Saturday, 27 December 2014

Hands-on parenting

The phrase 'hands-on father' was something from my childhood.

In the past, fathers had very little to do with child-rearing. Then we had feminism, and gradually 'being a dad' became more than just a label. It became about actually doing stuff with children. Looking after them, even.

For those of us who grew up in the 80s, dads had different levels of involvement - some were 'hands on' while others literally never saw the inside of a nappy.

But that was 30 years ago.

Using your hands

The other day, my friend described someone as a "hands-on dad". We got to talking about this.

"No one ever called anyone a 'hands-on mum'", she said. "You're just a mum."

Parenting a child is first and foremost a hands-on task. You can read as many books about child development as you like, you can even put some of the theories into practice. But you still have to carry them about when they can't walk, bathe them, change their nappies and put food into them in a very hands-on kind of way.

I write this whilst simultaneously using my hands to entertain a toddler, keep her away from the wrapped-up Christmas presents and prevent her from injuring herself on the furniture.

Men can't breastfeed. And they might not have the same connection to a tiny baby that the mother who carried it for nine months has. But apart from that, a lot of the work of child-rearing can be shared.

Stay-at-home dad Michael Verhoef
with his eight-week-old daughters. 
Choosing to help

If a father isn't going to be hands-on, that basically means that the mother has to do all the work.

Describing a dad as 'hands-on' suggests that this is somehow an option. And as 2014 draws to a close, it really shouldn't be.

There are lots of dads out there who are fantastic with their children, who don't think twice about changing nappies, clearing up widely dispersed Weetabix, averting suicide attempts and reading That's Not My Duck seven times in a row. Better still, there are dads who do these things and don't expect their partners to thank them for it. They are real - I've met some of them.

Then there are the dads who do those things but expect some kind of recognition - like looking after their own child for a day deserves a medal. And then there are the other ones, who do pretty much diddly squat for their own children. After all, that's women's work.

I hope the day comes when the phrase 'hands on father' ceases to be used, because most fathers fulfil this brief. I hope it comes soon.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Women bishops

A new first came today - the first woman bishop for the Church of England.

The Reverend Libby Lane has been announced as the new Bishop of Stockport.

Until last month, when the law was changed, women weren't allowed to become bishops

Libby Lane isn't the first Anglican bishop - Massachusetts had one in 1989 and female bishops have now served in the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, South Africa, South India and Cuba. But she's the first C of E one.

About time

It's sad that it's taken the Church of England until 2014, which is, of course, two thousand and fourteen years after the founder of the religion rocked up.

That's an awfully long time to decide that one half of the population is as good as the other. I doubt Jesus would be very impressed.

Bishops representing us all

The ruling about bishops affects more than just the followers of the Church of England.

Bishops sit in the House of Lords. So if there are no women bishops, then that means that the proportion of women to men in the Lords is kept even lower.

Let's look at that again: none of the people put forward by the Church of England to have a say on UK legislation. That's pretty rubbish. We're not a minority group - we're half the population.

I'm very glad that a woman has been appointed to be a Bishop, it's one more small stepping stone on a very long journey to equality. But I'm also sad that it took this long. And as they've been representing all of us in the House of Lords, it's pretty irresponsible.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Reach for the Star (and the Sun)

An update on the No More Page 3 campaign.

This is a brilliant campaign to persuade the Sun newspaper to stop featuring naked women on page three.

The bad news is that the tradition of the Page 3 Girl lives on, waving her nipples at you every day of the week from between the news pages.

The good news is that she's slightly less visible in some high profile supermarkets.

A lower profile on a higher shelf

Tesco and then Waitrose and Marks and Spencer have announced changes to the way in which they display the Sun and the Star.

Tesco has decided that only the names and logos of the two newspapers will be visible from the sides of the cubes in which they are displayed, so they are no longer in the sight line of children, and are less visible from a distance.

Waitrose has announced that it will be doing something similar, and M&S has moved them to the higher shelves.

This means that sexualised images of women are no longer within easy sight and reach of children, it also relegates these titles to less prominent positions. Hopefully this will have an impact on sales, because if that happens then it's more likely that the Sun will sit up and listen and maybe, just maybe, it will put the Page 3 girl into retirement.

A small step for woman, a giant leap for womankind

This tweaking of newspaper displays by supermarkets is relatively small beer in the greater scheme of things. But it is one more small step for feminism in a great long journey that began with women asking for the vote and won't end, I hope, until we have a truly equal society.

By taking steps, however small, to move these newspapers, these three immensely powerful corporations are sending a message that these publications are not completely socially acceptable,

Moving the publications to the top shelves does more than that - it takes pictures of bare-breasted women out of the mainstream and puts them out of clear sight, somewhere that is niche, and more difficult to reach.

It would be great would be if these shops stopped selling the Sun altogether, but even without that, this is a small but significant cultural change, which pushes the Sun and its Page 3 slightly nearer to the margins.

In the meantime, I'm hoping that more big stores will be following the lead.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Strident, obsessive and sexy PhDs

Do you feel like your brains overshadow your beauty? Well weep no more. Amazon is selling a Sexy PhD costume, for women who want to make the most of ALL their assets.

This story has been cropping up all over social media, reported by i100. The story isn't the costume itself, but the review comments that follow it on the page, written by a range of 'Lady PhDs' who express their relief that sensible husband-hunting attire has now been provided for the thinking woman.

