Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Are we wasting our time with feminism?

Am I wasting my energy by banging on about feminism?

From trying to ban the boobs on page 3 of the Sun to putting a woman on British banknotes, there are more feminist causes and campaigns than you can shake a phallus at. But are we barking up the wrong tree?


Women in the west

There is an argument that feminism has done a lot of its work. Women are doing pretty well (in the west), so we should focus our energies on other issues and inequalities.

And it's true that in a lot of ways things aren't really that bad - women in the UK are entitled to free education, to maternity leave, we can drive cars, have our own bank accounts and own our own homes.

Women in the UK have more or less equal rights with men, even if we don't quite have equal opportunities, but that doesn't mean that the work of feminism is done. Sexism is still rife. A CMI White Paper on Women in Leadership this year found:

  • Women earn on average £423,000 less than men in similar careers during their lifetimes
  • 47% of the workforce is female, but only 32% of managers, directors and senior officials are women
  • Only 15.6 of directorships are occupied by women on the FTSE 100
  • Women receive less than half the bonuses than their male counterparts (£7,496 compared to £3,726)

Choosing a cause

There may still be work to be done before we have complete equality, even in the UK. But could our efforts be put to better use elsewhere? Should we put the feminist agenda to one side and be championing human rights or the eradication of poverty instead?

If you follow the logic that there are more important things to support, putting issues in a hierarchy, then we'd end up only ever championing a single cause - the one at the top of the hierarchy.

We'd have to decide a single topic that is most important and pledge our support only for that. Would you choose cancer or world poverty?

More than just helping women

Of course, feminism is intimately connected to a lot of the most important causes - to name but three:
  • Education - girls are more likely than boys to be denied this
  • Violence and abuse - women are more vulnerable to this
  • Poverty - childcare means this often has a bigger impact on women than men
Pursuing feminist aims can have huge benefits - for example, educating women and improving their employment opportunities can help lift both them and their families out of poverty. This means that feminism does much more than helping women - it can positively benefit everyone, including men. 

Women may be doing OK, but we still need to pursue a feminist agenda, because it's only fair that women and men have equal rights and opportunities, but also because by providing these things we can improve life for women, men and children in so many other ways.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Labour like a feminist

I’ve been reading about ideas of ‘feminist childbirth’ in Al Jazeera. It seems that the choices we make about how to give birth are becoming a feminist issue.

There is a bit of competition mentality, which I was warned about in my antenatal class, where no pain relief is seen as good, something to boast about. I really don’t see why. Pregnancy and labour are really difficult. Why turn down something that helps?

I don't really see why fear of the pain of childbirth makes me any less a feminist.

Planning birth

My basic birth plan is to get myself and my baby through the whole thing with the minimum amount of stress and pain to either of us.

I’ve wondered if somehow I don’t really ‘get it’. Some people say that giving birth is an amazing and beautiful experience, even that they enjoyed it. I am sceptical about this. Pushing another human being out of my body sounds difficult, painful and messy.

I am of the ‘knock me over the head and wake me up when it’s all over’ school of thought. I’m very much looking forward to meeting my daughter in the next few days, but really wish I didn’t have to go through labour first. I would quite happily go to sleep and wake up several pounds lighter, when someone hands me my child. I don’t need to know how it happened.

The whole labour thing sounds quite terrifying, so I want to be in a place where they can give me good pain relief if I need it, and where, should something go wrong, there is the best chance that it can be fixed. So it’s hospital for me.

Choice

A feminist aspect to this is that we now have options. Women who want to stay at home where they feel most comfortable and avoid drugs are, where possible, supported to do it, and that’s brilliant.

For those of us who are absolutely bloody terrified – just because I wanted to have a family, doesn’t mean I want to push seven pounds of human being out of my chuff – there are epidurals and reassuring professionals in white coats.

Another choice which is becoming increasingly popular is a twist on the home birth – freebirthing, or unassisted childbirth, when women give birth with no medical assistance. No hospital, no midwife, no gas and air, nothing. Just them and a few towels.

Independent midwives are being banned in the UK, because they can no longer be insured. This means that women who want a homebirth might not get a midwife. They will be asked to go into hospital, but if they really want to have their baby at home, they may choose to go it alone. Freebirthing could become very common.

Controlling our own bodies

Pregnancy and the need to care for our offspring makes us weaker and more dependent. It’s a big part of why we ended up in a patriarchal society in the first place.

A cornerstone of feminism is having control over our own bodies. It’s difficult to talk about equality when it comes to childbirth, as men don’t do it. But empowering women to have control over where and how they give birth is undoubtedly a step forwards.

For centuries childbirth was an extremely dangerous part of women’s lives, over which they had little control. The lack of contraception or of ownership over their own bodies meant that women were items of property to be married off and impregnated, often with little choice in the matter. Women and babies frequently died.

Thanks to contraception and emancipation we can take control, choosing when and if we want to have children. Good medical care means that childbirth in the West is pretty safe.

I find the idea of freebirthing bizarre. It feels like a step backwards, taking away the safety net (although of course there is still the option of hospital if something goes wrong). But each to their own.

Whether you’re a freebirther who wants to treasure every moments of your child’s entry into the world or, like me, you’d quite like it if they’d wake you up when it’s over, what matters is that we have choices about what happens to us, can take control over our own bodies, and don’t see our differing attitudes to childbirth as making us better or worse at the business of being women.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Are women the biggest barriers to the feminist cause?

I bet this little minx is great at picking out curtains
We women tend to judge ourselves and each other more harshly than any men do, I think.

Sneering judgements about the way we dress (or don’t) are much more likely to come from female mouths than male ones. 

Take the picture of this lady, right, which fetched up on the internet. So she's pretty, nicely-dressed, has really good hair and can cook. I'm still looking for something to criticise in her. Maybe she's stupid, or really bad at relationships or something.

We expect ourselves and each other to excel at work, be adept at household management and buying and wearing clothes. We're supposed to be able to walk in high heels, be good at interior design, and understand the off-side rule (I've failed at all three of these).

A man who can’t cook is simply that, whereas a woman who can’t cook is an oddity, and someone who really needs to learn.

Amazing women

The world is full of amazing women doing amazing things, proving they’re as good as men.

High-achieving women who are also mothers can be the most praised and the most criticised, in a way that high-flying fathers are not. We wonder how female cabinet ministers with small children will balance the demands of their public role with childrearing. It doesn't occur to us to ask the same questions of their male counterparts. 

And, in my opinion, it's more likely to be women asking these questions than men.

But why are we so hard on ourselves and our sisters? I think there’s something in the idea that we think men are fundamentally a bit stupid, so we don’t expect as much from them – whereas we expect more from women. We expect the world from ourselves and each other. 

Motherhood

I’m not a parent quite yet, but I always worried that if I decided to have children the experience would turn me into a different person – one that I didn’t and don’t want to be.

I suppose the thing with having children is that it does kind of ‘chain’ you to traditionally feminine activities – feeding, nurturing, caring. As well as all the other stuff we can already do, we have to learn to be really good at all this if we are not to judge ourselves as failures at the tricky business of being women. 

