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Feminist Times: Money and a room of our own

The tweet above was one of my personal highlights of Gender Week – a week that confirmed my long-held suspicion that Twitter is no place for civilised debate. In an effort to keep our own content prominent in the Gender Week hashtag overnight, when conversations online tended to take their most unpleasant turn for the worst, we scheduled a series of tweets to be posted every 30 minutes outside of office hours. When I saw this tweet, the morning after it was sent, I couldn’t help but LOL.

“Here’s how you know a feminist blog is owned and operated by men: they have an office, and keep ‘office hours’ @Feminist_Times #GenderWeek”

I laughed not only because of how ludicrous the suggestion is, but also because of how painfully, excruciatingly ironic it is in the context of Feminist Times.

I remember reading Virginia Woolf’s famous essay A Room of One’s Own as a student and aspiring writer, and thinking “fuck, I’m never going to make it as a writer.” The notion of a room of one’s own is popular in feminist thought around the importance of creating women’s spaces –  take the Rooms of our Own project, aiming to provide a work space in London for women’s businesses and organisations, and the Room of our Own feminist blog network, founded by Feminist Times contributor Louise Pennington – but it’s only half of the statement from which the essay takes its title. Woolf wrote: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”, but the same is true of non-fiction and journalism.

Many feminist blogs have neither money nor a room of their own – run by volunteers working remotely in their free time. What Feminist Times set out to do was something radically different – not just a blog, but an online magazine which maintained regular, high-quality output by paying staff and contributors alike; an ad-free haven from commercial women’s magazines, funded instead by a community of members who felt passionate about independent feminist media, and who had the opportunity to meet with each other and the editorial team to help shape the content.

We started out with money – the result of a one-off crowdfunder – but no place of our own. In an effort to keep overheads minimal our first workspace, Charlotte’s kitchen table, was shared with her husband and children and – appropriately for a feminist publication – two cats. Our working day was divided into school time, when it was quiet enough to hold editorial meetings and discuss project ideas, and after-school time, when it wasn’t. We did try it once or twice, resulting in some pretty off the wall ideas being thrown into the mix; 4-year-old John was adamant that We’re on Safari would have made a better name for the website than Feminist Times. Less endearingly, there was also the threat of excitable children running in and out during sensitive interviews with women working in the domestic violence or FGM sectors.

Working out of Charlotte’s home meant the lines between home life and work life were inevitably blurred; like many working mothers, Charlotte had to juggle work with childcare and family life. School holidays meant time off for Charlotte, and temporary eviction to nearby cafes with WiFi for Deborah and I.

But children were not our biggest obstacle to harmonious working hours; while the older of Charlotte’s cats was perfectly content to share her home with us, the younger one objected violently – and I still have the scars to prove it! When he wasn’t attacking us in defence of his territory, this ferocious kitten was getting himself lost or stuck in trees; holding the ladder while Charlotte climbed onto the shed to coax him down very quickly became part of my job description. There were other perils too, from protecting our laptops from the water pistol that 9-year-old Anna was using to train the cat out of his aggressive behaviour, to occasional baked bean or tomato ketchup splatters adorning our notebooks. Never was the expression “never work with children or animals” more relevant.

Eventually Deborah found us some respite, negotiating free use of the basement room below her friend’s knitting shop, iKnit London, one day a week. It was a surreal haven – three women working on a feminist website, surrounded by balls of coloured wool and posters showing different breeds of sheep. Ok, so there was no phone reception or natural light – not ideal for running a new business – but we were thankful for the weekly peace and quiet. Sadly, as with borrowing space from family, favours from mates quickly wear thin, and invading the knitting shop basement was never going to be a long-term solution, though we loved it while it lasted.

Unlike many feminist bloggers, having feminism as both a day job and a passion meant we all struggled to switch off, particularly during those all-consuming first few months when press attention and public anticipation were so high. Ideas were flowing constantly – often in the form of emails sent by iPhone at anti-social hours – and we were quickly beginning to feel burnt out by the intensity of the project.

By the time we started looking for an office – a real place of our own, that would allow us the work-life balance we so desperately needed – it was money we were lacking. Though our number of monthly paying members was growing, it wasn’t growing quickly enough to sustain full-time salaries and contributor fees while also leaving enough left over for desk space. The solution – far from proving our alleged maleness – came in an unexpectedly feminist form when we met Hilary and Sarah from Shoreditch Trust, a charitable organisation that owns a number of shared office spaces in Hackney.

The women in the Shoreditch Trust office had heard Charlotte on Woman’s Hour the morning that Feminist Times launched and were excited not just about the project itself but about the prospect of getting more women into an office space that was, at the time, almost entirely occupied by men working in the creative and tech industries. Because of this, and the fact we were running on a shoestring, they suggested providing us our first three months of desk space through their Echo scheme, which we featured as part of our Christmas anti-consumerism theme week, #IDontBuyIt. Echo, or Economy of Hours, is a marketplace where members trade using time and skills, instead of money. It’s a radical, alternative economy and, as an organisation with anti-consumerist feminism at our core, we loved the concept.

So it was agreed; for three months we would pay for our desks by providing publicity for a number of Shoreditch Trust’s projects, training and workshops for other Echo members and Shoreditch Trust, and free tickets to our events, as well as using their event space to host our January members’ event Is Fat Still a Feminist Issue?

Having our own office was a god-send for getting some work-life balance back and improving our productivity during the working day; we can’t think Hilary and Sarah enough for the opportunity. All of a sudden we had a bookable meeting room in which to plan, discuss, interview and meet contributors uninterrupted, and a lockable cupboard in which to store our accounts and invoices. We had somewhere to leave review copies of the books we were sent without the fear of a cat or a breakfast mishap destroying them, and we celebrated by stocking up on some stationery of our own. I quickly cultivated a stash of teabags, Cup-a-Soups and value instant noodles in my cupboard, in order to get maximum usage out of the instant boiling water machine in the communal kitchen; Deborah was amused by how readily I adapted to our tightened salaries by reverting to the lifestyle of a fresher!

Our time in the office was responsible for almost all of my personal Feminist Times highlights: some brilliant, inspiring meetings with our Contributing Editors, who always left me feeling uplifted, and a marked improvement in the consistency and quality of the content we were commissioning and producing. Even paying back the Echo hours for our desk space provided some incredibly rewarding experiences for Deborah and I, like meeting the women behind Bump Buddies, a peer mentoring project for expectant mothers, and running a workshop for the young people on Hilary’s Active Citizen’s course.

My biggest frustration will always be that during that time, while our content, our readership and our social engagement were going from strength to strength, our funding situation was steadily becoming less and less sustainable, despite the brilliant efforts of our fundraiser Jenna. As Deborah and I gradually reduced both our salaries and our working hours, we were grateful to still have use of the office all week for the freelance work that we took on to supplement our incomes.

In that context, my amusement at the tweet about our office hours was bittersweet. Though clearly a ridiculous assertion, the sentiment underlying it was telling of the way we, even in feminist circles, think about women’s work. So often women’s work is unpaid, a labour of love, that women expect to work for free and, like many others in the digital age, expect online content to be free too. It’s true of almost every feminist website online; in fact, as we were preparing to wrap things up at Feminist Times, Everyday Victim Blaming, a fantastic feminist campaign run entirely by volunteers, tweeted that they were at crisis point and desperately needed funding to continue. Their supporters responded fantastically but, the fact is, beyond one-off donations, funding is so hard to come by for women’s projects.

Although it was a fairly well publicised founding principle, many of our contributors were still surprised to find that we paid for every single piece of content unless the writer was publicising an event, business or campaign. Our small but loyal core of members allowed us to maintain this policy right up until the final week, although ironically some of our most engaged contributors were also Feminist Times members, indirectly paying their own contributor fees!

Not only are women so often expected to work for free but, as the tweet implies, it’s not enough for running a feminist website to be just a full-time job – it should be a 24/7 vocation, like everything else about being a feminist, or even being a woman. How dare we want to shut down Twitter for the evening, after being on it for work from 9.30 till 6, and have some down time? How male of us to want a work-life balance. How dare our small team – two of us shared responsibility for day-to-day management of the website and social media – not moderate comments or respond to tweets immediately? And how dare we ask readers to contribute to the funding of the site, demanded many of the same people who I’m sure would have seen us as selling out had we bowed to commercial pressures and taken advertising for fad diets and lipstick, like virtually every other women’s magazine that isn’t run by volunteers.

In many ways, Feminist Times has been a labour of love like any other. 14 and a half months ago, Charlotte Raven and I took a chance on each other; I entrusted her with my first step on the career ladder, and she entrusted me with playing a key role in acting out her vision. Though it’s not taken quite the path I expected it has been an incredible learning experience and I’ve gained more, personally and professionally, than I can fit on my CV. Thank you, Charlotte, for the opportunity.

I am immensely proud to have been a part of Charlotte’s vision for Feminist Times, and of what Deborah and I have achieved on the website since taking on our new roles at Christmas. It’s been an enormous privilege to interview so many brilliant women – Anne Scargill, Leta Hong Fincher, Dr Louise Irvine, Angela Berners-Wilson, Nimko Ali – and to work with so many more. I hope you’ll all stay in touch. It’s been a real pleasure, but all good things must come to an end – and I need money and a room of my own if I am to continue writing anything at all.

Sarah Graham is a journalist, writer and editor, who has been published by The Telegraph, Guardian, Metro, Press Association, Open Democracy, and more. She has been Deputy Editor of Feminist Times since December 2013, having joined as the founding Editorial Assistant in May 2013. Today she leaves Feminist Times to work freelance, in a room of her own. Follow her @SarahGraham7

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What Feminist Times means to me…

We asked some of the women who’ve been most closely involved in the project to tell us what Feminist Times has meant to them. We’ve also added comments sent by email since the announcement.

Lucy Newman, Art Director:

My experience of Fem T: Dangerously destroying and burning plastic spandex with Charlotte in the garden, a one off day at Giuliana’s house with original artists and makers, creating new pieces  from decommissioned shapewear. Meetings around the kitchen table planning with Emma and Louise, and with Deborah and Sarah in the blast and energy of the launch.

Political, punk and screen printing styles, design and image making with Neni and Bob. From helping to visualise Charlotte’s concept at the start, through all the interactions and articles, my feminist consciousness has truly been raised.