As a 'Lady PhD' myself, I was partly drawn to follow the links because the costume had the wrong hat. This is entirely beside the point, but anyone with a PhD knows that the hat is very important. Here's what it should look like. Quite sexy, I think you'll agree.

Anyway, so I read the story and enjoyed the comments.

I thought it was kind of funny that the headline of the article was 'Women with actual PhDs review sexy PhD costume on Amazon' - why the 'actual'? It sort of implies some incredulity at the idea of women having PhDs. But that's just me being touchy, I know it is.

Sexy costumes and comments

I don't really care if they're selling a sexy women's PhD costume on Amazon. It might be worse if they were selling a sexy men's PhD costume and not a women's one, because that might suggest women aren't clever enough to have PhDs, or that women with PhDs aren't sexy. Or something.

The thing that did get my feminist back up, was not the costume, or the comments on Amazon by 'Lady PhDs'. It was the comments left on the page of the article. This was one of the more articulate, the other were variations on the theme:

'It's a costume. Get over it. If you have an actual PhD you should understand the concept. Does your strident, obsessive feminism have to bleed through everything in your lives? Grow up.' Mr Grevy

What's bitten Mr Grevy? Can't he see that these women were just having a bit of gentle fun at the expense of an objectifying/objectionable (delete as preferred) costume?

Does our strident, obsessive feminism have to bleed through everything in our lives? Well now you mention it, yes it does. That's kind of the point of being a feminist.

Strident and obsessive

Having a belief, or a philosophy should bleed through everything you do, because it affects the way you view everything around you. Loving feminism is not like loving cheese. I enjoy a nice bit of cheddar, but I am very capable of going days at a time without touching the stuff.

(That's actually a very bad example because I've now realised quite how much cheese I eat. If I want to get into that costume, I'm going to have to cut back on the yellow stuff).

But I live feminism. Every day I drive my own car, live in my own house, spend my own money and go out to my job, which pays me, hopefully the same as it would pay a man if he were doing my job. These things would not be possible without feminism - it pervades everything I do.

Feminism-bashing is commonplace on the web. This is just one more example. Why do Mr G and his ilk feel the need to have a go at feminism? There is clearly something deeply offensive to them about the idea that their mothers, sisters and girlfriends (is that last a little optimistic?) should be treated as their equals. Who knows where that could end - we'll want the right to vote next.

You can read the article, and comments here.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The fragility of woman

This week the fashion designer Stella McCartney revealed a new collection that celebrated the fragility of women. This pisses me off.

Why not celebrate the fragility of human beings? After all, we're all relatively fragile. It only takes chance - an accident or illness - for us to be here one minute and gone the next. 

Why fragile is bad

In a time before feminism, women were seen as fragile, stupid creatures, who needed men to protect and guide them. Then came feminism, which has been fighting tooth and nail to knock these assumptions on the head.

Just because we're not as physically strong as men doesn't mean we're not equally intelligent, capable and physically and emotionally tough. 

Foreign and Commonwealth Office,
via Wikimedia Commons
Because the gist is that if we are fragile in comparison to men, then we really are not as capable as them. And not as capable is not as good. 

Among some bollocks McCartney wrote about clothes, was this little nugget: "It's about the the fragility and the movement and the warmth of summer, in a woman, and bringing out your strength. Strength on its own in a woman is quite abrasive and not terribly attractive sometimes. And this collection is celebrating the gentler side."

Quite apart from the fact that this makes me want to exert some of my "not terribly attractive" strength on McCartney's warm summery person, it seems to me that she is harking back to Victorian notions of feminine fragility and gentleness - notions that we should have left behind more than a century ago. It's sad and shocking to find a woman in 2014 speaking in this way.

'Put down that hammer and get back to rocking the cradle', she seems to be saying.

Purchasing fragility

I had a look at McCartney's website. You can buy diamond-encrusted jeans for 550 quid. I buy my jeans from New Look. They're considerably cheaper but don't come with diamonds. But what this really means is that to purchase McCartney's diamond denims, or any of the fragile floaty garments she's talking about, you need to be pretty flush. Not in the least bit fragile, financially speaking.

In fact, you could do with being the kind of powerful, independent woman that McCartney herself is - a hugely successful businesswoman (let's overlook her famous dad). McCartney is an institution. She ain't fragile. 

I'd urge you to not buy any of McCartney's clothes in protest, but since I'm 99% sure you can't afford them anyway, I won't bother. 

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Why feminism is good for men

Yesterday, he got the breakfast.
A typical dismissal of feminists and feminism, by people who don’t understand, is ‘man-haters’.

This is ridiculous. It assumes that just because you champion one group of people, you want their opposite to be persecuted.

If you champion gay rights, does that mean you hate heterosexuals? If you oppose discrimination against black people and ethnic minorities, does that mean you dislike people with white skin?

Just because we believe that women should have equality, doesn’t mean we want men to be discriminated against. We want to be equal, not dominant.

It’s about turning a man’s world into everyone’s world, which sounds cheesy, but that's what equality is.

Men: we don't hate you. We just want the world to accept we're as good as you.


Maybe some women do hate men. Personally, I have my moments. But this is nothing to do with feminism and everything to do with personal experience and prejudice. Some of them aren't helping their cause, by behaving very badly.

Dismissing feminists as man-haters is not only simplistic – it’s just plain wrong. In the same way that suggesting that all ardent feminists are lesbians. It’s just not true.

Good for men

Feminism calls for a world which is not dominated by pre-ordained gender roles.

In a truly equal world neither men nor women would feel pressure to live up to the stereotypes of their sex.

