Category Archives: Speculum

“Cliquish, tunnel-vision intolerance afflicts too many feminists”

When the Daily Mail described our interviewee as a “dissident feminist” last December we knew we had to talk to this outsider of mainstream feminism, professor and writer Camille Paglia. I wanted to know why it’s not easy to slot her into a “camp”, what we can learn from her dissidence, and whether, looking back, she would consider acting differently in the public sphere. Has Paglia mellowed with age? Erm, that would be a big, bellowing, NO!

The Daily Mail described you as a “dissident feminist” and then went on to list a series of counter intuitive opinions you are reported as having. Why is it important for a feminist to be “dissident”? Do you ever play devil’s advocate and do we need feminists who are “controversial”?

I am a dissident because my system of beliefs, worked out over the past five decades, has been repeatedly attacked, defamed, and rejected by feminist leaders and their acolytes across a wide spectrum, both in and out of academe. This punitive style of mob ostracism began from the very start of second-wave feminism, when Betty Friedan was pushed out of the National Organization for Women by younger and more radical women, including fanatical lesbian separatists.

As a graduate student in 1970, I quietly clashed with future bestselling lesbian novelist Rita Mae Brown at an early feminist conference held at the Yale Law School. Brown said, “The difference between you and me, Camille, is that you want to save the universities and I want to burn them down.” The next year, I nearly got into a fistfight with the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band over my defense of the Rolling Stones. Two years after that, as a Bennington College teacher at dinner at an Albany restaurant, I had an angry confrontation with the founding faculty of the pioneering women’s studies programme of the State University of New York when they sweepingly dismissed any role of hormones in human development. They accused me of being “brainwashed by male scientists”, a charge I still find stupid and contemptible. (I walked out before dessert, thereby boycotting the feminist event we all were headed to.)

“Neither she nor any other feminist has the right to canonise or excommunicate.”

There was a steady stream of other such unpleasant incidents, but everything paled in comparison to the international firestorm of lies and libel that greeted me after the publication in 1990 of my first book, Sexual Personae (a 700-page expansion of my Yale dissertation). It’s all documented and detailed in the back of my two essay collections, but let me give just one example. In 1992, Gloria Steinem, the czarina of U.S. feminism, sat enthroned with her designated heirs, Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf, on the stage of New York’s 92nd St Y and, when asked a question about me from the floor, replied: “We don’t give a shit what she thinks.” The moment was caught by TV cameras and broadcast by CBS’s 60 Minutes programme. Faludi has monotonously insisted over the years that I am not a feminist but “only play one on TV”. Well, who made Faludi pope? Neither she nor any other feminist has the right to canonise or excommunicate.

I remain an equal opportunity feminist. That is, I call for the removal of all barriers to women’s advance in the professional and political realms. However, I oppose special protections for women (such as differential treatment of the names of accuser and accused in rape cases), and I condemn speech codes of any kind, above all on university campuses. Furthermore, as a libertarian, I maintain that our private sexual and emotional worlds are too mercurial and ambiguous to obey the codes that properly govern the workplace. As I recently told the Village Voice, I maintain that everyone has a bisexual potential and that no one is born gay. We need a more flexible psychology, as well as an end to the bitter feminist war on men. My feminist doctrine is completely on the record in four of my six books.

As for playing “devil’s advocate”, I can’t imagine a committed feminist engaging in that kind of silly game. The real problem is the cliquish, tunnel-vision intolerance that afflicts too many feminists, who seem unprepared to recognise and analyse ideas. In both the U.S. and Britain, there has been far too much addiction to “theory” in post-structuralist and post-modernist gender studies. With its opaque jargon and elitist poses, theory is no way to build a real-world movement. My system of pro-sex feminism has been constructed by a combination of scholarly research and every-day social observation.

The infamous faxes between you and Julie Burchill in The Modern Review are still very much the stuff of legend in the UK’s media. Any regret about the whole thing? If you were mentoring a young Camille today how would you tell her to deal with that kind of situation? All guns blazing, take her down and combative, or would you be recommending some mindfulness, meditation and understanding?

There is not a single thing I would change in my handling of that acrimonious 1993 episode. British journalist Julie Burchill gratuitously attacked and insulted me, and I responded in kind. Our exchanges continued, with my replies getting longer and hers getting shorter, until she realised she had misjudged her opponent and “bottled out” (a British locution for beating a hasty retreat that I heard for the first time from an amused Times reporter commenting on the battle).

I learned how to jab and parry from my early models, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, and Mary McCarthy. Germaine Greer, whom I deeply admire, has always been glorious in combat. As for mentoring a young Camille Paglia, I would tell her to study my martial arts moves and do likewise!

We have found ourselves in the midst of many similar battles of wits online, as Twitter is effectively publishing everyone’s faxes. As someone who can give as good as you get, how do you feel about some prominent feminists and writers being hounded off Twitter by other feminists? What do you think Twitter is doing for feminism – making it narcissistic, polarised and too noisy, or democratic, pluralist and a thriving community?

It’s a sad comment on the current state of feminism that the movement has been reduced to the manic fragments and instant obsolescence of Twitter. Although I adore the web and was a co-founding contributor to Salon.com from its very first issue in 1995, I have no interest whatever in social media. My publisher maintains an informational Facebook page for me on the Random House site, but I don’t do Facebook or Twitter and wouldn’t even know how.

“…without strong books and essays as a permanent repository for new ideas, modern movements eventually sputter out…”

It is difficult to understand how a generation raised on the slapdash jumpiness of Twitter and texting will ever develop a logical, coherent, distinctive voice in writing and argumentation. And without strong books and essays as a permanent repository for new ideas, modern movements eventually sputter out for lack of continuity and rationale. Hasty, blathering blogging (without taking time for reflection and revision) is also degrading the general quality of prose writing.

As for feminists being hounded off Twitter by other feminists, how trivial and adolescent that sounds! Both sides should get offline and read more—history, sociology, psychology, and the big neglected subject, biology. How can the greater world, much less men, ever take feminism seriously if its most ardent proponents behave like catty sorority girls throwing hissy fits at the high-school cafeteria?

The two feminist issues that create the most noise on Twitter, and generate backlash whichever way you side, are the sex industry and gender, the latter especially in relation to transgenderism. What are your thoughts on both?

I support, defend, and admire prostitutes, gay or straight. They do important and necessary work, whether moralists of the Left and Right like it or not. Child prostitution and sexual slavery are of course an infringement of civil liberties and must be stringently policed and prohibited.

Feminists who think they can abolish the sex trade are in a state of massive delusion. Only a ruthless, fascist regime of vast scale could eradicate the rogue sex impulse that is indistinguishable from the life force. Simply in the Western world, pagan sexuality has survived 2000 years of Judaeo-Christian persecution and is hardly going to be defeated by a few feminists whacking at it with their brooms.

Transgenderism has taken off like a freight train and has become nearly impossible to discuss with the analytic neutrality that honest and ethical scholarship requires. First of all, let me say that I consider myself a transgender being, neither man nor woman, and I would welcome the introduction of “OTHER” as a gender category in passports and other government documents. I telegraphed my gender dissidence from early childhood in the 1950s through flamboyantly male Halloween costumes (a Roman soldier, a matador, Napoleon, etc.) that were then shockingly unheard of for girls.

As a libertarian, I believe that every individual has the right to modify his or her body at will. But I am concerned about the current climate, inflamed by half-baked post-modernist gender theory, which convinces young people who may have other unresolved personal or family issues that sex-reassignment surgery is a golden road to happiness and true identity.

How has it happened that so many of today’s most daring and radical young people now define themselves by sexual identity alone? There has been a collapse of perspective here that will surely have mixed consequences for our art and culture and that may perhaps undermine the ability of Western societies to understand or react to the vehemently contrary beliefs of others who do not wish us well. As I showed in Sexual Personae, which began as a study of androgyny in literature and art, transgender phenomena multiply and spread in “late” phases of culture, as religious, political, and family traditions weaken and civilizations begin to decline. I will continue to celebrate androgyny, but I am under no illusions about what it may portend for the future.

Camille Paglia is a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her latest book is Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars.

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How pioneering women took back Yoga from men.

Twenty-first century yoga is female. Look around the classes. There are a few men on planet yoga, but they are massively outnumbered by women. Yoga is a women’s thing – isn’t it?

But the practices all these women are doing were created by men, and for men. Some medieval yoga manuals advise yogis to avoid women, for fear of distraction or pollution. Hatha yoga (yoga that works through physical postures to modify mental activities) was a boys’ game, and women were not invited. Medieval hatha yoga manuals were not written for women’s bodies. The practices were closely guarded secrets, to be passed on from one male teacher to his initiates for their spiritual advancement.

So how does a medieval male practice, a secret technology for spiritual evolution, become a multi-billion pound global business with an almost entirely female customer base?

It’s a long, fascinating story, only now coming full circle. Most histories of hatha yoga refer to fifteenth century manuals, and to philosophy set out around the first century. Ideas and techniques from these texts were codified and possessed by male teachers who established powerful lineages to protect their teachings. Some of the lineages are monastic, ascetic traditions, and others are secular, but all of them are patriarchal hierarchies, with little place for women.

But there are feminine roots to yoga. Before the lineages and hierarchies existed to promote certain forms of yoga teaching, the deep roots of this holistic practice of self-care and empowerment were female.

Archeological evidence from 1300 BCE shows the roots of tantra, an approach to spirituality that embraces all aspects of human experience as a means to liberation. The roots of tantra include practices that honour the yoginis (goddesses and women who practice yoga) and celebrate the powerful energies of menstruation and birth as opportunities for profound spiritual initiation. It’s from the roots of tantra that hatha yoga grew. Hatha yoga is the son, but tantra is the mother.

Could this be why women love yoga? It was ours in the first place: a whole technology of self-care and spiritual development inspired by the cycles of our bodies. So when we get on our mats and follow our breath, we come back home to ourselves, rediscover our own power, and reconnect with ancient feminine roots of yoga.

For western women, this rediscovery began at the end of the nineteenth century. During the 1890s, when Queen Victoria was taking yoga philosophy lessons in Buckingham Palace, an Anglo-Irish governess called Margaret Noble met a traveling Bengali monk in a London drawing room, and fell in love with yoga as a spiritual teaching. Margaret traveled to Calcutta to study with her teacher.

As ‘Sister Nivedita’, Margaret Noble was one of a wave of courageous women who rediscovered the power of yoga and shared it. Other pioneering women traveled to India, each seeking yoga teachings to bring back home. In 1912 Mollie Bagot Stack studied in India, and brought her ‘stretch and swing’ classes to the Women’s League of Health and Beauty in London in the 1920s. In 1930, Latvian Eugenie Labunskaia studied with yoga master Krishnamacharya. Known as Indra Devi, Eugenie was a passionate and hugely influential international yoga teacher. By the time she died at the age of 103, she had spread yoga throughout five continents.

Indra Devi was the most prominent of the astonishing women who devoted their lives to yoga. When these women began to share yoga, something remarkable happened. Initially, yoga students would be lined up like soldiers, performing standard poses to order. This masculine approach to yoga teaching is still widespread, but slowly, women teachers began to sense that military approaches to yoga promoted by traditional lineages were not exactly suited to women’s bodies, at least not all of the time. Inspired by teachers such as Vanda Scaravelli and Angela Farmer, many women teachers have begun to work intuitively with the tools of hatha yoga, to share a more feminine, potently nourishing and womanly practice.

This fluid, powerful yoga brings us back to the ancient feminine roots of tantric practices that informed hatha yoga in the first place. We are coming full circle. I’ve been practicing yoga for forty-three years, and have spent seven years researching the history of women in yoga. I’ve been delighted to rediscover that yoga’s feminine roots nourish women today.

When we heed our intuition, honouring the wisdom of our cycles, then yoga responds perfectly to the needs of our female bodies: bodies that menstruate and conceive, bodies that miscarry and give birth, bodies with breasts, wombs and bellies, bodies that go through menopause and experience pre-menstrual tension. The yoga that best serves women does not impose upon us the shapes and forms of yoga practice designed for men, instead, it supports us at every stage of our lives.

So if you are female and you practice yoga, then I invite you, next time you are told in a class what to do, to pause, to feel into yourself and ask: does this really suit me right now? If I am menstruating, or ovulating, does this make a difference to my yoga practice? If I am about to bleed, or if I am having a hot flush, then does this yoga that I’m being instructed to do really suit me today?

When we ask these questions, we don’t just replicate sequences learnt from male lineages that exist to protect teachings, not to serve the well-being of students. Instead we find yoga that works best for us as women, that respects the cycles of our female bodies. This is a radical shift towards self-care as empowerment. And yoga that empowers women has very ancient roots.

Uma Dinsmore-Tuli Phd is a yoga therapist. Her new book, Yoni Shakti: a woman’s guide to power and freedom through yoga and tantra is out now. For more details of the book, please visit www.yonishakti.co. To connect with teachers who share a feminine vision of yoga practice for women please visit www.wombyoga.org

Stockist details www.yogamatters.com

Photo: Wikimedia

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‘Worcester Woman’ talks back: should there be more women in politics?

As our regional Feminist Times team hurtles towards our first event, I was asked by Editor Deborah Coughlin, why I got involved in setting up a regional events team for the Feminist Times in the West Midlands.

If there had been a short answer to this question it would have made for a very dull blog. The long answer, however, may just fill a book. So here’s my attempt at a shortened and abridged version of why I signed up.

My story starts as an undergraduate, studying the psychology of women, listening to female narratives, discovering feminism as a political movement. These experiences have led me down all sorts of paths of personal and political enlightenment and have created a life long fascination with the psychology of the female body, feminism, women’s talk, herstory, mythology and Goddesses. It also inspired a desire to learn from, and to educate, other women, to join them on their path to enlightenment.

It was this desire that then led me to Youth Work, specifically sexual health education and work with young women in particular. It’s hard to find specific funding to work with young women on issues of sexual equality and I’ve had to be creative to make this kind of work bend to a specifically feminist agenda. More recently, austerity measures have seen further cuts to services for young people so it’s really exciting to see the re-emergence of feminist youth work, like Feminist Webs in the last year or so, but it’s not common place.

The relative informality of the youth work process has all but disappeared in recent years but in my early career the job afforded me hours of sitting in coffee shops, discussing projects, planning sessions and biding my time between them. It was during this immersion in coffee culture that I was first invited to become involved in putting on a VDay event in our local community. I jumped at the chance.

It was great being involved in these events, working collectively with wonderful women to create amazing events out of thin air. Shouting the reclaimed C-word to audiences, raising money for grassroot’s women’s organisations and awareness of women’s global issues to a wide range of women and girls. After doing this for 4 years, however, life has taken me down some unexpected paths and now, one tragedy, one wedding, a pregnancy, and one 7 year old girl child later, my heart and my head are back in action, and feminism calls once more.

During the last three years I’ve been attending the Women of the World festival in London’s Southbank Centre. It’s another contributing factor to my wanting to get involved in feminist events. My experiences there could be a whole other blog in itself but one thing I’m always struck by is how especially awesome it would be if there could be such an event nearer home. Something a little less London centric, where it might be possible to network with like minded local folk.

It was with all these things in mind that I responded to a call for action at the end of last year from the newly founded Feminist Times. The call was to help them fulfill a promise to their members to put on local events. A call that came at a perfect time for me, a frustrated feminist, looking for the right opportunity to ride the current wave. How could I not get involved?

In February I traveled to Birmingham to meet with Deborah to look at how we might start turning an idea into a reality. Since then it’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride. That initial meeting was the start of so many fantastic conversations with many fascinating women, each inspiring many brilliant ideas: an arts festival showcasing women’s talent, a WoW festival for the Midlands, Feminist Barbie’s, a Feminist Café, an Edit-a-thon, a Feminist Burlesque show with a Q&A with performers, Feminist workshops in schools, a political party for the new Feminist order… Sometimes it felt like my head might explode.

I soon realised that these ideas were part of something much bigger than I could conceive and definitely bigger than the original brief. I also appeared to be getting carried away by that greater power that understands that when you bring the right women together something quite magical often happens. Fortunately, I also realised that I needed to reign myself in, harness just a few ideas, if I was to achieve anything at all. From small acorns do oak trees grow.

So in reorganising my thoughts I was able to bring together a small group of women, under the banner of a West Midlands Feminist Times team. We are collectively 20 something to 50 something. We each come with a diverse set of backgrounds, passions and experiences to bring to the table, and each with a unique desire to help galvanise a local feminist movement.

Obviously the range of potential themes and topics for our first event were vast but we quickly decided on an event that reflected the context of the recent local and European elections. We were interested in media discussions about all women shortlists. We were angry about increasing cuts, locally and nationally, to the services that have women and children at their heart. We were excited by articles about feminist parties in other European countries and intrigued as to how countries that are generally presented as less politically advanced by our British media could have better female representation in their governing bodies. Our own personal interests and concerns seemed to be centering around politics and how the world might be different with more women in positions of power and influence.

In addition to this, we were all fascinated by the ‘Worcester Woman‘. This politically contentious and ambiguous creature is said to represent the female face of middle England. It’s hard to find when and where the term was first coined but it’s generally understood to have appeared around 1997 and is used in the political media to describe a particularly type of female voter with ‘consumerist views and a shallow interest in politics’. Conversationally, if you Google ‘Worcester Woman’ most of the articles on the first page consist of the furthering of this political stereotype, none challenge it’s basic premise. As a diverse group of Worcester Women, as feminists, and as the West Midlands Feminist Times we decided we wanted to redress this notion of shallowness, we wanted to talk back.

And so our first event was conceived, meeting in women’s centres, cafés, pubs and our own homes to create our first happening: a panel event in the center of Worcester focusing on women’s place in contemporary politics. Since then it’s been a hectic month of extreme multi tasking for all of us. Juggling jobs, families and extra curricula activities with the planning of an event and all that it entails. A venue to find, a panel to compile, letters to write, calls to make, networks to draw upon, favours to ask, decisions to make, problems to solve, solutions to find, publicity to organise, flyers to disseminate, volunteers to recruit…..and now here we are, just days away from pulling off an extraordinary event.

The evening promises to be one of interesting and exciting discussion and debate in Worcester’s prestigious Guildhall. With an amazing panel drawn from local politicians, councillors and academics, as well as the Feminist Times own Editor, Deborah Coughlin. Our title for the event is obviously a rhetorical question (Worcester Woman talks back: should there be more women in politics?) but I’m very intrigued to see how our panel translates the question and how our audience will respond.

My personal hope for this event is that it might create further opportunities for discussion and action at a local level. I hope it encourages people to look at the barriers to women’s participation in local politics and also to look at ways of supporting and encouraging more women and girls into seeing a political career as an achievable and desirable goal.

Longer term I hope that we are able to offer a wide variety of events across the West Midlands that attract diverse audiences of feminists and potential feminists and those still unsure. I’d like to encourage collaboration with other feminist networks, perhaps ultimately creating a strong regional network of passionate, creative voices across the West Midlands. Anything I can do to contribute to this current wave of feminism, participating in its ebb and flow and continuing momentum, hoping to make a difference to people’s lives by challenging the status quo.

So watch this space for our future events (we have a Feminist Café event on the 18th June) and if you have an idea for a Fem T event in the West Midlands then please get in touch.