Reni Eddo-Lodge, Contributing Editor:

As feminist thought increases in popularity, I had always feared that it might be devalued into a sort of consumerist lifestyle politics, concerned with issues that failed to analyse the material conditions that create inequality. I’ve been proud to be part of a feminist website that has bucked this trend. Feminist Times has achieved something very few UK based feminist websites manage to do: it has captured the cacophony of jostling voices from many women who call themselves feminists.

What has worked really well is Feminist Times’ bravery in displaying the subjectivity of feminism. Inequality is not a simple, one track problem that can be solved with sticking plaster style aesthetic changes. So many women experience discrimination and oppression that includes, but isn’t limited to their gender. It’s disingenuous to suggest that all of our feminisms are the same, or that we start from the same place. The word means different things to different people with different political stances. I’m glad that Feminist Times hasn’t indulged in the myth of a militaristic style movement, in which nobody can deviate from the line. There has been no priority campaign. Instead, Feminist Times has embraced the idea of a broad, intersectional church, whilst keeping inequality front and centre. Hierarchy has not reigned here. And whilst I’ve loved some articles, and strongly disliked some articles, I’ve always been relieved that – unlike other publications – Feminist Times doesn’t have an editorial line. Instead we had editors actively seeking out unheard voices and maligned perspectives. These are the conversations that feminism needs to have. I’m glad that FemT was one of the places that they could take place, even though it was sometimes messy and painful. And I’m not sure we’ll see another independent, funded online publication that can take its place.

Kat Lister, Contributing Editor:

One of my heroes Nora Ephron once said: “I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.” So thank you, Feminist Times, for allowing me to break a few rules and make a little trouble out there on behalf of women. I think we did, and I think Nora would’ve been proud. You gave me the opportunity to be myself and write the things that matter. It’s been a gift to write for you and an honour to call myself your Contributing Editor. Here’s to making trouble, here’s to women, and here’s to Feminist Times. Let’s keep breaking those rules.

Roz Kaveney, Contributing Editor:

I shall miss Feminist Times. If you look back over its short life, it fulfilled pretty much all of its promise for as long as it could. It was a place where feminists with different analyses talked to each other, for the most part respectfully.

If intersectional feminism is the way forward, as I think it is, then the various communities of women within feminism have got to learn skills in dialogue and negotiation, of which the recent discussions and debates around race, around trans issues, around sex work and around mental health are only the beginning. The important thing has got to be that our feminism always be a work in progress, never the implementation of answers that were decided upon in America in the early 70s or London in the 80s. 21st Century feminism needs to be bigger and more inclusive – it has to be about protecting the vulnerable as well as consolidating the few victories already won.

Feminist Times was a useful time and space for that work – when someone puts together a successor, and I am sure someone will, our experiences here will have been useful to them. And the lesson – as always – will be ‘Fail Again, Fail Better.’

Jude Wanga, regular contibutor:

Writing for Feminist Times has been fantastic. It’s allowed me to fine-tune how I connect to readers through my words by giving me a wider platform, editors to discuss work with and engagement with an audience, which has helped me to find my voice as a writer. I’ve been able to write some challenging pieces, like the End Sexual Violence in Conflict summit, with the support of the editorial team. The editors let you argue your own point at Feminist Teams, never forcing you to take a view you’re not comfortable with, or silencing the opinion you do hold.

FemT has allowed me to express my specialist knowledge, as it has for other writers, but it also encourages its writers to write about subjects that interests them, rather than being pigeonholed and asked only to contribute on a few set subjects.

The mainstream press lacks a diverse array of writers, particularly when reporting on feminist issues. Projects such as the Feminist Times offers this variety alongside the freedom to write about the issues that matter to those writers, rather than just those which are reported elsewhere. These issues are given exposure that they aren’t afforded in the mainstream press, and Feminist Times amplifies voices that are underrepresented.

Philippa Willitts, regular contributor:

Feminist Times has become a space on the web where a variety of women’s voices have been heard and, as it has not been afraid to tackle difficult subjects, the site has been host to both popular and unpopular opinions. The importance of a feminist website with a policy of paying its contributors should also not be underestimated. This is rare and, for full-time freelance writers like myself, meant I could dedicate time to feminist writing that otherwise might have had to go onto the endless list of ‘articles I’d love to write but can’t justify prioritising’. I hope this is a model that grows, so that we don’t have to constantly choose between writing what we are passionate about, and writing what pays the rent. The future of Feminist Times is unclear, but the legacy it has built will continue to have an impact.

Louise Pennington, regular contributor:

I will miss Feminist Times. Whilst I did not always agree with editorial decisions, it was one of the only feminist publications which published articles by gender-critical feminists. It was a much needed feminist space free of advertising that was also willing to take risks. More importantly, it was a space to combat cultural femicide within a backlash to feminism.

Leisa Taylor West Midlands Local Team:

Becoming involved in local teams came at a time when i was desperate to be involved with something unapologetically feminist. It has been an excellent experience for me to bring like-minded people together to discuss issues in an intelligent, thought provoking and useful way.
It had also given me the opportunity to meet and work alongside some brilliant women. Although this project may now be coming to an end and is deeply disappointing, I believe that it had been a catalyst for me, and hopefully others, to keep on keeping on and to continue to work towards creating a feminism for the future.


A ltitle crestfallen wave has just passed over the comms team here as we received your email. So sorry to hear that Feminist Times is coming to an end. It has been really fantastic to work alongside you, and it really speaks to the credentials of Feminist Times that you used the short time you had to help amplify the messages of Refuge and other similar organisations. I just wanted to say thank you for your commitment, both personal and professional, to supporting the cause, and to wish you well for the future.

Peter Tatchell, LGBT campaigner:

Commiserations re Feminist Times. I know from first-hand experience how hard it is to sustain these projects. But congratulations. FT was trail-blazing and amazing. A bright feminist star. I hope it returns – asap. Good luck in your future endeavours

Jon Snow, Channel 4 news:

I’m sad indeed to hear that you are closing. Thank you for what you have done and I hope you come back in some other form.

Trista Hendren, Feminist Times member:

I am beyond saddened to hear this news.  Many times, I have had to cut corners myself these last years, and honestly it did cross my mind to stop contributing because money is so tight, but I could never do it. I don’t think this is a reflection on your magazine, but rather the horrid economic conditions now, particularly for women – and even more so for those of us who live on our own terms.

Please know that I valued and appreciated what you did SO much this last year.   I hope you are able to continue in some way moving forward, but I respect your decision very much.

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Companies must end culture of secrecy for the Equal Pay Act to work

The Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities and Labour MP for Ashfield, Gloria De Piero, writes for Feminist Times on the ongoing battle for equal pay, 44 years on from the Equal Pay Act. Find out more about Feminist Times’ Equal Pay campaign with Elle & Mother.

In 1970 Labour’s Barbara Castle passed the Equal Pay Act, declaring:

“We intend to make equal pay for equal work a reality, and, in doing so, to take women workers progressively out of the sweated labour class”. Yet 44 years later, women in Britain still earn on average eighty pence for every pound a man earns.

Whichever region of the country you live in, whatever job you do, one thing is guaranteed: women are being paid less than men for doing the same or equivalent jobs. No matter if you’re an engineer or a chief exec, a hairdresser or work in catering. Even in industries where women dominate, we are still being paid less.

Worse still, in the last four years of Tory/Lib-Dem Government, any progress we were making has disappeared into thin air. The pay gap hasn’t budged by more than 0.1 per cent and last year rose for the first time since 2008.

It’s simply not good enough. Women shouldn’t have to wait another forty four years to expect to be paid the same and valued the same as men.

Eighty pence in a pound is a figure symbolic of the economic disempowerment women face throughout our lives. Whether that’s finding out that the man who’s sat opposite you at work for the last 20 years, doing the same role, is on a higher salary; or being forced to take a pay cut to work part-time because work makes it too hard to juggle being a mum with having a career. The work women do and the roles women perform have always been, and continue to be, underpaid and undervalued.

Workplaces need to change to support more women and men to balance work and family life so that having kids doesn’t mean taking a pay cut. And we won’t deliver equal pay unless we challenge the reasons why jobs which women dominate, such as care, have so often been undervalued. But there’s no getting away from it: plain old pay discrimination happens across every sector and every level too.

It’s a matter of justice, and it can make the difference between making ends meet or slipping through the net. We can talk in the abstract about 80p to the pound but it’s when you hear the stories of women who’ve experienced it first-hand that you realise what delivering Equal Pay means.

Women like the childcare worker for Birmingham City Council who, along with scores of other women working as caterers and carers, won compensation for being paid less than male manual workers. She told me:

“All those years I was in debt to credit card companies, even though I’d been to college for two years. I’d got qualifications, it was a vocation not a job… and I think what would my life have been like if I’d been paid a fair wage?”

The route to ending pay discrimination and delivering equal pay is transparency. Empowering women to challenge discrimination means arming them with the information to use the Equal Pay Act to challenge when they are paid less for work of equal value, and the knowledge to challenge why all the highest paid in their workplace are still men.

True transparency though can’t rely on us as individuals; we need companies to end secrecy around pay, and the Government must lead the way.

Equal pay is a battle cry that’s united women across generations. Let’s not leave it up to our daughters to deliver.

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Eclectica: the project demanding equality

The Eclectica Project launch is two days of live music, DJs and guest speakers – and it’s taking place this August. Launching at Manchester’s Kraak, the project aims to inspire leadership by women and minorities in all industries, starting with the music industry. Daniel Ball spoke to two of the project’s founders Lizzie Hudson and Olivia Mayumi Moss to find out more.

Eclectica Project is highly concerned with gender equality and ethics. How have your personal experiences drawn you to creating a project of this nature?

LIZZIE: Over the last few years since leaving school, coming across different work and social environments, I’ve been frustrated by a lot of challenges that I and women around me have to face, whether that’s discrimination in the workplace, slut-shaming or body image issues. There has to be a point where you think, “No, wait… It’s not okay that I am regularly subjected to street harassment on the way home. It’s not okay that I get asked about boyfriends above my career ambitions.” These issues have a ripple effect into every aspect of our culture, and it’s important to find ways to build communities and create opportunities for those facing discrimination to hear each other out and offer support. That is what the Eclectica Project aims to facilitate.