Men are expected to be macho – physically and mentally strong, with a defined set of practical skills and a natural inclination towards scientific disciplines. Women are seen as delicate, nurturing and artsy.

In a truly post-feminist world, we and would no longer feel inadequate because we’re no good at make-up and don’t wear high-heels.

There would be a lot less pressure on boys and girls to conform to gender expectations. We could all just be. Wouldn't that be nice?

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Is chivalry dead? Should it be?

Chivalry is a Medieval idea - the set of values that knights signed up to. What we mean by chivalry derives from courtly love, an aspect of chivalry which involved stuff like writing poems about how much you loved an important woman, even if you didn't care for her all that much. It was just what you did, circa Medieval times.

These days it's all about opening car doors, carrying her luggage and laying your cloak down over the mud so that the lady won't get muddy toes (OK, that one was a while ago).

Is chivalry OK?
So if a bloke offers to carry a bag for you, when you're not overloaded, or offers you a seat on a train because you're a girl and so shouldn't have to stand up, is he being nice, or is he like totally dissing your status as a strong and independent woman. Is it an act of respect or disrespect?

'Chivalric' behaviour such as paying the bill and giving up seats on public transport is well-meant. Blokes do it because they want to be nice. They see it as showing 'respect to the ladies'.

But this kind of behaviour derives from the false assumption that we are the less capable sex. As such, it is inherently disrespectful. We may not be able to lift equally heavy weights as men can, but we are no less capable of standing up on public transport. OK there is still a gender pay gap, but there's no reason to assume most of us can't pay our way, thank you very much (in fact letting men pay for us in restaurants etc could reinforce the idea that there should be a gender pay gap, because it makes it so darn expensive to be a man).

How it should be
You have to feel sorry for men (no, wait, you don't) - it's really confusing out there. How are they supposed to behave?

A bloke in my gym a while ago told me: "I was going to offer to help you with that, but then I realised how ridiculous that would be." His point was that if I need help to move weights around, I should probably have picked a different hobby. I liked that he told me this and therefore managed to look good both as a chivalrous man having the impulse to help, and as a fellow human being respecting my capabilities. Clever.

If I'm standing up on a train, a man shouldn't give his seat up for me unless I'm pregnant, ill, or struggling to transport an extremely heavy life-sized, framed portrait of David Tennant (this last hasn't actually happened yet).

They should, by now, respect us as their equals. This means that, if we're struggling with a heavy bag, then yes please, offer to help up. But not because we're weak and feeble women - because we're human beings struggling with heavy bags, and hopefully they'd do that for a man as well.

Treading carefully
All this brings us to the question of how to behave when a man displays chivalrous behaviour, AKA suggests you're a weak and feeble woman through a kind but ultimately undermining action.

And this is the tricky one.

If you're a rude, nasty girl then you can point out the error of his ways, thus helping to spread the feminist cause and royally pissing him off. If we all did this, all the time, then pretty quickly the message would get through.

If you're not a rude, nasty girl, but a polite, nice one, then you can still do your bit. If a man offers you a seat just because you're a girl, then decline it. If he tries to carry your bag for no good reason, ask him firmly but politely to return it. Etcetera.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Everyday sexism

In the face of sexism, maybe we all need to be a bit ruder and nastier.

The Everyday Sexism Project documents 'experiences of sexism, harassment and assault to show how bad the problem is and create solidarity.' Here are a couple of examples:

Carrying baggage

I bought some luggage from a nice man in a shop, talked to him about needing a big bag because I have a baby and lots of stuff to carry. I faffed about a bit, not sure whether or not to buy it, and when I went ahead he said: "you can always pretend you’ve had it for ages – that’s what you women do."

I wondered what he was talking about. But then it clicked – 'he thinks I’m hesitating because I will have to explain to my husband why I spent the money!'

As it happens I (a) have a good job and make my own money and (b) don’t have a man to answer to since he buggered off (with all the luggage).

It’s a very minor incident - a crass comment made by someone from a different generation who didn’t really think it through. But it does highlight some widely held assumptions about women, namely:
  • we are financially dependent on men
  • we have to answer to men for decisions we make
  • we are more likely to make rash consumer choices than men

Should we talk back?

My little run-in with everyday sexism was a very minor anecdote, and no, I didn't pull him up on it, because he was basically a nice man, who didn't think before he spoke.

Maybe I should have, but I didn't want to offend him, and I suppose I was also afraid of the "Tuh! Women" reaction that I was quite likely to get. Probably I should have pulled him up on it, because how can people change if we don't tell them what they're doing wrong? And how can society if individuals don't?

I should have been a rude, nasty girl.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

New men

In the 1980s and 90s they used to talk about ‘new men’ a lot. I guess I thought we stopped talking about new men, because most men checked that box these days. Or not.

What’s a new man?

The New Man was a 1980s idea, it was someone 'who rejects sexist attitudes and the traditional male role, especially in the context of domestic responsibilities and childcare, and who is (or is held to be) caring, sensitive, and non-aggressive' (Oxford English Dictionary).

So they respect women as equal to themselves, will do the washing up, cook dinner and take care of the child. They sound lovely. What's not to like?

The trouble is, if the ‘new man’ comes in and does all that – cooking, cleaning and bringing up baby, then when he leaves, he makes it worse than it was before.

Becoming an old man

All too often, a new man becomes an old man. In the words of feminist journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown at an event recently, 'then the new man buggers off with the young blond'. I know the feeling.

