Sunday, 18 June 2017

Fear and feminism

I haven't been writing. Have you noticed?

My proverbial pen has been paralysed by fear. And feminism seemed about as much of a defence against it as it does against the spider in the bathroom. I'm a strong independent woman, but you're still massive and hairy and moving very fast in my direction and I don't know what the fuck I'm going to do about that.

So there didn't seem much point in writing about feminism. When people are dying, and running for their lives, and being maimed, and losing everything they have. Why talk about feminism? Why talk about anything, really, except how to save ourselves and stop it happening quite so much.

A year of tragedies

Lately I've felt weighed down by all the bad things that are happening around us,

A year ago today a hardworking MP, Jo Cox, was stabbed and left bleeding to death on the street. She left behind a husband and young children.

There are terrorist attacks in London and Manchester. People target concerts that eight-year-old girls go to see. My girl will be doing that in a few years. And I am scared. People I know have been just metres from bombs going off in European cities. I am worrying about my loved ones.

Feminism, and what it stands for, is one of the many mixed up things that our current crop of terrorists are upset about. Women being free to wander about freely with their faces uncovered and arms on show having jobs and driving and generally having their own business to go about. Democracy. Liberalism. The possibility of actually being happy. All bad things, apparently.

I sent my boyfriend across the world on a business trip with warnings to be careful, but it soon became clear that we were the ones who had to be careful. Our country is becoming one of those places that foreign governments and news outlets label as 'too dangerous' to visit. People are not sure they should come.

I grew up in London in the 1980s. Terrorist attacks were a fact of life, but no less terrifying. And now they're here again. This time with no warnings, and with everyday vehicles turned into dangerous weapons.

Then this week another tragedy, nothing to do with terrorism. Awful stories. It seems so disjointed that amid all these terrorism attacks another unrelated tragedy should occur. We were expecting people to try and blow us up, drive into us, not for something to just catch fire. I'm turning off the radio and looking away from the television news, but painfully tragic stories seep through in social media. I'm haunted by the small boy who lost hold of his mum's hand escaping from the tower block. She lived and he died and what parent doesn't feel for that poor woman who will never stop wondering what she should have done differently. It could have been any of us.

A sinking ship

And it's not just the tragedies. There's politics too.

A year ago we voted to leave Europe, pull up the drawbridge and fortify our little island against foreigners. We'll no longer be European citizens, but little Englanders. And we'll probably sink as a result. We're already too dangerous for people to visit. Will we become poor too?

With our legacy of the British Empire, the island that ruled the rest of the world, we forget that we are really very small now - just a little speck of dust in Donald Trump's eye. We may have an indomitable British spirit, but we are eminently squashable.

Working together with our neighbours, we can bring businesses and skills to the table. But out on our own we really are just a bunch of insurance salesmen and drug pushers (our biggest exports).

We had an election which seemed it would be a foregone conclusion to the Tories, who are steadily dismantling the National Health Service. A week is a long time in politics. In a week there was a sea-change. The left pulled their finger out and hey presto, a hung parliament. But the delight was short-lived, to get a majority the Tories teamed up with some ultra right wingers, anti-abortionists etc. Can this end well?

Exploiting a tragedy

I resent that the media and social media seems to want to use the Grenfell Tower tragedy as a chance to have a pop at our Prime Minister, Teresa May. I'm no fan of May, I'd quite like her gone. But not because she's rubbish at hugging people.

Jeremy Corbyn met the victims and the Queen did, but May didn't. Corbyn is brilliant at empathising with people. He throws his big, cuddly arms around them, he listens to what they say and knows what to say back. And the Queen is our figurehead. It's her job to visit her subjects when they're in trouble.

May's job is different. She's clearly no good at this public compassion stuff. But I don't care that May's not cuddly. I'd far rather my Prime Minister locked herself in a room with some clever people and worked out what to do about this disaster and how to prevent it from happening again, It comes on the heels of a lot of other things, but it leaves a nasty taste to use the tragedy in this manner.

And now

We're in the midst of a lot of sadness, and there's no knowing if or when it will end. This is not new. Things like these happened every day, all over the world, but it's close now.

Stay safe, tell your loved ones you love them, hug your children and enjoy the flowers.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Guilty mums and memes

There's an epidemic of guilt among mothers, and it's spreading. By sharing ideas we misguidedly think are inspiring, we're just making each other feel crap. Stop this right now, people. 

Where the sisterhood should be about support and compassion, all too often we're telling other mothers about our choices, in misguided attempts to help them do the right thing. But really, we're not helping them do the right thing, because they either had the same choice as us and deliberately chose a different route, or their life is different ours and they couldn't choose what we did. 

And the form this unhelpful advice so often takes? Memes. Soppy looking pictures with badly chosen fonts overlaid, employing questionable grammar to express patronising sentiment. Here's one that makes me want to vomit up my Pinot after a hard evening's mothering.

It's typical. On top of the usual responsibilities to feed, clothe, educate and keep our children safe, we're supposed to infuse their every moment with joy. Screw that.

