Do Women Need Their Own Space?

When I heard that on-line magazine Slate was blessing its female writers with (what Virginia Woolf might call) a blog of their own, part of me felt that it was a backwards step. How different is this development from the establishment of women's pages in all our regular papers decades ago? At that time, while some women loved the chance to choose the agenda, it felt like an irrelevant ghetto for others.

But another part of me celebrated. With the slow drip drip of women's representation -- in politics, in business, in the media -- maybe the only hope we have of real feminine expression is to storm the space and land grab. DoubleX -- so named to reflect the biological fact that women have two X chromosomes while men only have one -- assumes that women writing in a female space is significantly different from women contributing to a largely masculine space. That different perspectives are not only brought up but chased through and the prospect of an alternative culture arises.

We all know newspapers that consistently choose female columnists who are harder, crueller, colder than their male counterparts: writers like this cause a certain frisson, but are not consulted on government policy. Under DoubleX rules, women will neither have to create an entertaining contrast with the men nor need to prove themselves as gender neutrals -- multiple stresses that have often distorted what might be a distinctly female voice.

The very interesting claim from Slate that as much as 40% of DoubleX's readers are men was presumably offered as evidence that it continues to serve its whole audience. Will this affect the way women interact on the blog -- similar to the way that women purport to change their conversation when a man walks in the room? Either way, it will be a different space from the long-established Slate and that must be a good thing.

And yet, and yet. When setting up The Downing Street Project to advance women's leadership -- the spontaneous offspring of The White House Project, founded by Marie Wilson 10 years ago -- we made a deliberate commitment to balance and partnership. WHP's slogan has always been "Add Women, Change Everything" and, similarly, DSP, in contrast to many women's organizations, actively embraces the men who will, inevitably, be part of the change. Working alongside the men, rather than in the room next door, seemed to us to be the best way to reach our goal, which benefits the whole of society -- not just the women.

From that trajectory the British blog Open Democracy took a radical step when it began 50:50, a series of journalistic projects that bring in the voices of women with an explicit commitment to becoming a "current affairs forum which is written, read and used equally by women and men." Committing to a 50:50 editorial policy presents us with a similar opportunity to (and all the attending problems of) quotas and all-women short lists as a way to instantly change the status quo. Rather than drip feed women into a male-dominated space which may oblige them to fit into the prevailing culture -- as so many women politicians appear to do -- present both men and women with the challenge of working together in a radically altered space that neither recognizes.

Of course, written pieces do not oblige the writers to interact the way a balanced Senate or House of Commons might. Which is why, on our blog we are going to begin a series of dialogues -- men and women, women with women, men with men. Any volunteers out there?

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