Lots of women have brought up children by themselves, as their beloved was away earning money, fighting wars, or simply pissing it all away in the pub.

Some women today find blokes who are happy to do their share, and respect them as equal partners. That is lovely. Except when they leave it is much worse, because then, suddenly the woman has to do all that stuff that she’s not used to doing alone. It’s a #firstworldproblem but it’s still pretty shit.

It's not just the men who leave their partners. It's any man who doesn't pull his weight when a child comes along, having given the impression that he sees his partner as an equal, wants to be a hands-on father and doesn't believe that all domestic work should be undertaken by women.

Setting the cause back

By appearing to support female independence and equality, but then taking action to destroy these things, men are setting the feminist cause - the fight for equality - back. And they should be vilified for this.

Shouldn't we have reached a point now where we can expect men to support their wives, mothers and daughters' rights to equality and independence.

This is not to say men shouldn’t embrace any of the tropes of new-manness, for fear of leaving women in the lurch. But failing to take your domestic responsibilities seriously, and leaving women to cope either alone or with little or no support, shouldn't be acceptable. Surely we've come further than that?

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Mum's war

Motherhood does funny things to you. Last night more bombs were dropped on Gaza. Before I had a child, I would listen to reports of the world’s daily horrors with a vague sadness, suitably horrified, and always glad that my loved ones and I lived in the comparably safe UK.

By Ajai Shukla, uploaded by User:Sniperz11,
via Wikimedia Commons
Now every atrocity gives me a physical jolt. It's a kick in the stomach, as I look at my beautiful, well-fed and safe baby, and imagine being a mother who can’t keep her children fed and safe. It’s a feeling of panic, deferred.

Being a mother in Gaza, Syria, Sudan, and all the others doesn't bear thinking about.

Men at war

Wars, particularly territorial squabbles, are something men do. They often do it in the name of their women and children, but it is primarily about them. 

Meanwhile, women pick up the pieces: struggle to feed and care for their children, protect them from whatever form of violence threatens, and provide for their families while men are away fighting or getting killed in the wars they never wanted them to fight in the first place.

Women at war

That’s not to say women never initiate or take leading roles in wars – Margaret Thatcher took the UK into the Falkands, and I’m sure there are other examples. But she was a woman operating in a men’s world and, as such, she acted as a man would in her situation.

What would the world look like if it were run by women? Probably just a different kind of awful. Maybe we’d have invented the stiletto heel but not the wheel.

I don’t really want a world run exclusively by women. But I reckon if we had a world that was truly run jointly by men and women - real equality, in other words - then we really would have fewer wars, which would mean fewer babies and children suffering and dying from living in areas of conflict. And fewer mothers who have to stand by and watch that happen. 

Monday, 7 July 2014

Shattered childhood TV dreams

So Rolf Harris went to prison, and another little bit of my childhood just died. It followed the demise of the other bit that wrote to Jim'll Fix It.

And I doubt I'm the only one who is waiting to hear which other TV presenters from my formative years were abusing the children who looked up to them.

It makes you wonder about all of the other people who appeared regularly on children's TV in the 1980s. And that's awful because most of them were probably very nice people, who just enjoyed the job of entertaining children.

Rolf Harris was a genius who would show you as he brought cartoon characters to life from a single line on a page. Savile was a philanthropist who could make your dreams real.

These two men devastated the lives of the girls and women they abused. For the rest of us, they just shattered our childhood dreams. It's nowhere near as bad, just a little bit sad.

The good news

As with Max Clifford, it's good news for feminism that Rolf Harris is going to prison. It sends a clear message that it doesn't matter how famous and important you are, you can't treat women and girls in this way and get away with it.

Unless you're Jimmy Savile, who did just that. And probably loads of others too.

Well, OK then. It sends the message that it doesn't matter how famous and important you are, you probably shouldn't treat women and girls in this way, because you might not get away with it. You might think you got away with it, but then you get put in prison when you're, like, 80-something.

There's a good chance you won't get away with it. It's a definite possibility. Don't do it.

Women in high places

What's come out of the aftermath of the Rolf Harris trial is that girls and women don't stop being vulnerable to sexual assaults.

He has gone to prison for assaults on girls aged seven to 19. But the TV and radio presenter Vanessa Feltz has made allegations that Harris assaulted her, when she was working on The Big Breakfast.

Feltz wasn't a young girl, she was an important and capable woman in a high profile job. She was at the top of her game, and yet he still managed to take advantage of her.

It suggests that women and girls at all levels of society can be vulnerable to abuse. Being a successful and capable grown-up won't necessarily protect you.

Anyway, I'm off to try to rebuild my shattered dreams.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Shoes for the boys

It's a shame I have to write this. Yet another retailer has resorted to lazy gender stereotypes in order to shift more wares.

This time it's high street shoe shop, Clarks.

Signs in their shop windows read: 'Because boys test their shoes to destruction, so do we' and 'Because girls love comfort and style, we design both into our shoes'.

So boys wear their shoes out by running about and having fun in them, while girls just like to sit around being comfortable and looking pretty. I think a lot of mothers of girls would disagree with this. Girls are just as capable of wearing out their shoes as boys, and boys are just as likely to want their shoes to be comfortable and look good.

And of course, the boy sign was in the inevitable blue, and the girl one the usual pink. Don't get me started on pink.


I had a look at Clarks' website (there's no sign of these slogans there), and to their credit, both boys and girls are shown involved in an action activity and something a bit arty - boys on their bikes, and a boy playing a guitar, versus girls with a home-made cart, and one clutching a pile of schoolwork.