I’m sure motherhood it will change me in lots of ways. But I don’t think it will stop me being who I am. I hope not – I signed up to have a child, not a personality transplant. The chances of me turning into some kind of earth-mother figure in the next few months are, I hope, slim to non-existent.

Doubtless, this will be me in a few
months (except for the blond hair).

Juggling work and parenting

There is so much potential for women to judge themselves and each other when it comes to deciding whether to go back to work, how many hours to do and what childcare to provide for their offspring.

I know people who went back to work full time within a few weeks of having a child, and I know people who didn’t go back to work at all after having a child.

There are loads of reasons why women make these choices – for money, because they’ve always wanted to, the particular needs of their child, the availability of childcare, and what their employer will or won’t let them do.

I’m trying to remain open minded about what I will so, but other women keep asking me – citing their own choices. Hopefully whatever they did was the best thing to do – for them. Equally, I hope that whatever I choose to do will be what’s best for me and my child. But what’s best for them won’t necessarily be what’s best for us.

Giving ourselves and each other a break

I think one of the reasons we're so critical of other women is self-doubt. We secretly believe our dress sense, intellect, career progression, fashion senses and domestic skills aren't as good as they should be. Singling out other women who are worse-dressed or more domestically impaired than we are, makes us feel better about ourselves.

But really, it would be nicer if we could be happy about what we are good at. We don't all have to be master bakers - there are far too many of them in the world, trying to fatten us up so they will look better in comparison. 

We should be able to enjoy the fact that we have so many opportunities that the women before us didn't have. We can be mothers, and have fun and have good jobs, if we want. But we don't have to do all those things, or be the best at everything.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Owning and belonging

When I got married a few years ago, I was adamant that I didn’t want to be ‘given away’. I was very happy to walk up the aisle with my dad, but was clear that I shouldn't be given from one man to another, because I didn’t belong to anyone. And no one should be owned by anyone else.

A sense of belonging

I’ve been thinking about this idea about belonging recently. Because now I miss it very much (read my story if you want to know why). It makes me realise how important it is that we tread a strange tightrope of freedom and containment. We want to be free to make our own choices and live our own lives, but we also want the sense of security and love that comes from belonging to someone.

Losing that sense of belonging is terrifying. I'd always insisted that I was more than just 'X's girlfriend/wife', and I hate the phrase 'my other half' because it suggests that you are in some way not whole. But suddenly not being that person left me questioning who I really was.

If you've belonged to someone for half your life, and they've belonged to you, it's hard to know where one of you ends and the other begins. Had I been lying to myself all that time, and pretending that I wasn't defined by my relationship, when maybe that was who I was? If so, then now, without it, I'm really just a bit of a person.

Feminism and belonging

I can't very well call myself a feminist if my entire sense of identity is bound up in the man/men in my life.

But ownership and belonging are two very different things. In some cultures, where women are treated like property, a man might be considered to own a wife, even to purchase one. In liberal western countries we don’t own each other, but we do belong.

What this means, is that the desire to belong to someone doesn't have to be anti-feminist, and wanting to be part of something doesn't have to diminish your identity.

The more people we belong to, the luckier we are, I think. As well as someone’s partner, we can be someone’s daughter, granddaughter, aunt, sister and niece. So much of who we are is bound up in our relation to other people, but that doesn't mean that we ourselves are any less complete.

Addressing the family

When considering motherhood in the past, I wondered why it would be necessary for my child to address me as ‘mum’ ‘or ‘mummy’. I’ve heard of people bringing their children up to call them by their first names, and in a way it makes sense to me. I don’t really like the word ‘mummy’.

Surely a child will know who his or her mother is - the person who is always there for them, who gets them up in the morning and loves and cares for them. Why do they need a special name for them? 

In deciding what my soon-to-be-born-child should call my parents, it occurred to me that when she is around, I will need to address them as her grandparents, whereas when I am alone with them, or addressing them directly, I will continue to refer to them as ‘mum and dad’. Won’t she find this confusing, I thought? If we all just called each other by our names, it would be a lot simpler.

I have decided not to go down this unorthodox route (my family situation is now quite confusing enough), but it was interesting to consider. As far as I'm aware, in most cultures children address their parents by special names. And I think that the reason for this is the strong feeling of belonging it fosters.

New belongings

When my daughter is born, she will belong to me. I will do everything for her, and it is most likely that she will become the centre of my world. But I won't own her.

As I see it, my job is to bring her into the world, and introduce her to it, bit by bit, until she's ready to face it on her own. And even then, I'll always be her mother. Hopefully she'll always feel a sense of belonging with me, and that when it all goes wrong, she can come back to me, as I've come back to mine.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Surrogacy - feminism or exploitation?

Would you carry someone else's child in your womb for nine months, go through labour and delivery, and then expect to never see the child again?

Surrogacy is when a woman carries a baby for a couple who cannot conceive or carry a child themselves. It means placing a fertilised embryo from a couple in the womb of another woman. When the child is born, the couple collect it and are its parents.

I've been watching House of Surrogates, a documentary about the practice of surrogacy in India, which is flourishing, mainly because:
  • It is legal to pay a surrogate (this is illegal in the UK)
  • It is cheaper than other places where it is legal to pay (i.e. the US)
  • The surrogate has no rights over the child


Baby farm

The documentary focussed on a clinic run by the extremely successful Dr Nayna Patel. Couples from around the world (the US, Canada, Japan and Australia) who have been unable to have a child pay the clinic to employ a surrogate for them.

A review in the Telegraph describes Dr  Patel as a cross between 'Cruella de Vil' and an 'ethical entrepreneur', - she is very glamorous and very rich, but clearly believes in her work. To her, she is providing couples who can't have children with the child they so desperately want, and the women who act as surrogates with a way to support their families. She describes herself as a feminist.

The women in House of Surrogates live in a house together from the time the embryo is implanted until they are eight months pregnant, when they transfer to the clinic. They see their families only at weekends, when visiting is permitted.

They have little to do in the house, spending most of their time lying about, being very bored and eating - a disturbingly cattle-like process of fattening up, although they are encouraged to learn new skills, to help them earn a living when they leave.

The surrogates receive constant medical care and monitoring, and are told at the beginning, that even if they develop a cold they will immediately be given medication. Interestingly, in the UK the one time you don't take any medication for a cold is during pregnancy, whereas in the surrogate house they seemed to be chucking pills down them like anything.

The babies the surrogates carry have no genetic link to them, but the bonding that goes on is, I'm sure, no different. It was noticeable that the surrogates interviewed all referred to the babies they were carrying as 'my baby'. There was a sad scene in which a surrogate who also nursed 'her baby' for four months finally had to part with him.

Sister helping sister or the West exploiting the East? 

Is surrogacy one woman helping another to make her dream of a family come true? Or in this case, is it wealthy Westerners exploiting poor, desperate women on the other side of the world?

To see it as rich Western women exploiting their poorer sisters is to ignore the depth of heartache that many couples go through who aren't able to have children. The couples interviewed talked of journeys of at least 10 years, peppered with miscarriages.Who can blame them for trying everything in their power to build the family they always dreamed of, and just assumed that they would have?

Surrogacy does happen in the UK. The main difference is that it is illegal to pay a surrogate here, so they do it because they want to help, receiving only expenses.

