Saturday, 23 February 2013

Woman's prerogative

If we're serious about wanting equality, then we can't keep expecting special privileges.

Female intuition, a woman's prerogative, feminine mystique - it's time to go cold turkey and give them up.

By mysteriously asserting that we know something because of 'female intuition', that we are entitled to the 'woman's prerogative' and that we are these ethereal mysterious creatures of instinct and emotion, we paint ourselves as fickle emotion-lead creatures, incapable of logical thought.

The right to change your mind

A woman's prerogative is her right to change her mind. Surely everyone has the right to change their mind sometimes? In asserting that this is the right of women alone, we suggest that we need it more, because we are more indecisive than our male peers. We are so charged with hormones and emotion that we will make irrational decisions that we later repent.

If we are really so notoriously unstable, then we probably shouldn't be trusted with things like the vote, and we certainly should be driving - think of all the dangerous mistakes we could be making out there on the roads. And there's no need to bother giving us a proper education, since we're so damn intuitive, we can just 'sense' all the things we really need to know.

Is a woman's prerogative the right to change her mind about sex? Again, why should it should be tied down to women? Both genders can be allowed to be a bit fickle.

Women and men are equally capable of making bad decisions on the spur of the moment, and in both cases these can be hormone-fuelled. What's wrong with the person's prerogative - your right to change your mind because you're only human?


I'm not suggesting that there's no such thing as instinct, or that men and women are the same. Of course there are differences between the sexes that affect our outlook, personality and behaviour, and maybe women are generally more instinctive than men. Maybe we pay more attention to body language. But if we want to be treated seriously, we have to accept that we have no more (or less) right than men to change our minds, follow our instincts and refuse to be accountable for our decisions.

There are times when our gender will affect our behaviour. In a lot of areas women have it worse than men - mainly periods and pregnancy. And it's right that men (and women) should cut us some slack at these times. But that should be because of the particular experiences and issues we face at that moment, not just because we're women, and therefore a bit flaky.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Power Lists and Heroines

By NASA/Bill Ingalls via Wikimedia Commons
Last weekend BBC Radio 4 released a Woman's Hour Power List of the UK's most influential women.

The Queen topped the poll, followed by the Home Secretary Theresa May (fair enough - they're quite influential). Below them, the top 20 included women at the top of their fields in business, law, medicine, the media (a Murdoch), science, politics and the arts.

It is heartening to see that only a handful of these women are 'famous' in our usual celebrity-obsessed sense: Adele, JK Rowling, Joanna Lumley and Victoria Beckham (for her fashion work).

These lists are pretty abstract and subjective. How do you really measure influence, and are the list-makers trying too hard to cover as many different areas and professions as possible?

A truly feminist result would be a list of powerful people, in which half were men and half women, but we still have a long way to go before we get to that point. What is great about reading through this list is that these women are out there, being important and influential, and making history.

History's losers

There is a saying that history is always written by the winning side. Up until the 20th century history was written by and about men. When asked to name pre-19th century important men, you could probably keep going for hours. Do the same for women and you won't run out of fingers.

There were plenty of women around when big historical events were taking place, but women couldn't vote, they lost out on positions of power to their brothers, and their education rarely went beyond learning to sew and sing.

Historic Codpiece Influencer Anne Boleyn
That's not to say that women haven't had an impact on history. If it wasn't for Anne Boleyn (and her daughter Elizabeth I), the entire religious landscape of this country would have been different. But up until the 20th century when women fought for the right to vote, fought for the right to a decent education and fought for places in all of the professions reflected on the Power List, we didn't really have a chance.

Codpiece politics

What the Power List does suggest is that history in the future will no longer be male-dominated. There will be heroines who change history because of what they think, say and do - not just because some fat bloke in a codpiece and a crown fancies having his way with them.

Maybe we still haven't reached the point where half the world's movers and shakers are men and half are women, and maybe we never will. But in the UK, if not elsewhere, the landscape in business, law, medicine, the media, science, politics and the arts is being influenced and changed by both men and women. We're no longer the losers.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

What's in a name?

Cornel Pex (Barcelona 2007), Wikimedia Commons
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

So says Shakespeare's Juliet, but she's just kidding herself when she says names don't matter. When she's stabbing herself in a tomb because she married a man with her enemies' name, she'd probably take it all back, and admit that names matter a lot.

Beyoncé Carter née Knowles

This week Beyoncé announced that her upcoming world tour would be called 'The Mrs Carter Show'. This is a reference to her husband Jay-Z, whose given name is Shawn Carter.

This has led to some consternation that someone so iconic that she doesn't even need a second name has decided to subsume her identity into her husband's, adopting a name that even he doesn't use.