It looks like they have tried to get a good balance, and not go all pink princess. So it's a shame they did this.

Maybe they have done some research, and actually have some robust data that tells them that boys generally 'test their shoes to destruction' and girls prioritise 'comfort and style' in their footwear. If they do, then I'd really like to see it.

Online petition

The signs were pounced on by lawyer and parent Emma Dixon, who set up an online petition, asking Clarks to remove them.

There are a lot of online petitions, and you might wonder if they do any good, but this is the kind of simple issue that, by signing a petition, you can send a clear message to a retailer that you don't like what they are saying. And so I think there's a pretty good chance it will succeed. That would be another small victory for feminism, although it's a battle we shouldn't still have to be fighting.

Sign the petition asking Clarks to remove the signs here.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Feminism and peace

This weekend the Leamington Peace Festival rolled around once more.

This is a major annual event in Leamington Spa, the town that I was privileged to call 'home' for 13 years. It's basically a big excuse for a party in the name of peace.

The only tangible presence of feminism at the event was Amnesty International, which took its women's rights in Afghanistan campaign along.

Thinking about the links between feminism and peace, I am surprised that this was the only representation. It made me wonder where all the feminists are.


The moment that a Suffragette first chained herself to a railing began a war against inequality that is still waged today.

The Suffragettes refused to be appeased until women were given the vote. They were successful and a kind of peace followed, but that was really the beginning of women fighting for the right to be recognised as equal to men.

Feminism has a funny relationship to peace: it both breaks it and makes it. Feminism is a disruptive force which shakes up the discriminatory status quo. While women are discriminated against, then they cannot and should not be peaceful. For this reason, perhaps it has no place at a festival for peace.

But at the same time, we will be closer to peace once we have equality between the sexes - on a global scale. And so feminism and peace are inseparable ideas.

I hope, although feminism wasn't obviously in evidence, that the park today was crammed with feminists of all shapes and sizes who expect to be treated equally to men, and don't feel they could be at peace without this basic right.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Woman wears the same dress twice

Sarah Millican in the offending dress at the 2013 Baftas
The comedian Sarah Millican wore the dress that she wore to last year's Baftas twice. She wore it again for this year's Baftas (although she didn't actually attend). I know, it's pretty shocking.

This fact has been all over the internet. Millican was wearing the dress to make a point, as she explains in this article for the Radio Times, after last year her night out to the award ceremony ended in tears when she was slated for the way she looked on the red carpet.

Crimes against fashion and feminism

This story isn't about to rock the feminist world. It's a small tale about a single privileged and successful individual.

Having someone insult your dress at the Baftas isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

As Millican points out, she’s a comedian. Her job is to make people laugh, not to stand about looking pretty.

Millican-gate is a symptom of the fact that we see women’s bodies and the way they clothe them as something for public consumption. How dare Millican show herself at a high-profile public event with her over-size-8 body and department store dress! Twice!

If we object to her dress, maybe we should be asking why, as she says: "Fancy expensive designer shops are out for me as I’m a size 18, sometimes 20, and I therefore do not count as a woman to them."

Red carpet action

Red carpet dresses (and people) at the 2012 Golden Globes
Showbiz events such as the Baftas are attended by actors and models, many of whom do make a living from looking pretty (and acting a bit too). The red carpet is also a showcase for designers, as exorbitant frocks are paraded for the camera, in the knowledge that the world is watching and judging. 

And so, watching and judging, lots of people on Twitter felt it was OK to comment on Millican's figure and attire. Forgetting, or not caring, that famous and successful though she is, she is also a woman. And we get very upset when other people (usually other women) mock the way we look.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Will Clifford lead to a greater good?

By Howard Lake via Wikimedia Commons
This week the celebrity publicist Max Clifford began an eight year jail sentence for sexually assaulting young women and girls. This is good news for feminism.

It won't fix anything. Putting Max Clifford in jail won’t give his victims back what he took from them. It won't take away the years of pain they have experienced as a result of what he did to them, and the increasing sense of degradation they must have felt as they continued to be faced with his image on TV.

And there will still be Max Cliffords out there - more or less powerful than he was, who can intimidate young women and molest them, feeling safe in the knowledge that they are rich and powerful. With some insignificant little girl's word against his, who will be believed?

But Clifford's downfall does send the message that rich and powerful men can be called to account for what they do to women. They won't always get away with it. Sometimes, but not always.

Making women's words count

In court one of Clifford's victims told how, when she tried to stop him assaulting her, he asked "Who is going to believe you?"

Clifford's blatant acknowledgement of his power over the young women he assaulted gets to the heart of the issue. Men are not usually physically stronger than women, but men in positions of power are more credible. 

Hopefully, the big result of this case will be that men like Max Clifford no longer seem unpunishable.

More alleged victims of Clifford's abuse are believed to have come forward during the trial, which could potentially lead to further court proceedings in future. We can guess that through the news of the court case, they found the courage and confidence to speak out about incidents which, fearing they would never be believed, they may never have told another human being. 

The police also announced 'a significant increase in the number of sexual abuse allegations reported', as a result of high-profile cases like Clifford's.

The legacy of Clifford's case, which will hopefully outlast the term of his jail sentence, could be helping women to speak up about their abusers.

Balanced scale of Justice


On the one hand, Clifford's jail sentence is justice for the girls and young women whom he violated.