In India, where surrogates are paid, the parents-to-be will interview the surrogate. There was a cringeworthy scene in which a Canadian woman interviewed her prospective surrogate, sizing her up to decide whether she would be "good and solid enough to handle".

In the UK, where surrogates are doing it to help, it's the other way around, with the surrogate looking for a couple she 'clicks with' (Surrogacy UK).

What comes through loud and clear is that the Indian surrogates do it to make better lives for their own families. One woman lives in a single room with six other members of her family. The surrogacy payments are helping them to build a bigger house. Another said she'd always wanted to do more with her life, but without an education, had failed. She hoped the surrogacy money would let her give her daughter the kind of life she'd wanted to have. Another used the money to send her children to English speaking schools, to improve their prospects in life.

Dr Patel may find helping western families rewarding, and suggests that the surrogates also feel this, but they made no mention of this - wholly focussing on the rewards it would bring for their own families. This makes me think that, for them, surrogacy isn't about women helping women, but another chapter in the struggle for survival amongst some of the world's poorest women.

Why be a surrogate? 

Personally I find surrogacy bizarre, and I suspect I'm not alone in this. For me, the fact that I would have to go through pregnancy was a serious reason not to have children. Writing this from the 37th week of pregnancy, I can say that I thought incubating a child in my body would be difficult - it has been eight-and-a-half months of hell, although not entirely for physical reasons.

But at least I know, when all this is over, I will have a daughter to show for it. Why you would go through these difficulties of pregnancy, without the prospect of a child at the end, seems very odd to me. I'm all for helping people, but this does seem the most extreme form of philanthropy. The only people who I can understand doing it are those who are desperate, like the women in House of Surrogates.

Desperate women have always gone out on the streets to sell their bodies through prostitution, and in a sense these women are doing the same - selling their bodies to help themselves and their families survive, albeit it in a medicalised context.

I don't think we should blame them for doing this, nor should we blame the childless couples who see this as their last chance at happiness. But while unpaid surrogacy seems just strange, paying women for it feels deeply unethical, exploiting the desperation of both the surrogates and the intended parents, to fund a massive money-making industry that farms infants from women's bodies like cattle.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Editing women out

There's been a bit of an uproar in feminist-writerland this week, after the author and lecturer David Gilmour (not the one from Pink Floyd) said he didn't want to teach books by women writers.

The Canadian novelist, who teaches modern short fiction at the University of Toronto, told online magazine Hazlitt: "I’m not interested in teaching books by women." He suggests his students "go down the hall" to learn about women writers from someone else - presumably a woman.

Leaving women out of modern fiction

Modern fiction, in academic terms, extends from about 1900 to today. There are a lot of women writers during that period. Bloody loads. The only reason I haven't started listing them is that I wouldn't know where to begin, or to stop.

There might be an argument for leaving women writers out of courses on 17th and 18th century writing. But leaving women writers out of a course on modern fiction is ridiculous.

Gilmour does concede there is one female writer worth her salt. He says: "Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer." How very open minded of him.

Missing the point

You can read the original David Gilmour interview here. After the furore it provoked, he decided to do a follow-up, defending his position: 'There isn't a racist or a sexist bone in my body'.

The sad thing is, the second interview didn't really help. In fact, it showed just how much he misses the point.

Gilmour sees literature written by women as a niche area, separate from everything else. He siphons off 'women writers' as a particular area of expertise that other people have, in the same way that university lecturers tend to specialise in a particular area - 19th century, 18th century etc. The thing is, women are half the population, we're not a niche interest - we're 50% of humanity.

Women are all over the place, you can't go to the library or buy a cappuccino without tripping over some of us. And women writers have long been an integral part of our literary tradition - from Jane Austen to Hilary Mantel.

Siphoning off 'women writers' as a separate and niche area of study suggests that women are a particular acquired taste, like crime fiction for instance. It also implies that female writers are not 'up there' with the greats, whom Gilmour lists as Tolstoy, Proust and Chekhov.

It would be odd to study Pride and Prejudice and Wolf Hall on the same course. Both books are written by women, but that is pretty much where the similarities end. It is unreasonable to group them into a special category of books by and for girls, but that is what Gilmour does.

"I'm not sexist"

My favourite part of the two interviews is when Gilmour says: "anybody who teaches Truman Capote cannot be attacked for being an anti-anything." It's the literary equivalent of saying 'I'm not racist/homophobic because some of my friends are black/gay'.

His dismissal of women writers is reminiscent of the Victorian culture which led some of our greatest (female) writers, the Brontes and George Eliot, to assume male pseudonyms so that their work would be taken seriously. Aren't we a little beyond that now?

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Telling pregnant women what to do

Why do people enjoy telling pregnant women what to do? Does conception immediately render us incompetent to make decisions about our own bodies?

I am around eight months pregnant now, regularly experiencing the joy of yet another unpleasant pregnancy symptom. And it's both interesting and annoying how much other people (men and women) tell pregnant women what we should and shouldn't do with our bodies.

I read this story in the Huffington Post, about a woman who continued strenuous exercise until shortly before the birth of her child, and was widely condemned for it on Facebook.

I have no idea whether it was or wasn't a good idea for her to carry on with her activities - I don't know what her body feels like, nor am I her doctor or midwife, who might understand of how her pregnancy affected her. How is it anyone else's business?

Deciding what you can and can't do in pregnancy

People have very fixed ideas about what constitutes acceptable behaviour during pregnancy. My views on alcohol in pregnancy mean I'm no exception to this. I think I'm learning to live and let live a little.

Pregnant women receive a bewildering range of contradictory advice. But we're not ill and we're not stupid. We need to make up our own minds about what's right for us.

One minute we can't drink alcohol at all, then it's OK to have the odd glass. A couple of years ago stilton was on the banned substances list, but now, apparently, it's fine. What's a girl to do? My friend Rachel Extance wrote a great article on this - 'We need facts not fears'.

My favourite pregnancy dilemma is the sun cream issue. When you're pregnant, your skin is more sensitive and so can burn more easily, therefore you are advised to use lots of sun cream. However, some research which came out this summer suggested that the chemicals in common household products, such as sun cream, are potentially harmful to the unborn child. So maybe pregnant women should just stay out of the sun? Except there's been a rise in rickets in the UK, which is caused by a deficiency in vitamin D, and where do we get our vitamin D from? Yep, sunlight!

Making my own decisions

I have no problem with medical professionals giving advice - that's what they're qualified to do, and hopefully they will take the time to understand the individual situation of the person they are dealing with. But if you're not in my body and you don't know what I'm physically capable of, then it's really none of your business what I do or do not do.

Exercise is an important part of my life, and I'm pretty fit. I stopped running and jumping some time ago, but I'm still lifting light weights in the gym. It wasn't until I was 32 weeks pregnant that I finally gave up my beloved boxercise class.

Before making my decision to continue with boxercise into pregnancy, I consulted my instructor, who has known me for several years, and seen other pregnant women do his class, and I talked to other women in my class, who have been through pregnancy.

We all agreed that I was fine to carry on, as long as I only do the things I'm comfortable with. As my pregnancy progressed I scaled down my activities - I stopped running when it no longer felt comfortable for me. That doesn't mean that someone else who was more pregnant than me should have stopped.