'The Mrs Carter Show' is a joke of course, a soppy reminder to the world that she's in love, and a tongue-in-cheek nudge that this woman is so fabulous that she only really needs three syllables, styling herself 'Mrs Carter' is just for fun.

Choosing a name

For the rest of us, who aren't quite as fabulous as Beyoncé and so are required to go through life with two names, this is a big decision that we have to take.

These are the most popular four options in my circles, and their associated difficulties:
  1. Take your husband's name - but why should the woman always compromise? If women and men are truly equal why should she give up her name when she marries him, why not the other way around?
  2. Keep your own name - you go through life with a different name to your husband, but are you Miss, Mrs or Ms?
  3. Have two identities - one for work and one for home - can be confusing and some people aren't comfortable with feeling like they are two different people.
  4. Double barrel your name - all very well for you, but if your daughter takes the double name and follows suit when she marries, within a few generations we will end up with a string of names.
I know different people who have chosen all of the above, and of course there are different options, he could change his name, or you could choose a new name together. 

Selling out

After I married, I chose dual identity, keeping the surname I was born with for professional activities, and gradually changing my name to my husband's on official documents as they came up for renewal.

This week I crossed the final frontier in changing my identity as my new passport arrived. 

I have mixed feelings about this, and I know I'll never quite lose the lingering feeling that in changing the name on my passport and bank statements I have 'sold out' to feminism. 

I decided to sell out because I saw myself as choosing between men's names, after all my birth surname wasn't the name my mother was born with - it was my father's name. I was choosing between one patriarchy and another. 

Although I am attached to the surname I was born with, it doesn't seem to me a huge feminist statement to keep a name that came from my father instead of taking the one that came from my husband. 

Agreeably, my new passport contains the statement 'The holder is also known as...' with the name with which I was born given in full. Having both names displayed officially is some compensation for the choice I've made.

Maids and maidenheads

One other thing: when I explain my two names, I hate having to use the term 'maiden name' to describe the name with which I was born.

'Maiden' is a word loaded with outdated concepts about virginity, and I am uncomfortable explaining to officials which name I used before I started shagging, which is basically what I'm saying.

There is no male equivalent for being a maiden, reflective of the high price put on female virginity, and the subservient role women played in marriage, shown when the woman lost her entire identity to become 'Mrs Joe Bloggs'. 

The only thing for it is to go to a single name, and avoid the whole problem. I hear 'Beyoncé' might be up for grabs...

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Female role models

Aung San Suu Kyi by Htoo Tay Zar 
Listening to Dessert Island Discs on Radio 4 with Aung San Suu Kyi, it struck me that our choice of female role models is sadly revealing.

Last week I talked about Joanna Lumley as a role model. A model and actor, since 2008 Lumley has been involved in more role model worthy activities, in her Gurkha Justice Campaign. But she was a female role model long before this. For what - looking glamorous and delivering lines?

I'm not having another pop at Lumley. I'm just wondering, when there are people as courageous, charismatic and intelligent as Aung San Suu Kyi in the world, why do we persist in adoring Cheryl Cole and Kate Moss?

We could model ourselves on the women who are trying to change the world. Instead we choose those who can sing, dance and smile. 

Hilary Clinton by Michael Gross for US State Department

More than just a pretty face

Is a pretty face and a nice bottom really all every woman wants? I hope not.

Shouldn't we really be showering our misplaced adulation on more meaningful targets - women like Hilary Clinton, who get out there and do something real?

You might not agree with everything Clinton says and does, but Kate Moss went out with Pete Doherty and we still love her.

Aung San Suu Kyi 

Suu Kyi is the kind of female role model we should be talking about, and encouraging our sisters and daughters to talk about, and here's why:

  • Intelligence - she's Oxford University educated
  • Conviction: she spoke out against the rule of Burma's brutal dictator
  • Strength of character - it sustained her through 15 years under house arrest, often alone
  • Courage - she's faced down guns and much more
  • Power - she's leader of Burma's opposition, she could be leading the country soon

And if you want your female role models to be beautiful, she could give most of her rivals a run for their money in that department too. 

The fact that Aung San Suu Kyi has even married and and raised two children, also goes to show that powerful, impressive women don't necessarily don't have to compromise on feminine aspirations (although I'm not saying this is easy - but that's another blog post). 

Serious role models

I'm as guilty as any - who doesn't want a pretty face and killer abs? But I by continuing to adulate women who prance about for a living, instead of those who get on and change things, we're not really helping the world - meaning men and women - to take us seriously. More Aung San Suu Kyi, less Angelina Jolie.