OLIVIA: If something frustrates me, I need to do something about it. To quote Ani DiFranco, “I was blessed with a birth and a death, and I guess I just want some say in between.” I wouldn’t limit myself to the identity of ‘feminist’ or ‘activist’ although I am essentially both – I would rather call myself ‘active.’ Passivity can be a serious illness. I worked in Tokyo for 12 years. Japan is an uber-conformist world, and that experience changed a lot of things for me – It gave me a strong perspective over what is in fact changeable and what is not. So many aspects of our lives are within our power and require hard work to achieve a high standard, but it’s also important to remain philosophical about areas which aren’t controllable and to find alternative routes. Having an international perspective and access to willing professionals is essential to maintaining the diversity and longevity of this project, so I dug out my business contacts.

What are you hoping to change in the music industry through Eclectica Project?

LIZZIE: The music industry, and every industry for that matter, needs to progress towards accepting women and minorities as complex individuals. If we want to achieve any kind of equality within this industry, we have to for instance stop putting these performers in the position where we hyper-analyse as ‘empowering’ or ‘weak’ but instead regard them as people who impact our world culturally and industrially. Women can be artists, light engineers, managers, producers, drummers, business owners, and they can be at the top of their game, while ethnicity, sexuality and gender should never be a determining factor in hiring somebody or offering opportunities. We should be assessing quality based on commitment and competence, not background or gender. The purpose of the August launch and its spinoff shows is to encourage understanding and respect for female and minority people working in various sectors of the music industry.

OLIVIA:  Every industry needs a severe shake, because the patriarchy is everywhere and affects everyone. The UK music industry is no different: too many controls, too much money in the wrong places, too many wrong people in the wrong jobs, too much fear and naivety from the artists, too many people taking advantage, too many false promises… It’s a mess and the whole thing needs revising. Until everyone is treated fairly in all industries, female and minority professionals must never stop calling people out and fighting for their rights. Things will improve if enough people open their eyes, find courage from within and commit. The panels taking place on the August launch weekend will open up many areas of discussion and solidify the already burgeoning network.

What does the future hold for the project?

LIZZIE:  This project is about women and minorities everywhere. It’d be interesting to explore what’s going on in other industries, because sadly there are so many talented people missing out on opportunities because of prejudice or patriarchal structures. The aim is to keep this community and network growing, to let it have its own life, and hopefully inspire people to speak out, learn from each other and keep fighting the good fight.

OLIVIA: Yes, if you want to save your industry and possibly your career, get involved: don’t think that you can’t make a difference, because you can. This project needs to survive – it needs support from funders, professionals, volunteers… There are many ways to become part of this network. Other than that, the post-launch future is sleep!

The Eclectica Project launch & spinoffs will take place in Manchester and Leeds during July and August. You can find out more information on the project’s Facebook page

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SHE-form: Art and feminism beyond borders

We heard about She-form and asked one of it’s members, Anna Olsson, to tell us more about why women artists need such an organisation.

She-form is a global platform by and for women* in design. Through interviews and our collaborative visual identity, She-form highlights the work of women* designers. It was launched in 2013 as a collaboration between designers Ee-Rang Park and Linnéa Teljas-Puranen, out of a wish for a network of women* designers beyond national boundaries.

*We define woman as anyone who is female-identified

I’m Anna Olsson, a soon to be freelance illustrator, graphic designer, pattern maker, animator and member of She-Form. I met Linnéa Teljas-Puranen at HDK – School of Design and Crafts in Gothenburg, Sweden – three years ago. Both Linnéa and I found it very strange that there are more male than female-identified teachers in our school, because the majority of students here are not men.

I see feminism not only as a question of women’s rights, but the rights of everyone to get the same space and chances in their education. When I speak of feminism, it includes the rights of people of different class, gender, ethnicity, LGBT-persons, and people with different physical capabilities. I think it’s very important for all universities to have a wide diversity of students that are accepted – and art and design schools are no exception.

We need a greater diversity because the ones who are educated are the ones to represent  society. I was truly honored when Linnéa and Ee-Rang asked me to participate in She-form, because it’s just the kind of movement that we need now to tackle this problem. Design is very influenced by the western part of the world, and I think it’s very important that we start to talk about feminism as something that is not only white and upper middle class. Through She-form I have got in touch with several designers in different parts of the world. Networking beyond the borders feels like a very important thing for me as a creator, and nowadays it’s easy to make connections without a physical meeting.

This fall I am traveling to Russia, South Korea, Mongolia and China with a friend to record a documentary film series about different designers and artists. We both realised that in our education we got a lot of inspiration given to us by western world creators, and not so much from other parts of the world. We think it’s very important to point out that the western world is not the centre of the world; there is no centre of the world.

We believe that design and art is invested more in the bigger cities, and we want to show that it’s not all about the area, it’s about the creator and the creators, the art itself.

During this trip we will hopefully meet up with some of the designers involved in She-form and find out more about their perspective on design and art.

Anna’s website: www.annaols.com
She-form’s website: www.she-form.org

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Howzat? Cricket board stumps women’s pay potential

Whilst male cricketers have for a long time had the opportunity to earn a more than decent living from plying their trade, for women, playing cricket has never really been a viable career option. They earn small sums, mostly in a semi-professional capacity, supplementing their income with schools coaching or ambassadorial roles. We are talking really small sums of money – in no way comparable to the amounts of money that even the least successful male professional cricketers earn playing the game.

The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), to their credit, recently announced that for the first time ever 18 female cricketers would be fully paid as professionals. They are the only fully professional female cricketers in the world. The contracts awarded by the ECB vary in amount, with a handful being awarded top tier contracts that are worth over £50,000, and others earning lower tier contracts worth between £30,000 and £50,000.

Women’s cricket, like many other sports women play, faces the huge challenge of securing revenue. It isn’t on its own profitable – it relies on the revenue created by the men’s game – some countries (most notably England and Australia) have, admirably, used some of that revenue from the men’s game to subsidise paying players and developing women and girls. The fact remains though that the women’s game generates relatively little revenue either through advertising, sponsorship, TV or spectators.

In the last few years there has been an explosion of short Twenty20 tournaments which have given male cricketers the opportunity to earn vast sums of money (on top of their normal contracts with their country or club side). Huge six figure contracts are awarded to players for a tournament that lasts no more than six weeks.

It is interesting, therefore, that an independent organisation has set up a proposed short tournament, the ‘Women’s International Cricket League‘ (WICL), has uncovered the sort of money that the women’s game could only dream of, and is offering the chance for around 70 women cricketers to earn up to around £20,000 for 2 weeks work.

When the top handful of international women cricketers (all England players) are only earning £50k a year, these are huge sums of money we are talking about – amounts that women cricketers have never even been close to accessing before. Details of the tournament are still sketchy but for an organisation to have found these sorts of sums of money for women’s cricket is hugely exciting.

There’s a problem though. The ECB (and Cricket Australia) have unequivocally stated that they do not recognise the WICL, they do not support it, and they will not be allowing their contracted players to play in it.

Some nervousness around independently run tournaments is understandable. Twenty20 tournaments are ripe for being targeted by match fixers and corrupters and details of the WICL are, at this stage, still sketchy. Governance and due diligence structures for the tournament aren’t clear and with this comes a number of risks both for the players and reputation of the game.

One can also sympathise to an extent with the ECB’s position – they have put in huge investment and have broken new ground by offering full-time contracts for women for the first time ever and they want to protect their players and protect the sanctity of International Cricket Council-run tournaments.

But whilst some nervousness is understandable, if women’s cricket is to continue to develop players shouldn’t be denied the opportunity to earn where it arises. Bringing money into the women’s game – whether that be from the governing bodies or from private investment – can only be a good thing. Surely the solution in this instance is for cricket’s governing bodies to work in conjunction with the WICL to make this an exciting and successful tournament, rather than a blanket refusal to recognise it.

As it stands, some of the biggest names in women’s cricket – such as Charlotte Edwards, Sarah Taylor, Meg Lanning, Elysse Perry – will not appear at this tournament. These are women who have worked incredibly hard, against all the odds, to get to the top of their game. When England Captain Charlotte Edwards started playing internationally she even had to buy her own England kit, never mind actually being paid. It’s worth noting too, that England have some of the best women cricketers in the world; they are the current Women’s Ashes holders and the T20 World Cup finalists. These are women who are role models to girls wanting to play cricket, they are both hugely successful and hugely inspirational.

The men who are contracted by the ECB or County Cricket Clubs are given permission by their employers to take part in various Twenty20 tournaments around the world and allowed to command the huge salaries that taking part in them affords.

Such a clear statement by the ECB, banning their contracted women players from the WICL, seems on the face of it to be a ludicrous double standard for players of different genders playing within the same sport. It’s highly unlikely, having only just been offered central contracts, that the top English female players would kick up a fuss or try to go against the commands of their employer, but it feels like this is a huge opportunity for women cricketers and the women’s game that could be missed.

Lizzy Ammon is a cricket commentator for the BBC and writes about both men’s and women’s cricket for The Sunday People newspaper and other publications.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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A Womb With a View: After birth – what I’ve learned…

IMG_6788So, here he is. Or, should I say, here we are.

Meet my five-week-old little boy, Evan, and his heavy-lidded, rocket-boobed, topsy-turvy mother. I’m someone changed quite a lot by the last month and a bit. I’m writing this with my thumb on my phone at 4.07am while feeding for starters (EDIT – I’ll be writing the rest of this column in 10-minute bursts in the next week-and-a-half when the baby’s gurgling at his cot’s mobile while farting/sleeping in his pram, which I’ve gingerly inched in from outside as he only conks out in the open air/cooing in the sling with his dad, at a time when I should really be catching up on sleep, blah blah blah).

I’m also someone who remains, despite everything, the same person.

The birth? Not conventional. Then again, whose is? I had an emergency caesarean section after 3 days of failed induction, at nearly 2 weeks over due date, and after countless alternative therapy sessions (yep, even this sceptic tried everything – and isn’t having your feet fiddled with for £60 divine). Pessaries and drips were applied, Mister still wasn’t shifting, his mum wasn’t dilating, and his heart-rate started levelling out.

And so the necessary was done. At 10.06am on Monday 28th April, in a bright operating theatre, my son made his entrance into the world. He was 9lb 4, 57cm long, with brown hair and a chubby belly. And yes, I’m lucky that I love him so very, very much.

Here’s some other things I learned about having a baby:

* Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards, and in high heels. First-time mums do very little that other people do, but they do keep another tiny person alive, with no specialist training or experience, one-handed, on no sleep, in mismatched leisurewear with a stray, leaky tit.