My body tells me pretty clearly what it does and doesn't want me to do at the moment. It was actually pretty happy with the basic punching movements I was doing. (I may be pregnant, but I've still got a mean right hook if you're thinking of messing with me), it was more my endurance that was suffering. It felt like the right time to stop, for lots of reasons. But my friend carried on boxing until just a few days before her baby rocked up, and that was fine too.

Pregnancy is hard work, and it takes its toll on women's bodies. A few months ago I was running, jumping and chucking myself around the gym, while now putting my socks on is a major workout. But it's not for other people to judge what we can do. Let us decide for ourselves.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Using our bodies against us

Back in May I wrote It's All About the Money, on the lack of women on UK banknotes, following the news that Winston Churchill would be deposing Elizabeth Fry - the only woman, on the new £5 notes.

The campaign to reinstate women on our banknotes was led by journalist and feminist Caroline Criado-Perez.

As a result of her campaign she received rape and death threats, via Twitter, and has now shut down her account.

I'm not going to talk about her motivation for doing that - it's not as simple as being chased away, and she explains it herself, here. But I want to talk about the results of the campaign, the nature of the threats and what this means.

The Austen tenner

In July this year the Bank of England announced that the new £10 note would feature Jane Austen.

Since my blog, written in May, provided a random list of five women who might be suitable candidates for the face of the British banknote, and Austen was one of them, I take full credit for this.*

The Bank of England clearly read Rude Nasty Girl and chewed over my suggestions, before remembering that Colin Firth really did look lovely coming out of that lake, all credit to Miss Austen, and so decided to go with her.

Criado-Perez took a more balanced view - she thanked the Bank of England for listening and described the announcement as "a brilliant day for women and a fantastic one for people power".

Is it about feminism?

At its heart, I'm not sure how much Criado-Perez's Twitter harassment is a feminist issue. It's a symptom of intolerance and of the power that the internet provides, giving a public platform to air all kinds of views, no matter how unpleasant.

Feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian had a similar experience when she drew attention to sexism in video games and had to disable comments on YouTube.

It suggests that there are elements of our society who can't accept freedom of thought and views opposed to their own.

You may not agree that Jane Austen is a suitable candidate for a UK banknote, but there are better ways of expressing this than menacing someone who stood up for what they believed.

Sexist threats

However, the nature of the threats Criado-Perez and Sarkeesian received, which covered graphic sexual violence and rape, is a feminist issue because it makes use of her femaleness to harass her.

If you want to attack someone, attack the substance of what they say, not their vagina. You may succeed in as much as you upset and unsettle them, but your argument won't hold a lot of weight.

It's a symptom of a sick and sexist society when a woman who speaks out has the parts of her female body used against her. And it's scary that there are still men in the world who think that this is the best way to 'shut the bitch up' - that she needs shutting up less because she doesn't agree with them than because she's a woman who doesn't agree with them.

It speaks of an innate belief in the superiority of the male body and intellect, and its right to dominate. It's shocking that their are some people - albeit a very small minority - who still retain this belief. Maybe that's something that feminism will never win completely.

* Of course, it's perfectly possible that the Bank of England had planned to do this all along - it seems pretty stupid to me that they would actually bring out an entire new range of banknotes with absolutely no representation of women. Then, in the wake of the shit storm, they brought their announcement forward. But maybe I am giving them more credit than they are due. 

Sunday, 1 September 2013

The fight against pink

By OttawaAC, via Wikimedia Commons
All being well, in a few weeks I will bring a daughter into the world.

In the meantime, as I struggle with working out what I actually need to prepare for her arrival, I am beginning the inevitable battle with the colour pink.

I always knew this would happen, if I had a girl.

Hating pink

For as long as I can remember, I have rebelled against the colour pink. My aunt still reminds me of the time when, as a child, I refused to sleep under a pink blanket.

I can't remember how this started or where it came from, but basically my reasoning was (and is) thus:
  1. You are supposed to like pink because you're a girl. This immediately sets me against it - why should I like anything just because I'm female?
  2. It's a weak, wishy-washy colour that I associate with all the bad supposed traits of femaleness - soft, gentle, sugary loveliness - why must I be these things?

The origins of pink

Where does this insistence in colour coding our children come from? 

Apparently, it hasn't always been so. Victorian infants of either sex were traditionally decked out in white dresses. This 1840 American painting shows a young boy in what we would consider an extremely feminine pink dress. 

Anonymous American School painting (Honolulu Academy of Arts), via Wikimedia Commons
In 1918, America's Ladies' Home Journal decreed: 'the generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.'

And in 1927, Time magazine noted, after Princess Astrid of Belgium disappointingly gave birth to a daughter, that the cradle had been 'optimistically decorated in pink, the colour for boys.'

I'm not sure when the tide turned, but it clearly did, because today it is widely accepted that girls will be dressed in pink, to the point that it is difficult to find any infant-related product that doesn't use pink or blue to denote that it is for a girl or a boy.


Pink power

Over the years I have found the colour pink less offensive. I would even concede that some, dark, bright shades of pink are actually quite nice, although I still wouldn't wear it, on principal (bridesmaiding duties aside). And pink just doesn't suit me.

But this colour looks lovely on quite a lot of people, and liking pink doesn't make you any less of a person, woman or feminist. Nor is sleeping under a pink blanket a victory for the patriarchy.

When my friend bought her first flat, as a young single woman, she took great delight in decking it out in various shades of pink. The walls were pink, the utensils were pink - you get the picture. I mocked her, obviously, but actually what she was doing could be seen as a feminist act - stamping her own, chosen feminine identity onto the home that she'd bought and renovated for herself. If that's not female empowerment, what is?

Why does gender matter?

My problem isn't with the colour pink itself, but the fact that girls, at this or any age, need to be set apart from boys.

I explained recently that I used to think men and women were not so different, but I have now revised this opinion. OK, so we're miles apart. And maybe some of those differences do start to show very early in life. But is that really any reason to treat boys and girls differently, the moment they pop out into the world?

Surely if these gender differences are so strong, then children really don't need our help to display them? And nothing highlights a lack of equality more than telling them how very different they are before they can even talk back.

My daughter will have plenty of time to work out why she's different from the boys, does she really need me to colour code her? If she wants to play with trains, kick a football around or dress up dolls, that's all fine.

Equally, if she decides at the age of two that her favourite colour is pink and she wants to be decked out in it from head to toe, then that's OK (although I can't say I won't have a few feelings of sadness). It's her choice about who she wants to be. And it's important to me that she has time to work out who she is and who she wants to be, like I did. 

Pinkification

It turns out there's actually a campaign, 'Pink Stinks', to stop the ‘pinkification’ of girlhood, and reverse the trend in products, media and marketing of prescribing heavily stereotyped and limiting roles to young girls. So it's not just me. 

Hopefully, the tide will gradually turn and there will be more gender neutral options available for parents, or parents-to-be who don't want to pigeon-hole their children as soon as they are born.

In the meantime, I'm afraid I will be dressing my daughter in pink some of the time. A lot of lovely people have given me a lot of lovely clothes, for which I'm extremely grateful, and I will be using them. After all, it's not like she'll know the difference.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Let's say bye bye to boobs

Is the most important thing you can say about a woman really the size of her breasts?