Attend our debut event “Worcester Woman talks back: Should there be more women in politics?”  Contact us at westmidlands@feministtimes.com

Leisa Taylor is a Youth Worker, Tutor, sometime blogger, Jill of all Trades, Feminista Extrordinaire, currently learning to pay the Ukulele. Follow her on Twitter @munachik; Facebook & LinkedIn @ Leisa Taylor; munachik.wordpress.com

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Hysteria 2.0: has fourth wave feminism made us all mad?

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.

A recent in-depth study by the World Health Organization (WHO) states that the “traditional gender roles further increase susceptibility [to mental illness] by stressing passivity, submission and dependence.” Reassuringly, the WHO concluded that “the pervasive violation of women’s rights” contributes to the growing burden of their mental disability.

However, the problem with this mass diagnosis of female ‘madness’ is that it relies on social, economic and cultural constructs. Therefore much of our understanding of mental illness and women has to lie in the controversial term, hysteria. Once described as a “mimetic disorder”, as it tended to mimic culturally acceptable expressions of distress, the term has appeared in our lexicon under many guises, from the ‘wandering womb’ to ‘unmanageable emotional excesses.’

Today its root can be found in a extensive list of disorders including anxiety, depression, psychosis, body dysmorphic disorder, borderline personality disorder, sexual dysfunction, amnesia, bipolar disorder and many more.

The term hysteria, from the Greek meaning ‘womb’, was first used to describe “the restless, migratory uterus that caused mental disorders”. This idea of the “restless and migratory” female can be seen in the diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorder and, in a metaphorical sense, in the continual waves of the feminist movement and the numbers of those within the movement suffering from mental illness.

Shulamith Firestone, author of the radical feminist text The Dialectic of Sex, blames Freud’s failure to “question society itself” for the “massive confusion in the disciplines that grew up around his theory”, since the Freudian talking cure for the hysterical Dora, and his theories of the sub and unconscious, were ruled by the potent theory of the Oedipus Complex – or ‘penis envy’.

Freud’s “poetic genius” and failure to question the constraints of women has followed on into the 21st century; current psychiatrists and doctors still fail to consider alternative factors in diagnosis, whilst reeling off an elegiac list of symptoms. Looking back to borderline personality disorder, an often misdiagnosed illness, we can see the irresponsible reliance on outdated diagnostic rubric. Its emphasis on “impulsivity” and “instability in sense of self” mirrors traits pinned on to the wanton, unfeminine woman. Used when psychiatrists could not decide if a woman was being “psychotic” or “neurotic”, this catch-all diagnosis for women has led to many sane women walking around thinking they are mentally ill. Cue once again mass hysteria – the proverbial wandering womb.

Firestone accounts that psychological moulding by the “patriarchal nuclear family”, where women and children are the dependents, led to the greater risk of psychological problems. Similarly, gender inequality from childhood experiences have conditioned children into believing in what equates to ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, which is reinforced and constructed through the sensationalism and male dominance of the media.

According to journalist and author Kira Cochrane, the fourth wave of feminism is all about ‘the rebel woman’: the women who will not sit down and shut up; the women who will speak up against patriarchal media. However, I have a problem with the word ‘rebel’, which suggests a mob, a frenzy, and consequently leads back to that controversial word ‘hysteria’.

Despite Cochrane’s best efforts to allude to empowerment, she has managed to reinforce second wave feminist Phyllis Chesler’s idea that psychoanalysis regards madness as a normative characteristic of femininity. The 21st century rebel woman is equivalent to the 19th century hysterical woman.

Recent campaigns such as Slutwalk and No More Page 3 challenge terms and images that were once used to oppressed women, transforming them into punchy media slogans and sealing their negativity in the public consciousness. The female mind interprets the eradication of these illiberal ideas as a means to liberate ourselves, and yet the oppression continues, anxiety rises, and women are still searching for their own lexicon to establish mental liberation.

As Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex argues, in the context of Freudianism and feminism, like all Freud’s theories about women, he “analyses the female only as negative male.” While Freudianism gave women the ‘talking cure’ – the means to express their oppressed unconscious to cure hysteria – it developed a feminine stream of consciousness, littered with inverse male words; a modern repetition of penis envy.

This relentless quest, or to quote Hippocrates, this “restless and migratory” quest, has left a generation exhausted, depressed and anxious. Female rebellion has been going strong for decades, when so many women in the 1960s and 70s thought that everything would be alright in the end. Unfortunately, as we get deeper into the 21st century and our perspectives broaden to become more global, women’s lives are actually getting worse.

If, as the WHO study suggests, mental health has much to do with freedom we need to scrutinise the high points of women’s liberation: getting the vote; sexual liberation thanks to the contraceptive pill; and the rising prevalence of successful career women. Fast-forward to today, and women face corrupt politicians, frequent threats to reproductive rights, and vast unemployment, as well as bearing the brunt of government austerity measures. Women’s rights have indeed once again been violated; this time against many of the victories once crusaded for.

As Deborah Orr points out in the Guardian, the very thing many “leftwing feminists” don’t like to hear is that “combining motherhood with a demanding career is hard”, but there has to be a better solution than the lines of our sisters queuing up for sedative doses of “mothers’ little helpers”.

Women’s mental health will always be a sensitive subject, as it plagues so many lives, and 21st century feminism is indeed suffering from its own form of hysteria. Its unmanageable, emotional excesses towards reform are likely to have triggered a psychosomatic response within women. As the number of women turning to feminism is rising with the hope of change, the internal conflict of its stagnancy is troubling for many. It’s an uncomfortable question, but what if the very thing that has shifted women’s liberation to its height is also what has mentally exhausted us?

Nikki Hall is a writer and critic. Her work has featured in The Independent, The F-Word, For Book’s Sake and Litro. Follow her @nikkihall101

Photo: Hey Paul Studios

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“Whose Islam? Whose feminism?”

An artist’s depiction of ‘the feminist table’ today would look decidedly different to how it may have looked fifty years ago. Marriage – formerly perceived as a betrayal of the sisterhood – has been normalised, and even arch-enemy number one, the man, has been welcomed into the movement in some circles. The advent of the theory of intersectionality, which recognizes that women from different backgrounds are subject to different layers of oppression – be these related to race, class, sexuality or disability – has created space to broaden the feminist lens of analysis and challenge narrow interpretations of what a truly emancipated woman can look like. Feminism has evolved and will continue to do so.

Yet despite the fact that mainstream feminism has come to accommodate a broader range of experiences since its first wave in the 19th century, many still falter at the idea of a Muslim feminist.

Muslim women seeking to advance gender equality agendas face solid resistance from various camps: negative media perceptions and tensions with mainstream feminism, plus tensions from within the Muslim community – where feminism is often viewed as a neo-colonialist imposition – can all operate to perpetuate stereotypes of Muslim women as subordinate and limited in terms of what they can aspire to.

In many Muslim countries women’s efforts to advance gender equality agendas are hampered by the fact that hierarchical constructions of gender relations are enshrined in law and defended in the name of the divine. The last three decades have seen a dynamic and multi-stranded wave of academic thought, which is frequently referred to as ‘Islamic feminism’, grow in prominence. Iranian scholar Ziba Mir Hosseini has described this as “new voices and scholarship in Islam that are feminist in their aspirations and demands and Islamic in their source of legitimacy.”

Unveiling the social construction of how laws are formed, and the subjective ideologies, political, sociological, cultural and economic factors that informed these has been key to such efforts. As well as providing compelling gender-sensitive readings of holy texts to separate religion from patriarchy, Islamic feminists have drawn on Islam’s rich history of important figures and movements working to improve women’s rights and autonomy to support their drive for egalitarian gender relations.

We can see the progress that has been made using ‘Islamic feminism’ with the reform of some aspects of laws concerning family relations in Muslim countries such as Tunisia, Morocco and Indonesia and in the work of groups such as Sisters in Islam and Musawah, working today to emphasise that the attainment of de jure and de facto equality and justice for Muslim women is both possible and necessary. However the fact that these conversations are predominantly being conducted in scholarly circles runs the risk that they are not adequately filtering down to the young people or indeed, the general public, who could benefit from them.

This was one of the issues raised in a project, Islam and Feminism, which we launched at Maslaha in March in an effort to explore what feminism in Islam can mean to different people and how it might challenge stereotypes both in Islam and feminism, as well as the perceived clash between the two. The motivation behind this was to bring together historic and contemporary action and grassroots and academic conversations on Islam and feminism, and moreover to make this breadth of ideas and knowledge available to everyone.

Whilst providing an insight into key thinkers currently working in the fields of women’s rights in the context of Islam – such as Amina Wadud, Leila Ahmed and Shuruq Naguib – a salient feature of our resource was a series of short videos with professionals, activists, academics and artists providing personal perspective and experiences of Islam and feminism in everyday life.

The intention was that the range of voices and faces would not only help to debunk that age-old stereotype that Muslim women are carbon copies of each other, but also to foster an understanding that similar to feminism among non-Muslim women, one common vision of what gender equality is in Islam should not be assumed.

While many non-Muslims and Muslims struggle to move beyond labouring over the nuances of whether in theory Islam can be reconciled with feminism, we found that in reality Muslim women in the UK are finding space to articulate and express their identity in diverse ways, whether or not they choose to define these efforts as feminism.

While some Muslim women lobbying for change in the UK, for example Dr Sariya Contractor, see the term feminism as an ‘icebreaker’ and an important enabler in the demystification of difference, others, for example the editors of One of My Kind (OOMK) – a zine exploring the imaginations, creativity and spirituality of women of color and faith – feel they don’t need to talk about feminism explicitly, “we let what we are doing speak for itself which is more natural and every day and practical and we invite people to take part without dictating how they should do this.”

Journalist Kübra Gümüşay told us that while in her teens she felt excluded by feminism and that “mainstream feminism would never include women like me,” she believes Islamic feminism, far from being a threat to mainstream feminism, can support it as it provides more sources and resources to reinforce feminist aims of empowering women.

Similarly, while acknowledging that “there is still a fair amount of resistance to the idea that people of faith have anything to contribute to feminist ideals,” writer Myriam Francois-Cerrah finds that feminist values feed seamlessly into her beliefs as a Muslim: “As a Muslim my frame of reference is the texts, but truth is truth wherever it’s coming from – and if I recognise something that’s coming from any feminist – Gloria Steinam, Germaine Greer – that to me reflects truth, then it becomes part of my Islamic lexicon.”

These views are a far cry from the rigid definitions of Islam and feminism which so often dominate discussions of women’s rights in Islam. An important step to opening up space for more fruitful discussions has been to move beyond simplistic conceptualisation of both Islam and feminism and to seek alternative and equally valid narratives to support more inclusive understandings of both. Muslim women have a right to their religion, but also to feminism, which does not necessarily have to be associated with secularity.

In the UK today, amidst negative stereotypes of what a Muslim woman can be, it is important, as grassroots activist Noori Bibi argues here, to ensure that the gap between grassroots and academia is being bridged and that the language and approach of debates connects with the communities that need them.

To continue to essentialise about the experiences of Muslim women is to deny the diverse realities of the lives of Muslim women, both today and historically, who have comfortably reconciled their own gender identity with their faith. As Ziba Mir-Hosseini has said, an important question to keep in mind when considering the nuances of Islam and feminism on any level is: “Whose Islam? Whose feminism? Who is speaking for Islam? Who is speaking for feminism?”

Latifa Akay is a project manager at Maslaha and a writer and commentator on women’s issues. Follow her @LatifaAkay, and find out more @Maslaha.

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#Genderweek: Why are men violent?

Click here to read all #GenderWeek articles.

We sent all our #GenderWeek contributors this brief:

Prof Jesse Prinz (Author, Beyond Human Nature)

If biological sex is not binary, if the current trend is towards trans inclusion in feminism and non-gendered charities for domestic violence – how in this context of a gradual break down in “gender norms”, can you explain why men continue to be much more violent than women? And what repercussions does this have for the discussions we’ve been having in #GenderWeek?

  • What do you consider the reasons behind men being more likely to being violent – is it culture, society, or evolution?
  • If the latter, how do you then deal with the idea that biology of sex is not binary – people assigned male and female at birth may not have XX/XY chromosomes?
  • And how do you deal, in an empathic and caring way, with the real threat that some women feel when with someone who was assigned male at birth in their space?

Here are their responses:

Dr Finn Mackay is a feminist activist and researcher.
Male violence against women is epidemic, it is a symptom of patriarchy and also maintains it. Male violence is not due to biology, it is made and not born. This means it can be unmade through the dismantling of patriarchy, which would liberate all of us, women and men. Not all men rape or abuse women, this means there’s no genetic excuse for those who do. Masculinity is wedded to violence, displayed through domination at any cost; leaving women and children to pay the price. We need to create an equal world, where we can all be the human beings we are, not brutal and limiting stereotypes.

Karen Ingala Smith is the Chief Executive of nia, a charity supporting women and children who have experienced sexual and domestic violence.
Gender kills. Sexual inequality is structural and based on biological sex. Gender is a social construct, a means of maintaining and reinforcing men’s oppression of women, sexual inequality. Gender is neither natural nor innate. Gender is a critical enabler of male violence against women. For me, feminism is about the liberation of women from male oppression. This does not mean that as a feminist I do not recognise or seek to end other forms of oppression, such as those based on class, race and disability; but it means that I see eradication of socially constructed gender as vital for the liberation of all women.

Lynne Segal is a feminist writer and activist, and Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies at Birkbeck, University of London.
I am suspicious of what is meant in trying to sum up, or wrap up, gender contrasts – seeing problems with all binary reductionism, gendered or otherwise. My basic feminism has never been Manichean: men equals ‘bad’; women equals ‘good’, when many women are not feminists in any way I can recognise (that is instinctively egalitarian and inclusive of all women); while some men do support women in all the ways they can think of, however privileged their gender position. But of course gender remains a hugely, multifaceted, hierarchical structure, which affects us all, so here is what I would say:

Some forms of gender polarisation are foolish. Men do not start all wars, women often condone, assist and more recently fight in them – was Margaret Thatcher a man? We need boys and men to support feminism. Some do. But I can laugh along with Barbara Ehrenreich: “Of all the nasty outcomes predicted for women’s liberation… none was more alarming, from a feminist point a view, than the suggestion that women would eventually become just like men.” Some have!

CN Lester is a musician, writer and activist.
I don’t feel that there’s any simple answer to this question, and that trying to reduce it to a sophistic “nature vs. nurture” argument distorts the research already carried out. It hampers our future efforts at reducing violence, and examining and trying to solve the myriad reasons why violence happens.

I think a multidisciplinary approach is needed – we need research and ideas for action from a range of activists, psychologists, neuroscientists, social workers, anthropologists (I could go on) – and while it’s necessary to remember that men commit the majority of violent acts, we can’t afford to ignore violent acts committed by women. The idea that men are somehow tainted and irredeemable and women are innately virtuous helps no one.

Natacha Kennedy is an academic, former primary school teacher, political and transgender activist who identified as a girl from a young age.
I believe that if one accepts that male violence is the result of biology then one has effectively given up on any idea of human self-determination either for men or for women. In the same way that Cordelia Fine has demonstrated that women are culturally influenced in terms of behavioural expectations and self-perception, so men are also influenced by a culture that expects certain things of them. This has probably come about largely because the ruling class needs to maintain a reserve of potentially violent people to use to protect their power and economic interests, consequently it needs to promote a culture that encourages men to develop violent dispositions.

Ruth Greenberg is a UK radical feminist, involved in RadFem UK, Abolish Prostitution Now and local feminist activism.
Male violence against women and girls, and other men too, is a socialised phenomena. It is understandable that some women, overcome with the horror of male violence, seek a biological explanation for this violence but the scientific evidence does not support that (Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender).

The prevalence of male violence presents a challenge to women who do not want male socialised people in women-only spaces. Trans women are socialised as boys and sometimes as men, depending on when they transition. So for many there is a concern that violence is not reduced by transition.

That is why I think we need women-only spaces that include trans women, and also spaces that are for women born female only.

Roz Kaveney is a member of the Feminist Times Editorial Board. She is a trans woman, novellist, poet, critic and activist.
Patriarchy is a system of social organisation and control dedicated to ownership and the transmission of ownership. To this end it makes use of violence and the threat of violence to control women’s reproduction and to police everything which might threaten bloodline transmission, e.g. sexual and gender variance, or exposure to other cultures. Subordinate groups are taught to fear: recruits to the dominant group are taught to value violence. Socialisation into violence is accordingly linked to systems of expectation particularly, but not limited to gender and sex assigned at birth.

Louise Pennington is a radical feminist writer and activist who founded A Room of Our Own.
Women are oppressed by the biological reality of sex as is so clearly highlighted by the Everyday Sexism Project and Women Under Siege. Radical feminism is a political theory that recognises this sex-based oppression (Patriarchy). As a radical feminist, I do not believe that men are biologically programmed to be violent. I believe that male violence is encouraged and perpetuated in order to maintain wealth and power within a select group of, mainly white, men. We need women-only services that recognise gendered patterns of violence because violence is both a cause and a product of socialisation and sex inequality.

What do you think? Tell us below…

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#GenderWeek: The problem is capitalist-patriarchy socialising boys to be aggressive

Click here to read all #GenderWeek articles.

The most common criticism of radical feminist theory is that we are gender essentialist because we believe that women’s oppression, as a class, is because of the biological realities of our bodies. Radical feminists define sex as the physical body, whilst gender is a social construct. It is not a function of our biology. It is the consequence of being labelled male/female at birth and assigned to the oppressor/sex class. The minute genetic differences are not reflected in the reality of women’s lived experiences. Gender is the coercive process of socialisation built upon a material reality that constructs women as a subordinate class to men. As such, radical feminists do not want to queer gender or create a spectrum of gendered identities; we want to end the hierarchical power structure that privileges men as a class at the expense of women’s health and safety.

This assumption is based on a misunderstanding of radical feminist theory, that starts from the definition of “radical” itself, which refers to the root or the origin: that is to say, the oppression of women by men (The Patriarchy). It is radical insofar as it contextualises the root of women’s oppression in the biological realities of our bodies (sex) and seeks the liberation of women through the eradication of social structures, cultural practises and laws that are predicated on women’s inferiority to men (gender).

Radical feminism challenges all relationships of power that exist within the Patriarchy including capitalism, imperialism, racism, classism, homophobia and even the fashion-beauty complex because they are harmful to everyone: female, male, intersex and trans*. As with all social justice movements, radical feminism is far from perfect. No movement can exist within a White Supremacist culture without (re)creating racist, homophobic, disablist, colonialist and classist power structures. What makes radical feminism different is its focus on women as a class.

Radical feminists do not believe there are any innate gender differences, or in the existence of male/female brains. Women are not naturally more nurturing than men and men are not better at maths and reading maps. Men are only “men” insofar as male humans are socialised into specific characteristics that we label male, such as intelligence, aggression, and violence and woman are “woman” because we are socialised into believing that we are more nurturing, empathetic, and caring than men.

Women’s oppression as a class is built on two interconnected constructs: reproductive capability and sexual capability. In the words of Gerda Lerner in The Creation of Patriarchy, the commodification of women’s sexual and reproductive capacities is the foundation of the creation of private property and a class-based society. Without the commodification of women’s labour there would be no unequal hierarchy of power between men and women, fundamental to the creation and continuation of the Capitalist-Patriarchy, and, therefore, no need for gender as a social construct.