* Yes, yes – I know I’ve barely started, and I’m proving that happy mums whinge a lot. We got ourselves in this position etc, etc. But as a person largely responsible for fulfilling the needs of another breathing human, while you’re in recovery from 24 hours+ of agonising pain/major abdominal surgery/a torn perineum, while everyone else tells you this is all normal, surely you’re allowed a grumble. You disagree? Then bugger off.

* Newborns rarely sleep for more than three hours at a time, if that. I missed this fact in the endless reams of baby literature I read beforehand. Mine is pretty good at kip (EDIT – I lie – the last two nights have been like living with the creature off Eraserhead – EDIT – he’s changed again, he was an angel last night ­- EDIT – this only proves the inconsistency of babies). Anyway, their short sleeping cycles should remind mothers of three little words. Take. Things. Easy.

* A diversion for my brief Caesarean Section. The idea of being too posh to push – ie that caesareans are the easy option – is, quite frankly, ludicrous. Before mine, I hadn’t realised how big an operation a c-section was; five weeks on, the seven-inch smile on my abdomen and the residual aches and pains reminds me I’m still recovering. If you have one, don’t panic – I am still in awe of them, genuinely, as a baby with an impacted head got pulled out of that tiny slit, somehow – but you need to remember how big these ops were after the fact. So: accept help from all sides. Buy a load of high-waisted, non-sexy granny knickers (thank you, John Lewis). Live in yoga trousers bought hurriedly online that make you look like you eat quinoa for breakfast. Take your bloody painkillers. Slob in front of DVDs you love when you’re feeding to cheer yourself up. Don’t be a martyr. You don’t have to be Superwoman.

* Don’t accept too many visitors. Or be prepared to tell people to sod off. You will probably be knackered and crave your own time more than ever before (then again, do see friends if it’ll make you feel a bit better, and if family are bringing warm arms to help you with the baby, then accept them).

* Our generation give ourselves a lot more shit about parenting than our mums and dads did. They only had people around them to ask, and most of us turned out OK. There’s a lesson in there, somewhere.

* The internet is unhelpful. Type any question about your baby’s health into Google, and the responses you’ll get will largely be from “normal mums”. Normal mums who a) you don’t know, b) might be mad, c) might be smug, d) keep telling you to “trust in the Lord’s work”, e) keep telling you to “trust in nature”. If I’d trusted in nature, as many women have to in countries less developed than ours, my baby and I might not have been here now.

* The internet is amazing. During endless night feeds, you can play Word Scramble, read the news, nose at people’s normal lives on Facebook, receive advice from countless wonderful people about your baby through Facebook, and text your mum-pals on Whatsapp. Which last point brings me to the the biggest tip of all…

* Meeting people having kids the same time as you, through antenatal classes or activities, or post-natal support groups, is essential. Knowing you’re not the only mad harpy worrying about every burp, sick or poo will change your life.

* The mental health of new mothers is a huge priority for healthcare professionals, as it should be, but normal anxieties get pathologised too much. Worried you might break your baby? Or drop it down the stairs? Every mum I’ve spoken to thought that too, so these worries aren’t necessarily a sign of incoming depression. Other medical issues get less attention, however, like babies that have tongue-tie (this is when babies’ tongues need a snip to help them feed properly). I know four recent babies who had this condition, and their mothers had to fight hard to find out if their children needed help. Without help, babies struggle to gain weight, spend hours at the breast, making their mothers, ironically, more and more distressed. All these women need is someone trained to have a very quick look at their little ones. So listen up, NHS.

* Becoming a mum soon? You will be endlessly grateful for having cooked and frozen meals before the big event. If you like being at the hob, as I do, this is what maternity leave is for (I also enjoyed solo cinema trips, afternoon dozes, and forages for weird old documentaries on the iPlayer – do use your maternity leave to do gentle things you enjoy). If you haven’t cooked and frozen food before baby comes, tell friends not to bring presents round, but something that can be shoved into a pot, or the oven in one dish, and eaten out of a bowl with one hand.

* A tea towel placed over a baby’s head helps you eat out of a bowl with one hand.

* Long, patterned, diaphanous scarves are essential pieces of kit for any new mum (not plain colours, ladies – these will show up dribble, or worse). Scarves help you feed discreetly when you need to, or hang over your pram, especially when the sun suddenly deigns to blaze out on a previously grey day (thanks for that, British spring).

* “Nature is amazing, science is awesome”. My friend Ellie, who gave me advice about what to do about the in-hospital Bounty reps in my previous column, said this to me in a text while I was still in recovery. It’s still the best sentence ever. For instance, when I was sad about Evan not having arrived in the usual way, and my body not having done what it “should” have done, I realised that every time he fed – which was, and is, often – I felt my stomach cramp, and this was helping me heal. Breastfeeding helps the womb contract, and reduce to its old size; now, five weeks on, I look pretty much as I did before I was pregnant. Somehow, our bodies also keep us awake in these difficult weeks, and power us through. But science also has its place, beyond doubt. Take Evan, on antibiotics for a week after he showed signs of infection, who is now absolutely thriving (EDIT – today’s weigh-in – 11 pounds – oof). Things don’t have to be either/or. Let’s use everything we’ve got to keep Mum and baby well.

* If your mum/friends seem to be posting pictures of their babies too often on social media, consider this: that may have been the most constructive thing she felt she did with her day, or the one moment when baby was happy that she wanted to preserve. Facebook pictures are little markers that say, yes, world, I can manage this.

* Midwives are brilliant, undervalued people. One upside of me being in hospital for a week is that I had fantastic midwifery care. I’d go further, in fact: when you’re a new mum, there’s something to be said for having a longer stay in hospital than six tiny hours (the usual time now), and being cared for by people who have been there, and done that. In hospital, I got specialist breastfeeding advice that proved invaluable later, was watched over by a midwife while I slept in bed with my baby (who wouldn’t sleep in his crib, when I’d hardly any sleep for five days), had every question answered about my baby’s qualities and quirks, and felt properly monitored. It’s helped me ever since.

* I’ve also got a new-found respect for the power of women. I’ve had so many of them help me immeasurably since Evan arrived – both professionally and personally – and as a result, I’m enjoying my little boy so very, very much. Here’s to all of you, ladies. And here’s to us. We’re still here!

Jude Rogers is a writer, broadcaster, journalist, romantic, Welsh woman and geek. Follow her here @juderogers 

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Forget fascists for a moment as Sweden’s Feminist party make history in the EU

On Sunday, the European elections took a historical turn when voters took a lurch to the right. Press across Europe reported on how nationalist parties gained a stable body of supporters and changed the demographics of the EU through a startling percentage of conservative, right-wing wins.

But European voters did not only vote nationalist, they also voted for a counter-movement: feminism.  A quieter historic moment was taking form. The European Parliament’s first independent feminist party entered the political arena.  Swedish party Feminist Initiative made history, with a final percentage count of 5.3% gaining a chair in the parliament for member Soraya Post.

Feminist Initiative’s journey started in April 2005. Rumour had it that a new feminist party was taking shape on the Swedish political landscape growing around Gudrun Schyman, the former leader of the Left Party. By 2008, the organization was formally a political party that competed in both the Swedish national election of 2010 and the European Parliamentary election of 2009. In the EU election, they gained 2.2% of the vote, but a did not make it into either the European or Swedish parliaments.

The feminist movement seemed defeated. Feminist Initiative disappeared from the political scene, becoming increasingly quiet. Perhaps feminism was not as strong as some may have initially thought – maybe even Sweden was not ready for a feminist political party.

Five years on, and nationalism and racism were taking grip of European politics. In Sweden, the media declared 2014 as the ‘super election year’, with both European elections and general Swedish parliamentary elections taking place in the same year. With this, the battle between the parties began. Who would take the fight against racism and nationalism? Whilst the larger parties began to look increasingly similar, Feminist Initiative was building it’s own agenda, selecting Soraya Post as its first name for the EU election. Her background of a Jewish father and Romani mother gave her a historical name on the election folders – the first Romani topping the lists on a ballot. With this, Feminist Initiative made their agenda clear: they wanted to be the party to fight discrimination, nationalism and racism.

After a threat of extinction, Feminist Initiative was back on the map. A counter movement started to take shape in Sweden that could be seen everywhere: particularly on social and print media. The feminist spring was coming. But the party were not invited to participate in national television debates, and were not taken seriously amongst their political peers. Would a vote for Feminist Initiative be considered a protest vote? Despite the doubts, something had started to simmer. Voters had started to take notice of this flowering movement and wanted to be a part of it. Feminist Initiative’s membership increased from 1500 in October 2013 to around 6000 in February 2014. Two weeks before the election, Feminist Initiative’s membership increased by 200 new members a day, totaling 14000 on the day of the election. In an opinion poll, one in four women were considering voting for the party.

The first election forecasts arrived on Sunday evening. The last three months had been one massive campaign, with the production of a feminist record and the creation of a feminist anthology – all designed to draw artists, writers, authors and journalists into Feminist Initiative’s feminist and anti-racist campaign. Sunday was the peak of the feminist spring, and the party was everywhere. Standing as an MEP candidate, Soraya Post urged people to vote for equality, women’s rights and anti-racism, and she was heard. Feminist Initiative won a seat in European Parliament, gaining 5.3% of the vote. The party made history – not only for being the first independent feminist party ever elected to the European Parliament, but for standing for politics drastically different to the current trend.

Feminist Initiative’s win is a small victory in a bigger battle for women’s rights and equality. Just hours after the election, Soraya Post was included in a list of right wing extremists by The Sun Newspaper, with the headline ‘Neo-Nazis, gun carriers, arsonists…and now MEPs’. But despite Soraya Post’s principally equality focused politics being thrown in amongst a list of extremists, Feminist Initiative’s win represents hope in an otherwise dismal election. There remains a lot to be done, but the confidence of Swedish voters is a big step towards combating attitudes of racism and nationalism. On September the 14th, the date of the next Swedish general election, we will know if Feminist Initiative establish themselves as a party to count on.

Sofia Landström is currently studying an MA in Exhibition Studies at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. She researches inequality in the arts and writes about representation and separatism.

Photo: Feminist Initiative

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Who cares if Jill Abramson was bossy?

“Her style sometimes grated”, The New Yorker reported, “her personality was an issue”. You may think that executive editor Jill Abramson’s dismissal last week from the New York Times doesn’t affect you, but think again. It is significant for all working women and poses questions across the Atlantic too. Why? Language, gender and stereotype in the workplace.

