Gender Trouble in the Pirate Party: Interview with Marina Weisband (part I)

A former Political Director of the German Pirate Party, Marina Weisband has been for many years the face of the party. Widely exposed in the media, Weisband fulfilled the important role of lending a prominent female voice to an otherwise overwhelmingly male party. The Pirates have often been accused of sexism for running very few female candidates and their farfetched attempt to deny the very existence and political significance of gender by declaring themselves a “post-gender party.” Infamous is the case of the Berlin state elections of 2011, where 14 out of 15 elected representatives were male. (As we will see, Weisband originally adopted the rationale that a party is truly democratic when it stops “counting women like cows,” but later came to regret that position).

In 2016, Weisband left the party, without making a public announcement in order not to damage the Pirates. In spite of some reservations, she remains a staunch advocate of Liquid Democracy, which she is currently promoting and testing in German public schools through Aula, a liquid democracy software based on LiquidFeedback.

In a two-hour long interview we held via skype this past March, Marina and I touched on many key topics concerning this research project, including the usability of the LiquidFeedback interface; the question of trust (or mistrust) in transitive delegations; the relationship between liquid democracy, direct democracy, and representative democracy; and changing notions of leadership and accountability in LD-based systems. I am going to post a few excerpts from the interview transcripts here, beginning precisely from the gender question.

Marco Deseriis (MD). Do you that the ratio men/women was more skewed toward men in the Pirate Party than in other parties? And if so, why? Do you think that there was a certain sexist culture going on within the party or it wasn’t particularly evident as opposed to any sexist culture that you could see in any political party?

Marina Weisband (MW). That’s a difficult question because a lot of factors play into it. First of all, of course there was a worse balance between males and females in the party, which just comes from the party’s nerdy image and the relative lack of females therein. The party itself was not openly sexist, I never was treated in a sexist way, I know of females who have been, but not more so than in other parties. However, the party called itself postgender and that was the whole problem. Of course, I once said: we reach real equality when we stop counting women like cows, and later I came to regret that thing.

MD. Why?

MW. I learnt that sexism is still very much alive in our society and that just saying that sexism hasn’t stopped and we don’t have to do anything about it is in itself sexist. And in that way the Pirate Party was always pretty much sexist, because they tried to ignore the problem, or they thought the problem was not present. When feminists within the party started to name the problem, started to say “no, no sexism is still here,” they were treated in a very sexist way. That is where it was uncomfortable to be a woman. For me it never was because those ‘male bros’ kind of accepted me as one of them after my first instances of saying “I don’t really care about male and females, I don’t see gender,” which was stupid of me. I later corrected that view, but they liked me after [I said] that. I was never treated differently as a woman, and actually I don’t think women were treated differently as long as they didn’t fight for women’s rights.

MD. As long as they did not raise the gender issue. One thing I was wondering is whether your technological savviness was also a factor. If you were technologically savvy did it really matter what your gender was? Or that’s not something that really matters in determining acceptance within the party?

MW. Technological savvyness was not only a factor in the respect you would get in the party, it was also your means of participation in the party. If you were not savvy there was no way to really fully be part of the process–so automatically you would gain less respect or following or whatever. There were single cases of people who managed any way, but the Pirate Party depended so much on a wide variety of digital tools that were not always well designed, that basically everyone who participated on a national level was pretty much tech savvy to an extent. On the other hand, being tech savvy didn’t save you from anything because the feminists in our party were also pretty tech savvy, but since they raised the whole uncomfortable gender issue, that the pirates thought to be too ideological, they were mistreated. By the way, that’s a very interesting thing about the Pirate Party: they thought themselves not only to be a postgender but also post-ideology, which as a politician I find to be problematic for a party.

MD. Is it still that way?

MW. Yes, at least a big part with whom I have my discussions still say: we are not left, not right, we have no ideology, we come to clever solutions. As if politics was a problem that had “right solutions” and with enough clever thinking you could reach them. I think it’s a very widespread problem, not only in the Pirate Party, but also in other parts of the population, even though it is particularly evident in the PP.

MD. Yes, it’s a technocratic approach, a writer like Evgeny Morozov would call it the syndrome of technological solutionism, an increasingly pervasive ideology that any social, political, or environmental issue can be solved as long as you have a technology-oriented approach to it.

MW. That’s one thing, but if you look deeper it doesn’t necessarily has to do with technology. I think behind that stands the belief in the concept of the will of the people. As if there is a thing that would make everybody happy and you just have to find out what it is. And not the view of politics as different groups of interests and ideologies colliding.

MD. Right, this is a very strong Rousseaian stance. Ultimately the general will is always undivided. It is significant to me that this monolithic view of the people goes hand in hand not only with a technocratic approach (as if the design and use of technology were not themselves political) but with the view that there is no such a thing as gender-based or a class-based or a race-based way of doing politics.

—[continues in next post]—

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