminist perspective.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....

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.

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