On the other hand, the sentence is a signal to every woman who has been abused, harassed or undermined by men in positions of power, that they can be called to account.

Sadly this isn’t always the case, as Jimmy Savile’s numerous victims would no doubt testify – he went to his grave without having to answer for his crimes.

Maxwell Clifford's jail sentence is a small piece of justice in an unjust world, particularly for women. But you never know, it might play a tiny part in helping women to find their voices against assault.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Budding baby feminists

I always assumed that the differences between boys and girls didn't become apparent until they were a few years old, non-anatomically speaking.

When my brother and I were growing up, our parents were careful to treat us the same and didn't steer us towards any particular type of toy. My brother was soon requesting guns and cars, while I favoured more sedate pastimes. But we were past infancy, and so subject to wider influences than just our parents - might not our ideas of what toys we wanted to play with come from our observations of the world around us?

Since I had a baby girl, I have started to notice apparent differences between the genders from the very first days of life.

Crying like a girl

After my baby was born I began to pay attention to the way babies cry. Within 24 hours of her birth I could identify my daughter's cry with my eyes closed in a busy hospital ward. I didn't have confidence in this ability, so I still kept checking, even when it wasn't her. But when she wailed, I knew it.

I learnt that not only do babies' cries vary hugely, but that boy and girl cries are very different. The baby boys I know have much more masculine cries, usually deeper and louder, than the baby girls, who can be much more shrill.

While it's difficult to tell the sex of some babies (when they're dressed, obviously, and in neutral colours!), others look distinctly like boys or girls.

The baby girls I know tend to be more curious about the world, insisting on sitting up and looking about them, and less cuddly than the boys, who are more content to lounge about in their mothers' arms.

Differences between the genders shown from research include:
  • Boys like mechanical motion and are better at keeping track of moving objects
  • Girls understand language and start talking before boys
  • Boys express fear later than girls, and less often
  • Girls are better at making eye contact as newborns 
  • Girls are better at imitating, and are better with their hands
You can read more detail about these differences in 'The real difference between boys and girls'.

What does this mean?

The nature-nurture debate about what makes us who we are, whether it is ingrained in our DNA or learnt from our upbringing and experiences of the world around us, will rumble on forever. And I'm sure that our gender - the way we style ourselves as men or women - is a mixture of nature and nurture.

But these differences between baby boys and girls suggest that traits of masculinity and femininity are ingrained in us from birth. A baby girl is not just anatomically female when she is born, she already carries with her traits of her gender. Her brain is as female as her body. And from the moment she comes into the world, she is learning not just to be a human being, but to be a woman.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Women who parent alone

When I learned I was going to be a single mother, disbelief was succeeded by an all-consuming terror. I was bringing a person into the world, whom I alone would be caring for. There would be no one to help. WTF? The terror has still not gone away.

However, since I've become a single mother, and observed the mums around me, I've realised I'm not as different as I thought from my friends.

Parenting as a couple

I'm not saying that single parents are better off than couples. From where I'm sitting, I doubt many single parents wanted to be going it alone - I know it's tough, and I'm only just beginning.

Two-parent families have many advantages over single mums like me:
  • Mums can go out while dads babysit (once they're not needed for breastfeeding)
  • They can talk the daily decisions through
  • Once the children are in bed, mum has someone to spend the evening with
And I can't pretend I'm not jealous of couples who can spend leisurely weekends together, enjoying being a family.

But the advantage they don't seem to have, most of the time, is sharing the work of feeding, changing and bathing.

Sisters doing it for themselves

Generally the work of childcare - call it a burden or a boon if you like - falls on women's shoulders.

There are couples who truly share the load, but these seem to be in the minority. In most families, child rearing does seem to be mainly 'women's work'. Maybe this is the way it has to be and will always be, but it does leave me realising that my life isn't quite as different to my friends' as I had thought it would be, in those early days of shock and fear.

Couples who decided, before their little angel came along, that they would take turns to get up in the night, soon find that she wakes automatically, while he does not. So she may as well deal with the baby, since she's awake anyway.

One Dad I heard recently is too afraid to feed his baby, as the baby has bad reflux and could choke. You can sympathise with his fear, but it's a good job the child's mum has balls, or the child wouldn't get fed at all.

Other dads work long hours, getting home too late in the evening, or they regularly travel away from home, so they can rarely see their child in the week, and so provide practical support, which means they can do little to support their partner at these times. This isn't necessarily their fault, but is another reason why women are often left to parent alone.

I've been reading Misconceptions by Naomi Woolf, which explores experiences of pregnancy, labour and early motherhood. The book recounts stories of women, in what they'd considered to be equal partnerships, who found themselves taking on most of the work and responsibility of parenthood. It also observes that it's usually women's careers that take the hit when a couple decide to have children.

We may think we live in a relatively egalitarian society. But although women's lives and opportunities have come a long way, when it comes to babies, most of the time women end up feeding, changing, bathing and putting children to bed alone, whether they are single mums like me, or part of what they might once have considered to be an equal, 21st century relationship.

At least I'm not the only one doing it on my own.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Growing up with porn

Having a baby girl is pretty scary.

Her health and happiness is my responsibility, and that's terrifying, but I fear for her future - for all the pain, discomfort and hurt that she will have to face, because that's what living is about.

Apparently these day children get their ideas about relationships and sex from the internet. I expect I'm not alone in finding it a chilling prospect for my child's future.

I'm from the pre-internet generation. Pornography was available from top-shelf magazines and videotapes. Nice girls like me were unlikely to ever come into contact with it.