Words like “slut” or “bitch”, gendered speech like “that takes bollocks” to denote courage, and insults like “he throws like a girl” to signal weakness, these are all obviously sexist. But what about the language that goes under the radar in offices up and down the country every day? Nuanced, ambiguous yet incredibly damaging and potent.

“‘Mercurial’ is a word you hear used for her a lot,” one female New York Times reporter commented, implying her former boss was volatile, following the news of Jill Abramson’s sacking. Words such as “stubborn” and “pushy” soon dominated the headlines, quickly followed by the labels “polarising”, “brusque” and “abrupt”. It was a Greek chorus loud enough to drown out the serious accusation for her dismissal: that her axing was due to her reasonable demand to be paid as equally as her male predecessors.

New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger has denied any accusation of gender bias yet still issued a stinging takedown of Abramson that could surmise any of her male contemporaries: “arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues.”

Try and forget the pay discrepancy story for a moment and simply concentrate on language and the expectations women placate to exert authority with one foot stepped back. Jill Abramson’s story shows us all what happens when a woman throws her ball like a man. She gets knocked out of the game altogether. She’s told it’s her fault.

Working women are adept at the highly-skilled art of tightrope walking, so much so we do it now without challenge. The exhausting balancing act that asks so much of us, compromising a part of ourselves to achieve success. Assertive? Yes, but never aggressive. Commanding? Certainly, but always with a smile. Behave too professionally and you’re an ice queen, show too much emotion and you’re unstable. Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, told us all to Lean In in her best-selling book and that’s what we did – 1.5 million of us to be exact. Abramson has shown us exactly what happens when we lean in too far and without the Geisha manners.

The reality is Sandberg’s empowerment manual expects a lot of compromise from women if they wish to become a success at work. We’ve got to smile even when we don’t feel like it, we’re encouraged to substitute “we” for “I”, and we’ve got to put up with language such as “stroppy”, “difficult” and “mouthy”. It’s a feminist manifesto that accepts an unsettling premise that women must mould themselves around their sexist surrounding, not the other way round. It assumes that landscapes and language can never change.

The #BanBossy campaign learned this the hard way; led by Sheryl Sandberg and backed by Beyonce, their commitment to ban the word sparked question marks. How can banning language rectify the sexism behind its usage? You can burn a book but the ideas still remain – it’s a psychological issue not just a structural obstacle. Jill Abramson’s sacking has shown us all that we have a media-endorsed problem with sexist linguistics. Words such as “pushy” or “condescending” still permeate our language, our offices and our newspapers. When it comes to defining professional women, words still scratch away at confidence.

Look a little closer at gender and confidence in the boardroom and recent statistics may not surprise you. Not only do women make up only 17 per cent of board directors of the FTSE 100 companies, a study by the Fawcett Society found that 51 per cent of women and men from middle management to director level identify stereotyping as the major hurdle facing women at work. More startling, a recent study in the US by global management strategists Strategy& found that over the past decade, 38 per cent of women were forced out of the chief executive role compared to just 27 per cent of men. It doesn’t take a chief strategist to work out a connection between these numbers – the glass ceiling is still pretty sturdy and it’s language that is helping keep it double glazed.

Jill Abramson’s story is our story. Women are still struggling to get promoted and, when they do, their behaviour is often analysed negatively as aggressive or unfriendly. Women are often subjected to unfair emotional judgements based on behaviour: how we are perceived as opposed to how we perform. For Abramson, her leadership was subjected to stereotype and caricature that was ultimately used as evidence of a morale-drained newsroom.

Maybe Abramson was paid as equally as her male predecessors, maybe she wasn’t – no doubt there will be a court case to find out – but what’s equally as important is the language batted around in the press to rationalise her overnight sacking. That language will be used against us too so let’s not gloss over the subtler gender bias, let’s call it out.

Have you experienced gender bias or sexist labels at work? Tweet us your examples @Feminist_Times.

Kat Lister is a Contributing Editor of Feminist Times. She is a freelance writer living in London and can be found tweeting to an empty room @Madame_George. She has contributed to NME, The Telegraph, Grazia, Time Out, Clash magazine and Frankie magazine.

Photo: The New Yorker

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“I break hearts & faces”: Women fighters forced to be sexy

For a long time Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has been regarded as a predominantly male sport. The full contact combat sport, which includes striking, choking, joint locks, grappling and various other self-defence techniques was brought to the United States by the Gracie family in the 90s with the founding of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), now the largest MMA promotion company in the world. Unsurprisingly, female mixed martial artists were not permitted to fight in the UFC, with the majority of male viewers disagreeing with the very idea of women fighting and Dana White, the President of the UFC, himself stating: “We will NEVER see women in the UFC” in 2011.

But in late 2012, it was announced that Judoka and Strikeforce champion Ronda Rousey would be the first woman to sign with the UFC. Rousey subsequently became the first female UFC champion, the first olympic medallist with a UFC title, and the first woman to defend a UFC title – remaining undefeated. It’s been a long time coming, but the UFC is finally embracing female martial artists and giving them the respect they deserve; it’s also been revealed that this year’s reality TV show The Ultimate Fighter (TUF 20) will feature an all-female cast for the first time in history. 

However, if we take a look at the fight wear that’s currently on offer for women, it’s clear to see that women are still subject to sexism and stereotyping, and not given anywhere near the same amount of choice as their male counterparts. The very few clothing companies that do cater for female fighters, claiming to “empower women”, offer a range of training gear (including “booty pants” – whatever they’re supposed to be!) in primarily baby pink colours, emblazoned with derogatory slogans including “I jump guard on the first date”, “I break hearts and faces”, “Always on top”, “Tap this” and “Sexy as F**k”, to name but a few. Any female fighter who doesn’t wish to subject herself to this humiliating degradation is forced to wear male clothing – which, of course, is not designed to suit a female body and can be extremely uncomfortable to fight in.


It’s truly ridiculous and offensive to women who have dedicated their lives to the sport and trained just as hard as men to then be objectified by companies who claim to “empower” them. There are many young girls who attend martial arts and self-defence classes to feel empowered and safe – some of whom have been victims of sexual assault and want to learn how to protect themselves – who then have to choose between sexualised training gear or menswear.

In light of this, myself and GBR Jujutsu athlete Sophie Newnes have launched our own clothing line which specialises in female fight wear – designed BY women, FOR women. The chart below depicts the number of female participants in Jujutsu, Judo and Brazilian Jiujitsu in the U.K alone – which goes to show what a huge market there is for female fight-wear:


We were convinced we weren’t alone in our dissatisfaction with the current fight wear on offer, and according to the results of our recent survey of female martial artist participants, we were right:

MMA graph

Mere hours after launching our social media pages, we had requests flooding in from female martial artists all over the World: women rightfully demanding Gi’s made for bigger breasted women, comfortable rashguards without the tacky graphics, shorts that AREN’T pink, and clothing in sizes 6-16. We were delighted to find ourselves being retweeted, followed and in receipt of supportive messages from famous female fighters, promoters and event hosts.

WOMMA’s future goals include expanding to releasing a children’s range and developing the WOMMA Foundation – a World Wide self-defence company for women. But right now, our focus is on providing female mixed martial artists with appropriate, stylish fight-wear that they feel 100% comfortable in.

For further information about WOMMA Fightwear, follow @WOMMA_Fightwear on Twitter and Instagram.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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The ‘Model Minority’, like the ‘Virgin/Whore’ dichotomy, is man-made

Most East Asian people living in the West are aware that we are considered a “model minority”. Asian children study hard, we are told. They do well in exams. They shine in Maths and Science classes. They go on to be doctors, lawyers, or engineers, excelling in their chosen field and enjoying high levels of success. Racial discrimination? Nonsense — everyone knows that if you work hard enough, there’s nothing stopping you from achieving just as much as white people do.


Well, no. In study after study, the idea that East Asians have somehow managed to rise above racial oppression through hard work and a positive attitude has been debunked. The media may squawk about the achievements of East Asian students yet, when entering the workforce, Asian American women will make 40-50% less than their similarly qualified white classmates. In the UK, East Asians are rendered nearly invisible, with TV and theatre providing extremely limited opportunities for actors, other than painfully stereotyped, minor characters.

Among the Asian American community the poverty rate is 12.1 per cent, compared to the white community’s 9.9 per cent, and rising to 27.4% among specific South-East Asian groups – a fact that is conveniently ignored by those seeking to uphold Asian people as a shining example of success and sprinkle us with empty praise.

So where does the model minority myth come from? As it turns out, it was deliberately and carefully created by politicians in the 1960s, as a direct response to the African-American Civil Rights Movement, which was taking large strides towards combatting racial discrimination and segregation. The message was unambiguous: “As a person of colour, you have only yourself to blame if you do not succeed. The Asian community succeeds through hard work, not by demanding political change. Why don’t you be more like them?”

Sadly, this campaign proved extremely effective and many in the Asian community actually believed in it, leading to the growth of offensive, anti-black sentiments, as in the infamous book The Triple Package by Amy Chua, where she argues that inherent characteristics determine the success of different races, while ignoring structural inequalities.

Being a woman of colour, this tactic of ‘divide and rule’ to uphold oppression is strikingly familiar to me, and is a perfect example of white supremacy taking lessons from the patriarchy. The concept of ‘good minorities’ and ‘bad minorities’ echoes the ‘virgin/whore’ dichotomy, where ‘good girls’ are distinguished from ‘bad girls’, and taught to fear and despise them.

‘Good girls’ do not wear revealing clothing. ‘Good girls’ do not get drunk. ‘Good girls’ do not sleep around. ‘Good girls’ are self-sacrificing and self-effacing. In return, ‘good girls’ are promised the approval of men. Men will respect you, they say. Men won’t hit you, or rape you, or kill you. No, that only happens to ‘bad girls’. ‘Bad girls’ who sleep around, who get drunk, who lead men on. ‘Bad girls’ were asking for it. What did they expect? They have no one to blame but themselves.

When it comes to female success in the workplace, the same tactic rears its ugly head. The figure of the ‘strong, independent woman’ is held up as an example to all women, a promise of what women could achieve, if only we could be more like them. Observe Sheryl Sandberg, witness Marissa Mayer. These women negotiate, they take opportunities, they demand a seat at the table. Countless books have been written about how female leaders can succeed; too many ignore the need to demolish discrimination and barriers that hold back all women, and focus instead on what the individual woman should do to circumvent these obstacles while leaving them perfectly in place for the next woman to navigate.

