Archive for category Feminism
20th century women – three generations in my family exploring what it means to be a woman. My mum, who believed that it was for men to lead and inspire, but who led and inspired, nonetheless, despite herself. I grew up wondering why I was so crap at being a girl (the endless Christmas and birthday gifts of cookery books and embroidery sets and dolls, all rebuking me for my ineptitude and lack of interest), but finding a way to be the kind of woman I wanted to be without the trappings that irritated and puzzled me. My daughter managing to be so good at being a girl (all that pink, the Barbies and Bratz, the make-up and handbags) and being a fierce and clever and brave woman at the same time.
I thought of us all whilst watching the film 20th Century Women. Annette Bening’s Dorothea was my age in the film, but Mum’s generation. Dorothea died in 1999, five years after my Mum. Their lives and experiences were so very different but there was something about her – the fact that she gathered around her people who needed shelter, nurture, companionship, the way she invited anyone she encountered to come to dinner, her desire and real effort to understand what mattered to her son and the younger women who were part of her life.
I managed not to weep, until the very end. When Jamie says that he can’t explain his mother to his son, that’s when it got me. Because I would have loved to see my Mum, watching my children grow up, and to see them turning to her for the love and pride and support that would have always been theirs. And all I can do is to tell them about her.
If the women in 20th Century Women are all white, straight and comfortably situated, the young women in Girlhood (Bande de filles) certainly are not. They inhabit the banlieue, their home lives are chaotic, their choices limited (by economics, by expectations). The opening sequence is possibly the most powerful cinematic expression of the challenges so many young women face that I can recall – a girls’ American football team on the pitch, physically powerful and fearless, jubilant in victory, they pour out of the stadium a babble of raised voices, laughter, solidarity and shared experience. And then they approach the apartment blocks, with the young men almost seeming to be on guard there, in ones and twos, and their voices are quietened. One by one they slip away from the group and into their own lives. But whilst the film gives us no cosy reassurances about what they face, it gives us along the way other moments of joyous girlhood – for example as they dance and pose and mime (in shoplifted frocks) in a hotel room to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’:
So shine bright tonight,
You and I
We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky
Eye to eye,
We’re beautiful like diamonds in the skyShine bright like a diamond
Shine bright like a diamond
Shining bright like a diamond
We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky
And they do shine, they are so alive, they are beautiful.
We’re half the world. We’re all races and religions, all shapes and sizes, all political persuasions. We have disabilities and we have none, we are healthy and we suffer pain and indignity, we are independent and we need help to get by. We have money to burn and nothing at all. We are mothers and we are daughters and sisters, we are friends and wives and lovers. We are gay, straight, bi, trans, and every variant or combination of the above. We are feminists, and we are ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ and we are most decidedly not feminists. We believe in our right to choose, and we believe that women’s fertility should be controlled by the state, by the church, by men. We wear pussy hats, and ‘Make America Great Again’ hats.
I can’t speak for Women. I’m middle aged (at least…), straight, cis-gendered, without disabilities, white, university educated, comfortably off. I am as baffled and dismayed by what many other women believe and fight for as I am about what many men believe and fight for. I can’t claim to have experienced direct discrimination, I’ve never experienced sexual violence or domestic violence. Everyday sexism, yes, of course, over the years I’ve clocked up a fair number of examples of that, in the workplace, on public transport, on the streets. But the fact that, say, FGM doesn’t affect me or mine doesn’t mean I don’t give a damn about it, or that I shouldn’t campaign about it. The fact that my career has encountered no overt obstacles due to my gender, that I live in a society with laws to protect my rights to equal pay and equal treatment, doesn’t mean I have nothing to say about the women around the world for whom this is not true. I can’t speak for Women, but I can and do and will speak about the experiences, the threats, the challenges, the obstacles that so many women share (even if I haven’t and don’t).
I check my privilege, I acknowledge it, but it doesn’t have to limit what or who I care about. And I know that in most countries, most of the time, women have to face a whole lot of extra crap that men don’t – they share the burdens of poverty, persecution and oppression, natural and man-made hazards and disasters but with the additional burdens that arise from the way they are viewed in too many societies, by too many men. That their choices are deemed irrelevant, their aspirations ridiculous, their personal integrity always violable. Whether these oppressions are enforced by law or merely by convention, they do oppress, and it takes immense courage to challenge them.
To all those who do, thank you.
And to my Mum, who would never have called herself a feminist, but who inspired me in that aspect of my life, as in so many others, thank you.