Radical feminism recognises the multiple oppressions of individual women, whilst recognising the oppression of women as a class in the Marxist sense of the term. Rape does not require every woman to be raped to function as a punishment and a deterrent from speaking out. The threat therein is enough. Equally, the infertility of an individual woman does not negate the fact that her oppression is based on the assumed potential (and desire) for pregnancy, which is best seen in discussions of women’s employment and men’s refusal to hire women during “child-bearing” years due to the potential for pregnancy, which is used as a way of controlling women’s labour: keeping women in low-paying jobs and maintaining the glass ceiling. Constructing women as “nurturers” maintains the systemic oppression of women and retains wealth and power within men as a class.

Even something as basic as a company dress code is gendered to mark women as other. Women working in the service industry are frequently required to wear clothing and high heels that accentuate external markers of sex. Sexual harassment is endemic, particularly in the workplace, yet women are punished if they do not attend work in clothing that is considered “acceptable” for the male gaze. The use of women’s bodies to sell products further institutionalises the construction of women as object.

There is a shared girlhood in a culture that privileges boys, coercively constructs women’s sexuality and punishes girls who try to live outside gendered norms. The research of Dale Spender, and even Margaret Atwood, dating back to the 1980s has made it very clear that young girls are socialised to be quiet, meek and unconfident. Boys, on the other hand, are socialised to believe that everything they say and do is important: by parents and teachers, by a culture which believes that no young boy would ever want to watch a film or read a book about girls or written by a woman. Shared girlhood is differentiated by race, class, faith and sexuality, but, fundamentally, all girls are raised in a culture which actively harms them.

Radical feminists are accused of gender essentialism because we recognise the oppressive structures of our world and seek to dismantle them. We acknowledge the sex of the vast majority of perpetrators of violence. We do so by creating women-only spaces so that women can share stories in the knowledge that other women will listen. This is in direct contrast to every other public and private space that women and young girls live in. Sometimes these spaces are trans-inclusive, like A Room of our Own the blogging network I created for feminists and womanists. Sometimes these spaces will need to be for women who are FAAB only or trans* women only, just as it is absolutely necessary to have black-women only spaces and lesbian women-only spaces.

There is a need for all of these spaces because socialisation is a very powerful tool. Being raised male in a patriarchal white supremacist culture is very different to being raised female with the accompanying sexual harassment, trauma and oppression. The exclusion of trans* women from some spaces is to support traumatised women who can be triggered by being in the same space as someone who was socialised male growing up. This does not mean that an individual trans* woman is a danger, but rather a recognition that gendered violence exists and that trauma is complicated.

It is our direct challenge to hegemonic masculinity and control of the world’s resources (including human) that makes radical feminism a target of accusations like gender essentialism. We recognise the importance in biological sex because of the way girls and boys are socialised to believe that boys are better than girls. As long as we live in a capitalist-patriarchy where boys are socialised to believe that aggression and anger are acceptable behaviour, women and girls will need the right to access women-only spaces however they define them.

Louise Pennington is a radical feminist writer and activist who founded A Room of Our Own: A Feminist/Womanist network. She can be found on twitter as @LeStewpot and @Roomofourown

Photo: Pixabay

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#GenderWeek: Non-binary gender makes me free, not a traitor

Click here to read all #GenderWeek articles.

Ideas of genders outside of the strict female/male binary are enjoying unprecedented levels of attention at the moment – in mainstream media outlets, feminist websites, LGBT and student campaigns, popularised and disseminated through social media platforms Twitter and Tumblr. Genderqueer, agender, neutrois, bigender, gender-fluid, androgynous – a wash of varied and various nomenclature that some group under the label ‘non-binary’.

I’ve been out as transgender and androgynous/genderqueer for half my life, and an ardent feminist since before I knew that there was a word for it. I have yet to meet a person with a ‘non-standard’ gender who isn’t a feminist and/or womanist. Trans feminist pioneer Leslie Feinberg is cited by many of my peers as an inspiration, and many of us found hope for a world that included us in the works of Judith Butler, Jack Halberstram and Del la Grace Volcano.

But, for a certain subset of feminists, an acceptance and celebration of gender variance is counted as antithetical to the core values of feminism itself. As someone who was assigned a ‘girl’ at birth there are some who have called me a traitor for my refusal to call myself female; who argue that people not comfortable with designating themselves women or men (or solely women or men) are upholding sexist stereotypes. That, even if we had a valid point in terms our personal lives, we’re taking up vital space, time and attention that should be spent on the ‘real’ issues. That we should stop being divisive.

I can see, in an oppositional, binary-entrenched way, the way I must seem to them. But I can’t condone it. For me, being genderqueer and being feminist are wound around each other in a way that I couldn’t untangle, even if I wanted to. And I think that that symbiotic relationship can only serve to help feminism as a whole, if we let it.

1. Gender plurality frees us from an immutable, ahistorical idea of gender

One of the main stumbling blocks I’ve found to spreading an awareness of the possibility of freedom from a patriarchal system is the widespread sophistry that “it’s just the way it is”. “Boys will be boys”, “it’s always been this way”. But an examination of the history of the gendered categories we use, an awareness of new terms springing into existence, an acknowledgement of cultural differences in how we classify women, men, both and neither, shows us that change is possible. That change has always been possible. That there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to human diversity – but that we’re always inventing new ways of seeing, new ways of understanding our cultures.

‘Gender’ is such a nebulous concept –  a word to describe individual variation, a hierarchical system of punishment and reward, a way to name the self to the self. The more we can recognise just how vast and changeable that concept is, the more we can explode the limitations patriarchy places on us.  

2. If some of us are non-binary, we are all non-binary

There’s a reason why I hesitate to use the term ‘non-binary’ to describe only those who are not men and women – because if the binary cannot include us all, then it cannot include us all. It is never to say that everyone should call themselves genderqueer or agender – but it is to say that each person’s individual experience of what makes them a man, or a woman, or something else, is valid. What a person’s body and life means to them must be approached as real – we can’t attempt to apply a standard meaning to unique and dynamic experiences. We seek commonality – but only through an acceptance of diversity, not an erasing of it. 

3. We can catalogue the full extent of misogynistic oppression and abuse

Patriarchy, overwhelmingly, hurts women the most – but misogyny harms nearly everyone. Naming the problem is the first step to solving it – and we cannot solve the problem of patriarchy, or kyriarchy, without acknowledging the extent of its damage. The idea of a binary gender system has been used to punish, to brutalise, to silence; naming its crimes and attempting to heal the destruction caused helps us to move forward in a better way, towards a better system of understanding. 

4. Self-determinism + dismantling of oppressive systems = feminism in action

When asked to define feminism, some feminists say “it’s about choice”. I agree, but think the sentence needs finishing. “Feminism is about choice – and the creation of a society that allows all compassionate choices”. To come out as a non-standard gender is not just to celebrate self-determinism, but to strike a blow at a patriarchy that denies us freedom and justice, along gendered lines. It might be a personal blow – it might, through activism, through visibility, be a blow on a wider scale.

The question is not “should feminism allow gender plurality?” – we are already here, deeply embedded in the feminist movement, and have been for a long time. Better, I think, is the question is: “where can we go from here – as women, men and everybody else – and how can we use what we’ve learnt as individuals for the benefit of us all?”

CN Lester is a musician, writer and activist, whose second full length alternative album Aether is out now. Follow @cnlester

Photo: Social Vella

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You don’t only get photographed when you’re eating

On Monday lunchtime women protested the now infamous blog Women Who Eat on Tubes by topping up their Oysters and having a good old munch on the Circle Line. This just after the founder of WWEOT Tony Burke made a toe curling appearance on the Today Program, when he tried to claim the project is some form of high art, an “observational study”, “something artistic”.

Tony’s day job is in advertising, so it’s really no surprise that he would consider something sexist, creepy and yet also banal as being very artistic and creative. No offense to those making a hard-earned-living in advertising; I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you either.

But while he was promoting himself as one of London’s biggest morons I was genuinely surprised at how much attention his project was getting when his blog is really a pin prick, and I emphasise the word ‘pin’, because a pin is very very small and would be completely lost in the internet haystack that are “creep shots”.

Creep shots are so common on public transport that even I, someone who avoids the tube as much as I can, have seen two men take pictures of women’s cleavages on the underground. The first time I was struck dumb in shock; the second time I saw the man take the picture from an adjoining carriage, and when I knocked on the window to tell him to stop he ran. I’m not quite sure what I’d do if I saw it happen for a third time. Stand up and shout “he’s taking a picture of your breasts”? Tell him he’s gross? Perform a citizen’s arrest?

Just like WWEOT there are creep shot Tumblrs, but google #creepshot and you should get a pretty good idea of how endemic this is – just put it into the search bar in Twitter now. Many of the photos are taken in restaurants, supermarkets, on the beach. Women and girls bending over, sunbathing, photos taken from under tables.

Here’s the rub. It’s technically legal to photograph someone without their consent, and of course it’s in our interest to be able to take photos of strangers in public places. It means taking pictures at the Great Wall of China, Eiffel Tower or other packed places we want to take pictures of, which are full of tourists, is not going to land us in court. It also means reporters can go to war zones and disaster scenes or places of public interest and document; something Burke alluded his project did.

Of course Burke’s project was no more serious documentation than Viz is a serious issue-based magazine, no matter if some photography student somewhere is writing a very convincing dissertation on how Burke is the new Nicholas Nixon, or the 21st Century Corinne Day, or the eating woman’s Terry Richardson.

For all of us in the real world, we just want to go about our lives feeling safe and secure whether sitting on public transport or grabbing a cup of tea in our local cafe. We deserve a legal framework that protects our privacy from the whims of the “Creatives” theoretical justification, the shaming or documenting of us as grotesque subjects or, whats more likely, protect us from a weirdo’s wank bank. No such luck.

Last month a judge in Massachusetts ruled that ‘upskirt’ photos taken without consent are NOT illegal so long as the victim is wearing knickers. And there we have it. Carte. Blanche.

Here in the UK, the law asks whether a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. So readers, do you have an expectation of privacy on the tube, bus or train? Do you not expect to have your bottom photographed when picking up something your toddler has dropped in the supermarket? Do you expect people to photograph up your skirt whether or not you’re wearing knickers? And is that reasonable?

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“Crying wolf”: Why don’t the police believe women?

In December 2012 Naomi Oni was attacked with acid on her commute home from work by a jealous friend.

The fear, pain and panic of this horrific attack are difficult to comfortably contemplate. Unfortunately for Naomi, this was only the start of her ordeal. Painful medical procedures, a prolonged hospital admission, and a traumatic police investigation added to her distress.

Naomi alleges that the Metropolitan Police Service accused her of throwing acid in her own face, as a histrionic self-harm, motivated by a desire for publicity and fame. Although one can understand the need to explore all avenues of enquiry, as the Met have stated, this seems like an incredibly unlikely scenario. I have worked as a Psychiatrist for many years, and such severe and maiming self injury for secondary gain is exceedingly rare. How then did such an outlandish theory escalate to the point where the victim was not only accused but told that no assailant was seen following her on the CCTV footage?

Do the answers lie in the attitudes of police officers towards women, and in institutional ambivalent sexism? Currently the Police Service is not representative of the citizens it serves; nationally only 27.3% of police officers are female, and women are grossly underrepresented in the higher echelons of management and leadership in the force. As an organisation, women were only integrated into the force in the early 70s, and the force failed to drop the prefix for Woman Police Constables until 1999.

Could the ‘canteen culture’ of sexism within the police force lead to such disastrous practices as victim blaming and a loss of empathy, with the potential of ultimately alienating the victim and causing further psychological damage? This case highlights a wider problem of gender bias. In a damning report on police response to domestic abuse, published last week, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary reported:

“HMIC is concerned about the poor attitudes that some police officers display towards victims of domestic abuse.”

“Victims told us that they were frequently not taken seriously, that they felt judged and that some officers demonstrated a considerable lack of empathy and understanding.”

Earlier this year, similar concerns were raised about a “culture of disbelief” over rape allegations, after figures showed some police forces were recording “no crime” for as many as a third of rapes reported to them. Liz Kelly, Chair of End Violence Against Women, told The Guardian:

“Our member organisations know how deep disbelief and victim-blaming goes on in institutions and communities. But the police play a critical role enabling rape survivors to access justice, so these disparities and attitudes must be urgently tackled.”

The psychodynamic perspective on groups and institutions gives us some insight into these attitudes by highlighting the dangers of depersonalisation and loss of identity in groups such as the police. As an institution with rigid roles and hierarchy, with a uniform and number in lieu of a name, the police may experience themselves less as individuals.

The severe stresses of such an environment and the effects of this depersonalisation could worsen maladaptive defences (i.e. inappropriate coping strategies). As individuals experience stress, the unwanted or taboo parts of the self are projected onto others, so that they elicit projected behaviour. It is human to externalise unacceptable feelings and attribute them to others, and this primitive defence mechanism is highly relevant in groups and institutions.

Groupthink as a phenomenon within groups can inhibit the rational reactions of individuals. There is ample evidence that our behaviour can be drastically modified with the conscious and unconscious pull to conformity and harmony of the group. The infamous Stanford Prison experiment in 1971 was conducted in a “mock” prison, where groups of young college students were assigned prisoner and guard roles. After the “prisoner” group staged a revolt on day two, the guards assertively regained control and used increasing levels of abusive and dehumanising behaviour. The experiment was halted early when the researcher realised that even they had become embroiled in the groupthink mentality by allowing such a damaging experiment to continue.

Ambivalent sexism is a theoretical concept developed by Dr Peter Glick and Dr Susan Fiske to understand gender based prejudice. Hostile and benevolent sexism are described, with the former representing the overtly hateful, such as beliefs that women are inherently inferior, manipulative or evil. Benevolent sexism describes attitudes which may appear subjectively positive, such as beliefs that women should be protected, or be put on a pedestal. However both forms remain damaging to individuals and to gender equality in their reinforcing message of separateness.

In the institution of the police, is the taboo of sexism projected into the group, resulting in institutionalised sexist practice?

It would be unfair to the police to suggest that this depersonalisation, with its resulting dehumanising behaviour and loss of empathy, is unique to their field.

I remember the loss of identity I felt as a young junior doctor in an environment where breaks were non-existent, and the work was challenging and never ending. The more stress I experienced, the more detached I became, with a loss of empathy for individuals at a dreadful point their lives. Patients became their illness, or a task rather than a whole person. In psychodynamic terms they became a part object only, to defend against the fear and anxiety of death and destruction which were ever present in the hospital environment. The Stafford Hospital scandal epitomises an institution’s descent into anti-human behaviour.

In more recent times, the savage cuts and erosion of pay and work conditions suffered by the police force can only increase the stress on individuals and the reliance on primitive defences to manage unbearable anxiety. The most shocking thing about Naomi Oni’s experience is not that it happened, but that it is a worrying omen of the police as an institution becoming more detached from the public they serve.

Anna Fryer is a Psychiatrist, feminist, mother of one preschooler and fan of the arts. Follow her  @annacfryer

Image: ITV Player

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#SexIndustryWeek: Playing The Whore – The Stigma

Playing The WhoreEach weekday throughout our #SexIndustryWeek we’ll be exclusively serialising extracts from ‘Playing The Whore’, by journalist and former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant.

To coincide with these extracts, we’re offering Feminist Times readers FIVE chances to win a copy of the book, signed by Melissa.

To enter today’s competition, simply enter your name and email address here. One winner will be selected at random at the end of the day. 

Playing The Whore: The Stigma

Sex workers, along with many people who do not do sex work, are exposed to whore stigma for breaking with, or being perceived to have broken with, what Jill Nagle calls “compulsory virtue.” It’s a riff on Adrienne Rich’s “compulsory heterosexuality,” with which lesbians are made invisible. Whore stigma, Nagles writes, is “a mandate not only to be virtuous, but also to appear virtuous.” As with compulsory heterosexuality, compulsory virtue isn’t just about producing a set of behaviors (fucking men, being a good girl about it), but producing a system of social control (punishing queers, jailing whores).

“One does not actually have to be a whore to suffer a whore’s punishment or stigma,” writes Nagle. Naming whore stigma offers us a way through it: to value difference, to develop solidarity between women in and out of the sex trade. Along with the phrase sex work, whore stigma is situated in an explicit sex worker feminism, one that acknowledges that while only some women may be sex workers, all of us negotiate whore stigma.

Whore solidarity actions predate that vocabulary, like the occupation of a London church in 1982 organized by the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP). “We’d bought fifty black masks,” writes Selma James, then the spokesperson for ECP. “In that way, prostitute and nonprostitute women would not be distinguishable from each other, and press photos of either would not be dangerous.” Entering the church alongside them were identified members of the organizations Women Against Rape and Black Women for Wages for Housework. “We were uncertain of our safety,” James writes, “and were glad to have two ‘respectable’ women’s groups with us.” Even those who are not whores can rise up with whores, can put their own respectability to work through their willingness to no longer be so closely identified with it.

This has been one of the foundational contributions of sex worker feminists to feminist discourse and activism: challenging whore stigma in the name of all those who live under it. There’s an echo of this in the popularization of whore stigma in a milder form as outrage at “slut shaming.” What is lost, however, in moving from whore stigma to slut shaming is the centrality of the people most harmed by this form of discrimination.

There is also an alarming air, in some feminists’ responses to slut shaming, of assumed distance, that the fault in slut shaming is a sorting error: No, she is certainly not a “slut”! This preserves the slut as contemptible rather than focusing on those who attack women who violate compulsory virtue— for being too loud, too much, too opinionated, too black, too queer. Slut may seem to broaden the tent of those affected, but it makes the whore invisible. Whore stigma makes central the racial and class hierarchy reinforced in the dividing of women into the pure and the impure, the clean and the unclean, the white and virgin and all the others. If woman is other, whore is the other’s other.

I’m thinking here of the first time I saw a SlutWalk protest, in Las Vegas in the summer of 2006, during the century’s first national gathering of sex workers activists. SlutWalk hadn’t been invented yet. It would be another four years before Toronto police officer Michael Sanguinetti explained to a group of university women, with the kind of contempt not unfamiliar to sex workers, that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” SlutWalk, in its way, was also a reaction to police harassment, though one raised by women who presumed, unlike the prostitutes of San Francisco and London, that the police would listen to them in the first place.

It should not be surprising that the first vocal critics of SlutWalk were women of color and women in the sex trade. Reading the SlutWalk rallying cry, writes Brittney Cooper of Crunk Feminist Collective:

I was struck by the righteous indignation these women had over being called slut. Although plenty of Black women have been called “slut,” I believe Black women’s histories are different, in that Black female sexuality has always been understood from without to be deviant, hyper, and excessive.

For some white women, slut transgresses a boundary they’ve never imagined crossing. Women of color, working-class women, queer women: They were never presumed to have that boundary to begin with.

In Vegas, on the sex workers’ own walk, protesters dressed in the kinds of costumes we now associate with SlutWalk—fishnets, leather and PVC corset tops, shiny hot pants, tall boots, and platform heels—with wild hair and hand-painted signs and slogans on their chests and stomachs (another homage to an older feminist practice: to riot grrrl, or at least to the photographs that had circulated of riot grrrl, few of the protesters having been around to be riot grrrls themselves).

Marching from casino to casino, sex workers took over the carefully sculpted Vegas sidewalks, passing out fliers to tourists and to the few sex workers who were also out that night, although, since they were working, attired far more conservatively.

