Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Call me by my name

Boris Johnson got into trouble in the House of Commons recently for referring to fellow MP Emily Thornberry by the wrong name. He called her 'Lady Nugee', as her husband is Sir Nugee, so this is a title she could have a right to, if she wanted it.

The story in the House of Commons was over as soon as it began. Johnson was admonished and apologised. And here I am still going on about it.

There were a lot of arguments about it. Some people said it was fine for Johnson to do what he did, because that's her married name, so what's the problem? Others were very angry about it, because that's not the name she uses.

Boris Johnson by johnhemming (Flickr) and Emily Thornberry by Rwendland via Wikimedia Commons.

Why do you get someone's name wrong? You might forget. It could be a simple mistake. We've all done it. Or it could be a sign of disrespect. It suggests you don't consider them important enough for it to matter. Why trouble your busy brain with someone so trivial?

Johnson's slight of Thornberry was rude for these reasons. But referring to a woman by the married name that she hasn't taken is also rude because you're taking their right to choose their name from them, and forcing them into a patriarchal convention that they don't want. It is sexist.

Name changers

I have friends who are kick-ass feminists who have taken their husband's names. There are lots of reasons to do this - tradition, and a sense of being a family together, and others. I have friends who have kept their own name, because that's who they are. I have friends who have double barreled. And I know women who have worked hard and built up a professional reputation with their name so they keep it for professional purposes.

The point, for me, is not whether or not Emily Thingummy chooses to go by her husband's name or not. The point is that you should call someone what they want to be called. It doesn't matter if that's the name on their birth certificate, the name they inherited from their husband, or a name they made up during a drunken weekend in Blackpool with a deed poll form. If they say their name is 'Knickety Split Split' then that's what you should call them.

Women criticising women

Johnson's faux pas drew the usual misogynist tits to social media, going on about crazy over-sensitive feminists, and man-hating. Though how you get from marrying to man-hating in such as easy step, I'm not sure.

I also heard some women defending Johnson (which, incidentally, he's smart enough to do himself).
When I hear women defending this behaviour, because they took their husband's name, so they think everyone should, I think that the problem is with them. It smacks of their own insecurity at the choice they made. It's a free choice, in 21st century Britain. Change your name. Don't change your name. Whatevs.

A married woman who doesn't take her husband's name isn't implicitly criticising married women who do take them. She's making her own choice, and it's really nothing to do with anyone else.

I've heard some women saying "why get married if you're not going to take your husband's name?" I am so utterly staggered by this, that I find it hard to mount a coherent argument. There are a trillions of reasons why one person might marry another. Names are really a very trivial part if marriage.

Just do what you want to do, and let everyone else do likewise.

Danny, which isn't my real name, but it's what I asked you to call me.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Precious moments and FOMO

I’ve turned down lots of invitations. I’ve made lots of apologies. I’m lucky I’m still getting invited.

While most parents get to spend every weekend with their offspring, I only get half. So every minute of my weekends with my child is precious.

This year is a big year for many of my friends – the year many of us turn 40. But I’m repeatedly turning down invitations because they involve daytime activities without children, and I feel that I should be there for my daughter at weekends.

It’s not about getting childcare. She and I have a supportive family with lots of people who help us out and love spending time with her. It’s simply that if I don’t see her at the weekends, and I’m working four days a week, then when will I see her? Whenever she’s away from me at weekends, the next day she looks up at me and asks, heart-meltingingly: “Why don’t we get to see each other much?” 

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had the conversation “Sorry you've got childcare problems.” Sometimes I bother to explain that it’s no about finding childcare, it’s about being there for my daughter. Other times I just shrug and say “maybe next time.”

Fear of missing out

I’ve been conscious of the preciousness of these days throughout my daughter’s four years of life. As a single parent, there have been lots of occasions I missed out on. But while a few years ago the FOMO would have got the better of me, I’ve tried to look at what I have. It’s a kind of growing up – learning to appreciate the good things in my life and accept that I have to make sacrifices to have them. Mostly I’m OK with that. 

Photo by George via Flickr Creative Commons

For every missed party has been a bevy of beautiful moments – cuddles, tickles, milestones, the funny, profound and downright crazy things she says to me. Family life simply means you can’t do everything anymore. That’s not just something for single mums, that’s all of us. To be apart from her, by choice, on some of the few days we have together feels wrong.

I struggle to work out if I’m doing the right thing. Is this what a good mother does, or am I being a sap? Am I letting down my friends (who will only turn 40 once) and being overprotective? Am I allowing myself to be manipulated by a four-year-old?

Please just keep on inviting me. I'll come when I can. 

Thursday, 25 January 2018

A tide is turning

Every other day it seems some new scandal of sexual harassment comes out. It’s interesting. Or tiring. Or dull. Or scary. It depends on your perspective.

Most people agree that the serious sexual offenders who have used women’s sexuality against them, manipulated them, blackmailed them with jobs for favours, should be discredited. They shouldn’t get away with it (although it disconcerts me that people are being sentenced without a trial).

Then there’s #MeToo – with women across the world using social media to demonstrate the prevalence of sexual harassment. Some call it standing up for ourselves, others call it whingeing.

A lot of men, and maybe some women are confused by this. I can see why. Do men feel that women are looking for any excuse to take them down? Is this a chance to get at men? Are we blowing things out of proportion? 

Maybe there will be the odd false accusation – isn’t there with everything? But I think the truth of it is that there is and always has been a horrible culture of treating women and their bodies as objects. It’s something that every woman experiences to a greater or lesser extent. And now we are at one of those rare moments in history where we rise up and shout that it’s not fair, that it shouldn’t be like this.

I once knew someone who admitted to occasionally copping a feel in the odd nightclub crowd. And then someone else did it to his girlfriend. That put a different perspective on it, and he stopped. The problem? He hadn’t thought it through. It simply hadn’t occurred to him how his actions affected the person, and how he would feel if someone did the same to the women he was close to.

Legs by dsasso, via Flickr Creative Commons

Having your bum pinched isn’t as significant as other forms of sexual assault. It’s a long way from rape. I mean, it’s really not that bad. You feel a sense of indignation for about ten minutes and then you move on, because you don’t know who it was and your bum has basically recovered from the affront. Where it’s scary is not in the action itself, but when it’s used as manipulation, to imply that you’re getting a job because you’re pretty, or worse, that more is expected of you. Or a dress code that says you have to wear black underwear and stilettos to do this job. It’s a sign of a culture where men see women as objects for their delight and delectation, not as people like them.

If people feel confused and threatened by the turning tide, is it that they don’t understand how widespread and unpleasant sexual harassment is? Do they understand that their wives and daughters have experienced it? Do they think it doesn’t matter?

I'm delighted that there is now a chance my daughter could grow up in a culture in which no one thinks it’s their right to touch her body without her consent, to see her as an object. I want what she does with her body to be her decision, not somebody else’s right.

But this is a dramatic culture change in the way that women are perceived, both by ourselves and each other. It was never going to be an easy transition. Maybe the current vogue for harassment stories will be just a tiny chip in the iceberg of inequality. But, just maybe, it is helping us get to a place of greater freedom and respect for ourselves and our bodies.