Books interview: Sarah Pedersen

The professor of communication and media and author of The Politicization of Mumsnet discusses social media’s good and bad, debates over gender and feminism, and Val McDermid’s Scotland

September 28, 2020
Author Sarah Pedersen

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?
A peculiar mixture of boarding-school stories and enormous volumes such as The Reader’s Digest Heritage of Britain. I could sit for hours staring at double-page spreads on the Prince Regent’s Brighton Pavilion or the six wives of Henry VIII in these beautifully illustrated tomes. Since I went to a Coventry comprehensive rather than boarding school, and then went on to study history at the University of York, the Reader’s Digest clearly had the bigger impact.

Your new book looks at the popular British website Mumsnet and its political influence. What other accounts of the impact of social media would you recommend?
Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: How change happens when people come together was one of the first books to really talk about how social and political movements were harnessing social media to enable people from all over the world to unite online and work together. Mumsnet has harnessed this power in its campaigns – a site with more than 10 million monthly users can have a lot of clout, particularly since the type of women who use Mumsnet are key floating voters whom politicians are eager to impress. A less positive spin on social media can be found in Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which contains spine-chilling stories about people whose whole lives were destroyed through social media shaming and demands for their employers to immediately sack them.

Which books offer good overviews of some of the debates about gender that have proved so contentious on Mumsnet?
This is a contentious area, and many of the authors who have written on this subject have found themselves under attack. Abigail Shrier’s recent Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters is focused on the situation in the US, but is a good introduction to the concerns expressed by some Mumsnetters on issues such as the 4,000 per cent increase in the UK in young girls seeking treatment to transition gender in less than a decade. Other useful introductions are Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: The real science behind sex differences and Sheila Jeffreys’ Gender Hurts: A feminist analysis of the politics of transgenderism.

One reviewer has already described your book as “a call to feminist action”. What else would you recommend to help people think through the issues and embark on effective action?
Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men is already a modern classic, but I can’t recommend it enough. We talk a lot about “impact” in academia – this is a book that continues to be impactful, not just on the women who read it but on policymakers and parliaments. (The Invisible Women newsletter provides updates on campaigns about data gaps and the invisibility of women – in recent months attention has focused on badly fitting personal protective equipment and drug tests that ignore women’s “unpredictable” bodies.)

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
A Woman’s Work Is Never Done, the autobiography of south Wales political activist Elizabeth Andrews. I gave it to my mother, who, like Andrews, was born in Hirwaun into a mining family. I hoped that she would find the book interesting and that it would bring back some good memories.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
Jessica Taylor’s Why Women Are Blamed for Everything: Exploring the victim blaming of women subjected to violence and trauma – I have read some heartfelt reviews of this book on Twitter. On a slightly lighter note, the new Val McDermid novel featuring DCI Karen Pirie, Still Life; I love McDermid’s books, particularly her descriptions of my adopted homeland of Scotland.

Sarah Pedersen is professor of communication and media at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. Her latest book is The Politicization of Mumsnet (Emerald).

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Shelf life: Sarah Pedersen

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