Dressed and brazenly conducting themselves as they never could if they were actually working the tables and lounges for clients, the protesters were more shocking to the men employed by the casinos and hotels to surveil, who came and went, and at Caesars, despite the intervention of a lawyer from the ACLU who had tagged along with the march, were hustled out. It’s not that they were whores, as clearly whores are permitted in Vegas casinos. It’s how the space they took up put whoring in the public’s face; that’s why they were removed.

At the Wynn, on my way up to a party following the sex work conference a few nights before, with activist and artist Sadie Lune and an outreach worker from St. James Infirmary, a sex worker health clinic, an elevator attendant stopped us, asking if we were there for “a party.” ‘‘We are,’’ we said, ‘‘but…’’ and he began to explain, kindly, that if we had called ahead he could have made arrangements for us to be taken up in the VIP elevator. ‘‘No, no, we’re not here for,’’ one of us started to explain, ‘‘that kind of party…’’ which then would have to be followed up with, ‘‘… not that there’s anything wrong with that’’—and not that he was wrong about us—‘‘but…’’ so instead we just left it there, and went up the elevator meant for everyone but the whores.

“What it was like and what it does to you.”

When the public is groomed to expect a poor, suffering whore, it’s appreciable why some sex workers who do come out take pains to provide a counternarrative: to never look like a prostitute. They are asked only to talk about how empowering it all was or about how much of a survivor they are. They have to convince their audiences how much they always had their shit together, how they do now—how they are not like those other girls, whoever they are. Sometimes, like when calling out “slut shaming” only to then shame sluts, this undermines solidarity. This is just rearranging the pecking order of sex and gender outcasts rather than refusing to order ourselves in the first place. There’s a risk of reinventing the virgin/whore hierarchy within sex work, even when—to everyone else—all of us could still be whores.

Melissa Gira Grant is the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (Verso, 2014)

Melissa will be speaking about her book in London, Brighton, Bristol, Edinburgh and London. Details can be found here: http://www.versobooks.com/events

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#SexIndustryWeek: Playing The Whore – The Police

Playing The WhoreEach weekday throughout our #SexIndustryWeek we’ll be exclusively serialising extracts from ‘Playing The Whore’, by journalist and former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant.

To coincide with these extracts, we’re offering Feminist Times readers FIVE chances to win a copy of the book, signed by Melissa.

To enter today’s competition, simply enter your name and email address here. One winner will be selected at random at the end of the day. 

Playing The Whore: The Police

Prostitution stings are a law enforcement tactic used to target men who buy sex and women who sell it—or men and women who the police have profiled in this way. These days, rather than limit their patrol to the street, vice cops search the Web for advertisements they believe offer sex for sale, contact the advertisers while posing as customers, arrange hotel meetings, and attempt to make an arrest from within the relative comfort of a room with free Wi-Fi and an ice machine down the hall.

Whether these videos are locked in an evidence room, broadcast on the eleven o’clock news, or blogged by a vigilante, they are themselves a punishment. We could arrest you at any time, they say. Even if no one is there to witness your arrest, everyone will know. When we record your arrest, when you’re viewed again and again, you will be getting arrested all the time.

In the United States, one of the last industrialized nations which continues to outlaw sex for sale, we must ask: Why do we insist that there is a public good in staging sex transactions to make arrests? Is the point to produce order, to protect, or to punish?

No evidence will be weighed before the arrest video is published. Even if she was not one before, in the eyes of the viewer and in the memory of search engines, this woman is now a prostitute. As so few people arrested for prostitution related offenses fight their charges, there is no future event to displace the arrest video, to restate that those caught on tape didn’t, as one of the women arrested in Fargo said, “do anything wrong.” The undercover police, perpetually arresting in these videos, enact a form of sustained violence on these women’s bodies. Even with a camera, it is not immediately visible.

To produce a prostitute where before there had been only a woman is the purpose of such policing. It is a socially acceptable way to discipline women, fuelled by a lust for law and order that is at the core of what I call the “prostitute imaginary”—the ways in which we conceptualize and make arguments about prostitution. The prostitute imaginary compels those who seek to control, abolish, or otherwise profit from prostitution, and is also the rhetorical product of their efforts. It is driven by both fantasies and fears about sex and the value of human life.

The sting itself, aside from the unjust laws it enforces, or the trial that may never result, is intended to incite fear. These stings form just one part of a matrix of widespread police misconduct toward sex workers and people profiled as sex workers. In New York City, for example, 70 percent of sex workers working outdoors surveyed by the Sex Workers Project reported near daily run-ins with police, and 30 percent reported being threatened with violence. According to ‘‘The Revolving Door: An Analysis of Street-Based Prostitution in New York City,’’ when street-based sex workers sought help from the police, they were often ignored.

Carol told researchers, “If I call them, they don’t come. If I have a situation in the street, forget it. ‘Nobody told you to be in the street.’ After a girl was gang-raped, they said, ‘Forget it, she works in the street.’ She said, ‘I hope that never happens to your daughters. I’m human.’”

Jamie had an incident where she was “hanging out on the stroll . . . these guys in a jeep driving by . . . one guy in a car threw a bottle at me . . . I went to the cops [who told me] we didn’t have a right being in that area because we know it’s a prostitution area, and whatever came our way, we deserved it.”

Police violence isn’t limited to sex workers who work outdoors. In a parallel survey conducted by the Sex Workers Project, 14 percent of those who primarily work indoors reported that police had been violent toward them; 16 percent reported that police officers had initiated a sexual interaction.

This was in New York City, where the police department is notorious for violating civil rights in the course of law enforcement, but look globally, where violations of sex workers’ rights by police are also common—and well documented. In West Bengal, the sex worker collective Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee surveyed over 21,000 women who do sex work.

They collected 48,000 reports of abuse or violence by police— in contrast with 4,000 reports of violence by customers, who are conventionally thought of as the biggest threat to sex workers, especially by campaigners opposed to prostitution.

Police violence against sex workers is a persistent global reality. As the economy collapsed in Greece, police staged raids on brothels, arrested and detained sex workers, forced them to undergo HIV testing, and released their photos and HIV status to the media. These actions were condemned by UNAIDS and Human Rights Watch.

In China, police have forced sex workers they have arrested to walk in “shame parades,” public processions in which they are shackled and then photographed. Police published these photos on the Web, including one in which a cop humiliated a nude sex worker by pulling her hair back and brutally exposing her face to the camera. When the photo went viral, the outcry reportedly prompted police to suspend these public shaming rituals, though they continue to make violent arrests and raids.

One could hope that the photos and videos like these could make the pervasiveness of this violence real to the public. But to truly confront this type of violence would require us to admit that we permit some violence against women to be committed in order to protect the social and sexual value of other women.

Violence’s Value

I’ve stopped asking, Why have we made prostitution illegal? Instead I want an explanation for, How much violence against “prostitutes” have we made acceptable? The police run-ins, the police denying help, the police abuse—all this shapes the context in which the sting, and the video of it, form a complete pursuit of what we are to understand as justice, which in this case is limited to some form of punishment, of acceptable violence.

Melissa Gira Grant is the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (Verso, 2014)

Melissa will be speaking about her book in London, Brighton, Bristol, Edinburgh and London. Details can be found here: http://www.versobooks.com/events

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20 years of women priests, but still no women bishops

“The Church should be the first place to recognise the equality of all God’s children, not the last,” insists Angela Berners-Wilson, who is widely credited as the first woman to be ordained as a Church of England priest.

20 years ago today, on 12 March 1994, Angela and 31 other women joined the priesthood. Although she was first in line alphabetically, Angela is at pains to point out that all 32 women were ordained together, on the final “Amen” of the ceremony.

By that time, Angela had been campaigning for the ordination of women priests for more than 15 years, having felt a calling to become a priest while on her gap year in Australia during the 70s.

“I went out for a meal with a group of random people in Brisbane and I remember having a long conversation with this guy who was an atheist, and he was saying: ‘why don’t you want to be a priest, rather than a Parish worker?’” she recalls.

“That’s all that was open to women in those days – to be a Parish worker and then to go on to be a Deaconess after several years. Later we were on a coach, and the guys were endlessly playing Elvis tapes because he’d just died, and I remember thinking: ‘yes, it is a priest that I feel called to be’.”

The Movement for the Ordination of Women was founded while Angela was a student at theological college. “I went to the initial meeting at St Martin-in-the-Fields in 1978, so right from the beginning I was campaigning for change,” she says. “I think to be honest at that stage I thought it might take longer [than 16 years].“

When the first women priests were ordained in 1994, Bishop Barry Rogerson, who officiated the service in Bristol Cathedral, told a press conference that he believed it would be ten years before the first women bishops were appointed. Twenty years later, as the debate on women bishops continues to rumble on, Angela laughs when I ask about his comments.

“I was at the press conference when he said that,” she says. “There must have been about 50 journalists there or more, and when he said that I thought ‘you’re being very optimistic’ – we knew it would take longer than that! I think we hoped at that stage it would be within 20 years; we’re not quite going to make that but hopefully nearly.”

As part of the first cohort of women priests, Angela knew the process would be a long one because she felt the pressure on all women priests to prove themselves: “We had to be doubly good – or do our job doubly well – because those who are against it are always looking for things to find fault with,” she says.

“First of all we’ve got to be accepted as priests, then women had to have enough experience to be able to be bishops because obviously we were all completely new – you can’t have someone who’s new to being a priest suddenly being a bishop.”

So have 20 years been enough for the Church to accept women priests and move forward to women bishops? On the whole, Angela thinks so, though she’s careful not to sound complacent: “There are certain pockets where we’re not and of course there’s groups within the Church that don’t agree with it, but we’re much more accepted than we were. There’s still room for improvement – I don’t think the battle’s all won yet.”

Now Chaplain at the University of Bath, Angela was similarly guarded when questioned by the press ahead of the Church of England’s previous, unsuccessful vote on women bishops in November 2012. A year and a half on, she says: “We lost a huge amount of credibility – we really had egg on our faces that day. I got rung up by about five journalists within five minutes of leaving the General Synod.

“My bishop went into the House of Lords the next day and he got absolutely lambasted by members of the Lords saying ‘what’s going on?’ People don’t understand our slightly strange ways – the two-thirds majority thing.”

Angela herself obviously shares that frustration with the system: “the way the Synodical process works is that you have to have a two-thirds majority in all three houses in General Synod.

“When the vote for women bishops came to General Synod in November 2012, 42 out of 44 dioceses voted overwhelmingly in favour, but when it came to the final vote back in Synod, we missed the two-thirds majority in the House of Laity by just six votes.

“Because of the way it works, that’s always going to be a problem. To me – well, to many of us – it’s wrong that six lay people have thwarted the will of 42 out of 44 dioceses, but we believe in democracy so we have to go along with the rules.”

A self-described Christian feminist, Angela knows the Church of England has a long way to go on gender equality: “I can understand why people think that the two are incompatible – the Church has been patriarchal for centuries, but it is changing,” she says.

“Feminism is not all about having women at the top but I think once you have cracked that glass ceiling and got women at the top of the Church then it’s going to make a huge difference symbolically.

“One of the few good things that came out the vote in November 2012 was that the House of Bishops agreed that, until there are six women bishops, there will be eight senior women sitting at every House of Bishops meeting,” she adds.

“They can’t vote because they’re not bishops, but eight senior women were elected by their peers to represent women in the House of Bishops. That’s been an enormous step forward.

“I think once you’ve got women actually at the top they’re going to impact on how the bishops think and that will open up the Church to be evermore friendly to women.“

Although cautious, Angela does appear to have a renewed optimism about the way things are moving. “The new Archbishop Justin Welby has worked very hard with reconcilers from outside the Church to bring people together, and that’s why we’re going forward now,” she says.

“It’s very tied in with tradition and it takes a long time for people to change their minds. If you think how far we’ve come in the last 20 years and in the last 50, we’re getting there – slower than one would like, but we are getting there.

“The vote [last month] has reached the next stage, now it’s got to go down the dioceses again, and hopefully it will come back by November for the final assent… I wouldn’t like to say yes, but I hope 2015 will see the first women bishops in the Church of England – we’ve got them in Ireland now. I’m cautiously optimistic.”

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Anne Scargill: “There’s no jobs. There’s nothing. In 1984 we knew this would happen”

As part of Women’s History Month, we’re marking the 30th anniversary of the year-long 1984-85 miners’ strike with a collection of memories from our members and supporters. Deputy Editor Sarah Graham interviewed Anne Scargill, co-founder of the Women Against Pit Closures movement, which has been credited as the backbone of the strike.

AnneScargillI got involved in the strike early. Some women started a support group called Women Against Pit Closures because we knew that the strike was going to be a long one. Thatcher started on the steelworkers and then she thought: “right, I’m going to start on the National Union of Mineworkers” because they were a strong union.

I don’t think that she thought the women were going to be as strong as they were – she thought the women would say to the men “get back to work”, but we didn’t. We thought: “a woman, doing that to us? Taking our livelihood away and our communities?” We weren’t striking for money, we were striking for a job for our kids and our grandkids; we were striking for what we believed in, and it was terrible.

The men were getting beat up by the police on the picket line, getting arrested, and they couldn’t go here and there anymore, so we thought “if they can’t go, we might as well go. They can’t sack us – we don’t work for the coal board.”

So we organised and decided to go picketing, and I shall never, ever forget the first picket I went on. We went to a place called Silver Hill in Nottinghamshire and the picket was pretty lively but there was no violence.

As we were coming away when these two vans of policemen came and they started pushing us about and that. They arrested one of our women so I went to the inspector and I said: “Excuse me officer, I don’t want to be rude, but what are you arresting Lynne for? What’s she done?” And he said: “Get her an’ all” – that were me – so I got arrested that morning with Lynne.

They took us to a police station in Nottinghamshire and we were in ages. I started kicking the bottom of the door because Lynne wanted to go to the toilet, so they come, opened the door, took me out and took me into a room with a bath in and this woman police officer. So she said to me: “Come on, get undressed.” I said: “what for?” and she says: “I said get undressed, I’m looking for offensive weapons and drugs.” I said: “You’re joking? I’m old enough to be your mother! I’ve never been in a police station in my life.”

She said: “I’ve said get undressed”. So I got undressed and they strip searched me, and the same with the other four women. I just said to her: “Yes, that’s what they said in Nazi Germany when they were taking the Jews to be slaughtered – they were only doing their job.”

The magistrate threw the case out of court, but I’ll never forgive them for doing that to me. Never, ever, ever. I bet they thought: “they’ll not come no more now”, but I’ll tell you something – it made me ten times worse than I would have been because I thought what more can they do to me? I’ll never ever forgive them for that. And then after that obviously I really, really was a thorn in their side – or tried to be. I think they picked me up about seven or eight times – in fact, I got used to it, I used to know my rights when I got to the police station.

About three weeks before that we’d organised this rally in Barnsley – the first Women Against Pit Closures rally. We didn’t know how many were coming so we said to the police “we’re having this rally in the Civic Hall in Barnsley”, “aye, ok,” they said. We expected about 100-150, my goodness! We were going to march through Barnsley and there were buses coming from all over – from Wales, from Scotland – the police weren’t right happy!

We all started marching and waving our banners, and Arthur spoke there. When we came to the Civic Hall the police were there saying: “you can’t come in with any banners” and we said “who can’t go in with banners? Get out o’t way” and took all our banners into the Civic Hall – there’s a lovely photograph of us all waving our banners in’t Civic Hall! I think that was the first time that we’d turned on the police – it was three weeks after that I was arrested. The police didn’t know what to do, they just moved!

We had about three or four rallies in London. We went to see Michael Heseltine at the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) and he wouldn’t see us, so we made a pit camp outside his office. This was Friday and on the Saturday we were having a big rally in London.

There were thousands of people at that rally, thousands, and all of them supporting the miners. It’s a shame that the trade union leaders didn’t come out and support us like the rank and file were doing – if they had done, we’d have been in a different society today. I don’t know why they didn’t come – because they were after lordships and money and that, that’s my opinion. The rank and file from the fire brigade’s union, all the unions, all really, really helped us.

Very rarely did we get anything like “get back to work” or owt when we were collecting in York and places like that, or London, we didn’t get a lot of hostility – you might have got somebody shouting “get back to work”, but they weren’t many. There was a hell of a lot of support, we couldn’t have managed without ’em.

The atmosphere was brilliant, it lifted you. There was a lot of solidarity. When we started our soup kitchens we got people coming from all over, bringing us food and coming to see us. We had a lot of crying, but we had a lot of laughing as well.

We had a community Christmas that year in the welfare and we were all there singing. I mean it were hard, don’t get me wrong, it were hard but we tried and tried to help one another.

The women in my community here, some of them went everywhere with their husbands and that started changing. There were women speaking in York, something they never thought they could do – so there were women with talent and ability that they never knew they had.

Miners are very dominating – they used to have to come home to their dinner on the table, but here the roles were reversed – the women were going out on the picket lines. The men were going picketing where they could locally, and they were having to look after the children, so the roles were changing gradually.

A few of the women went back to the kitchen sink when it was finished but there’s a lot didn’t. A lot went to university, a lot of them are in social services, so they got an education. I didn’t go to university or anything but during that strike and after I got a better education than any university could have taught me because I was living it.

A lot of people’s lives changed through the strike, quite a few marriages broke up. As I say, the women were the most dominant part and if it hadn’t have been for the women I don’t think that strike would have lasted as long.

I think [the feminism] came out of the work that we were doing. Women had never been out of the village without their husbands, yet here they were in York, talking to people and finding out that there was another life besides them four walls in their house.

When the men were going back to work this man said to me: “Anne, I want my wife back” and I said “[the strike’s] over now”. He said: “yeah, but I don’t want her I’ve got now, I want other one I had before” and I said: “that’s your problem, not mine.” Their marriage broke up. It was a very empowering experience for those miners’ wives – they found talent and ability they never knew they’d got.

We were really inspired by the Greenham Common women – we got in touch with them and started going down to Greenham. We’d a lot of sympathy with the Greenham women and they used to come and see us. When they started to close the mines in 1993 the Greenham Common women used to come and we set camps up outside every mine that was profitable – we thought we’ll demonstrate here at this mine and try to keep it open. That was all based on the Greenham women.

We found a community spirit in our village here that, as years have gone on, we an’t got it now. There’s no jobs now, there’s nothing. Some women have to work two jobs to survive, and it’s all low-paid jobs, all for women. There’s nothing for the men.

When I look round my community now I feel well at least I tried to do something to prevent this happening – my conscience is clear. In our community now we’ve got about five food banks and on a Monday we serve breakfast. Five years ago we had 47-48 people coming for their breakfast, and do you know we had 111 yesterday? They’re not only young lads that are coming now, they’re people with children, and we’re getting people probably my age – 65, 70 years old – coming because of the Bedroom Tax.

It’s a long time, 30 years on, but we knew this would happen – they shut our industry down. They’re importing coal and there’s thousands and thousands of tonnes of coal beneath our feet – and here we are going into this dangerous nuclear power.

This is our society in 2014, where we should be going forward, and we knew in 1984 this was going to come – that’s why we fought so hard. And we did fight hard. The women were very, very brave.

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Open letter to journalists: middle class strippers – it’s neo-liberalism, stupid

Every six months for the last three years, the press have got hold of research undertaken by Teela Sanders and I on the apparent proliferation of the stripping industry in the UK.

