Political theorists and feminists alike have lamented the ever-decreasing levels of political activism. These familiar narratives highlight the risks this poses to a healthy society and democracy more broadly, as people drift further away from formal politics. The lack of collective action is often blamed on the increasing individualisation of society, with people more interested in making political decisions based on what benefits them, rather than committing to a single political party or an ideological position. But what if there is more to the story?
The Internet and social media have given us new ways to engage with politics, and we have seen a surge in protest activity in both the virtual and the real world. Groups such as Occupy have given voice to those previously excluded from formal politics, but by and large, there is still a tendency to determine the value of these new ways of organising based on their ability to impact policy or create large-scale societal change.
Using these parameters, women often seem to get the short straw. We know that there are measurable gender differences in how people participate in politics, with women often characterised as less politically active, preferring informal, egalitarian networks instead.
The problem here, however, is not that women are somehow less active than men. The problem is that much of their activism takes forms, which are not considered political activism in orthodox terms.
In Australia, the notion of politics is still inherently gendered. This was evident when Prime Minister Julia Gillard tried to engage with the new soft demographic of ‘Mummy bloggers’. The media promptly subjected her to much ridicule, despite the fact that similar sites had been instrumental in securing female votes for Obama in his re-election. As so aptly noted by le Marquand:
“Fraternising with the cricket team or eating a meat pie at the footy has long been considered perfectly acceptable conduct for a prime minister. But morning tea with a circle of women? Well, that’s just silly.”
Political theorist Henrik Bang has an alternative view of personalised politics. In the footsteps of many feminist scholars, Bang also refutes the idea of separate public and private spheres. He has identified a new type of political participant, the ‘Everyday Maker’, who does not actively engage in formal politics, but instead takes part in projects they deem important, and invents small everyday tactics to make a difference as an ordinary political citizen. People act when they believe the cause is worthy, and their participation contributes to a greater good, but it doesn’t necessarily have to involve creating or revising policies. In other words, the political can be personal.
My own research on MamaBake, an Australian cooking group for mothers, is a case in point. MamaBake was created as a response to the prevailing situation in Australia, which sees mothers still doing the majority of the unpaid domestic labour regardless of their employment status. Disenchanted by the lack of support structures available, the founder took matters into her own hands. What started off as a group of friends getting together to cook their meals in order to ease their workloads, rapidly grew into an international online movement facilitated by social media technologies.
People who participate in MamaBake do so under the broad banner of ‘motherhood’, but they are not a homogenous group. The fact that there are no formal memberships and people can drop in and out as they please, engage online when they feel like it, and form their own local groups with very little guidance from the founder, enables diversity to flourish.
That is not to say that there is no collective dimension to the group. When the need arises, MamaBake has also successfully rallied the participants to protest against issues such as Facebook’s policy on breastfeeding pictures, or a baby separated from his mother in the detention center. As such, their activism takes personalised forms, but it is not done for individual gains per se.
It shows that people can be mobilised to form communities around ideas and topics they deem important, without having to commit to the organisation or ideology, such as feminism, for life. The fact that it is personalised should be seen as one of its inherent strengths; it enables people who would otherwise have very little in common to come together when the situation so warrants.
Thus, when discussing what counts as ‘political’, we should not solely focus on groups based on their ability to create large scale, societal change. If we indeed see society increasingly distancing itself from ‘big’ politics, perhaps we ought to pay more attention to how groups such as MamaBake operate, and try to find ways for formal politics and grassroots activism to find some common ground. The first step in that direction is to recognise the myriad ways in which people participate in the society every day.