This is the message that the Sun newspaper sends everyday when the biggest image of a woman on its pages is a girl posing in her pants on its notorious Page 3.


No More Page 3

This week I want to write in support No More Page 3, a campaign asking the Sun to stop running this feature.

The campaign was started nearly a year ago, by writer and actor Lucy Holmes. She asks the Sun to drop page 3 because:
  • It's misogynistic - suggesting a woman's main job is to remove her clothes so men can look at her
  • It conditions readers to view women as sex objects - as 1 in 4 women have been sexually assaulted, this is a bad idea
  • It suggests breasts are there purely for the titillation of men
  • Showing only C or D cups on very young women implies that other breasts are ugly
  • It tells women to base their worth on how sexually attractive they are to a man
Here is a video in which she explains these reasons, with some personal anecdotes.


Page 3 and me

I hadn't been sure about where I stood on the No More Page campaign. But I've changed my mind about lots of things recently (see last week's Lessons in Life post), and now I want to support it.

I thought 'live and let live' - we're all sexual beings and it's natural that we find the body parts that emphasise our sexual difference attractive. But publishing pictures of topless women and ogling these pictures, falls in the same camp as obviously ogling women in the street. It's open objectification of women. If your partner does this when you're with him, you shouldn't put up with it - it's disrespectful and unnecessary.
I previously intellectualised these kinds of behaviour as:
  • (Heterosexual) men find women attractive because they are women
  • It's therefore normal to find women other than their wives/girlfriends attractive
  • In an honest relationship, it's OK to be open about this
I don't actually think this is acceptable. There's nothing wrong with finding other people attractive, and if you're free and single, there's nothing wrong with quietly checking someone out. But blatant ogling, particularly when you're with your partner, is deeply disrespectful.

Similarly, I thought maybe that images of scantily clad lovelies in the media were harmless, if the women were happy to do it and the men happy to look at it. But if you agree that it is misogynistic, encourages women to be seen as sex objects and tells them to base their self worth on how attractive men find them, then it's not harmless. It's actually very, very harmful.

Woman as sex objects

I don't want the daughter I'm about to bring into the world to grow up thinking the best thing she can do with her life is to be skinny with a good pair of boobs. It's nice to feel attractive, but there are a lot more important things in life.

Maybe I'm wrong, but the men who enjoy ogling the daily page 3 girl would probably not be comfortable if they opened the paper one day to find their sister, daughter or wife's nipples looking back at them.

Really, it's all about seeing women as sex objects, and we're not, we're people. The massive growth in equal opportunities for women in the past few decades means that it is now widely accepted that women's place is not just the kitchen and the bedroom. The continued existence of Page 3 is a throwback that suggests we should go back there.

If you want to do something in support of the No More Page 3 Campaign, you can sign this petition to Sun editor David Dinsmore - Take the Bare Boobs out of the Sun.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

New lessons in life and feminism

I have been away. I haven’t been able to continue this blog for ten weeks, because in that time my life has changed beyond all recognition.

My story, which I won’t tell in detail, is that when I was 20 weeks pregnant, my husband left me for someone else. My story is neither unique nor uncommon – men have been leaving women ‘in trouble’ for all time. There are plenty of women out there who have been through this, and plenty of unsuspecting women and girls for whom this lies around the corner. I only hope that my unborn child (a girl) is not one of them.

The thing that happened to me has made its mark on my whole philosophy. Things I believed, and argued for, have crumbled away. I am now 30 weeks pregnant, and here are six things I have learned from this experience.

A word of caution - my thoughts have changed on a lot of things recently, and they may change again.  Basically, I reserve the right to change my mind - I think we all should.

1. You can never really know what’s going on in another person’s mind

No matter how close you are to someone, how in tune you may feel with them, and what you have given to them, you can’t ever know what is actually going on.

One of the beauties of human existence is our ability to surprise each other, but it is also one of the scariest elements. Every day we put our faith in other people, in small and large ways – we trust the bus driver not to change lanes and drive into the oncoming traffic. But we know neither what he nor the person we eat breakfast with every day is really thinking, nor what they are about to do next.

2. Your whole life really can change in an instant

This is one of these things you hear. You think that things like this don’t really happen to you, then they just happen. My entire future, and the life I had planned for my child really did change beyond recognition in the space of a few moments. You can’t prepare for it, so there is no lesson to be learned from it, but despite all those newspaper stories of death and destruction, I didn’t know it before and I do now. My life felt robust (it wasn’t), not easily dismantled (it was).

3. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus

A close friend told me that the further I went through pregnancy the more I would realise that men and women are completely different. I didn’t believe her.

I haven’t actually read this book (I probably should), but as I understand it, the central proposition is that men and women are completely different creatures from different planets. It was quite a central part of my philosophy of life, and my feminism, that this wasn’t true.

I believed that we are all human beings, that men and women do have biological differences and these can make us behave differently, but that fundamentally we’re all people. I was wrong. We’re completely different and pregnancy is the point where that becomes unavoidable – some men can be supportive, they can listen, and they can help, but they have no idea what it’s really all about, when our entire bodies are willingly taken over by this other being, which consumes our blood, our air and our food from within. This isn’t men’s fault, they just don't get it. If I had known this before, maybe my life would have turned out very differently.

4. Pregnancy and feminism are uncomfortable bedfellows

Pregnancy eradicates some of the outward signs of feminism – I always have been fiercely independent and able to look after myself physically, economically and emotionally. Pregnancy takes some of this away, it makes us dependent on others.

I am physically weaker and slower, therefore more vulnerable than usual. When my child is born, she will be dependent on me to the extent that I will be unable to work for some time. Fortunately I live in a wealthy, liberal country with maternity pay to help with this, but as a single mother, I will undoubtedly struggle financially.

Pregnancy also gave me a need for security and stability, which I didn’t recognise as having experienced before. I saw this most strongly when I lost it. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I have gone from feeling like a strong, independent woman, to an abandoned and vulnerable girl. I both need and want to be looked after, and the idea of that not happening is terrifying.

Does this mean I’m no longer a feminist? I don’t think it does, I think it just means I’m pregnant. But if I’m a feminist who isn’t a strong and independent woman, what am I and what is a feminist when there’s no girl power in sight?

5. Feminism is for women, and only women

I believed that men could be feminists too – particularly those brought up by strong women to believe in equality. I don’t actually think this is true. Like it or not, the battle for gender equality is a battle of the sexes, with men and women on opposing sides.

Biological differences mean that men are better able to rape and inflict violence on women than the other way around, and we get pregnant, they cannot. These three factors put us at a natural disadvantage, more vulnerable to sexual, physical and emotional abuse.

Men can sympathise with our predicament and support our emancipation, but while they still have this threefold power over us, which can never easily be removed, they are also our greatest threat. They can encourage feminism, but they cannot be feminists, unless they are somehow able to relinquish this unequal power.

6. We shouldn't blame single mothers

I feel pretty ashamed to be bringing a child into the world that I’m not sure I can support. The single mothers talked about in the Daily Mail are painted as feckless and selfish individuals, who spend years taking money and resources from the state because they were stupid enough to get up the duff. But I can promise you from where I’m sitting, that very few women would choose to be going into this without a partner to support them. And I haven’t even got to the hard bit yet, where I have to actually care for a child.