The internet

But now it's different. Now we have the internet. Now even the nice girls are bound to come across naughty things.

Generally I think the internet is great - it's given me a career, a forum to rant to my heart's content, and at the click of a button I can buy shoes that don't fit and look much less classy than they did in the picture. What's not to like?

Also available on the internet is a window onto every sexual proclivity you can possibly imagine, and lots more that you can't. That's great. I'm an adult, and it's nice to know that anytime I want to look at pervy stuff, I can do so from the comfort of my own home. For the record, I'm far too busy ranting and buying ill-fitting footwear for that malarky.

But then I didn't get the internet until I was all grown up. You can bet that if it had come along a bit earlier I'd have indulged in some home education. Anyone who's curious about the world would.

Things they shouldn't see

Today's children, who can work an iPad before they can read, will inevitably get access to a lot of things we'd rather they didn't see.

Parental control filters might help, but I bet our kids will still be able to find things we don't want them to. And if they can't download rude things on their computer at home, they'll go to a mate's house, who has less scrupulous or tech-savvy parents.

A survey by the charity Young Minds said that around half of 15 to 17-year-olds have accessed pornography on a smartphone or tablet.

If you ask me (not that you do), the half who said they haven't done this either don't have access to a smartphone or tablet, were lying, or don't have inquiring minds.

Kids have always done things their parents didn't want them to do - it's all part of growing up, and that's fine. What's scary is that today's children will have a window onto a world that wasn't available to previous generations, and they will model themselves on this strange, twisted internet world.

Women and the internet

What will my child conclude about the role of women from the internet? She's unlikely to be exposed to anything as mundane as a normal, loving relationship.

The concern is that watching porn will make children think that they have to behave in the ways they see depicted, which might be more extreme than most relationships. It might make them think they should do things they don't feel comfortable doing, and provide ammunition for their peers to pressurise them into doing these things.

Of course, both girls and boys are vulnerable to these pressures, but women and girls tend to be more vulnerable, both for their generally inferior strength, and their propensity to become pregnant.

The world today's baby girls are born into is a more liberated and equal place than it was at any time in the past, and that is wonderful for them. But it also brings with it a whole new set of obstacles which they will have to navigate, and I don't envy them for that.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Feminism and having babies part 3: sharing the load

When I went into this whole having a baby enterprise, the idea was that my partner and I would be truly collaborative parents, but is this really possible?

I'd have to do the pregnancy and birth bit. But after that it was intended to be a shared enterprise with both of us feeding, changing and juggling work and childcare.

It didn't work out, and now I'm on my own, so I can only speculate on husbands' roles in childrearing, and look back at those plans and say what probably wouldn't have worked.

Mother-child bonds

I knew a few things about mother-child bonds, but until you've experienced it, it's difficult to quite comprehend this.

Within a couple of days of her birth, my daughter's eyes would follow me around the room - she knew that I was the person who was supposed to look after her.

When I first met my baby I somehow recognised her cry, and could never really mistake another child's wailing for my own. Other people might learn to recognise it, but as her mother, I just know it.

It is easier for me to comfort and calm her than anyone else - when she's really tired and her little head can't cope with the world, it's me she wants to snuggle into to help her shut it all out. Since she's the world's most amazing baby, this makes me feel pretty good.

A mum's gotta do what a mum's gotta do

Breastfeeding of course puts the onus for feeding on women, but we are also programmed to respond to our babies in ways that men just are not.

If you're expressing milk, your milk usually flows better when the baby's on hand.

Friends who had decided they would take turns in getting up in the night to tend to their new arrival soon abandoned that, as mums found they woke up anyway, so they would then have to wake their partner, which seemed a bit pointless - if you're awake anyway, you may as well just deal with the baby.

What this all means is that, when it comes to childrearing, men and women aren't equal. Men can do a lot to support their partners (when they choose to stick around), but in these early days women end up doing the bulk of the work. Of course after these early stages men can do a lot more.

This is my experience - I'd be interested and delighted to hear from people who can contradict me.

Feminism and being a mother

I had envisaged that my partner and I would equally share the work of childrearing. As I'm now on my own, that's not possible. But I can see now, that even if he had stuck around, I would have ended up doing most of the work.

In feminist terms, this means that women who choose to be parents end up living very different lives to men who make this choice. It's a 'men are from Mars, women are from Venus' situation which illustrates how different we are.

We might win the fight for equality at work, but we'll never get it in family life, and that's probably a good thing.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Feminism and having babies part 2: early motherhood

Before I had a baby I was determined not to turn into one of those people who talks about babies and nothing else.

I found babies pretty boring, so couldn't think of anything worse than this.

But then I had a baby. And now I have very little else to say, because I don't do anything else.

I have very little time to read (although occasionally I can balance a book on my knees if I'm expressing and the baby happens to be sleeping, which is pretty rare), I have few opportunities to keep up with current affairs, and going out in the evening is a dimly-remembered luxury.

Food has become little more than fuel to keep me going. Except chocolate - suddenly I need to eat a lot of chocolate.

I get out of the house a lot and see a lot of people, but they are almost always people with babies. Other people with babies are easiest because they understand, and I'm more likely to feel able to leave my little bundle of joy with them while I nip to the loo or order my latte.

Becoming boring

By my own pre-baby reckoning I am now pretty dull, and that saddens me.

The strange thing is that I now find babies pretty interesting.