The truly great women of history are not celebrated as they should be. Look at the furore when a number of women campaigned to get one – one! – of our bank notes to commemorate Jane Austen, a writer universally acknowledged (pretty much) to be one of the giants of English literature. Whilst statues and street names grant immortality to men whose deeds have been pretty much forgotten and would hardly be celebrated today – ‘heroes’ of war and empire for the most part – very few women make the grade.
Josephine Butler certainly has been consigned to the shadows for far too long. She was once described as ‘the most distinguished Englishwoman of the nineteenth century’ (by Millicent Fawcett). There have been a number of books about her, and the Church of England commemorates her, appropriately enough, in prayer on a dedicated day in the church calendar. The University of Durham has named a College after her, and there’s a Josephine Butler Primary Campus also in Northumberland, her birthplace. But still, we should know more, we should celebrate this truly remarkable woman.
As her latest biographer, Helen Mathers, says, ‘her achievements had lasting impact. Her name deserves to be remembered by all who value women’s struggles to improve their lives’. Helen’s book both justifies that claim, and explains why she is so much less well-known than her contemporary, Florence Nightingale, for example.
Because Josephine Butler, whilst epitomising many of the virtues expected of Victorian womanhood (piety, purity, motherhood and devotion to her husband), also broke all the rules. She went into places where respectable women should never venture, precisely because that was where she found the women she spent her life defending and supporting. Not only that but she spoke in public about their plight, about the abuses of the system which forced internal examinations – ‘steel rape’ – on suspected prostitutes in order to protect their male clients from disease, and the inequalities which trapped so many women in situations where prostitution might seem their only option. A contemporary journalist described her as ‘an indecent maenad, a shrieking sister, frenzied, unsexed, and utterly without shame’. She minded that, terribly.
Josephine was driven by her convictions to go on, despite the cost to her family, to her health, to her reputation, because she believed utterly in her crusade. She saw not only the immediate injustices but the underlying systemic ones that allowed these abuses to continue – the separate spheres for men and women which kept so many women ignorant and denied them a voice, the lack of educational opportunities, of voting rights, of rights for married women. And she was part of all of those campaigns – all of the movements which laid the foundations for the legislative and cultural changes which swept through the twentieth century.
But her support for the most despised of women was at the heart of her life’s work. She ‘made no distinction between “respectable” and “fallen” women’, identifying with those whose bodies were subject to abuse by men, the men who had forced them on to the streets in the first place and/or abused them whilst they were there, and the doctors who enforced surgical treatments to control them.
Helen Mathers vividly describes how Josephine’s own desolate sense of loss after the death of one of her children drove her to ‘find some pain keener than my own’. She wasn’t some pious do-gooder, despising the very people she set out to help – from the start she risked her reputation, her dignity, her health and her personal safety by going into the workhouse, sitting on the floor of the oakum shed with the women and girls who worked there (prisoners, or workhouse inmates) and talking to them, alone with them.
Her faith was integral to her campaign, and her marriage was essential to it. In many ways, George Butler was as remarkable as Josephine. He must have been dismayed, surely, by her campaigning, by the effects of her work on their sons, by the cost to her health, and the damage to his own career of having such a notorious wife. But he stood by her, supported her unshakably and she could not have done what she did without him.
If she were with us now, what would she be doing? She would be in Rotherham, and Rochdale, where vulnerable young girls have been abused on an unthinkable scale and ‘the authorities’ have turned blind eyes. She would be working with refugee organisations to help protect young women who arrive here after terrible trauma and find themselves destitute, or threatened with removal to the country where they were subjected to violence. She would be campaigning against trafficking and sex tourism. Wherever the struggle is, she would be there.
I wondered what Josephine herself might have wished for as a memorial to her achievements. A University College would certainly please her, and a day of Anglican prayer. She would be happy that the Josephine Butler Society continues to campaign on the issues closest to her heart. Would she want to be commemorated on a bank-note? Would she want a statue? Perhaps not, who knows. But for us, who have inherited the world that she fought for, but who see around us daily the evidence that her victories were not absolute, and that the fight must continue, it would be good to see reminders of her in Liverpool, perhaps, where her work really began. And if that prompted people to ask, who was Josephine Butler, and what did she do, then this book will provide the answers.