My grandmother had known my grandfather just a few days when she decided to marry him and leave her family in India to follow him across the world to a new life in London. My partner and I had notched up 11 years together before we married, and another six before we started a family. Which relationship would you expect to last the course? But my impetuous grandparents literally lived ‘until death do us part’, whereas after years of caution, I’m up the creek without a paddle.

Love is a rocky road, and sometimes things don’t work out the way you’ve planned. It really can happen to anyone, and most single mums probably didn’t want it to be this way.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Is feminism for educated middle class women who want to feel important?

Today I read the following comment on the internet: 'Feminism is all about educated middle class women and their need to feel important.' I am considering this comment.

By Iago4096 via Wikimedia Commons

Internet comments

Oddly (I think) the comment was on an article about feminism, on the Guardian's Women's section. It seems strange to me that you would bother reading this section at all if you disliked feminism. Personally, I find it difficult enough to keep up with the sections of the media I am interested in, let alone finding time for those I'm not.

But then, there's something about internet comment spaces that seems to attract an awful lot of detractors, who deliberately seems to seek out people and ideas at which to hurl abuse. 

This comment isn't abusive at all. It's a perfectly valid view, if a bit snide. It's not nearly in the league of the kind of hate that I talked about the feminist video games critic Anita Sarkeesian receiving last week. 


What is feminism for?

Certainly I am educated, middle class and a woman. And I would quite like to feel important (wouldn't everyone?), although I can't say I do. But I have a voice, so I'm going to use it to shout (or at least argue) for the things I believe in.

Feminism is about equality, calling for the same rights and opportunities as men. In the cosy middle class UK we're pretty well off in this respect, but this hasn't always been the case, and it doesn't mean we're finished with feminism - there's still a bit of a way to go. Outside the UK, in less well off countries, there's a long way to go. Feminism still has a lot to offer. 

Ch. Chusseau-Flaviens [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

Middle class origins

Feminism came from the educated middle classes. Emmeline Pankhurst and her cronies were mainly middle and upper class. Well of course they were, working class women were too busy trying to get by and feed their families, to involve themselves in politics, although as the campaign went on, support across the classes grew. Here's an interesting article about working class women in the suffrage movement.

Feminism in the 20th century developed from a campaign for basic rights into an intellectual movement, albeit one that still campaigns for basic rights. It's proponents - women like Simone de Beauvoir and later Germaine Greer were middle class intellectuals. 

After the 1960s more and more women from all classes have taken the opportunity to embrace equality in more practical ways, having their own bank accounts, jobs, cars - all things that we may take for granted and not consider particularly feminist, but which a lot of women in the world today wouldn't dare to dream of. 

And although these things might have come out of the middle classes, they certainly didn't stay there. Maybe middle class women like me have the luxury of being able to sit around reading, writing and discussing feminism, but women across all classifications are taking advantage of the opportunities it's given us. 

Is feminism middle class?

So is feminism middle class? If you still believe the antiquated class system, then yes, feminism is most discussed, by name, among middle class educated women. 

But its practical impact - giving women rights, freedoms and opportunities, is felt and used across all demographics.

Many women don't consider themselves feminists, but they would find the idea absurd that they should give up their job and car and put any money they own entirely into the safekeeping of their father/husband/brother. But that's where we'd be without feminism. 

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Taking feminism to video games

So a feminist thought she'd turn her attention to video games did she? Well the boys showed they wouldn't take her bra-burning antics lying down. How dare she!

Anita Sarkeesian, via Wikimedia Commons
Feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian is making a series of three films exploring female characters in video games. So far she has released the first two on feministfrequency.com and YouTube.

The project was funded by backers on Kickstarter.com. Heading up the project page on the site is now a video games style cartoon with the caption 'Thankfully Anita has decided to face down the trolls and continue the project.'

Damsel in Distress

Sarkeesian's videos explore the 'damsel in distress' trope in video games. She defines this as 'a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must then be rescued by a male character.'

She suggests that the damsel in distress has become the video game staple for female characters, giving examples of video games, from the earliest and most well-loved games, including Mario's Princess Peach and Princess Zelda, to more recent titles, which portray women as weak and incapable.

A male character will usually be the subject of a video game narrative, while female characters tend to exist as objects for male characters to rescue and/or receive as a reward for completing a quest. Sarkeesian suggests that repeating these tropes in video games 'helps to normalise extremely toxic, patronising and paternalistic attitudes about women'.

Criticising video games

Video games have traditionally been hugely male dominated, in terms of the people making them, playing them and the characters appearing in them. The balance has shifted a little in recent years, with increasing numbers of women and girls being drawn to gaming, but as Sarkeesian shows, the role of women in the games themselves has not really moved on in the genre.

Sarkeesian has clearly been interested in video games for a long time. She makes the point that you can enjoy something whilst finding some aspects of it troubling. I discussed a similar issue, in my post 'Is it OK to enjoy sexist films?'

But Sarkeesian received so much abuse on YouTube for her measured critique of the video games genre, that she has had to disable comments. If you want to read the kinds of horrible things people have said, she blogged about them here.


Henry Meynell Rheam, via Wikimedia Commons

Distressed damsels

The distressed damsel character is a problem that extends far beyond video games.

We grow up on fairy tales - Rapunzel is rescued from her tower by the handsome prince, Sleeping Beauty is woken from her sleep by the prince fighting his way to her, Snow White is brought back to life by the prince.

Before we can even read and write we learn about these helpless female characters who get themselves into sticky situations and wait around for a bloke to come and rescue them.

Thinking that her role in life is to dress like a princess and wait around for a nice chap to come and get her hardly seems a good way for a 21st century girl to begin life, and nor should boys grow up thinking they have to spend their time getting girls out of trouble.

Critiquing this trope in video games is one woman's attempt to reconcile the contradiction between enjoying an art work, whilst worrying about some of the assumptions about gender that it presents. And so we must help our children to enjoy these fairy tales and the characters they present, which are an important part of our cultural history, and yet also help them to understand that real life isn't like that, and nor are real men and women.

The fact that Sarkeesian was shot down for doing this says far more about the shooters themselves, and perhaps a certain cohort of video games fanatics, than it does about her project or the games by which it was inspired. And of course, by persevering with the project, she proved that 21st century women aren't damsels in distress.

Monday, 27 May 2013

When snacks attack

Pot Noodle has launched a charming advertising campaign called 'Peel the Top off a Hottie'. This is a pun on 'hottie' as in attractive young woman and spicy Pot Noodle, and 'peel the top' as in rip clothing off or remove lid of aforementioned revolting snack. I felt I should explain.

Just in case you're not sure, the delightful marketeers have arranged a couple of flesh-coloured Pot Noodle lids to look like a pair of breasts. And if you're still unsure there's generally a well-endowed babe lurking nearby in a skin-tight explanatory T-shirt.

Although the aim of the campaign is to encourage people to dip into a new brand of Pot Noodle, the choice of imagery does suggest that approaching attractive women and attempting to remove their clothing might be a reasonable, or at least desirable pastime.