Despite the multiple angles of the research and the findings that we published, there is a fixation with the idea of middle class women taking their clothes off for money. This is despite the fact that we reported high levels of financial exploitation, mixed feelings about the working conditions in clubs and, in many cases, declining conditions in the industry, and the relationship of labour in this industry to the privatisation of education, declining real wages and a hostile labour market. Clearly the material conditions of women’s working lives do not make for good copy.

See for example:

Devalued, deskilled and diversified: Explained the proliferation of the UK strip industry.

The Regulatory Dance: Lap Dancing in the UK.

In response to these repetitive requests for statements and interviews by journalists who inaccurately plagiarise each other’s stories, leading to dramatic inaccuracies, hyperbole and moral panic, I write this Open Letter:

Dear Journalist,

Thank you for your questions. With regards to why middle class women work in the industry, of course it is money that shapes their decision; how could it not be in a world of wage labour? The point is that it is not solely money.

Middle class women strip for much the same reasons that working class women strip. Most middle class women who sell their labour in the strip industry do so because the UK is an increasingly precarious place in which to live and to sell your labour. Most do not select dancing as a career over others (though some do), but they may strip in order to purchase the credentials they need from a neo-liberalised education system, in order to compete in an increasingly hostile labour market. They sell their labour here, in the short term, to finance long term desires for security in a world in which basic securities are being stripped away, driven by principles that your newspapers often play a large and insidious role in promoting.

Middle class women are selling their labour in the strip industry due to the absence of decent, well-paid part time work in other parts of the labour market. Middle class women are selling their labour in this industry because the UK, and particularly London, is an hourglass economy in which there are high paid, high status jobs at the top and the opposite at the bottom, with little in between. These women are seeking to escape the bottom half of the hourglass and make it into the top, a place increasingly reserved for the existing elite.

The flexibility of stripping enables women to generate an income while undertaking a degree, participating in an internship or topping up their other low wage job. Some middle class women strip because these are what jobs are left for you when when the welfare state retreats – middle class or otherwise. These middle class women strip because when real wages fall to their level of a decade previously, nurses and social workers (those overpaid and greedy public sector workers) have to top up their wages in order to survive.

Some middle class women strip because this is the job they have always wanted to do and they enjoy the sexual attention they receive. Many want to resist the oppressive temporality and austere cultural norms attached to the 9-5 job, preferring instead to engage in work that can be experienced, to some degree, as leisure. Many young people like to work in the night-time economy, which transgresses many of the rules of day time work.

Some women embrace the sense of community they feel, in contrast to the reactionary politics of the office. Some resist the work ethic that increasingly encourages people to be their job, to work until they collapse at the expense of their health, their families and their social well-being, instead preferring to relegate work to a separate sphere of their life which does not define them or consume all of their time and energy.

It is for all of these reasons that middle class women strip. But I wonder whether we are asking the right question. The most incisive question, I feel, is not why middle class women are stripping, but why we are so concerned with middle class women stripping? If stripping is to be condemned – which is the subtext of your question – then why can we accept the idea of working class women stripping, but are horrified when the spectre looms for middle class women?

I hope this helps. Do let me know if you have any other questions.

Best,

Kate

Dr Kate Hardy.  Feminist, Lecturer in Work and Employment Relations at The University of Leeds.
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Pussy Riot split confusion: cultural action always has blurred lines

Pussy Riot sang in their Punk Prayer, two years ago today: “become a feminist, become a feminist” – a rallying call to action. From Sochi to Kiev, Caracas to our own cities and towns, we need to believe in ourselves a little more and give feminism and her activists a break. This week has seen some people taking sides as Pussy Riot begins to show splits, following a statement released by the group saying Nadia and Masha were no longer part of Pussy Riot. The two women then appeared in Sochi as Pussy Riot and released a track and video under the moniker.

Social movements appear, develop and dissolve, and movement members fall out and disagree with one another all the time. Why should feminism be so often singled out for failure? It may not give us all the answers but by embracing feminisms together we will begin to start asking the right kinds of questions.

At the heart of social movements lie social relationships. These relationships are often built over time, developing a kind of organisational memory and expectations that persist even when members come and go. Social movements are more than the sum of their parts and are nothing without the actions of those willing to take part. Activism is frequently a difficult path to take but, when it comes to feminist activism, the path is at times more uneven, weed-strewn and so pot-hole ridden that the task of patching it can seem overwhelming. Yet, like the road less traveled, this path can lead to profound personal and social change.

It is important to pay attention to the historical lineages – though arguably not a linear history – of feminist cultural activism and its attempts to challenge gender inequalities. These historical narratives are less about discrete chronological stages and more about blurry overlaps, with each participating actor writing and re-writing their stories with each new encounter.

Attempting to fit contemporary feminist cultural activism into neat, time-specific periods perpetuates a popular discourse that all too quickly relegates feminist acts of cultural resistance to, at best, the history books, and at worst something to be appropriated by capitalist structures and sold back in bite-sized, watered down versions to the very girls and women who these activities are meant to empower. However, this grand ideal of collective action and impetus, to create new worlds that counter mainstream conventions, is not without its problems and critics.

In various art and music based movements, such as Riot Grrrl and Ladyfest, the initial motivation for engaging in activism is women’s lack of visibility and, where women are visible, a disagreement with the narrow roles they are frequently assigned. Drawing connections between different feminist cultural movements in different time periods allows for a continuity of experiences and a chance for subsequent generations to learn from one another through dialogue, rather than perpetuating the perceived generational rifts so often referred to in literature on feminist waves and by those that purport feminism has failed.

Pussy Riot may be a clandestine covert network of feminist activists, but they are emerging from their own particular histories carrying forward previous social ties, whilst at the same time developing new ones. That two of its members should now be reportedly ex-members may disappoint the collective’s supporters but can be viewed as an inevitable stage in the cycle of change. Movements change and members move on to other things. If anyone can be Pussy Riot, just like every girl could be a Riot Grrrl or every town could start a Ladyfest, then perhaps the power of feminist activism lies with its potential.

We all need to be a little kinder to one another. Our activist strategies may be flawed, we may be emotive, impassioned and our approaches at times may not work but it is by taking those steps to engage with one another, to voice our feminisms and render them real, lived experiences that we can begin to make a difference.

Synthesisers, social statistics, music and methods, Susan is currently a Sociology lecturer at the University of Manchester. A serial Ladyfest organiser and SNA user, her research looks at gender inequalities in music worlds, cultural production and participation. Mixing-methods and mixing beats at the edge of the analogue-digital divide, Susan is one half of the dark electronic duo Factory Acts. Their first EP is due out with AnalogueTrash Records summer 2014. SoS tweets @FactoryActs and  @Susan_OShea

Photo: a.powers-fudyma

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I was sexually harassed more when pregnant and with my kids

Street harassment: a concept that was once reserved for dirty old men in trench coats and construction workers, has finally been recognised as a significant part of the spectrum of male violence against women and girls through the activism of groups like Hollaback and Everyday Sexism.

The recognition of how unsafe public spaces can be for all women, regardless of things like body type and age, is becoming more commonplace, as is the understanding of how street harassment disproportionately affects women of colour due to the intersections of racism and misogyny. However, there is one area of street harassment that remains unspoken: the harassment of women who are pregnant or with small children.

The fact that it remains, for the most part, unspoken, makes it difficult to assess how common street harassment is for pregnant women and mothers. We tend to think of women with children as safe from street harassment, yet it is the very vulnerability of being pregnant or with a child that makes it easier for men to harass without consequence. A woman with a child is less likely to confront a street harasser because of the fear of the possible harm to their child.

My first pregnancy was aged 18, when I looked no more than 15. I was the skinny kid with bad glasses and frizzy hair but I experienced a tremendous amount of street harassment before getting pregnant. Growing up in a transient mining community with a high rate of alcoholism in Northern Canada isn’t a safe space for women at the best of times. It was worse for Indigenous women.

The harassment got worse after I gave birth. I assumed, wrongly, that this increase was due to my age: that it was only because I looked young that I was being harassed. Then I experienced a similar increase in street harassment after the birth of my second child when I was 29, when I most definitely did not look 15. I have had comments about my breasts, my ass, and a number of dubious propositions all in front of my child.

Was I surprised that men were sexually harassing me in front of my child? Absolutely. I had naively thought men would not target a pregnant women or mother, not if she was outside the age range of the “teen Mum” who was in their mind, by default, a slut and therefore deserving of all harassment and abuse.

I wasn’t alone. It turns out that street harassment whilst pregnant or with a young child isn’t that uncommon. I’ve heard countless complaints from other women at toddler and baby groups. Parenting website Mumsnet has had thread after thread where women discuss their experiences of street harassment whilst pregnant or with small children. GirlwiththeMouseyHair wrote of her experiences of street harassment, which included a sexual assault, whilst 6 months pregnant and with her toddler.

Another Mumsnetter, D, shared this story with me. I am reproducing it with permission:

When F was little, we were on a quite empty bus and a guy came and sat adjacent and started rubbing himself in a quite blatant fashion whilst staring right at us. My thought at the time was that he might think I was less likely to kick off as I had a toddler with me. Or it could have been something worse that got his jollies. I was frozen to the spot. Then luckily he got off. I really didn’t know what to do.

Whatever the reason for this sexual assault D felt more vulnerable because she was with her child. This is a reality of street harassment, up to and including sexual assault, and it needs more research.

Without the research available I can’t statistically prove for you here that street harassment and sexual harassment increases when women are pregnant or with young children. So much of the evidence is anecdotal and remains in the domain of the message board, but I certainly remember more experiences whilst pregnant or with a toddler.

It’s possible this reflects feelings of greater vulnerability rather than a greater experience of harassment, or that I remember these incidents more vividly because my children experienced the harassment too – having someone confirm your experience can make it feel more real. It is heart-breaking when that validation comes from your 3 year old asking why the man was rude to you, or when your 2 year old asks the definition of a sex term that no small child should be familiar with.

The reality of street harassment is that no woman is safe in public spaces. That street harassment is a constant feature of women’s lives and that, unfortunately, this includes when women are pregnant or with their children.

Louise Pennington is a radical feminist writer and activist who founded A Room of Our Own: A Feminist/Womanist network. She can be found on twitter as @LeStewpot and @Roomofourown

Photo: Kristian Bjornard

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Feminist Toolkit: How to make a Citizen’s Arrest

Last week Twiggy Garcia was working in a trendy Shoreditch restaurant when he realised Tony Blair was holding court in the private dining area. Seeing a once in a lifetime opportunity Twiggy acted out a citizen’s arrest by placing his hand on Blair’s shoulder and saying:

“Mr Blair, this is a citizen’s arrest for a crime against peace, namely your decision to launch an unprovoked war against Iraq. I am inviting you to accompany me to a police station to answer the charge.

Blair’s response was to talk about Syria and Twiggy, upon realising the plain clothes security were about to feel his collar, legged it from the restaurant leaving Tony, and his job, behind. He is the fifth person to try and arrest Blair and the fifth person to fail, but you have to admire his pluckiness.

We can imagine all kinds of situations where we might want to place someone under citizen’s arrest, and not just alleged war criminals, so we went to top barrister and feminist Julian Norman to get an indispensable guide on how to take justice into your own hands. Turns out you probably shouldn’t.

How to make a citizen’s arrest.

The first rule of citizen’s arrest is of course don’t do it. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t know how. Daydreaming of grabbing a tube-train groper and arresting him to the admiring cheers of your fellow commuters can be very satisfying. So here is your toolkit guide to a technically accurate daydream.

# 1: Don’t do it
Why not? Before we get started on how you would if you could, really, it’s a bad idea. People who have tried it tend to get arrested themselves for assault and false imprisonment. And even when they are acquitted, they had to go through that telephone call to their boss / their mum / their spouse explaining that they were in police custody. So keep this for revenge-based daydreams and absolute genuine emergencies.

#2: When to do it
The rules on citizen’s arrest are covered by s.24A of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which lets a person “other than a constable” arrest anyone who is in the act of committing an indictable offence or anyone whom she reasonably suspects of committing an indictable offence. Where that offence has already been committed, she can arrest anyone who is guilty or anyone whom she reasonably suspects is guilty of it.

So what’s the catch? Well, first, be sure your offence is “indictable” – that is, could be heard at a Crown Court. Some less serious offences can only be heard by magistrates (“summary only offences”) and these include most driving offences such as speeding, common assault, and some public order offences. If our heroine tries to arrest someone who’s been abusive and slapped her, she’ll be the one arrested, because she didn’t have the power to conduct a citizen’s arrest. See Rule One.

Let’s assume though that we have a more serious offence. Back to Mr. Gropey – she’s just seen him grab a stranger’s crotch, and there is no way it was consensual. Sexual assault is an indictable offence. The next obstacle is that arresting him must be necessary in order to stop him from causing physical injury to himself or another person, suffering physical injury, causing loss of or damage to property or making off before a constable can assume responsibility for him, AND it is not reasonably practicable for a constable to make the arrest instead. Could she call the police to meet the train at the next stop rather than arrest him? If so, it is reasonably practicable for a constable to make the arrest and she should not do it. However, if he is about to be set upon by a dozen angry bystanders and there is no constable in view, then she could perform a citizen’s arrest as being necessary to stop him from suffering physical injury.

#3: How to do it
Disappointingly, there is no set form of words for the person performing the citizen’s arrest. However, she must inform the person she is arresting of what she is doing, why she is doing it and what offence she believes the other person has committed.

She is allowed to use ‘reasonable force.’ What is reasonable will depend on the circumstances, but as a general rule you are allowed to defend yourself but not to attack. If Mr Gropey responds to the citizen’s arrest by attempting to punch her, she is entitled to judo kick his legs out from under him and sit on his chest, but once he is restrained she can’t carry on. If he runs away she can use ‘reasonable’ force to detain him but this must not turn into anything the court could construe as an assault.

Once he is arrested, she can ask him to accompany her to the police station or she can call the police to come and get him.

#4: Really, don’t do it.
Citizen’s arrest is a bit outdated these days. It’s the same power that PCSOs have, you need a thorough knowledge of criminal law so as to be sure whether your offence is indictable or not, plus it’s risky both in terms of annoying a potentially dangerous criminal and in terms of getting yourself arrested accidentally. In the age of the iThing, it’s safer just to video an offence taking place if you see it and hand the footage to the police (assuming that the offence couldn’t have been prevented, obviously, don’t just sit there and watch if you could stop it without risk to yourself), or place the offender in the Youtube stocks, like Racist Croydon Tram Woman.

#5: Checklist

  1. Is someone in the act of committing an offence?
  2. Or, has the offence already been committed and do I know (or reasonably suspect) someone to be guilty of it?
  3. Is the offence indictable?
  4. Could a constable practicably do this instead?
  5. Do I have to arrest the suspect to stop them hurting me, themselves, anyone else, or being hurt, or damaging property, or running away?

If the answer to these is ‘yes’ then you can perform a citizen’s arrest. If it’s ‘no’ or ‘I’m not sure,’ then don’t.

Julian Norman is a barrister, professional law nerd, feminist and writer. Follow her @londonfeminist

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Sadomasochism on the High Street

This Christmas has been a Christmas of firsts for me. The first time I’ve ever eaten an entire advent calendar while watching an episode of I’m a Celebrity and, not coincidentally, the first time I’ve had the fear I would need a seat belt extender on an aeroplane. If you’ve never heard of such a thing, Google it – there’s a whole internet of anxiety out there, which you’re unlikely to be aware of until you find your partner having to squeeze you into a Virgin Little Red belt in the manner of shoving a sleeping bag back into it’s sheath. The final first? The only places on the high street where I could find a coat I liked, and that fitted me, were Asda and Tesco.

As a person with a yoyo-ing waistband I’ve been in and out of phases where everything in Topshop falls off me and then, within months, where the staff at fitting rooms give me pity smiles as I walk in, deluded, with a batch of size 16s. I’ve had more bra fittings than most people have had Christmas dinners; in fact, I had one this Christmas with a lovely woman in Aberdeen’s M&S who explained that, while I wouldn’t be able to get a fancy bra in my size, she’d do her best to find me one that didn’t look like mountaineering equipment.

So I’ve stumbled into 2014 wondering exactly what happened to the campaigns for a more diverse range of sizes in our high street shops. I’m not posh – I’ve often picked up a fashion bargain in a supermarket – but it would be nice to have the kind of clothes shopping experience that doesn’t end up with your new buy being tangled in your basket with your Sunday dinner.

Not fitting in is a marvellous motivator for losing weight and those who hated my piece Running? It’s just Jogging will be glad to hear I’ve put my tail between my legs and am thrusting myself round my local park every other morning in the bid to get fitter. Of course, my motivation is to not only to be fitter but to be smaller, in order to fit in.

Why, when the average size of a woman in the UK is size 16, does Topshop – one of our largest fashion stores – stop many of its ranges at 14 and not even touch an 18? By my calculation, if the average is 16, that means there’s got to be an awful lot of women above a 16 as well as below. Perhaps it’s just not the store for me; after all, I do remember the 80s the first time around, but grown-up Cos and Zara are faring no better.

Debenhams may well have size 16 mannequins but Debenhams is not even fashionable enough for my mum. Evans is not what I would call fashion-led; after the briefest of sell-out ranges with Beth Ditto it’s gone super duper boring. ASOS Curve is pretty good but I want a shop I can go into and, while Dorethy Perkins tries, I’m not sure their hearts really in it; I normally stand in the changing room going: “well it’s amazing it’s in a size 20 arse, but this dress makes me look like a 5 year old’s drawing of a cocktail waitress”.

Where’s the creativity, the art, architecture, the fun? Where’s the “fashion”? Where’s the equivalent of Topshop Unique or Cos for big women?

Not fitting in is especially damaging to younger women. Being dragged around stores where all your mates can try stuff on, every Saturday, while you grab a pair of the ubiquitous black leggings and some cool jewellery, is not fun for 15-year-old chubby girls. It breeds low self esteem, labeling you as different, separate, and can start a cycle of bravado and yoyo dieting that can last a lifetime.

On the plus side, it also encourages creativity as you learn to do more with less. After all, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with not fitting in by choice, but it’s just not nice excluding the majority of women from high street fashion – it’s painful and humiliating – and yet we keep shopping there. It’s a sadomasochistic relationship and I’m not finding it that pleasurable anymore, are you?

I’m not about to start making my own clothes or open a shop, though I regularly fantasise about both, but if you are a talented designer do it, NOW. There are millions of women like me who will come and buy your wears. Abercrombie & Fitch’s Mike Jeffries is missing a million-dollar trick if he thinks cool kids only look like the ones in his adverts.

In the meantime, while one of you creates the next big fashion brand, I implore Mr Philip Green and others: give your designers a few more inches of fabric to play with. Tell them to go wild and make women feel fabulous about themselves. We might just find that the more people who feel warmly welcomed into our high streets shops – like they belong – the more healthy our thinking, and the less fabric we’ll need in the end.

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#IDontBuyIt: How to be a Christian and a feminist

At Christmas we celebrate Jesus’s birthday. Except we don’t, mostly. We celebrate gifts, food, family, Christmas TV, time off work. We might take an annual trip to church to murder a few carols by a cosy manger scene. But for most Brits, there’s little Christ in Christmas.