Needless to say, the concepts of the ‘good girl’ and the ‘strong, independent woman’ are just as flawed as the construct of the model minority. You may be wildly successful in your career, even become the highest paid woman in your field, but what you earn will still be a mere fraction of what your male counterpart does. Similarly, the most certain predictor of rape or male violence occurring lies with the attitudes and decisions of the perpetrator, and is not determined by what the victim is wearing, or how she is behaving.

These lies are an insidious tactic wielded by the white supremacist patriarchy, in an attempt to focus our attention away from structural inequality and towards individual responsibility. It strives to tear asunder the unity of the oppressed classes, encouraging us to blame one another for our own oppression. It fosters antagonism between people of colour, dangles the promise of white acceptance over the heads of East Asians in exchange for their complicity in maintaining anti-black oppression, teaches girls to view their sisters with contempt, and tells successful women that women who do not rise to their level are simply not good enough. And while our attention and blame is focused within, the white supremacist patriarchy continues to thrive without.

The parallels between these tactics are stark and for me show why we cannot compartmentalise sexism and racism, fighting one and then the other as if they were separate and distinct issues. White supremacy and patriarchy are embroiled in a nefarious alliance, feeding off and nourishing each other to uphold oppression. They are unified and, if we wish to combat racial and gender oppression, our efforts and solutions must be too.

Joy Goh-Mah is a feminist writer based in London. She blogs on issues related to feminism and race at Crates and Ribbons, and is a part of Media Diversified. Follow @CratesNRibbons.

Picture source.

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10 reasons why debt is a feminist issue

Debt is one of those things that few people like to talk about and, like any corrosive, destructive force, it gets worse the longer you ignore it.

Given that the majority of those in debt are women, payday lenders are targetting women more than ever and our wages remain lower on average than mens – it’s worrying that mainstream women’s magazines give this issue so few column inches – it’s time we put debt on the feminist agenda.

1. Over 5 million women are in severe debt

Around two thirds of the 9 million people in severe debt in the UK are women, according to the Government-backed body the Money Advice Service.

2. More women are being declared insolvent

Insolvency Service data and Data Advice Foundation analysis suggest that women accounted for just 30 per cent of personal insolvencies in 2000, but that this rose to almost half in 2011, and  women could soon account for the majority of insolvencies in the UK.

3. Women’s debt is bigger than men’s debt

Women were found to be in £22,418 worth of debt, on average, which is markedly higher than the £14,228 level for men, in the Cooperative Bank’s Modern Families and Household’s report.

4. Women earn less than men

According to the Fawcett Society the mean gender pay gap for all work (excluding overtime) in the private sector is 24.2% and 17.6% in the public sector.  With less income to draw on, it may be harder for many women to pay off problem debt.

5. Households reliant on a woman’s salary have more debt

Households reliant on a woman’s salary typically receive nearly a third less income and have significantly more debt and smaller savings than when a man is the main source of earnings, according to research by the insurer Aviva.

6. ‘Hidden debt’ may be bigger than you think

Recent research by Jo Salter at the think tank Demos highlighted that total arrears, combining rent and council tax, and overdue utility bills come to almost £5 billion and yet this ‘hidden debt’ isn’t included in official debt figures in the UK.  This means the real extent of the debt women face in daily life may be bigger than some of the statistics out there suggest.

7. Debt is high on the harm index

Jo Salter’s recent research asked people to rank their debts in terms of the negative impact.  This ‘Harm Index’ highlighted that debt isn’t just harmful because it is hard to repay, it also has an impact on mental wellbeing and other factors. The research found that the top five most harmful debts were illegal loans, payday loans, council tax arrears, rent arrears and utility bills. The fact that three of the most harmful debts are incurred trying to pay for the basics – somewhere to live, heating and electricity – show that the social and emotional impact of debt should not be underestimated.

8. Debt defines our future

Debt doesn’t just loom large in daily life, it also shapes how many people see their future. Debt was an issue raised by a large number of people in a survey conducted by Survation, when asked what they would like their lives to be like in 2020. Some people spoke about how they would like to have kids, or buy a house, or do up their home, but only once they have become debt free.

A 42-year-old unemployed woman from London said: “I want to be living in another flat/bedsit/room, without bed bugs, that would be clean. I would like to be in a better health condition, and that my debts are reduced.”

9. Payday lenders are targeting women

Some payday loans companies seem to be trying to appeal specifically to women. Commenting on the development, Carl Packman, the author of Loan Sharks: The Rise and Rise of Payday Lending, said:

“Today, with the changing face of debt, payday loans companies have taken to appealing specifically at women. Firms like Cash Lady – famously advertised by Kerry Katona – are able to exploit hard up women and ensure they stay in debt to boost profits. A toxic mix of a cost of living crisis and the fact women are paid worse than their male counterparts, has taken its toll. We need to respond by ensuring financial independence away from problem debt. Government needs to regulate payday firms properly, make progress on a living wage, align the wages of men and women toward greater equality, and boost alternative sources of finance like credit unions”.

More and more people, including campaigners like Sharkstoppers, are trying to challenge the payday loans industry, while others like the movement behind the Bank of Salford are trying to create alternative, community-focussed, sources of finance.

10. Women need to talk about debt

More than 1 in 10 women, surveyed by the Cooperative Bank’s Modern Families and Household’s report, said they hide their debts from their partner, compared with around 1 in 7 men. This could mean around half a million of the 5 million women in severe debt are desperately trying to hide their money worries.

Trying to sweep debt under the carpet never works, which is why it is time to start a conversation about what needs to be done to tackle the growing problem of women’s debt.

Fran O’Leary is a Founder Member of Feminist Times and Director of Strategy and Innovation at Lodestone, writing in a personal capacity. Follow her @FranOLeary

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Hackney’s Active Citizens

Shoreditch Trust delivers the Active Citizens programme in partnership with the British Council. The programme aims to increase the contribution of community leaders towards improving the environment around them, setting up enterprising initiatives to solve problems and creating sustainable change both locally and globally. They hope to encourage in their participants:

  • A strong sense of your own culture and identity
  • Knowledge and understanding of your local community
  • Project planning, leadership and management skills
  • Responsibility towards sustainable development
  • Recognise value in, and work effectively with, difference

Last month Editor Deborah Coughlin and Deputy Editor Sarah Graham led a workshop for the Active Citizens programme. Our workshop focused on how young people living in Hackney today can make themselves heard – how they can communicate effectively about issues that affect them, whether that be in a newspaper article or in a letter to their local council.

We asked everyone on the programme to think of something they feel passionately about that they would like to change; their concerns ranged from voluntary work while on JSA, to the lack of access to employment in theatre, and the abundance of cheap junk food on sale in their area. We then asked them to go and find one fact or quote on the internet that would back up their argument for change, before presenting it back to the group. The results from the workshop were amazing, with some of the participants feeling they could argue their case effectively for the first time, and we all came away feeling empowered.

We asked Active Citizens if they would allow us to print some of the resulting pieces to see what Feminist Times readers make of their arguments.


Kenneth Grinell, 26 years old, trainee chef


What I care about: support for job seekers on training courses

Recently I have been frustrated with the unemployment figures in the country vs the systems put in place by our government to aid people in finding work. My biggest gripe would have to be that people, like myself, who are attending a training course (non-paid) in order to gain employment in their desired field, are not entitled to get Job Seeker’s Allowance if the course is over 16 hours per week. This catch 22, that a lot of people are caught in, penalises those who are actively looking for work for no good reason. If the benefit is called Job Seeker’s, they should not discourage the public from doing so.

According to FE Week, “The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) has called for a new look at how the government’s flagship youth unemployment scheme will affect Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA).” They are also in talks with the DWP regarding the 16 hour rule. Although the various government departments are working together to solve this problem, no deadline has been given for a resolution.

Meanwhile, companies such as CDG (Careers Development Group), who have been hired because of the failing job centres around the country, are sending the unemployed on courses such as, “Employability Skills”, which exceed the 16 hours per week rule and provide you with a qualification that is not exactly sort after. This is only worsened by the fact that George Osborne announced his “work for dole” scheme, as stated by Channel 4 news. This basically means the long term unemployed will have to do 30 hours of community service per week, almost double the allowance for a trainee course. A fact they failed to mention in his party’s manifesto prior to their election. To me this is more of a hypocrisy than a democracy.


Lara Rodriguez, 19 years old, Open School East Student and Active Citizen


What I care about: young people being ignored by the government

Being a young adult in London is extremely difficult. We are not being heard. Danny Dorling (New Statesman 2013) agrees: “If you are young in Britain today you are taken for a ride”.

We are already at risk of growing up and being worse off than the previous generation. The younger generation are not being made aware of changes that are being made that will affect us; personally, I think it’s because the government does not target the younger generation as a voting primary, thereafter we are left in the dark.

Instead they target the older generations, who they know are keeping tabs on current events and are aware that their views matter and need to be heard. In 2010 only 44 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted in the General Election, compared to 76 per cent of those aged 65 and over. Watchdog has also revealed that 56% of voters aged between 17-24 are yet to be registered.

Compulsory voting would help keep away from this biased targeting and, according to the Think Tank IPPR: “Voting should be compulsory for your first election”. Even Shadow Lord Chancellor Sadiq Khan is considering making first time voting compulsory; this would be a very beneficial step to give young people their rightful voice to be heard, especially if the Labour party (if elected) plan to move the voting age to 16.


Marvin Davidson, 26 years old, Engagement and Training Programme Coordinator


What I care about: Black History in education

I believe that it’s unfair to have Black history folded into such a small segment of the UK’s  educational curriculum where it’s all covered in the space  of a month (October). The majority of Black History in most westernised countries is fixated on slavery with little focus on or mention of inventors, leaders, change makers, scientists, freedom  fighters. I believe that there are numerous BME people who have made significant contributions to British history and place shaping – they are either mentioned briefly in Black History month or not at all.

I believe all children should be taught more about BME history and about what happened before and after slavery which hopefully might empower more BME children to see themselves in other positive lights.

I woud also challenge London’s museums and galleries to not only exhibition the work of BME citizens in one month of the year but to integrate this information into permanent collections and museum and gallery policy.

Significant leaders include the founder of Britain’s first black weekly newspaper The Westindian Gazette, Claudia Jones – a feminist, black nationalist, political activist, community leader, communist and journalist.

The Runnymede Trust has developed a Real Histories teaching resource to support and encourage cultural diversity.