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Boobs on the road

Pot Noodle appear to have been running a roadshow, in which they take two oversized Pot Noodle containers to town centres, and an attractive, large-breasted young woman emerges from each one.

The brand has, as you'd expect, received some criticism for the campaign. In response (I think) they have in some places had an attractive young man coming out of one of the pots, and in one case, men dressed as women, in a Rugby-club-lads-go-out-on-the-town-in-blond-wigs kind of a way. So as well as objectification you can add mocking transsexuality to their sins.

Is it just a bit of fun?

Am I being mean to the marketing people who are just trying to shift a few more nasty snacks?

I don't think so. Let's be clear: it's not the worst thing in the world. The Pot Noodle people are not actually encouraging men to assault women. Nor can we hold them responsible for domestic violence, female genital mutilation or reinforcing the glass ceiling. In the war over equality, they're hardly one of the worst offenders.

But this kind of thing just makes me weary. Can we not just move on from seeing women as no more than the sum of their sexual parts?

On the one hand I feel a little 'live and let live' about objectification: we're all sexual beings and it's natural that  we find the body parts that emphasise our sexual difference attractive. It's OK to have a little bit of fun with that - with men and women. It's fine that we fancy each other.

But I'm fed up with being part of a group in which our physical attributes always come first. Historically, women were baby-making machines - daughters came into the world to be married off and produce more sons. Surely society has moved on from this, and we should be able to value all aspects of  women - their bodies, their brains, and the contributions they make to the world?

Shouldn't we be seen as more than a pair of tits by now?

Sunday, 19 May 2013

It's all about the money

Winston Churchill by J. Russell & Sons
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Last month it was announced that Winston Churchill will feature on the new £5 notes, to be issued in 2016.

This is fine in itself – Churchill was an important political figure. The problem is that Winston will be deposing the social reformer Elizabeth Fry, who appears on our current £5 notes and is the only woman represented. She and Florence Nightingale are, I think, the only two women who have ever featured on our currency.

Missed out - again

Centuries of inequality mean that fewer women than men have been in positions to achieve greatness. So of the four sterling banknotes (£5, £10, £20, £50), we might reasonably expect two or three of these to be occupied by male faces.

But to have no women at all is disrespectful, and hardly supportive to women and girls, who when they hand over their cash receive yet another reminder of women’s lack of representation in our past and present.


Of course there is one woman who appears on all of our currency – dear old Lizzie. I’m fine with that (she must be relieved!), but she is there because she was born to be, not because of anything she has done.

Can't we have some women of merit?

Is there really such a shortage of significant women?

Great women

Women may have been underrepresented in all areas of power in the past, but that does not mean that there have not been great women, who have made a huge contribution to the world they lived in. Because they were women, and so seen as inferior to men, it is all the more remarkable that they were able to achieve what they did.

Here are a few high-achieving women who might deserve a place on our bank notes – there are plenty of others:
  • Emmeline Pankhurst 
  • Octavia Hill 
  • Jane Austen 
  • The Bronte sisters 
  • Margaret Thatcher 

Incidentally, it's slightly galling that Churchill, who is deposing Elizabeth Fry from the £5 note, actually opposed women's suffrage. Not to do down his achievements, but it seems a sad irony that 100 years after he actively opposed votes for women and 50 years after his death, he's still able to put us in the shade.


Give us some women!

All of the men featured on our banknotes were important achievers, who deserve their hard-won places in our historical record. But, dear Bank of England, please put some women in there too!

Our currency is an important symbol of what our country stands for, and we women will be using it just as much as men, so it would be nice to see someone from our own sex represented.

Monday, 22 April 2013

First women

The conductor for this year's Last Night of the Proms will be a woman for the first time in the event's 118 year history. Obviously this is excellent news. It's taking out one more shard of the glass ceiling that prevents women from rising to the top of so many professions. And it's a sign to other women and girls that their gender does not need to stop them.

Marin Alsop conducting
The woman to brave the splintered glazing is Marin Alsop. I've written about her before. I'd never heard of her until I went female conductor hunting, but then I've only ever heard of about four conductors, and half of them are probably dead.

Being the first lady

As far as I know, I've not been the first woman to do anything, but I imagine that this 'first woman' label is quite irritating. You worked hard and you got there on your own merits, but somehow you're being proclaimed as leading other women to where you are. There's also a hint that it was inevitable that a woman would get there eventually, it was just a matter of time, and it happened to be you.

I imagine that many people in this position would rather be known as the Prime Minister/Nobel prize winner/conductor than the first person to do it with a pair of tits. This 'first woman' business detracts from the fact that you're doing what you do best, and you do it very, very well.

There's the first time something happens - the first man on the moon, the first Nobel prize, the first man to climb Everest. Then after a decent interval, long enough to show how very hard it was, the first woman gets there. Hopefully we'll reach a point where these 'firsts' become just as likely to be accomplished by women as men, so we no longer feel the need to talk about the first woman and first man to do something - just the first person.

First women and feminism

We have a tendency to see first women as feminist icons, because they are going where only men have gone before - see my thoughts on Margaret Thatcher from last week.

But I can see that being proclaimed the first woman in this irritating fashion might actually have the effect of turning women off feminism. Maybe that's why Maggie disliked feminism. Maybe she felt that being the first female prime minister was about as relevant as being the first person in her family to have twins (I made that up, it may not be true).

All that said, Marin Alsop is a different kettle of fish. In her interview on the BBC website, she says the there needs to be 'more opportunities for women to be seen in these types if leadership roles' and explains that she has herself established a fellowship scheme for young women conductors. She ends by saying that she is 'appreciative' of being the first woman.

It's good that, unlike Maggie, she's doing something to hold the gate open to the women who follow her. But I wonder if she's a teensie bit irritated about being asked how it feels to be a woman, and wishes she could just get on and do her job.

It's sad that it's still so exciting for a woman to take a big public job like this. I hope that changes soon.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher - feminist icon or devil incarnate?

White House Photo Office
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
So it finally happened - the Iron Lady breathed her last.

Maggie and me

I was/am a child of Thatcher - I was six months old when she became Prime Minister, and just passed my 12th birthday when she made that memorable good bye to Downing Street.

In our house, there was no worse insult than 'Conservative', and 'Maggie' symbolised all the evils of the world. For me, she was a towering eight-foot powerhouse of a woman, part Spitting Image doll, part political Hulk, synonymous with power, with Britain, with doing evil. I had no concept of any other prime minister - after all she had been the only one.

I remember the moment I was picked up from school and told that 'Maggie' was finally 'out'. Whilst being delighted that this monster was finally toppled, I couldn't conceive that the world might actually go on without her. I swung between disbelief and optimism about what this brave new Thatcherless world could hold.

Women at the top

Britain did manage to carry on without Thatcher at the helm, and it's been 24 years since then, but in all that time we've had no female leader - there's not even been anyone come close to leading any of the three main political parties.

Far from opening the gates to allow women into power, Thatcher seems to have been a single exception.

Was Thatcher a feminist?

By all accounts, Thatcher didn't consider herself a feminist and didn't have much truck with feminists, or for that matter, women. Only one woman made it into her cabinet (Baroness Young), perhaps because Thatcher felt herself better equipped to dominate men than women, and dominating was what she did best. 