It’s a profoundly moving story, astonishing and inspiring. We can despair that the evils Josephine Butler poured all of her energies into fighting are still with us, or we can hope that there are and always will be people who will take up those battles on behalf of the most vulnerable, the excluded, the despised. As a humanist, I believe passionately that this is so, that knowing that this life is all we have makes what we do with it matter more, not less, that it can make us kinder, and braver. Josephine Butler was no humanist, believing that both the struggle and her strength to pursue it came from God, and in her honour I will, just this once, conclude with a prayer:
God of compassion and love,
by whose grace your servant Josephine Butler
followed in the way of your Son
in caring for those in need:
help us like her to work with strength
for the restoration of all to the dignity
and freedom of those created in your image;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Patron Saint of Prostitutes: Josephine Butler and a Victorian Scandal by Helen Mathers was published by The History Press on 11 August, 2014. ISBN: 9780752492094 It is currently available from all UK booksellers and will be published in the USA in November.
A Kindle edition is available from Amazon. Order a Kindle edition
Signed copies are available from the author at:
£11.50 + postage. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve been aware of the Everyday Sexism twitter account for some time, reading with anger and despair the seemingly endless reports of verbal and physical harassment, and of the host of ways in which women and girls are dismissed, disparaged and excluded. I thought things had, maybe, got a bit better during the course of the last forty-five years, since I became a teenager and realised that there were men out there who thought I existed in order to please them, and if I didn’t (either by being insufficiently attractive or by spurning their advances) then rather than being ignored I could expect to be insulted and threatened. It appears that little has actually changed.
I’m middle-aged now, past the age of invisibility, and so I don’t get catcalls any more – apart from the odd occasion when someone approaches in a vehicle from behind, and only realises as they draw level with me that they’ve just catcalled someone older than their mum… I do get shouted at sometimes when I’m out running, by people who think it’s hilarious to point out that I’m fat. I have been tempted to respond that whilst I know I’m fat, I’m clearly attempting to do something about it, and ask what they’re doing to address their own evident stupidity, but it’s early in the morning, no one else is around and I feel vulnerable. These things are idiotic, laughable, rather than hugely intimidating, but they anger me still. What makes someone think that because I am female and in a public place that they have the right to insult me, or to intrude on my thoughts?
I have never been the victim of violence of any kind, domestic, sexual or whatever. And yet I have to qualify that, because by the legal definition of sexual assault, of course I have. According to the law (not according to some deranged feminazi), sexual assault occurs when person A
- intentionally touches another person (B),
- the touching is sexual,
- B does not consent to the touching, and
- A does not reasonably believe that B consents.
I’d guess that any girl or woman who has ever been in a crowded pub or club could tick all of those boxes.
I can’t say I’ve been traumatised by my own experiences – I’ve been bloody annoyed by them, however, and at times unnerved and frightened. Even when there’s no physical contact, being shouted at in the street or from a passing car at the very least disturbs, as it’s meant to, and makes you feel more exposed and vulnerable. Cumulatively, these ‘minor’ incidents add to all the other ways in which we (women/girls) are told that our choices are irrelevant, that our bodies are not our own, and that our negative reactions to those messages are inappropriate, humourless, hysterical. And of course, I know plenty of women who’ve been on the receiving end of violence, and am certain that many more have been, but do not talk about it. If we call these experiences ‘everyday’ sexism, we’re not saying that all women experience these things every day, but that all women have experienced these things and, crucially, that they do not regard them as extraordinary.
I’ve never been told that I can’t do the jobs I want to do because I’m a woman. But I have been told that I’m too pushy, too strident, too aggressive. I have had men explain things to me about which I know far more than them, and I’ve spoken up in meetings only to be interrupted, or to have my contribution dismissed or totally ignored, and I’ve seen these things happening to other women in the workplace too. And, on the whole, I’d say I’ve had it pretty good. But many years working as a harassment officer, and as a manager with a predominantly female team of staff, have shown me what lots of women encounter. I’ve had to call men out on the toxic use of ‘banter’ to undermine women’s professional standing and their confidence, or the use of status to bully and demean women, or to pressurise women for sexual favours.
The nature of workplace harassment is that it often involves incidents which in isolation would seem minor and trivial, but which cumulatively have a serious effect on the recipient – this is recognised in harassment policies. The same is true in other contexts. The effect of once having someone shout at you in the street about what they want to do to you might be insignificant (assuming all they did was to shout) – the effect of this happening over and over again is to make you feel constantly insecure. When I was a young teenager, I remember initially feeling quite good about getting appreciative looks. Until I realised that the corollary of the appreciative look is that the looker may well feel that they have the right to do more than look – to comment (favourably or otherwise), to proposition, to touch, to grab, to threaten with rape. Within a very short period of time, the potential for receiving even the look as a compliment was massively diminished as I learned to quickly assess my safety, look for escape routes or potentially sympathetic bystanders.
