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. 


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.