According to the Guardian, “one of the recommendations of the 1999 Macpherson Report on the Stephen Lawrence case was a: “National curriculum aimed at valuing cultural diversity and preventing racism,” in order better to reflect the needs of a diverse society. This is something the vast majority of teachers would unreservedly support whatever our views on the new curriculum. Yet we need to be clear that the draft national curriculum for history, if it comes into force, is very likely to set this cause back at least a generation. In fact it is hard to see how the Department for Education can have taken into account its legal obligations with regard to equality when devising it.”


Renalzo Palmer, 24 years old, trainee commi chef


What I care about: youth unemployment

I have recognised the struggle young people have to face in today’s society in order to find work. I believe if there was more opportunity for disadvantaged young people to access apprenticeships and structured volunteering that actually lead to employment or a career our government statistics would be a lot more acceptable.

This is a report from Newlonfusion.org in February 2013 stating that “there are over 954,000 16-24 year old in England who are not in education or employment (NEET) representing 1 in 5 of all young people of those (about 13%) live in London.”

I am a trainee chef at Shoreditch Trust and this is where I recognised the important work that is being done to help deprived young people in London. The Trust opened a restaurant to train young people like me to have the necessary skills needed in the catering and hospitality industry, which has been running successfully for 5 years now.


Trainees on Shoreditch Trust’s Blue Marble Training scheme at Waterhouse Restaurant, Hackney


Samuel Santulu, 25 years old, Assistant Producer/Session Musician


What I care about: youth club closures

I believe that many children and young people in London really benefitted from youth clubs and investment in structured activities including myself. When I was a teen I witnessed a lot of my friends deteriorate when our club got shut down. Street life became a normal thing for them and older people took advantage of the young people.

Is there a link between funding cuts for local authorities and closure of structured youth clubs and activities? Youth clubs could be a safe haven for young people to go to when they want to socialise.


Professor John Pitts, who has researched gang behaviour for more than 40 years, says the “annihilation” of youth services, coupled with academies likely to favour middle-class students over disadvantaged children, could further disconnect young people from society and result in more entrenched gangs. “Services are not just being taken away from young people, they are being taken from poor young people,” he said. (Guardian, July 2011)

Hackney riots: ‘The message when youth clubs close is that no one cares’. Half the borough’s children live in poverty. Missing, too, are the summer courses that kept minds and hands busy. Many youth projects across London’s inner city estates have closed down due to funding cuts. Yet the capital dominates the child poverty statistics, with far higher proportions of poor children than other European cities – 44% of Hackney’s children live in poverty. For Candy, 14, on the Whitmore estate off Hoxton Street, that’s a poverty that sees her sleep each night under a coat on a bare mattress on a bare floor. “Sometimes we have food, and sometimes not much,” she says, opening an old, scratched fridge. Her mother is asleep on a plastic-covered sofa in front of an old TV. “She is not very well, she gets depressed,” explains Candy. Next door three children under nine are home alone. Their mother will feed Candy when she gets back from work for keeping an eye on them.” (Observer, August 2011) 


Timoney James, 23 years old, trainee commi chef


What I care about: immigration

I’m particularly passionate about the balance of fairness and equal rights in obtaining a visa to work in the UK; I believe there is as huge deficit in terms of measuring how many people and family’s lives are being affected as a result of unfair immigration policies.


“The parliamentary group says immigration rules are too restrictive and a review is needed. New financial rules for migrants from outside the European Union are tearing UK families apart and causing anguish, a group of MPs and peers have said. They said thousands of Britons had been unable to bring a non-EU spouse to the UK since July 2012, when minimum earnings requirements were introduced.Children have also been separated from a parent, the parliamentary group said.” (BBC News)

To find out more about any of the projects run by Shoreditch Trust, visit http://www.shoreditchtrust.org.uk or follow @ShoreditchTrust

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Creatures of Adland: collective nouns for advertisers

“A murder of crows, a crash of rhinos. Why is it that animals get all the fun collective nouns?” asks Creatures of Adland, a fun new blog project started by advertisers Jana and Adrian.

“The project started as something fun, a way to hold a mirror up the advertising industry and make light of the cliches it cultivates. It’s a very self important industry that benefits from reminding of its absurdity from time to time,” Jana explains.

“Once we started, we found ourselves continually looking out for patterns. This of course led us to some other, not so amusing, observations about the make-up of the industry itself. We’re by no means the first to make these observations, but we thought we should use our time in the glow of the industry’s attention for something a bit more productive than we originally intended. Though it continues to improve, the fact remains that the ad industry doesn’t reflect the society it seeks to influence. It remains very much young, white and male.”

We picked out our Top 5 collective nouns from Creatures of Adland…

A Burden of Old Timers



A Token of Black Execs



A Miracle of Female Bosses



A Glow of Chairmen



An Ambition of Managing Directors


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#SexIndustryWeek: Manifesto – English Collective of Prostitutes

The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) is a network of women who work or have worked in different areas of the sex industry campaigning for decriminalisation and safety. We fight against being treated like criminals. We’ve helped women and other sex workers win against charges of soliciting, closure orders, ASBOs, brothel-keeping & controlling – the last two most often used against women who are there to ensure safety. And we fight for housing, higher benefits and wages so that any of us can leave prostitution if and when we want.

We won the first ever rape prosecution taken by women in England and Wales after the authorities refused to prosecute, putting a serial rapist who targeted sex workers, behind bars. In 1982 we occupied a London Church for 12 days to protest police illegality and racism against street workers.

What we stand for:

  • Decriminalization of sex workers – on the street and in premises – as in New Zealand. The laws land us in jail, divide us from families and friends, make us vulnerable to violence, isolate us – separate is never equal. Criminal records trap us in prostitution.
  • Protection from rape and other violence.
  • An end to police brutality, corruption, racism and other illegality. Prosecute police who break the law.
  • No zones, no licensing, no legalized brothels – they are ghettoes and state pimping.
  • Self-determination. Sex workers must decide how we want to work – not the police, local authorities, pimps, madams/managers who profit from our work.
  • An end to racism and other discrimination within the sex industry.
  • Sex workers must have rights like other workers: the right to a pension and to join trade unions. Unions are for workers not for bosses.
  • No criminalization of clients. Consenting sex between adults is not a crime.
  • Free and accessible health services for all: no mandatory health checks or HIV tests.
  • Women’s right to organize independently of men, including of male sex workers.
  • Economic alternatives: no one should be forced into sex by poverty. People who want to leave the sex industry (or any industry) should have access to resources.
  • Shelters and economic resources for children/young people so they don’t have to beg or go into prostitution to survive. Children must be protected not criminalized.
  • No ‘rehabilitation’ schemes which punish us or force us into low-paid jobs.
  • An end to extortionate room rents and other profiteering.
  • The right to freedom of movement within and between countries. Stop using anti-trafficking laws to deport sex workers.

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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 Industry

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 Industry

Though these are four of the most visible forms of sex work—porn, stripping, domination, and escorting—and each offers a distinct environment, it’s not uncommon for workers to draw their incomes from more than one. It’s about more than maximizing their earning potential; it’s also a way to negotiate the varying degrees of exposure and surveillance that come with each venue. For every escort who would never give up her privacy by working in a strip club, chancing that someone she knew would come in, there’s a stripper who would never give up her privacy by working in porn or having her image posted online, and there’s a porn performer who would never have sex for money outside the context of a porn shoot.

These are also only anecdotes drawn from sex workers I’ve met and worked with over the last ten years, in this first decade of the twenty-first century, and in the United States. Each involves some work online and offline. Each caters to customers in a specific way, and with its own conventions: Web sites sell photo sets and memberships; escort services set up appointments; clubs charge entrance fees and sell drinks; and performers sell stage shows and private dances. Each sell takes its own skills, has its own hustle, its own downsides.

However, as distinct as the work and their environments may be, there is a political usefulness in calling all of this sex work, while also insisting that it varies considerably over time and place. The portrait of street-level prostitution, for example, as it’s on display in media accounts—a woman, most often a woman of color, standing in a short skirt and leaning into a car or pacing toward one—is a powerful yet lazily constructed composite. As the lead character of the prostitute imaginary, she becomes a stand-in for all sex workers, a reduction of their work and lives to one fantasy of a body and its particular and limited performance for public consumption. Sex workers’ bodies are rarely presented or understood as much more than interchangeable symbols— for urban decay, for misogyny, for exploitation—even when propped up so by those who claim some sympathy, who want to question stereotypes, who want to “help.”

The character isn’t even representative of all the street soliciting sex workers she stands in for. When considering the practice of street-based sex work, sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein observes, “It is important to recognize the extent to which the practices and meanings of sexual labor varied in the different prostitution strolls,” even in the same city. Some of this sex work can be more accurately described as trade or barter, Bernstein writes, “self-organized, occasional exchanges that generally took place within women’s own homes and communities.” She distinguishes this from “the sexual labor of ‘career’ streetwalkers,” in which “commercial sexual exchange was conceptualized as ‘work’ that resided in the public display of the body.” You find this echoed in the research of Chicago youth involved in the sex trade conducted by the grassroots group Young Women’s Empowerment Project. They’ve adopted the descriptor “sex trades and street economies” to recognize that, for their community, trading sex for what they need to survive isn’t necessarily understood as their “work,” and that it occurs alongside other informal labor, such as hair braiding or babysitting.

The sex industry is varied and porous throughout. Consider its other most visible outpost in America: the legal brothels of rural Nevada in the few counties where prostitution was never fully criminalized, and where strict regulation and isolation are employed to make it tolerable to the public. There, according to a recent study conducted by Brents, Jackson, and Hausbeck and published in The State of Sex, one third of brothel workers had never done any other kind of sex work before, but rather came to it directly from “non-sexual service work.” Three quarters of those they interviewed move between “straight work” and sex work. “Selling sex,” they write, “is often one form of labor among a variety of jobs.”

When we say that sex work is service work, we don’t say that just to sanitize or elevate the status of sex workers, but also to make plain that the same workers are performing sex work and nonsexual service work. In her study of Rust Belt strippers published in Policing Pleasure: Sex Work, Policy, and the State in Global Perspective, Susan Dewey observed that the vast majority of the dancers—all but one—at one club in upstate New York had worked outside the sex industry, and “many had left intermittently for low-wage, service sector work elsewhere before returning with the recognition that they preferred the topless bar with its possibility of periodic windfalls from customers.” For the dancers who Dewey surveyed, it was the work outside of the sex industry that was “exploitative, exclusionary, and without hope for social mobility or financial stability.”