Quite right, say many feminists. When Catherine Redfern and I surveyed 1,300 feminists for our book Reclaiming the F Word, fewer than 1 in 10 called themselves Christians. Many saw religion as a barrier to gender justice.

And it has been. Institutionalised Christianity has been patriarchal, and its patriarchs perpetrated misogyny. They issued pronouncements like: “Woman is a temple built over a sewer” (Tertullian) and “Woman is a misbegotten man” (Albertus Magnus) and oversaw the burning of Joan of Arc. Protestant Reformers’ fears of female independence and sexuality were a factor in the closure of convents across Europe; to quote Martin Luther: “The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes.”

Even today, wives’ submission is enshrined in the American Southern Baptist Convention’s Official Faith and Message Statement (“A wife is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband, even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ”) – think of the implications for women in abusive marriages. Roman Catholic and some conservative Protestant denominations don’t permit female priests or pastors. The church has a woman-hating history.

But there is another history, a her-story if you like, shrouded by saccharine Santas and male privilege. It’s a story of emancipation, of God becoming human, coming to earth to proclaim a message. Christian feminist novelist Sara Maitland sums up the message like this: “Jesus was born, suffered and died to reconcile humanity to God.” It’s a controversial message, barely believable to children of the Enlightenment, but still embraced by a third of the world’s population.

Feminists often misunderstand the Christmas story. They object, for instance, to the representation of Mary. But the ‘Virgin’ Mary isn’t presented in the Bible as an impossible ideal that all women should follow; it’s just that the cult that developed after her death did (see Marina Warner’s book Alone of All Her Sex.)

Mary inspires me because her story demonstrates God’s elevation of the marginalised. Mary was a Palestinian teenager of low social rank. In organising Mary’s impregnation when she was engaged to someone else, God puts her at risk of social disgrace (even to stoning for adultery). God organises a series of supernatural appearances (some to women) to prevent baby Jesus from being murdered and his mum from being outcast. These verify Jesus’s extraordinary nature.

The prayer Mary utters – the Magnificat, one of the best known hymns in Christian history – expresses shocked praise at God’s favouritism toward those of low position. A migrant during Jesus’s early years, Mary gives birth in a house’s animal quarters. She wraps him in swaddling bands (used by the poor), and raises him with carpenter husband Joseph.

Jesus wasn’t patriarchal or socially powerful. He hung out with the marginalised (eunuchs, sex workers, fishermen, shepherds, those with stigmatising illnesses). Jesus’s interactions with women transgress social norms: he educates women and encourages them out of the kitchen – see the story of Mary and Martha. He sees them as independent people, not in relation to male relatives. That may not seem revolutionary today, but it was then.

After his death, Jesus chooses Mary Magdalene to witness his resurrection first – a decisive statement of trust in a culture when women were not considered reliable witnesses. There’s no real evidence that she was a prostitute or married to Jesus (sorry, Dan Brown – though so what if she was?) But, as an unattached woman, she became the focus of others’ lurid imaginations. Her report of the resurrection isn’t believed (surprise, surprise), until the men see Jesus and are made to look foolish.

Jesus’s transgression of patriarchal norms, his challenge to power and privilege, is why Christianity attracted so many followers among the marginalised, leading 2nd century pagan critic Celsus to describe Christianity (he thought disparagingly) as a religion of “women, children and slaves.”

History tells how women encountered freedom through Jesus. It tells of women transgressing traditional roles, dressing in men’s clothes, becoming martyrs, refusing motherhood for a life of activism to help other women (in the church, activism is often called ‘service’, but really it’s the same thing). It tells of female mystics (Margery Kempe, Teresa of Avila, Simone Weil), prophets, preachers and, occasionally, bishops (might the 2nd century Montanists put the Church of England to shame?)

As a Christian feminist, I know the harm institutionalised Christianity has done to women. Those profiting economically from Christmas or using Jesus to shore-up male supremacy should, let’s use a biblical word, repent. But Jesus, the divine-and-human, whose radically different engagement with women was key to his liberating message, has nothing to apologise for.

Kristin Aune is co-author, with Catherine Redfern, of Reclaiming the F Word: Feminism Today (Zed Books, new edition, 2013) and directs the University of Derby’s Centre for Society, Religion & Belief. She is one of the founders of the Christian Feminist Network. Find out more at @cfemnet

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Inspire: ‘Let’s Start a Pussy Riot!’

I sat down with some of the team behind Let’s Start A Pussy Riot, published by Rough Trade earlier this year. The book is a collection of artistic responses to the phenomenal Pussy Riot, created to raise money and awareness for the women facing imprisonment.

Before I was involved with Feminist Times, Verity, Jade, Beth and Emy – the women behind this project – asked my choir Gaggle to contribute to the book, alongside some incredible artists including: Judy Chicago, Antony Hegarty, Bianca Casady, Sarah Lucas, Kim Gordon, Lucky Dragons, Billy Childish, Jeffrey Lewis. They launched the book at Yoko Ono’s Meltdown, with members of Pussy Riot secretly flown in to speak at the Southbank Centre.

When I joined Feminist Times I wanted to come back to them to discuss the passions that inspired the project, the challenges they faced and how others can follow their lead. This is the first in a series where we interview groups of women who have come together and realised ambitious feminist projects. All in their own words.

If you would like us to interview your group let us know on editorial@feministtimes.com

Feminist Times: HOW DID YOU GUYS COME TOGETHER?

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Emy (25): In Spring 2012, shortly after the women [Pussy Riot] got arrested, I approached three London-based feminist collectives to organise a fundraiser. Within 1½ weeks we organised a mini festival in London, including performances by 11 bands.

 

 

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 15.35.56

 

Jade (22): It was in March last year: Storm in a Tea Cup, Girls get Busy and Not So Popular. Bands, performance art…. we took over a pub…

 

 

 

Verity Flecknell

 

Verity (30): We ran a balaclava workshop, Viv Albertine from The Slits was headlining.

 

 

 

 

 

Jade: Who was the performance artists who used fish? We had to rejig Viv, our headliner, because the artist before rubbed herself all over in fish and the stage was covered.

Verity: I had to go round with air freshener for ages before we could put Viv on.

Jade: Me and Emy were involved in Not So Popular, which we started as more of a socialist group where we want people to get involved in the arts who might not normally get a chance too, especially due to these cuts.

Verity: SIATC has been around since 2009; we helped organise Ladyfest 2010 and have taken part in WOW. We all had different skills, networks and contacts. Bringing us all together gave quite a wide range of different scenes – that’s why it worked so well.

Jade: We wanted to continue raising money. I think we raised £400 and we wanted a more regular way of giving money.

Emy: We started Let’s Start A Pussy Riot as a call to action, to respond creatively to the case and its surrounding topics around the time when the trials began. We wanted to engage the public in a creative dialogue, away from the mere consuming of news.

Jade: So every month we were going to do a different feminist zine. We started contacting artists and suddenly we had people like Judy Chicago, Billy Childish and Yoko Ono so we thought maybe we should just make a book. Seemed quite logical. We approached Rough Trade who loved the idea and had a lot of faith in us and gave us a lot of freedom to make the book we wanted to. And yeah, suddenly we had a book! I say suddenly but it was actually a lot of work. Don’t really know how we got here.

Verity: We’d never published a book before and we all come from a grassroots perspective so there were a lot of challenges. But people were very receptive because no one else was getting up and doing stuff like this in London.

Jade: It gave people a chance to respond in their own way. It’s not prescriptively Pussy Riot, it’s about the themes they embody. It asks people who are already on the scene to look at Pussy Riot, and how they exploded on to it, and respond to it.

Verity: Everyone wanted to have their say and support them; lots of artists wanted to show their support.

Feminist Times: HOW DID YOU PICK THEM?

Verity: We all had a knowledge of different scenes – for me it was the LGBT perspective and also I’ve got a lot of experience working in the folk world so I brought in people like Peggy Seagar. I’m really proud of the project because it’s intergenerational – we have all different ages, and movements and perspectives.

Jade: We tried to be as inclusive as possible. For me intersectionality exists and it’s important for feminism. We wanted to create a dialogue so each piece is almost in correspondence with each other.

Feminist Times: HOW DO YOU MAKE SURE YOU ARE INCLUSIVE?

Jade: One reason we’re doing university talks and going out there ourselves is because you can make one standalone piece that won’t include everybody but once you’re outside of that you can think, ‘ok who didn’t we get in touch with?’ and address those issues.

Verity: There’s a lot of action in universities and to keep this momentum we want to get in there.

Jade: That’s why its called Let’s Start a Pussy Riot. We want people to be inspired to make their own actions.

Feminist Times: WHAT KIND OF CRITICISM HAVE YOU FACED?

Jade: One of the things we’ve found is that people don’t know it’s a grassroots production. I think sometimes they might expect it to be much more polished, so the NME kept comparing it to high-class art and coffee table books. In one way we took from that aesthetic.

Verity: Rough Trade marketed it as ‘look at all these amazing people’ but there wasn’t much about the background.

Jade: Which is that it’s grassroots. I’ve never edited a book before. To be honest, I think I’m heavily critical of it – it could always be better. Maybe we should have put it at the top of the press release – three grassroots people did this!

Verity: Also I think some of the high profile artists work was critiqued as being rushed and that people hadn’t spent enough time on it, but we wanted it to be reactionary. It didn’t matter to us if it only took ten minutes, it’s about the message.

Jade: We also had pieces of work donated to us – Sarah Lucas, Yoko Ono – work that’s re-contextualised in this book, so Yoko’s lyrics take on another meaning.

Feminist Times: WHAT MADE U FEEL CONFIDENT TO LEAD PROJECTS LIKE THIS?

Jade: I’m precocious. From the age of 16 I’ve been involved in different things. In Manchester I used to run something called Same Teens, putting on gigs for young kids. I get bored so easily. I don’t like spare time.

Verity: I want there to be more female role models in the alternative scene. I’m a musician but I’ve put that aside because I care about inspiring change and being a role model. It’s all good sitting there and moaning about stuff but I think it’s way more difficult to go out and do something about it. It’s hard taking that first step and that’s what I find empowering about DIY activism. That’s how I got my foot in the door, putting on this Ladyfest, and I realised that I can put on these events. It’s having that confidence, and in order to have that confidence you need to have people around you to support your work.

Feminist Times: IS THAT EASIER IN LONDON?

Jade: One of the things that annoys me is that things are quite London-centric – coming from Manchester, which is a big city but still there’s parts that are pretty disenfranchised. Elsewhere up north, Newcastle had 100% of its arts funding cut. The current government’s focus is on bringing an international eye on the biggest city we have. But that’s where you get more artists coming out of the framework; though I don’t agree struggling makes you a better artist, it does make you pissed off and want to do something about it.

Verity: I think a lot of people when they first start out expect someone to magically give you funding, but you need to get out there and find all this funding. I want to inspire people to find other ways to make the culture that’s missing in their lives. It’s not easy, but sometimes it is just as simple as getting up and doing it yourself. It’s easier with the internet. I built up my audience on Facebook. You can find your people on the internet. Doesn’t matter where you are.

Feminist Times: WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU TO MAKE YOU WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD?

Jade: Manchester. Grey. The Smiths! Joke. I don’t know what it is, but I just get so annoyed and internalise it and then go, ‘right then let’s put on an event.’ Pussy Riot made me a lot more politically engaged. Things I thought of peripherally have become a lot more important to me – seeing people like that make a stand. That’s why the internet’s good because you can see people like that making a stand and it inspires people.

Feminist Times: WHY PUSSY RIOT AND WHO ARE YOUR ROLE MODELS?

Verity: I don’t think there was one particular role model. I think it was more my peers, finding that support group. I felt so alone as an artist floating into nothing because I didn’t quite fit into any particular scene so that’s where me and my friend Elizabeth started SIATC. I didn’t call it a feminist collective until two years in. I called it a ‘female arts collective’ and then it was obvious that it was feminist, and Pussy Riot made me more hardcore in my feminist activism.

Emy: Their bravery is truly inspiring. Their performance marks a very important generational moment, kickstarting the dialogue about feminism, freedom of speech, LGBTQ rights, power of collaboration again. When I was younger I listened a lot to Sleater Kinney and bands like that but was too young and detached to understand the Riot grrrl movement.

Feminist Times: ADVICE TO OTHERS WHO WANT TO TAKE THE FIRST STEPS ON A PROJECT LIKE THIS?

Jade: Well, you can. For one don’t be daunted. Don’t be daunted by failure because failure only makes the next thing better. If you haven’t got money obviously it’s a tough one but all the stuff I’ve done has been begging for a free venue, charge a quid on the door, which covers a few costs, and ask people to do some stuff for free. Most people oblige because people are great.

Verity: Start with baby steps. You don’t have to have any capital to start, and use the skills of your friends, pull your skills together. You don’t realise the networks you have until you start reaching out. Lot of people don’t have the confidence to ask or take that step but reaching out is the first step.

Feminist Times: HOW WELL DID YOU WORK TOGETHER?

Jade: With everything there’s highs and lows. It was very stressful doing the project.

Verity: We all had other things we were doing. I’ve got a full time job, Jade was on her third year of her degree, Emy was doing her masters.

Emy: The balance between my one year full-time masters and the project was very challenging, for sure. But to be honest, to see how many incredible people stand behind this has helped me forget about the difficulties. The beautiful bunch who has been involved in this project, who have donated labour and put their heart into it, have really made it much easier. It was very moving to realise that there are people who still make projects like this possible, who stand up for what they believe in.

Jade: The fact we’re sitting in this room now is testament that you bicker and it’s over. You’ll be like, “why you using that font? That’s a shit font”, and then you realise maybe that wasn’t the right choice and those things that seem big at the time aren’t.

Verity: We always kept our focus on the bigger picture and that’s the most important thing – don’t get stressed about the small stuff. You’re always going to have to work through these things, you’re not going to always agree in a collective.

Jade: You’ve got to have a thick skin. If you’re going to become really upset because someone doesn’t like your idea for the front cover it’s not going to work.

Verity: There is a lot of passion so of course there’s fire.

Jade: I’m just so proud of everyone involved.

Feminist Times: FAINTHEARTED ACTIVISM HAS BEEN ONE OF OUR MOST POPULAR ARTICLES. WHAT CAN A FAINTHEARTED ACTIVIST DO?

Jade: Well, Pussy Riot took that action and we made a book instead. We didn’t go and stand outside Westminster.

Verity: You have to find your strengths. I have to tell myself every day that I can’t bloody save the world, I can’t solve everyone’s problems. You’ve got to honor yourself and do what you can within your means.

Jade: Anything you do in the day can be an action. If you didn’t shave your legs today – I really do believe that is an action. Or if you’ve never publicly spoken and you’re really terrified, if you take the step and publicly speak then you’re empowering yourself and there’s a lot to say for small actions everyday. And they’re not acknowledged and you won’t be on the front page of the news, but if you feel a bit better about being a woman then there’s no harm. Don’t compare yourself to Pussy Riot. They chose that action because it almost chose them. Also in this country we have a very bad response to public protest. Why would you go and protest when the Iraq war happened, when the student fees were raised, when the cuts were made? Why would you take to the streets because people don’t seem to listen. We made a book and that’s how we chose to enter the conversation.

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TV (and Oprah) changed my life

Much praise has gone to the handling of the horrifying case of the three Lambeth slaves by Freedom Charity, the organisation the alleged victims reached out to, and the Police. But little praise has been directed towards the powerful catalyst at the heart of their consciousness raising, the spark that made the women feel they would no longer be held captive, that gave them the information to seek help – and that was TV.

ITV’s ‘Forced to Marry’ went out at 10.35pm on Wednesday October 9th, part of the same Exposure series that also outed Savile. This episode followed undercover reporters as they stung Imams in mosques around the UK who were prepared to marry 14 year old girls. It is reportedly this program that the three women watched and that motivated them to escape their situation.

You often hear people on This Morning’s couch say “well, if this helps just one person”, but it blows my mind when I am reminded of the powerful, messiah-like change TV has the capability of catalysing. Live Aid is a perfect example of this; Russell Brand on Newsnight, well, didn’t quite change the world but hey.

We know the change the Savile programme instigated for the hundreds of victims who suddenly felt able to come forward, bolstered by TV legitimising their experience. What the establishment, thousands of individuals and the BBC had kept hidden for years, one programme split open in under an hour.

Looking back at my own life I can see how television has had a powerful revelatory effect. Whether in my home life or as part of my education, it’s given me knowledge and tools that I didn’t get on the streets of Worthing.

In the 80s That’s Life taught me that violence and sexual abuse were bad and that children could call a new number – Childline. For the first time children were told they had rights through the television, and from that moment every mum and dad had to be more conscious of their parenting.

The Cosby Show, Fresh Prince, Simpsons and Roseanne taught me about race, sexism, body politics, sexuality, feminism, gender, politics and class. When Marge served up the Blinky to Mr Burns I learnt how one mum can make a big stand against the most corrupt and powerful. After watching Sandra Bernhard coming out in Roseanne I went to school feeling confident that being gay or lesbian was totally cool and fine by me, even though the education system I was in hadn’t quite cottoned on to that.

The biggest impact by far though was by Oprah. I’m not even sure how I watched her because we didn’t have ‘satellite’ – it was too expensive. Regardless, Oprah remains this dreamlike yoda figure from my childhood, omnipresent, but I never met her.

Oprah’s shows taught me about racism – she interviewed skinheads and neo nazis live on her show, was subjected to abuse, and all the while kept dignified as it got personal.

Oprah’s shows taught me about weight, eating, emotions and female body image – she’s been in full view, fat, thin and embarrassed in public by failing repeatedly.

Oprah taught me about sexual abuse by telling the world she had suffered. Then there’s a million other stories and ideas she’s helped spread in the world; imagine if she had been a monster. Imagine if Jeremy Kyle was that successful?

TV can be a much maligned medium, and no wonder with the likes of Geordie Shore, Ibiza A&E, Celebrity Undertaker clogging up so much time; sometimes it can seem like the whole schedule is taken up with guilty pleasures. (TV commissioners take note: I made up Celebrity Undertaker and have the entire pitch waiting for you if you want it.)

People are jumping ship. They don’t need to glue themselves to the Gogglebox for an evening when they can watch what they choose on Netflix or LoveFilm. But the wonderful thing about old fashioned telly was you were kinda stuck watching whatever Aunty or the others put on for you, and it’s that unwitting viewing that has the power to change. The wealth of ‘choice’ actually may be restricting our growth because don’t we just pick the same thing again and again.

Things I caught by accident the first time around – Louis Theroux, The Thick of It, Father Ted – I’ve been watching again and again. I’ve stopped discovering and am now merely consuming and regurgitating the same fodder because I trust it.

In a wonderful quote from Dr George Gerbner in a 1982 issue of Presbyterian Survey he notes that: “most people watch TV by the clock, not the program. They are more faithful to it than to church.”

Much like with the church, we don’t trust telly anymore. I don’t think we are too sure about how seriously the people behind it are taking the role of mass influencer. If TV seemed more aware of its power to raise consciousness, and this came through in the programming, then maybe people would give themselves over for a whole evening like they used to, and learn something they weren’t looking for.

Image courtesy of Alan Light

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#ManWeek: What I know about Domestic Violence

I’d cut all my hair off, put back on about two stone, and was missing lectures on my recently started MA. I was sitting, waiting for an appointment in the room you went when you needed help with money, accommodation, things like that, when one of the other mature students on my course – an older woman – approached me.