Here's another delight for you. It made me so angry I almost missed the absent apostrophe in the first line. AND THAT'S PRETTY ANGRY. But that's typical, You can't even write a fucking sentence and you're trying to tell me how to bring up my child. I can't even write about this without including an expletive in every sentence. I'm sorry about that, I really am, but they make my blood boil. My child may have a leaky self-esteem bucket, but at least she will be able to take pride in her excellent grammar.

Rules from the other mothers

Here are the messages (paraphrased) that I've have come across, usually on Facebook via other mothers:
  • Co-sleeping makes children cleverer
  • Breastfeeding makes them stronger
  • Nursery makes them more immune to illness in later life
  • Nursery makes them grow up too fast
  • Things you’re supposed to tell your child to build their self esteem
  • Be there for your child when they’re small
  • Be a good role model – go out to work
  • Don’t rush your child – enjoy every moment with them
All of these things can be wonderful. But you can’t do everything. Some of them contradict each other. I get a better night’s sleep if I don’t share a bed with my daughter, and I’m definitely a better mum when I’m firing on all cylinders from a decent night’s sleep. My daughter wasn’t able to breastfeed. We tried, really hard. I was sad about it. I got over it. I wish the internet would.

The perfect way to bring up a child

Sometimes you have to hurry your toddler, because otherwise you'll be late for work and will lose your job and won't be able to pay the bills and buy food. Life isn't an unadulterated explosion of joy. They should probably learn that from an early age.

There’s one meme on the internet that I didn't scream at. It says the important thing is not how you feed you kids and where they sleep, but that you do feed them, and they have somewhere safe to sleep. I mean, I still hate it, because it's a fucking meme. I'm not going soft. See how they make me swear? Those things are evil. 

Because surely the point is to do our best. Even those of us that think we’re the best mums in the world will have days when we’re rubbish. And even those who think we’re the worst mums will have moments when we think, ‘yeah, I’m great at this.’ There is no perfect way to bring up a child, just many, many imperfect ways.

Most of the mums I know love their children to distraction, and would do anything for them. But won’t hesitate to admit that looking after them is hard work and half the time they just want to get through the day, put the kids to bed, check Facebook and have a glass of wine.

My advice: think before you share. Reach for the wine, not the mouse. 

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Leaving women out of history (or Wikipedia)

It's not new to say that women have been left out of history. We were often too busy holding the baby to go out and do any top-class conquering, so our fathers, husbands, sons and brothers got all the glory while we had to made do with bringing up the next generation of conquerors, or whatever.

It has been noticed that the very word 'history' is about men - it's 'his story' not her story.

Women are also being left out of Wikipedia. In December last year the world's largest encyclopedia reported that just 17% of its biographies were of women. It shows how important our half of the population is considered to be.

Part of the problem is simply that far fewer women than men have left traces in the history books. But Wikipedia isn't just about history - a lot of its biographies are of living people

A US Soldier is decorated for his service, accompanied by his wife.
Photo by Herald Post via Flickr Creative Commons. 

I'm going to massively over-simplify and say that there are two main reasons why women are underrepresented in Wikipedia

  1. Women are underrepresented in the history books. History remembers the man who fought in battle, not the woman who stayed at home bringing up his children.
  2. Most of the Wikipedia's editors are men (90% according to a 2011 survey), and we are naturally drawn towards writing about our own kind, men write about other men, and women get left out.
Wikipedia is massively influential. It can at times be inaccurate, and students are constantly told to be wary of its claims, and check their facts. But surely it must almost always be the first port of call of anyone trying to find out anything, from who discovered to DNA to how you make yoghurt.

Why are most of Wikipedia's editors men?

Anyone can edit Wikipedia - I have done. Sue Gardner - Journalist and former Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director - explained on her blog why women don't edit Wikipedia. Reasons include:
  • They don't like the unfriendly interface
  • They have less free time than men
  • They lack confidence in their own knowledge
  • They think it will bring them into situations of conflict which they don't like
  • The information women add to Wikipedia is more likely to be edited or deleted
  • They prefer volunteering on more social websites, with more opportunity for interaction
You can find a much better explanation of these, and the other reasons in Nine Reasons Why Women Don't Edit Wikipedia (in their own words).

The suggestion about lacking confidence is telling. It's a big deal to make a contribution to an encyclopedia. I mean, it's easy - anyone can make an edit in 30 seconds. But you have to be confident in your knowledge and believe that you are equipped to make a meaningful contribution, to tell the world something it doesn't already know. And my experience of women (myself included) is that we generally have less confidence in our abilities than men do. It's the 'if I know it, then probably everyone else does too' view.

What is the answer to the Wikipedia question?

Women aren't contributing to Wikipedia, and so they're not appearing in it. Wikipedia could make their interface more friendly (although the point of a wiki is that it's just nuts-and-bolts). Maybe they could try harder to make women feel welcome, actively recruit us, and show that they value our contribution. But they can't give women more free time, or self-confidence.

Sometimes there isn't an answer. But that doesn't mean we should stop asking the question.