None of that means that I want to ban men from looking at women. Any sensible and sensitive man, however, knows the difference between a look and a stare, between a look that encompasses a person and one that is riveted to a chest. Similarly with compliments – there are ways of saying you like the way someone looks that are OK. But sensible and sensitive men bear in mind that they have not been asked for their feedback, and that they have no automatic right to give it. They will realise that having given it, they do not then have the automatic right to follow it up and insist on a conversation that the woman may not wish to have, and they will be tuning into the woman’s response, to ensure they don’t intrude or offend. They not only won’t ignore a clear and unequivocal ‘no, I’m not interested’, they won’t pursue it unless the woman does give a clear and unequivocal signal that she wants to talk to them, and will accept it without argument and walk away if she changes her mind. And they will know that the fact that they have noticed a woman does not entitle them to tell her what is wrong with her body, her face or the way she is dressed. It’s really not that tough to get it right. Most men know this, and also recognise how daily interactions between men and women are messed up by the dickheads who don’t get any of this, and/or don’t care.
Whilst I’ve been writing this, two notable things have been happening. First of all, the #NotAllMen trope has been everywhere, initially as the all-too predictable response from so many male readers to women’s accounts of their own experiences, and then as the ironic riposte to that response, showing how it – intentionally or otherwise – derails and interrupts, making yet another conversation about men rather than about women. And the #YesAllWomen hashtag asserts that the more important fact is not that ‘not all men…’ but that ALL women experience everyday sexism, and ALL women are influenced as they go about their daily lives by the knowledge that SOME men represent a threat.
The other major development, of course, has been the Isla Vista shootings and the misogynistic (and racist) manifesto published by the killer. I don’t intend to weigh in with more analysis of this. I’m not qualified to diagnose his mental state from what I’ve read. I know that more of his victims were male than female, that some were stabbed rather than shot, which seems to complicate the simple narratives that emerged initially. But there’s no doubt that (a) his manifesto is overwhelmingly driven by a hatred of women – his hatred of men is linked to it, he wants revenge on men who have had more ‘success’ than he has with women, that (b) he was looking for women to attack and (c) three of his victims might be alive if he hadn’t been able to supply himself with guns and ammunition. It’s also clear that those who are trying to make him a hero, a ‘legend’, see him as someone fighting back against the bitches, the monstrous regiment of women. Sarah Ditum’s blog puts this well:
I know completely that not all misogynists are spree killers. It is self-evident that misogyny is a necessary but not sufficient condition for cases like this to occur, and that sufficiency must include the availability of weapons (a hammer will do) and the existence of particular psychological states. This is obvious. In fact, it is so obvious that I wonder why anyone would think it in any way complicates our understanding of Rodger’s motivation, because none of it alters the fact that misogyny exists and causes violence.
Not all misogynists kill. But all misogyny creates the conditions in which women are killed, raped and abused, and in which women fear being killed, raped or abused. This is not complicated. It is simple, it is deadly, and it is the reason feminism is necessary.
Not all dickheads are misogynists, but on the whole, men who like women, like them as people, recognise them as being human in exactly the same way they are, don’t behave like dickheads towards them. The men who represent a threat to us are the ones who don’t like women because they’re women, whether or not they are sexually attracted to them. Those who aren’t interested in women sexually and who don’t like them probably represent less of a threat to us in terms of violence but a considerable threat in terms of institutionalised sexism. Those who desire women sexually but do not recognise them as people are extremely dangerous, as the Isla Vista killings have reminded us (as if we needed it). One has only to read below the line on any article on any remotely feminist topic to be stunned by the venom directed at us, and how it is expressed in such highly sexualised terms.
The internet, which has allowed misogynists to vent their vileness at any woman who speaks out publicly, with anonymity and a potentially vast audience, may seem to be a threat. But it is also enabling us to support each other, to hear others’ voices and experiences, and to spread our challenges to sexist and misogynist views out to that same potentially vast audience. It’s scary to do so – just think of the kind of attacks that were meted out to Caroline Criado Perez who had the temerity to propose that a woman might feature on just one of our bank notes, or those who supported her campaign. But we can use it, and we must. And if the men who might be tempted to jump in with a ‘not all men’ instead focus on challenging the behaviour of those other men, the ones who catcall and grope and harass, the ones who belittle and dismiss and demean, the ones who hate women, then we really could start changing things. If the men who might be tempted to criticise our tactics and our priorities when we decide to speak out, back us up instead, then we really could start changing things.