I’d like to pretend I can remember exactly what she said, but all I really know is she gave me a leaflet about the signs of domestic violence and offered me her help. I hadn’t told her I was in a violent relationship, I hadn’t asked for her help, she just came over; she’d noticed the signs and offered this up.

It woke me. The signs: telling you you’re rubbish at simple things like cleaning, cooking; repeatedly telling you your friends are not real friends; running down your family; putting you down in front of people; violent outbursts and episodes that are later denied; knives stabbed into the walls. I woke up and accepted that it’s just not normal to have a bag with your safe-keeps and passport in it by the door for a quick escape.

This was the second time I had lived in a violent household and yet I’d almost not noticed it. I even considered myself a bit of an expert – I regularly gave to Women’s Aid, watched every documentary on it, and I’d preach about women’s rights in the pub. I was known for banging on about this kind of thing.

It was a battle letting go of a relationship that he never wanted to be in and that was dangerous for me; strange that, but I did it. I’ve looked back gradually with less sadness, then more anger, then analysis. All of this came back to me recently during my work at Feminist Times, as I’ve read more and more about violence against women and girls. But something always seemed to be amiss between my experience and the standard messages about domestic violence.

No more so than ever when I’ve read explanations of both Lose the Lads Mags and No More Page 3 campaigns by people saying banning them will help prevent violence against women, including domestic violence.

Neither of the men I knew bought the Sun or Lads Mags. They would consider them tacky, below them even. They considered themselves thinking men, intellectual, and more likely to be spending their time attempting to write the great British novel than consuming fake tits and low level BDSM. Neither of these were direct contributing factors with the violent men I have known.

What they did both have in common was a traumatic childhood and complicated, deeply confused, relationships with their mother and father. So in the same week we’ve published a psychoanalysis toolkit, I wonder whether we’ve forgotten that there will be deeply personal, experiences behind violent men.

Some radical feminists may believe that men are born violent, that it’s innate, it’s simply in their nature. Some people think a violent man is constructed through culture, through images, stories and expectations. Trying to fix either is dangerous. I don’t believe babies are born violent, with as much passion as I don’t believe culture can be fixed by banning soft porn or even Tyler the Creator’s lyrics. There’s a suffocating weight of historic cultural material from Chaucer to Bukowski, Oedipus to Mike Leigh that makes this culture – things we can’t ban.

But the Psyche – each individual man, with his individual experiences; the reason why one brother is violent and the other is not; why two men in my life have been violent but why none of the others have – that is something that can be addressed. It takes more resources and more money and it comes at a greater cost, where we don’t just blame the man who is violent, but we also challenge the families and communities they grow up in. Where we accept the responsibility to nurture all children, so they know how to be loved and how to love each other.

Image courtesy of Bastian Greshake

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Sterilisation: The feminist thoughtcrime that brought down Taboo Corner

On October 3, Feminist Times launched with the first article in our Taboo Corner section, a piece on sterilisation. It was a particularly extreme introduction to what will be a regular feature – a safe space for discussing difficult and controversial issues, including the disconcerting inner conflicts between our feminist politics and our emotional reactions to personal situations.

Below is a shortened extract of the original piece:

“I once exclaimed to a group of friends, after a few drinks, that I believed in forced sterilisation… I came to this idea from a personal experience, which involves a family member who decided to bring a child into the world… However she also decided to neglect the child. Put the little girl in some terrible, dangerous situations, which led to social services taking the child away from her. This isn’t something new or unusual, it happens all the time. I understand that sometimes people can make mistakes and sometimes people have problems of their own that need to be addressed…. One of our elderly relatives couldn’t bear to see the baby go into care and grow up feeling unwanted, so out of her own selflessness took on the child and her upbringing… Does the mother seek help? Want to get her child back and earn the right to be called her mother and look after her? No she doesn’t. Instead she continues to sleep about with men, picks an ex convict, gets pregnant again and surprise surprise the cycle continues.”

Reading the piece, the Feminist Times editorial team was shocked by the compassion the writer shows her elderly relative and the children concerned, while showing less compassion for the mother. It was this uncomfortable disconnect that we were fascinated by and wanted to explore through Taboo Corner. One member of the editorial team confessed that the thoughts expressed were disconcertingly familiar – that she knew children who had been neglected by their biological parents, who had been permanently damaged and described by social workers as “feral”. For years she’d battled the inner conflict between her feminist politics and the blind rage she felt for the children’s mother; it wasn’t until she learnt of the mother’s own deeply rooted personal problems that her heart went out to her in compassion and sisterhood. Though she still felt angry at the damage that had been done to the children, she felt angrier at the system that had failed to support their mother.

For the writer too, this article was not a political manifesto but a “thoughtcrime” – a visceral response to a difficult personal situation, directed specifically at her relative. Although some readers were appalled by the piece, interpreting it as the editorial team advocating a form of violence against women, we were relieved that a number of readers took the piece in the spirit in which it was intended. The first comment on the original article read: “The title of your piece brought an involuntary “Blimey!” to my lips but having read it, thought about it and put it into perspective, I found myself (sort of) agreeing with you. Not in a the-government-should-do-something-about-it way though. An extended family member did a similar thing but happily, has lots of support although this always seems to be on the brink of breaking down. My thoughts are, and have always been, that members of her immediate family should either stand over her daily, to see her swallow a contracepive pill, or forcibly march her to the clinic for sterilisation. No arguments. However, being a woman, a socialist and a feminist, this goes against every principle I’ve ever had. I really admire you for speaking out but I’m not sure I could follow in your footsteps by saying so in public!”

A later comment, following the article’s retraction, read: “The contributor had arrived at such an anguished conclusion from a position of proximity to the mother described. The obvious despair derives from an empathy with the child and its would-be elderly carers. The author therefore wishes into being an exterior inhibiting mechanism to limit future damage occurring. The statement is clearly fanciful, stating a belief in forced sterilisation yet making no proposals regarding identification or implementation. This is polemic, not policy and vividly illustrates the turbulence at the confluence of our ideals and experiences.”

Given the weight of public response to the article, we felt it was right to put the writer’s views in context so, with some help from feminist geographer Joni Seager (author of The Atlas of Women) and graphic designer Lucia Ricci, we took a look at the brutal reality of forced sterilisation globally over the last century. You can click through to view their infographic in full at the bottom of this article.

The USA was the first country to legally mandate for sterilisation, with the state of Indiana legalising it in 1907, shortly followed by Connecticut. A Model Eugenical Sterilization Law was published in 1914, advocating the sterilisation of the “socially inadequate” – the “feebleminded, insane, criminalistics, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf, deformed and dependent”, including “orphans, ne’er-do-wells, tramps, the homeless and paupers.” By the time this Model Law was published, twelve states in the USA had enacted sterilisation laws, and by 1924 around 3,000 people had been sterilised; 2,500 of them in California.

It was California, today known as a bastion of liberal politics, that reportedly influenced the  sterilisation programme enforced by Nazi Germany from1933, which allowed for the sterilisation of “any person suffering from a hereditary disease”. This included: congenital mental deficiency, schizophrenia, manic-depressive insanity, hereditary epilepsy, hereditary chorea (now known as Huntington’s Disease, an illness affecting our editor Charlotte Raven and her family), hereditary blindness, hereditary deafness, any severe hereditary deformity, and any person suffering from severe alcoholism.

The USA and Nazi Germany were not the only world states to introduce sterilisation as a form of eugenic population control. In 1928, the Sexual Sterilisation Act was introduced in Alberta, Canada, allowing the forced sterilisation of “mentally deficient” individuals. Between 1928 and 1972, when the Alberta Act was repealed, nearly 3,000 sterilisations were approved. These disproportionately affected women, children, the unemployed, rural, institutionalised or unmarried citizens, and those of particular ethnicities.

Britain’s war hero Winston Churchill was another early advocate of forced sterilisation of the “feeble minded” during his time as Home Secretary in 1910. Britain never legislated for or carried out forced sterilisation, instead legislating for detention in institutions as part of the Mental Deficiency Act 1913.

Elsewhere in Europe, Sweden introduced compulsory sterilisation in 1934, not long after Nazi Germany, with the stated objectives of racial purity, public health, reducing public expenditure and reduction of antisocial behaviour. More than 20,000 Swedish citizens were estimated to have been sterilised, and 6,000 coerced into ‘voluntary’ sterilisation. In Czechoslavakia, sterilisation of Roma women was officially carried out between 1973 and 1991, although human rights groups suggest this continued until as recently as 2003.

Just last year, in 2012, the BBC reported on a secret sterilisation programme being carried out in Uzbekistan over the previous two years, allegedly as “not only a means of population control, but also a bizarre short-cut to lowering maternal and infant mortality rates.” Cases were first reported in 2005 and studies suggest tens of thousands of women have been sterilised as part of the secret policy; one study in 2010 found that 80,000 sterilisations had occurred during a seven-month period.

Further afield, sterilisation has been a widespread policy across many countries in Asia and South America over the last half century. Puerto Rico has the highest level of sterilisation in the world, with 35.3 per cent of Puerto Rican women having been sterilised by 1968. This had increased from the 6.6 per cent that was reported in a study between 1947-1948. In 2002, a report found that the previous government of Peru has pressured more than 200,000 people in rural parts of the country into being sterilised between 1996 and 2000 – a total of 215,227 sterilisations of women and 16,547 male vasectomies.

Likewise, the one-child policy introduced in 1979 by the Communist Party of China, to curb population growth, is believed to have resulted in the forced sterilisation of thousands in China and Tibet. In 2005, Time magazine reported that 7,000 people had been involuntarily sterilised in the Chinese province of Shandong and, in 2010, Amnesty International put out an appeal to prevent officials in Guangdong province from sterilising almost 10,000 people.

According to Tears of Silence, a report published by the Tibetan Women’s Association, forced abortions and compulsory sterilisations in Tibet were “much more common” in the 1980s. “In the mid-1990s, the government changed its approach to enforcing the one-child family policy by imposing fines rather than by force. Today, forced abortions are illegal in China, yet they continue to occur.”

A 2008 documentary by Channel 4’s Dispatches, ahead of the 2008 Beijing games, exposed the “brutal sterilisation of women” in mobile sterilisation units in Tibet. In one excerpt from the film, a Tibetan woman tells the interviewer: “I cried when I was lying on the bed after the sterilisation. I cried thinking that I’d been forced to have sterilisation when there was nothing wrong with me. I was feeling sick and giddy and couldn’t look up. It was so painful. Apparently they cut the fallopian tubes and stitch them up. When they opened me up they pulled them out by the roots. It was agonizing. They didn’t use anesthetic. They just smeared something on my stomach and carried out the sterilization. Apart from aspirin for the pain there were no other drugs. And then from the day after the operation I had to look after myself. If I needed a drip I had to pay for it myself.”

Similar family planning policies are in place in India, which carries out around 37 per cent of the world’s female sterilisations. In June, Bloomberg reported that 4.6 million women were sterilized last year – many of them carried out under coercion, in exchange for cash payments. One woman, 25-year-old Devi, told Bloomberg: “I did it out of desperation. We’re so poor, we need the money.” As well as Government-imposed quotas, doctors in India are offered financial incentives for sterilising women; vasectomies, on the other hand, made up just four per cent of all sterilisations.

It was reported earlier this year that thousands of Ethiopian women in Israel had been injected with a contraceptive without their consent, allegedly to “reduce births in the Ethiopian Israeli community”, and transgender people are forced or coerced into sterilisation in 29 countries across Europe “before their true gender is recognised in law.”

In the UK, where involuntary sterilisation has never been legislated for, a number of court cases in recent years have turned the spotlight on the issue of sterilising disabled people. The mother of a woman with learning difficulties applied to the Court of Protection in 2011 for her daughter to be “forcibly sterilised for her own protection”. The 21-year-old woman, who at the time was pregnant with her second child, had previously refused a contraceptive injection. Two months later, the mother dropped her legal bid to have her daughter forcibly sterilised.

The Court of Protection, which normally sits in private, has the power to “order procedures where a degree of force is necessary”; the 2011 case was the first legal battle over sterilisation since 2003. Some two years later, in February of this year, a court of protection judge ruled against the sterilisation of a 21-year-old woman with Down’s Syndrome – again applied for by the woman’s parents. According to the Telegraph, “Dr Samuel Rowlands, an expert in reproductive health, commissioned by the court, concluded that there was ‘no clinical need’ for sterilisation and that it was not in her best interests.” In August, however, a judge ruled in favour of sterilising a disabled man, deeming it “in his best interests”. The landmark ruling – a legal first – was made after the Court of Protection heard that the father of one, who has learning difficulties, did not want any more children but “did not have the capacity to make decisions about contraception.”

The reality of issues around sterilisation – not just globally and historically, but recently and even locally – goes far beyond thoughtcrime, to private court cases and secret government policies. The context is more shocking than the thought, but the reaction to the thought stunned us.

One response though, from Feminist Times member Julian Norman, summed up the reasoning behind our original publication: “Feminists have broken through society’s constraints on what is taboo in many ways: talking openly about menstruation, abortion, rape, challenging the norms of patriarchal control.  Yet in others we have created new ones – you have only to hear the number of women who will self-deprecatingly refer to themselves as a “bad feminist” for anything from depilation to rape jokes.

“If we are to break down those new boundaries we need to be honest about the internalised misogyny we all have – however ‘good’ a feminist we might be, we were still brought up in the same society and we are not plastic dummies immune to that. It’s no surprise that many feminists struggle with a clash between their political understanding and the societal norms they have been brought up on, and we do ourselves a disservice if we ignore these elephants dotted around our corners.  I thought it was a brilliant idea for Feminist Times to give some exposure to that.  I hope Taboo Corner can be reinstated – with perhaps a better disclaimer.”

infographic2

Infographic by ThinkAgainGraphics – click through to view full-size.

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Who’s afraid of old age?

Who’s afraid of old age? Most people, it would seem. And what could be scarier than a wrinkled old woman? This was certainly the hackneyed thought of model Heidi Klum, paying some Oscar-winning make-up artists a huge sum of money to age her for Halloween this year. A few commentators mocked Klum’s insensitivity, yet her antics highlighted a cultural truth, which is why age is a feminist issue. Wherever we look, first and foremost, fears of ageing have targeted the ageing female, fed by those terrifying images from myth and folk-tale – the hag, harridan, witch, or Medusa. These frightening figures are not incidentally female, but quintessentially so, seen as monstrous because of the combination of age and gender. So much effort is required, Collette wrote almost a century ago, ‘to disguise that monster, an old woman’, herself resorting to cosmetic surgery at a time when it would have been both exceedingly painful, and also very dangerous. How much have things changed?

It was writing my political memoir, Making Trouble, in my early sixties, that brought me sharply up against the contrast between my shared dreams as a young woman, coming of age in the radical 1960s, and the realities of old age. My feminist attachments should, you might think, have prevented this outcome. ‘Goodbye to all that’, the voice of the American writer, Robin Morgan, had declared, in January 1970. Women would create a new world, one closer to our own heart’s desire, one in which we were no longer forced to become the sort of women men wanted us to be. ‘Stay young and beautiful if you want to be loved’, we sang with glorious irony as young women on International Women’s Day in March 1971. I was on that march, so surely, after forty years and more of feminism, things have changed. We shall see.

Certainly, as young women, second-wave feminists were accused of excluding older women from our midst. In this country the Older Feminist Network was founded in 1982 by feminists, who felt that the women’s liberation movement took little notice of them or the challenges they faced as women in an ageist culture (including, so it seemed, the women’s movement itself). ‘Old age’, they said, was self-defining, though most of them saw it as ‘starting with the menopause’. These older feminists and activists, such as the poet, simply calling herself Astra, began working on issues such as housing, sheltered accommodation, living wills, and more. It was also only around the mid-1980s that books by and about older feminists began to appear, again suggesting older that they had been systematically patronized, stereotyped and, above all, ignored in the women’s movement. One of the first collections, edited by the American lesbian feminist writer and activist Barbara Macdonald, and her younger lover, Cynthia Rich, angrily confronted their fellow feminists: Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging and Agism

However, while older feminists had indeed begun meeting in the 1980s, it would be over a decade more before things began to shift more decisively, if still slowly, within mainstream feminist thought. Indeed, it was only after more of us ‘old-times’ reached middle age ourselves that ageing was more widely addressed. This might seem strange, given that one key feminist goal was always to try to reach out, embracing all women, everywhere. Furthermore, as feminists we had always objected to the cultural dominance of the male gaze, with its almost exclusive focus on youthful female flesh when presenting acceptable femininity. We confidently tried to reject all those male-defined images of women’s ‘attractiveness’, and seemed aware of its harmful ways of ranking women, observing or disregarding us, according to our ‘beauty’. We also noticed of the artificial and ephemeral nature of ‘good looks’.

For all that, ageing feminists remained largely unprepared for the fear, anxiety, even for some the sudden horror, of realizing we were no longer young. ‘Late mid-life astonishment’, is how the American feminist Sarah Pearlman referred to the disruptions of identity and self-esteem that almost all women can suddenly experience at the first intimations of old age, and the feared marginalization and invisibility that so often comes with it. Indeed, as Simone de Beauvoir’s many words on the topic exemplify, it can be easier to fight the realities of ageism, than to accept one’s own ageing face. A few years ago, for instance, a large survey of elderly Americans reported not just a disparity between actual age and the age people said they felt, but found that this gap increased with age. Over fifty, most interviewees said they felt ten years younger than their chronological age, while a significant minority over sixty-five reported that they felt up to twenty years younger. Given the cultural diminishment accompanying our images of the elderly, this is hardly surprising.

Nevertheless, feminist resistance to ageism and the neglect of the needs of the elderly has now been growing for years. In addition, more older feminists have been trying to confront, rather simply rage against or disavow, the losses that inevitable multiply in any long life – always sharply etched by class, race, ethnicity and more. It led one of my feminists mentors, Adrienne Rich, to articulate a new role for the older woman, or older activist, as ‘passionate skeptic’, the person who could look back through time and help explain the continuities, slides, shifts and inevitable ruptures in radical thought and action across the generations. It has also led me to write my own book on ageing Out of Time, in search of richer, mutually beneficial narratives, which might encourage more communication between younger and older feminists. It isn’t always easy, with resentments springing from either side, but at least in my dreams, it certainly is possible.

Lynne Segal is a feminist writer and activist, and Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. Her new book Out Of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing is published by Verso.

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Ding Dong the Witch is Dead

Au contraire. In fact, witches are ‘enjoying’ a great deal of publicity in the twenty-first century – even making it to the front page of the current issue of Private Eye. Amid glowering pumpkins, above the headline ‘Horror Witch Costume Withdrawn from Shops’,  is Rebekah Brooks, in an outfit whose collar is more reminiscent of the Puritans. Private Eye has form in this area; they used a headshot from the same image under the caption ‘Salem Witch Trial’ in May 2012. So far, so funny. It’s Hallowe’en after all and a coincidence not to be missed. Let’s hope the photographer got a repeat fee.