I hadn't really appreciated that they come into the world knowing absolutely nothing, so their day to day lives are all about trying to decode the world around them. A newborn doesn't know the difference between a person and a table, they have to learn this.

Watching my tiny daughter try to figure out what's what and who's who is fascinating. I could do it all day, which is good because that's pretty much what I have to do. And that's about all I have to talk about.

Being a feminist and a new mum

How does this relate to feminism? Being a feminist to me means being more than the sum of my biological parts. I was able to live a full, free and independent life.

But suddenly I find myself living a life entirely dictated by biological function - changing nappies, feeding and sleeping.

OK, so I have an automatic washing machine and can admit to spending considerable time sipping lattes with my newly babyfied pals, but basically the things I now occupy myself with are the same things that women have been doing forever.

I'm not free to come and go as I please, as I have to constantly consider my child's needs.

My academic accomplishments are now entirely pointless - my daughter doesn't care about my thoughts on the patriarchy, and my attempts to interest her in highbrow literature have so far floundered - she prefers it when I blow raspberries and supply milk.

I am no longer the free and independent woman I was. Although my convictions about feminism haven't diminished in the least, my new lifestyle undoubtedly leaves me feeling less liberated.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Feminism and having babies part 1: pregnancy

Last year I grew a baby. This meant I spent most of the year feeling sick and getting gradually larger. It was rubbish. Show me a woman who says she liked pregnancy and I'll show you one who has forgotten what it was really like.

People said I glowed. That was nice of them, and maybe it was true, but it couldn't make up for the fact that I felt like shit for eight whole fucking months (it didn't kick in for the first month). 

Unfortunately the utter shitness of pregnancy was compounded by the fact that my darling spouse decided it was a good time to leave me for someone else, transforming the shitness of pregnancy into something horrendous.

I was shocked to find that, having always prided myself on being independent and able to look after myself, I literally couldn't do this. And the person who was supposed to be there to step in and let me lean on them had left. It was just my luck that the one time in my life that I needed that support it wasn't there. 

Pregnancy and feminism

I have been musing a good deal on pregnancy and how, if at all, it relates to feminism. 

What my sad little tale told me, and why I tell it here, is that during pregnancy women are not equal to men. In some ways we're much greater, because we're doing this incredible thing of bringing a life into the world, and in other ways we are lessened because creating a new life is such debilitatingly hard work. The combination of sickness, tiredness and crazy hormones meant there were many days when I just wanted to curl up and cry. And that was before the really bad stuff happened. 

When I was pregnant, I wasn't the same person I had been. I could do a day's work, and I could go to the gym, and I could cook dinner, and I could be sociable, but I couldn't do all of those things in one day anymore. Just one of them took it out of me.

Of course, now I have a small baby to look after I don't get a chance to any of those things - ever - but that's part 2.

Sometimes I needed physical support, but more often I needed emotional support. I couldn't do it alone. I felt vulnerable and dependent - feelings that were foreign to me. I was a very different person to the pre-pregnancy me, and it was scary.

Enough about me...

Below is an interview with the feminist Naomi Wolf. She talks about how pregnancy made her a completely different person. 

What really resonated with me personally was when she said: 'My husband is next to me and I'm stunned to find that I need to lean on him. I'm not free, strong, brave.' I recognised that feeling of no longer feeling free, strong or brave.

This is a successful, confident and wealthy woman. She is an influential feminist, who gets paid to spout about female empowerment. And yet even she found that when it came to pregnancy, she needed to lean on a man.  

Our need to lean on men* when in this vulnerable state doesn't mean we're inferior in any way. It's simply that what we're growing is so incredibly knackering that we need a bit of help. Men don't have to go through pregnancy - do you think they'd fare any better if they did?


I didn't have a partner to lean on when I was pregnant, and that was awful, but I did find I had people to lean on - lots of them. Family, friends, colleagues and and people I hardly knew but now count as my friends. It felt like I had lots of people cheering me on and willing me to succeed.

* Obviously if you're pregnant and your partner is a woman, then you need to lean on her and not a man. Congratulations - she's probably a lot better at it.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

We're definitely not wasting our time with feminism

By Jim Ankan Deka, via Wikimedia Commons
Just a few days ago I was asking 'are we wasting our time with feminism?' On the same day that I wrote that, a 16-year-old girl from Calcutta died, after being gang-raped and set on fire.

She was raped twice. The second time was the day after the first, when she came home from reporting her rapists to the police. That's when they also set her on fire. She died of her injuries two months later, on New Year's Eve.

Changing India for women

Last New Year's Eve I wrote about the rape and death of another young Indian woman on a bus in Delhi: 'Rape - not a serious crime in India'.

The strength of the outcry at the Delhi bus attack was impressive, with men and women protesting, demanding justice and remembering the victim. Here are some pictures of the protests. 

People asked whether this would change India for women. But of course an entire culture isn't going to change over one case, or even one year of protests.

And this new case, one of many in India and elsewhere in the world, shows how little has changed. This 16-year-old girl, instead of being protected after reporting her ordeal, is left to face a further attack, that results in what must have been horrific injuries, and the loss of her life.

It screams that, despite what happened a year ago, and despite the strength of the protests that followed it, rape is still not taken seriously in India. The message to would-be rapists is that gang-raping a 16-year-old is OK. It's only if you do it a second time, set fire to her, she dies and the world starts to take notice that the authorities might start to bother you.

While there are still large parts of the world that have this cavalier attitude to what happens to women's bodies, then feminism still has much work to do.