But you don't have to be a feminist to be a feminist icon, in the same way that you don't have to be gay to be a gay icon (look at Marilyn Monroe). Whatever we think of Thatcher and her politics, as a woman she's one of the big achievers. 

We (the UK) have had female rulers before - Queens Elizabeth I and Victoria, but they both inherited their positions, only because there weren't any suitably closely related men. Thatcher got there on her own merits. She wasn't even born into the ruling classes. The very fact that she managed to persuade one of the most conservative countries in the world to vote in a woman as prime minister, let alone getting the Tory party to accept her in the first place, is remarkable. And then stayed there for 11 and a half years. That's mind boggling. 

As a feminist (me not her), I might dislike her, but I have to admire her. She proved that you can be a woman and still get to the top. Or, to put it less positively, you don't have to have a cock to behave like one.

Hating Thatcher

This is easy and fun and I heartily recommend it. I'm not going to list the horrible things Thatcher did, there are plenty of places you can read about them. Nor am I buying a copy of Ding Dong the Witch is Dead, although I appreciate the sentiment. I hate her more for the self-centred individualist ideology that she stood for, than for the individual things she's done (which I was quite young to comprehend), although many of them were hateful.

And if you disliked someone in life, I see no reason to go all soft and 'respecting the dead' on them once they're gone. The fact that we are no longer there to defend ourselves doesn't undo the wrongs we did. The comedian Mark Steel said this far better than me in the Independent: 'You can't just shut us up now that Margaret Thatcher's dead'.

It seems the Iron Lady's death is proving as controversial as her life. At a time when benefits are being cut so some of the poorest in our society are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, it's pretty disgusting that we're spending £8 million on her funeral. I'm not saying she shouldn't have a decent send off, but the living people who are struggling to get by should be the priority, not a dead woman, who may have been loved by half of the country, but was equally hated by the other half.

Hero or villain?

So what was Margaret Thatcher - the ultimate female pioneer, or a friend to oppressive regimes (apartheid and Pinochet), who thought nothing of bringing crushing unemployment onto the very people she was elected to serve? Feminist icon or devil incarnate? Both, if you ask me.

No matter how anti-feminist she was, she will  always have a place in history as the woman who got there first. Even if you say she did it like a man, she did it as a woman, and we can't forget that. Just bring on the next female leader so we can prove that other women can do it too - and maybe next time they'll take a few of us with them.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Topless Jihad Day

Femen outside a Berlin mosque. (source: femen.org)
This week my favourite angry feminists declared Thursday 4 April Topless Jihad Day.

The Ukranian-based radical feminist group Femen, announced a jihad on Islamic attitudes to women and their bodies - the attitude that says that women need to keep themselves covered so as not to tempt men.

Protests around the world

Activists in Paris, Berlin, Rio, Milan, San Francisco and Montreal bared their breasts, painted with slogans, outside Tunisian embassies and mosques.

The protests were in support of Tunisian student Amina Tyler, who last month posted topless photos of herself on Facebook, with the slogans 'Fuck Your Morals' and 'My Body Belongs To Me, And Is Not The Source Of Anyone’s Honor' painted on her body. This was not popular.

Islamist hackers responded with an attack on Femen's Tunisian Facebook page, replacing topless photos with quotes from the Quran. Tyler was threatened with death by stoning.

Montreal (source: femen.org)

Is the extreme way the right way?

I'm not an extremist, and I'm not sure how far this particular protest is really helping promote equality for Islam women. It has been argued that the nature of their protests could actually set back the cause they are fighting for in the Middle East, which would be hugely sad for millions of women. 

But let's not forget that when it comes to equality, the softly softly approach often just doesn't work. 

Emmeline Pankhurst and her fellow Suffragettes were extremists - and if they hadn't used extreme tactics it's very unlikely that we would have reached the level of equality we have today in the UK. Maybe we would have achieved the vote by now - just - but I'm guessing that things like maternity leave and equal pay would still be distant dreams. 

Sometimes you need to fight to get what you're owed. And equality between the genders is something we're owed worldwide. 

Femen

One of the many great things about Femen, is that they are pretty much guaranteed good coverage (coverage, get it?), because what newspaper will pass up the opportunity to publish a photo of an attractive woman baring her breasts in the middle of the city, for a political ends? You don't often get politics and boobs in one snap. 

Some of the coverage they get may be gratuitous, but their message, that women's bodies belong to them, and them only, is not. Whether you agree with the way they operate or not, you have to admire them for having the balls, or tits, to stand up for what they believe. 

Monday, 1 April 2013

Is it OK to show violence against women on TV?

Of course we have to depict violence against women on TV, in print and on stage. Violence against people is a fact of life, so we must confront it, and it would be ridiculous to decide it was alright to show violence against men and not women.

But there is a certain kind of fetishised on-screen violence, exclusively directed towards women, which receives far more screen time than it needs to.

The delightful King Joffrey, on a thrones made of knives

Game of Thrones

I am watching the second series of the medieval fantasy TV show Game of Thrones. In one episode the adolescent King Joffrey is presented with two prostitutes, in the hope that a night of revels might make him slightly less unpleasant. However, instead of gratefully resigning his virginity, he gets his rocks off by instructing one of the prostitutes to beat the other, in increasingly vicious and painful ways, until she is either dead or severely wounded.

The strongest effect of the scene is to make the audience dislike Joffrey - previously he was a deeply unpleasant teenager, whereas this reveals him as something much more sinister.

Eroticised violence against women

Game of Thrones doesn't at any point condone these kinds of violent sex acts. But the context in which it presents this violence - a luxurious bedroom, with two attractive and entirely naked women, prepared to do anything to satisfy the demands of their adolescent client (although they are slightly reluctant to beat each other to death) - is fetishised.

Whilst the main message is that this young man is bad for wanting to do this to women, there is a subtext that suggests that abusing women is a form of pleasure for some men.

I read a piece about the BBC's Ripper Street, when it was on a few months ago, which suggested there is an appetite for seeing horrible things happen to beautiful young women. These kinds of eroticised violence against women are presented to both disgust and titillate. And it's not a new thing - if you don't believe me read the Marquis de Sade, he reaches levels of abuse and depravity that Game of Thrones couldn't go near.

I can't think of an example that is the opposite way around, with women deriving pleasure from inflicting serious physical pain and damage on men (please tell me if you think of one).


Censoring violence

The episode left me feeling uncomfortable, but that's not necessarily a bad thing - I want my light entertainment to challenge me a little bit (although Game of Thrones is not an obvious choice for intellectual challenge).

It's not the violence that disturbs me - there's a lot of gore in this series - but the sexualised way it is presented somehow makes it worse than all the torturing, maiming and killing that goes on elsewhere.

I wouldn't censor TV, I think there is a responsibility to depict the real world, and even though Game of Thrones shows a made-up world where most of the population has a claim to the throne and a woman can give birth to dragons, the human behaviour it depicts, is realistic enough.

But I think that programme makers should think seriously about the ways in which they present violence against women. If violence against men isn't presented as a sexual thing, then must violence against women be shown so frequently in this way?