Apart from the obvious point that could well be missed in a lot of this coverage – that there are some men involved in this case – it seems that a red-haired woman is a target too good to be missed. Now I’m no fan of Ms Brooks or Rupert Murdoch, but I get quite annoyed whenever women are targeted with the lazy stereotype of the witch. I’m no fan of Thatcher either, but would protest about her being called a witch. For the truth is that those accused, tortured and often executed in Europe and North America during the witchcraft persecution (c.1450-1800) were far less dangerous than Brooks or Thatcher. Most of them were peasant men and women who were victims of socially superior accusers with an axe to grind. They may have tried to harness a supernatural force and there’s little doubt that the majority of people did believe in witchcraft and the Devil. Anyone attending a Roman Catholic christening today will be asked to renounce Satan and all his works. However, it could be argued that unlike the witches of the Early Modern period, Brooks and Thatcher did real damage.

In fact, as @Greg_Jenner tweeted, “Is it only me who sees the Private Eye ‘witch’ cover as subtly pro-Rebekah Brooks? Witches were innocent scapegoats in hysterical societies.” So I’m seriously considering setting up Watch out for Witches (WOW) to challenge and educate people who should know better about lazy stereotyping. Ok, so I’m a female, mixed-race northerner living in London, so I should be immune to lazy stereotypes by now, but I’m alive and well and articulate enough to challenge sexists, racists or northernists. It may seem an arcane point, but as I have argued in these pages previously, the frivolous and negative portrayal of witches does a great disservice to over 40,000 men and women who were tortured and/or executed. And to be completely accurate, we ought to be seeing men pilloried as witches as well.

Regretfully, I shall not be cancelling my subscription to Private Eye.

 

Dr Wanda Wyporska has written extensively on witchcraft and is the author of Witchcraft in Poland 1500-1800, published by Palgrave Macmillan on November 6th. She blogs about witchcraft, writing and publishing at www.witchcraftinpoland.com. Find out more @witchcraftwanda.

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FiL: Lola Tinubu on BME women and secularism

Lola TinubuLola Tinubu has been a human rights advocate for 12 years, working as a legal representative for migrants and refugees. Many of her cases include victims of domestic violence, female genital mutilation and LGBT clients. She is a feminist, atheist and co-founder of the London Black Atheists (LBA). The LBA provides a supportive environment for black and others who have left religion or are leaving religion. Religion is central to black communities and atheists tend to suffer isolation and hostility. The LBA is a social and support group.

When and why did you become an atheist?

It’s always difficult to explain. I think I became an atheist in about 2007, through science. I was born into a Seventh Day Adventist family and I went along with it for a long time but I was confused. I would ask my dad questions and never get any satisfactory answers. My dad liked science and the science of the universe, so I started watching science documentaries with him. Through that I learned about the big bang and realised that what I was taught can’t be true. In the same year, Richard Dawkins book, The God Delusion came out and I read it. I felt traumatised by the book and started reading more and more.

What are the particular challenges facing BME women as atheists?

When I became an atheist I suffered from depression for a year. It’s really difficult because everyone you know believes in God. It’s almost like religion is the fabric of society – everything revolves around religion, even your social life and language. When I became an atheist I was alone – thank goodness for the internet because I started looking for atheist groups, which gave me my own social network. It’s a very difficult thing because you’re looked at like you’re evil; people will be careful around you because they think you will bring God’s anger on them. It can be very isolating but now – I think because of the kind of person I am – people have accepted me for who I am.

Is atheism more compatible with your feminist politics than Christianity, and do you think religion is inherently incompatible with feminism?

Absolutely. Part of what I’m going to say on Saturday is I’ve always been a feminist since I was five years old. I didn’t understand why my parents, when they both went to work and would came back at the same time, why my mother would always be in the kitchen and my father wouldn’t. I would ask him why are you not in the kitchen with my mum? He would tell me because that’s what the Bible says. Why? He couldn’t give me any acceptable explanation. I felt from a young age that I am not less than a man. Secularism is the only way to ensure equality. I used to say to my dad, the Bible says submit in love – you should be serving my mum if you really are the head of this family, but men don’t interpret it that way and religion gives them a lot of leeway.

By extension, is a more secular society automatically a more feminist one? 

What I’ve seen so far is that the names you tend to hear and the people that tend to speak about humanism, most of the time it’s men. I don’t know whether history has something to do with it, or whether it’s because women are not putting themselves forward. London Black Atheists was started because whenever we went to mainstream atheist events we wouldn’t see black people. There are five of us – three women – and we play equal roles. I don’t know why in the mainstream you tend to have men. It’s something that was women need to have a look at.

How can we ensure feminism is central to secular politics?

I think people are afraid to identify themselves as feminists – even women who believe in feminism goals and aims. I think we just need to put ourselves forward more, and write more articles and books. We need to organize events that have to do specifically with feminine issues and then invite the men – I think we need to be more specific and more vocal.

What are your biggest priorities for the feminist movement?

I don’t know where to start! I think feminism needs a rebrand for the younger ones to understand that it’s about equality and you not feeling that your worth depends on how a man values you. I have a daughter who’s 22 and I was shocked to discover how she feels about feminism.

Lola is leading a workshop on the shared challenges and experiences of BME women engaged in secular feminism, along with Gita Sahgal of the Centre for Secular Space, at Feminism in London conference this Saturday, 26 October.

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Three-Dimensional Feminism

To live up to other people’s ideas of what one should be is both impossible and boring. It is, without doubt, far more entertaining to be able to decide for oneself what it might mean to exist, to love (or not), to work (or not), to have children (or not). Feminism – or really, the fear of feminism – has long been associated with forms of radical refusal: to not conform, to not marry, say, to not have children, to not be a doormat, to not dress in certain ways, or not having to speak nicely, or to stay quiet. Feminism has long been regarded as a menace to tradition, a disruptor of convention and a delirious up yours! to the image of a life that other people would like you to live. It is in this way perhaps better understood as a practice, a relation, a perspective rather than a dogma, a belief, a statement. It has not and will not go away and shut up: as an instrument it has incredible force, measuring the micro-injustices of everyday life as well as the seemingly immovable structures that can nevertheless be completely reimagined from multiple feminist perspectives – what if there was a world where rape no longer existed, where domestic violence was over, where looking after children was seen as a shared delight and not a gendered exhaustion-generating-machine. Where beauty and desire were not channelled into such narrow repetitive paths, and where what you did bore no relation to what people think you should do. A constructive refusal, a desire for autonomy, a total critique and a series of actions…and, dare we suggest, something wholly enjoyable…?

Feminism requires that the world be turned on its head, in stages or all at once. But opposing something does not of course mean that one accepts the logic of opposition on exactly the same terms as it is handed to you. Despite the fears frequently expressed in comment sections daily whenever a feminist view is expressed – ‘man-hater!’, ‘misandry!’, ‘but women hurt men too’, ‘what about men?’ – the flipside of a male-dominated world is not female supremacy, or female revenge. If some men hate all women, and all men benefit from structures that give them various advantages, the practical critique of this need not mean that those positioned as women would come to dominate in the same way – it would mean redrawing the debate, and life itself, in an entirely different way: not as a battleground where competition for goods, resources, cultural power continued to be fought over, but where an image of expansiveness and co-operation replaces that of scarcity and warring. Feminism would be a kind of gateway to thinking the world differently, to thinking it anew, perhaps a starting point for thinking inequality and oppression as such: the history of feminism itself is littered with moments where it hit its own internal limits – around race, class, essentialism, and so on – and reinvented itself because it had to.

‘But what mushy utopianism’ a little voice whispers! Look at the world as it is, look at how tangled and messy it is, and look at the way in which “feminism” itself has been co-opted by those who would use it to justify war, or sell shampoo, or to police who gets to count as a “woman”. How hard it is to pick out a single “feminism” that gets everything right, and yet how unhelpful it is to believe that multiple “feminisms” have equal value and equal relevance to all women, across class, race, age, geographical location. And yet it is possible to speak positively in broad terms of a ‘feminist revival’, of a ‘resurgence of feminist ideas’ across the political spectrum, of the multiple meetings, workshops, reading groups, blogs, websites, columns, Twitter feeds and so on that make up contemporary “feminism”. The opposition that this revival has been met with has been fierce, particularly on the internet which seems on one level so unreal, so insubstantial, but at the same time so laser-like in its focus and potential cruelty. But perhaps what is happening here is a kind of revelation: these ideas and lives are not going to go away, no matter how hard you push back against them. They don’t disappear through shaming, or resentment, or by forcing their authors to rehearse the same arguments over and over again: ‘no, we don’t hate men’, ‘sigh…yes, we have a sense of humour’, ‘no, just because the focus is on women’s experience in this one instance, it doesn’t mean that men don’t have it bad sometimes too’, and so on, and so on…

Because let’s face it, while life has gotten significantly better for a minority of women in a medium-sized portion of the world, it is nowhere near what it could be if the world had been truly turned on its head: in other words, what would it mean for feminism to be no longer needed? What would it mean to think from the standpoint of perfection (a rough one, anyway) and think backwards from there? Some structures are more easily imagined fixed than others: if we didn’t change things too much, it would be relatively easy to imagine equal political representation, truly equal pay, properly-shared childcare, zero domestic violence, the end of rape, the total stigmatisation of words like ‘slut’, ‘whore’, and so on. It is possible, albeit difficult, to imagine the end of what would classically be called ‘patriarchy’: but what would the elimination of patriarchy be without the elimination of every other mode of oppression?

A few years ago I tried, in a short pamphlet whose title, One-Dimensional Woman, was an obvious homage to Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, to present various paradoxes of contemporary life in a humorously angry way: how, for example, the rhetoric of feminism was being used by the right to justify imperial wars, or to sell products as objects of self-empowerment (‘because you’re worth it!’). But above all, I was interested in how a particular image of contemporary womanhood has come to tally so seemingly perfectly with the demands of contemporary employment and contemporary capitalism – how the image of a certain kind of young woman became the face (and body) of employability and supposed enjoyment. It should be noted that I have nothing against meaningful work and pleasure of course (sigh…yes, I have a sense of humour…), but what I missed at this point was the critical edge that feminism ought to bring to these questions of work, money and a life beyond and outside capitalist constraints – the same constraints that are marketed precisely as their opposite, as flexibility, freedom and success. But what has happened since then, and how can we understand it?

What I had been trying to analyse in One-Dimensional Woman was, in many ways, already dead or dying: a culture and economic vision based on personal debt, identifying oneself as a worker (potentially or actually) at all times, and a kind of mediocre positivity relating to selling oneself, and so on. Since the economic crisis, though, this set of images and the related critique seem dated, past, even though it had been ‘real’ until very recently. Austerity, while not exactly reverting to conservative stereotypes of women as home-makers and pushing them back into the domestic realm to try to keep unemployment low – which wouldn’t work anyway, for a number of reasons, not least because the ‘family wage’, if it ever existed, certainly does not now – has hit women harder. Just to keep afloat requires men and women to work harder and longer, whatever their domestic situation, but the jobs cut have been in the female-dominated public sector, and changes to benefits have disproportionately affected women, especially those with children.

Capitalism is a bastard. Everything you demand, it gives you but in the meanest, most self-serving way (and by self-serving, I don’t of course mean in the interests of those forced to work for it). You want flexible working hours because you want a life outside work, to spend time with your family, perhaps? Fine! Have a zero hours contract! You want pleasure and recognition? Fine! Have an infinite mountain of porn tropes and impossible beauty standards! You want a private life? Fine! The state will take away any support structure we might once have offered you! A feminism that sees injustice everywhere must think big and small, micro and macro all at once. It must be organised, but listen to those who get it twice as bad, if not three, four, five times worse…. It would not ever be enough even if there were a hundred more female PMs or CEOS if nothing else fundamentally changed. When feminism takes a hard look at the world and itself at the same time, all that is solid melts into air: suddenly it becomes possible to imagine a world without all those things that make life boring and miserable, and violent and nightmarish. A world without the impossible demands of labour – which is not the same as a world without activity; a world without enforced, ideologically-manipulated competition, whether it be for jobs or attention. A world where families are anything you want them to be and children are a delight, not a demand. And all this for all women, and by extension all men too. An anti-capitalism that starts with women’s work and role, and the way in which this is classed and raced and differently experienced across the world, is not quite the politics we might associate with the so-called organised left, who all-too-often remain trapped with masculinist and outdated models of the working class. It would be a question of shifting the frame once, twice, many times, so that the starting points blur into a complex whole: can contemporary feminism live up to such a demand? If ‘woman’ has been positioned as the other for so long, and this other further divided between itself, the challenge would be to start once more from the divisions themselves, and not pretend there’s some false unity waiting to be uncovered. In order to move beyond the battleground, it is important to first see how people have been positioned as unwilling soldiers in a war they never chose.

3-d-glasses

Nina Power is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University and the author of One-Dimensional Woman.

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Feminist Infighting poster

For the sake of argument

“The old Spare Rib ended in an argument – and the new one is beginning with one.”

My daughter Anna always argues back, but she was shocked by the Spare Rib founders arguing about the dots and commas of my proposals for a relaunch. She wondered why they couldn’t help me out, instead of arguing.

I’ve always enjoyed a nice knock-down argument, until recently. By slow increments, I’ve become less attached to arguing and more likely to find myself in the unfamiliar position of being the one thinking: ‘why can’t we just behave like grown ups, and respect each other’s points of view?’

I can’t listen to more than ten minutes of the Today programme before stressing out. I used to love the macho cut and thrust of commons debates, and think it was wimpy of women to complain that they felt excluded. Now I am convinced that this ritualized form of engagement is anti-democratic.

When I was going out with Julie Burchill I wouldn’t debate capital punishment, despite being goaded repeatedly, “what would you do with Hitler then?”

These days it is Twitter I am terrified of.  I don’t want to get into an argument about the finer points of feminist theory with Rod Liddle. Or engage with people who consider their bigotry and hatred a well thought through argument. Why do so many high profile feminists seem to relish twitter spats? And how do they have time between writing, campaigning and looking after the kids to come up with 140 character rebukes to their detractors?

Could I extend this arguing moratorium into my professional life whilst launching a new feminist magazine? Are feminists addicted to arguing?

My deputy editor thinks the idea that that all women teams always turn on each other, like they do on The Apprentice is a myth. (I reminded her that leading her feminist choir had been no picnic). I am not so sure.

Caroline’s Criado Perez’s statement about the reasons for resigning from Twitter is a panagyric to arguing. In many more than 140 characters, she argues with the twitter trolls and the people who presumed to advise her. It is a cri de couer – she knows that arguing with her detractors has fucked up her head, but can’t stop herself from having the last word.

I know what this feels like. During the dispute with the Spare Rib founders, I kept trying to draw a line under it, but only succeeded in stoking it up.  It was an argument without end, conducted by email in the first instance, than with lawyers.  I wanted to convince them that I was a worthy heir of their magazine, the more passionately I argued my case, the more alienated and angry they seemed.

I read an old piece about feminists ‘trashing’ each other that was published in Ms magazine in 1967. The author had never imagined speaking publicly about her experiences, as “I am a firm believer in not moving the movement’s dirty linen in public.”

I was worried that talking about this would create a pleasing spectacle for the anti-feminist forces massed at Derry Street. The Daily Mail loves nothing more than a feminist catfight. Julie Burchill is also a big fan and always makes sure she’s got a ringside seat; her suggestion for our new name was ‘Catfight.’

Trashing is a form of character assassination – an argument against your very being.  Ms Magazine concluded that the people most likely to be trashed were strong characters, accused of being male identified, who were neither maternal nor in need of mothering.

“You are immediately labeled a thrill-seeking opportunist, a ruthless mercenary, out to make her fame and fortune over the dead bodies of selfless sisters who have buried their abilities and sacrificed their ambitions for the greater glory of Feminism. Productivity seems to be the major crime – but if you have the misfortune of being outspoken and articulate, you are also accused of being power-mad, elitist, fascist, and finally the worst epithet of all: a male-identifier.”

Trashing hasn’t gone away; years after the Ms article appeared, I was having a long conversation with one of my feminist friends at Glasonbury. She empathized with me about my Marsha and Rosie problem – she had extensive experience of being trashed by feminist colleagues and the attacks were invariably cloaked in the rhetoric of honest confrontation.

Now Feminist Times is a reality, how can we avoid this phenomenon of Feminist Trashing? Paradoxically, the more successful we are the more likely it is that we’ll be trashed. So maybe it makes more sense to weather it.

I wish for a thicker skin. More realistically, I will try to neutralize the trashers by not arguing back. I don’t want Feminist Times going down in history as another feminist exploit destroyed by feminists.

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Witch and Devil woodcut

The witch report

Are you sick of the term ‘witch-hunt’ being bandied around in tabloid coverage and, most recently, in the Michael Le Vell case? As an historian of witchcraft, there’s nothing more likely to get me ranting. When I spotted a column by Rhiannon and Holly of Vagenda Magazine entitled ‘Why a rape trial should never be called a witch-hunt’, I thought, great. But they too fell into the trap of connecting the term with ‘black hats and broomsticks’, saying ‘people who believe in [witches] are gullible and oversensitive’, and the obligatory reference to the Crucible. Oh dear.

It’s not surprising because, after all, witchcraft is one of the great feminist stories, isn’t it? The tabloid equivalents of the Early Modern period – pamphlets and plays – often talked up a good burning. We have to remember that in an intensely religious society, where you could be executed for adultery, theft, or sodomy, rejecting Christianity was the worst sin imaginable and people genuinely believed in witchcraft. To turn to the Devil, worship him, kiss him under the anus, attend an orgy and then cause harm to one’s neighbours or kill cattle was viewed with all the revulsion reserved for a paedophile ring today.

Since witches were women, it’s surely a feminist issue? Popular knowledge of the ‘Burning Times’ owes a lot to our vision of witches as prototype feminists, as the ultimate martyrs to male domination. It was patriarchy gone mad – a time when women were burnt just for being women.

Adding academic fuel to the pyre was the blossoming of witchcraft studies during the second wave of feminism in the sixties and seventies. As historians broke free of the shackles of monarchy, militarism and diplomacy, feminists in History (or the renamed Herstory) departments liberated the lost voices of women past.

Soon angry cries were raised of nine million women killed – a gynocide! Some held that midwives and healers were executed to promote the emergence of the male medical profession. Most of you, I suspect, imagine witches as female, old, ugly, healers, or herbalists and this is largely a tribute to the strength of the feminist appropriation of the witch as the prototype feminist – those who paid with their lives for being a strong woman.

You may be surprised to discover for a start that witches were not burnt in England and around 25% of those executed (in Europe and North America) were male, a figure rising to 70-80% in areas such as Finland and Russia. Many witches were young – some were mere children (boys and girls), tried with their mothers, since being a witch was regarded as a hereditary trait. Relatively few of the women tried were midwives or healers – they were too valuable to society. Most scholars now agree that around 40,000 men and women lost their lives in a period roughly between 1450-1800.

The judiciary was male, true, but women supported the judicial procedures in their roles as those who pricked the accused, examined them intimately for the so-called Devil’s Mark (a piece of skin that apparently was immune to pain) and who also testified as prosecution witnesses. More horrifically, women dragged other women to their deaths through denunciations, admittedly under torture, but sometimes it was their own relatives or friends. The term ‘Witch-hunt’ deserves much more respect, in memory of the tortured and the dead.

 

Dr Wanda Wyporska has written extensively on witchcraft and is the author of Witchcraft in Poland 1500-1800, published by Palgrave Macmillan on November 6th. She blogs about witchcraft, writing and publishing at www.witchcraftinpoland.com. Find out more @witchcraftwanda.

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