Drawing attention to everyday sexism is not about embracing victimhood. Quite the reverse. We accept the status of victims when we keep quiet, internalise our fear and distress, blame ourselves for what others do to us – which we do for a host of reasons that are all too easy to understand. When we shout back, when we say out loud and in public, on our own behalf or in defence of others, THIS IS NOT OK, we reject victimhood, we become ourselves and take charge of our lives.
To quote Maya Angelou, who died today after a life of bearing witness and fulfilling her own ambition ‘not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style’,
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
She also said that
You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.
To quote Laura Bates, ‘the thing about sexism is that it is an eminently solvable problem’. The first step, which is the focus of the project, is to force people to recognise that it’s a real problem. That recognition in itself could be a huge cultural shift. And if anyone thinks such huge cultural shifts don’t happen, or take generations, just think of civil partnerships/gay marriage. Ten years ago I would not have believed that such a change could come about in my lifetime, and the amazing thing is not just that these things are now enshrined in law, but that there has been so little fuss, so little outrage, and that most of what fuss and outrage there was has been perceived by most people as, more than anything, daft.
To redirect the flow of a river, you start by moving small stones. That’s what this project is about – small stones such as each individual testimony that appears on the website and on Twitter, each moment when someone challenges sexism in the workplace, the family, on the street.
We’re speaking out, we’re shouting back, we’re reaching out to each other, we’re choosing not to be victims, or bystanders. We’re saying that whilst these examples of sexism are ‘everyday’, they’re not normal, and they’re not OK. Everyday resistance, everyday solidarity.
Laura Bates – Everyday Sexism (Simon & Schuster, 2014)
I’ve been lucky, so far, on the internet. I’ve been the recipient of ridiculous spam, Facebook has insulted me with ads about unsightly belly fat, and I did have one or two spats with a particularly truculent contributor to the comments on the Guardian’s Dr Who blog . But nothing nasty. I use pretty much my real name, and I’ve not consciously steered clear of controversy, but I’m not high profile and I haven’t attracted any vitriol or hate for anything I’ve said. Mostly, I’ve heard from and talked to nice, interesting, funny people, and its been a positive experience. I love the internet, I love the possibilities that blogging, Facebook, Twitter etc offer for communication, for making unexpected connections, for finding stuff out.
But lately some people have had an entirely different experience here. So different that they’ve had to at least temporarily close down and cut off those possibilities, because what they’ve been getting is so unbearably vile, so vicious, so hate-filled. And whilst there have been plenty of people out there to offer solidarity and support, others have been rather quick to suggest that they’ve over-reacted. They’ve mostly avoided the word ‘hysterical’ – always a bit of a give-away – but it’s been there, in the sub-text. How like a woman, to get her knickers in a twist just because someone, or several people, are threatening repeatedly and in very explicit ways to rape and murder her, and sending messages to her parents’ home to show that they do know how to find her if they wanted to carry out those threats. How like a woman, to get upset and angry, and maybe use a bit of bad language when people tell her that her reaction to those threats is all wrong, and all out of proportion.
Some of them are repeating the old advice to not feed the trolls. Now a troll as I’ve understood it, and I have met one or two, is someone who deliberately tries to wind people up, being provocative and inflammatory. They vary from being irritating to being malicious, but by and large, if you ignore them, they go away. Those who have inundated Caroline Criado-Perez and others with threats of horrific, sadistic sexual violence are of a different order. Their message is that women who speak out should shut up, or be made to shut up.
So if we respond by not responding, far from thwarting their mischief-making, we’re doing exactly what they want. We’re shutting up. Retreating.
The recipients of this kind of abuse have no way of knowing whether the threats are real, in the sense that they will be acted on. That uncertainty is part of the intention – to make us think twice about speaking out, to make us look over our shoulders and jump at shadows. To make us afraid.
Those who’ve been in the forefront of the abuse are entitled to take a step back. But their message is clear – we need to shout back, and keep on shouting back. Women, and men who support women, refusing to shut up, refusing to retreat, refusing to make ourselves invisible and inaudible in order to be safe.
So this is me, adding my voice to the shout back.
I’m not on my own.
- Caroline Criado-Perez says culture must change as rape threats continue (theguardian.com)
- Don’t feed the trolls AKA silence yourself. (thenotsoquietfeminist.wordpress.com)
- Caroline Criado-Perez’s speech on cyber-harassment at the Women’s Aid conference (newstatesman.com)