Opponents, from the European Women’s Lobby to reactionary feminist bloggers, like to claim that sex workers insist it is “a job like any other,” but sex workers do not make this claim—unless by this anti–sex work activists agree with sex workers that the conditions under which sexual services are offered can be as unstable and undesirable as those cutting cuticles, giving colonics, or diapering someone else’s babies.

But that’s not what sex work opponents are referring to when they snap back with a phrase such as “a job like any other.” When they say ‘‘jobs’’ they don’t mean those informal service jobs, but their more elevated labor administering social projects, conducting research, and lobbying. Rescuing sex workers is good work for them. As feminist anarchist Emma Goldman noted in 1910, the prostitution panic “will help to create a few more fat political jobs—parasites who stalk about the world as inspectors, investigators, detectives, and so forth.” The loss of sex workers’ income was their gain.

Opponents even take our jobs when we win. Socialist feminist activist and antiracist campaigner Selma James, in her essay “Hookers in the House of the Lord,” documents the closure of a successful grassroots sex workers’ legal project in London in the eighties, so “feminist lawyers and women from the anti-porn lobby” could create their own without having to actually employ the sex workers who started this advocacy. “What we are witnessing before our very eyes is the process whereby women’s struggle is hidden from history and transformed into an industry,” James writes, “jobs for the girls.”

The message of anti–sex work feminists is, It’s the women working against sex work who are the real hard workers, shattering glass ceilings and elevating womanhood, while the tramps loll about down below. As political theorist Kathi Weeks notes, to call a woman a tramp is to judge the value of a woman’s sexuality and labor. Tramps, she writes in The Problem with Work, are “potentially dangerous figures that could, unless successfully othered, call into question the supposedly indisputable benefits of work”—and home and family, and women’s commitment to all of it. When sex workers are “rescued” by anti–sex work reformers, they are being disciplined, set back into their right role as good women.

This isn’t just the province of large NGOs; one-woman rescue missions have popped up online and in mega churches, projects that claim to support themselves through the sale of candles and jewelry made by rescued sex workers. These jobs may technically exist outside the sex industry, but without a supply of rescued workers, there would be no cheap labor, no candles—and there would be no projects for the rescuers to direct.

These demands on sex workers’ labor, while it is simultaneously devalued, is why we still insist that sex work is work. But this should not be confused with uncritical sentiment, as if sex work is only work if it’s “good” work, if we love to do it. Being expected to perform affection for our jobs might feel familiar to sex workers—management at the unionized peep show the Lusty Lady tried to insert language in their contract that the job was meant to be “fun,” which the dancers refused to accept. To insist that sex workers only deserve rights at work if they have fun, if they love it, if they feel empowered by it is exactly backward. It’s a demand that ensures they never will.

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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Comeback: I had a duty to challenge Julia Bradbury’s comments

Broadcaster Miriam O’Reilly responds to Lynne Segal’s article: Mild-mannered Countryfile gets ugly: TV, sexism & ageism

There is a fundamental mistake in the copy relating to my response to Julia Bradbury’s attempt to undermine my tribunal win. She did not ‘step into’ my shoes. This is important in relation to the legal aspect of my case. Julia Bradbury replaced John Craven – not me. I was replaced by Jules Hudson.

I responded [to Bradbury’s comments] because it’s important to the older women who saw my win as a turning point for them too. TV shapes opinion and has the power to form prejudices. By excluding older women it contributes to their invisibility in society. This is why I challenged Julia Bradbury, who started this whole thing by dismissing my legal win in The Times last weekend. This was not a ‘bitter’ response. I had a duty to challenge.

Miriam O’Reilly is a writer, journalist and campaigner who successfully sued the BBC for ageism in 2010, two years after being dropped from Countryfile.

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Feminist Times presents: SEX INDUSTRY WEEK, 24th – 30th March

Dear Feminist Times readers,

Following our coverage of the pro and anti Nordic Model campaigns, we present Sex Industry Week at Feminist Times, where we will be taking a look at one of the most polarizing issues in contemporary feminism. Follow the debate on Twitter at #SexIndustryWeek


Feminist Times’ exclusive serialisation of Playing the Whore
Feminist Times is the only place you will be able to read a serialisation of extracts from Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work. Author Melissa Gira Grant was an online sex worker before becoming a writer and journalist. Whether you think you’ll agree with her or not, here’s your chance to read extracts from the book for free online all this week. To coincide, we will give away a signed copy of Playing the Whore every weekday. Keep an eye on Twitter and each extract for details.

“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” The first extract from our exclusive serialisation of ‘Playing The Whore’.

by Charlotte Raven

“Was I too easy on Grant? You can judge for yourself.” Editor-in-Chief Charlotte Raven kicks off #SexIndustryWeek with her review of ‘Playing The Whore’.

“We should, in fact, refuse to debate” The second extract from our exclusive serialisation of ‘Playing The Whore’.

by Glosswitch
“Feminism has to do more than simply polish patriarchy’s turds,” says Glosswitch on porn, feminism and moral panic.

#SexIndustryWeek: Five Gloria Steinem quotes
As Gloria Steinem turns 80, we look at her perspective on the sex industry.

#SexIndustryWeek: Playing The Whore – The Industry
“These demands on sex workers’ labor, while it is simultaneously devalued, is why we still insist that sex work is work.”

#SexIndustryWeek: The Future of Porn
by Jordan Erica Webber
“…bring more women into the tech industry, and hope that the next time technology leaps forward we get social change to match.”

#SexIndustryWeek: Nobody’s entitled to sex, including disabled people
by Philippa Willitts
Disabled feminist Philippa Willitts addresses the argument that, without sex workers, poor disabled people would never get any sex.

#SexIndustryWeek: Playing The Whore – The Stigma
“Asked only to talk about how empowering it all was or about how much of a survivor they are.” The fourth extract from our exclusive serialisation of ‘Playing The Whore’.

#SexIndustryWeek: Manifesto – English Collective of Prostitutes
The English Collective of Prostitutes explain their demands.

#SexIndustryWeek: My enemy’s enemy is my friend
by Roz Kaveney
Editorial Board member Roz Kaveney writes on the alliance between sex workers and the trans community.

#SexIndustryWeek: Playing The Whore – The Saviors
“The experience of sex work is more than just the experience of violence; to reduce all sex work to such an experience is to deny that anything but violence is even possible.”
The fifth and final extract from our exclusive serialisation of ‘Playing The Whore’.

#SexIndustryWeek: We can’t have good sex in an unequal society
by Susan Dowell
From the Puritans to Josephine Butler, Theologian and Author of Dispossessed Daughters of Eve, Susan Dowell explores a history of sex industry free utopias and what they can offer us

#SexIndustryWeek: Manifesto – Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry
As part of #SexIndustryWeek, the Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry present their manifesto.

PLUS we want to make sure YOU are included in this debate. If you have a grassroots campaign, point of view or experience you think should be included, let us know and we will try our best to publish as many as we can next week. Send a brief description to editorial@feministtimes.com

Follow the debate on Twitter at #SexIndustryWeek



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Feminist Toolkit: How to organise a union

As part of our coverage of the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike, we asked TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady for her guide to organising a workplace union. Frances became General Secretary of the TUC in 2013 and is the first woman ever to hold the post.

FrancesOgradyIn a world of work dominated by pay cuts, wage freezes, attempts to reduce employment rights, and the threat of redundancy, it’s never been more important for workers to be in a union.

Yet there is a genuine ignorance about unions amongst many workers – especially younger ones, which is understandable when more than half the UK workforce has never been in a union. At best, many employees simply have no idea what unions are or what they do, and at worst, their perceptions are shaped by the distorted stereotypes of unions portrayed in many parts of the media.

It’s hardly surprising that many people think unions are dominated by white middle-aged men, who are either regularly shouting at one another or going out on strike. Of course the reality is very different. Halfway through the second decade of the 21st century, the typical union member is a women, under 40, working in a white collar job.

Each and every day, in workplaces up and down the country, unions work on issues as diverse as lifelong learning, pay, safety, and equality. They provide individual support to workers as well as collective representation to the workforce as a whole. Unions give workers a voice at work and a chance to influence decisions made by employers that have an impact on their lives both in the workplace and beyond.

But to do all this unions need to be organised and this can be a challenge, especially in workplaces where there is no union presence. For many employees, particularly young women, there is simply no union to join at their workplaces.

So how should you get started?

# 1 – The easiest way to get union representation – either individually or collectively with a group of colleagues – is to join the relevant union for your job, company or industry. If you’re not sure which one that is, you can use this online tool on the TUC’s website to help you choose http://www.worksmart.org.uk/unionfinder/index.php

# 2 – If no-one where you work belongs to a union, you might want to talk to some of your colleagues to see if some of them are interested in getting representation, rather than going it alone. Remember, the more people you can get involved at this early stage, the better. If you don’t feel able to do this just yet, you might want to consider joining a union’s community branch which can offer assistance to people across a wide range of workplaces.

# 3 – Think about what you would like to change in your workplace and the kind of issues you would like to raise with your employer – maybe the hours are too long, the rates of pay too low or perhaps the sick leave is inadequate. Whatever the issue, having a union behind you when the matter is discussed with an employer can make all the difference.

# 4 – If you have found a union that you think is right for you, speak to someone who organises workplaces for that union about how you would like the problem approached. They can advise on the way forward, can speak to your employer and maybe even get the union recognised.

# 5 – Build your local union branch. The more employees in a particular workplace who belong to a union, the more chance an employer will take an issue seriously so it makes sense to get as many colleagues on board as possible. You should be aware that not every employer will be delighted at the news that staff are trying to organise themselves but don’t let this put you off. Unions are used to the anti-union tactics used by some employers and will be able to give you lots of tips and advice. Good luck!

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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.



Dr Kate Hardy.  Feminist, Lecturer in Work and Employment Relations at The University of Leeds.
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Farage, it’s the system that needs changing – not biology

Earlier this month Nigel Farage memorably opined that women were “worth less” than men and do not face discrimination in the City. His comments joined the list of provocative UKIP statements which only the ‘daring’ purple and yellow party are willing to make and which are greeted as ‘refreshingly honest’ by a depressingly large number of people. They shed light on an entrenched attitude which is in fact insulting to both women with and women without children, as well as both mothers who work and those who don’t.

When Women’s Libbers demanded free, community-controlled (and 24 hour) childcare as one of their original seven demands in the 1970s they didn’t differentiate between work in the home and work outside of the home; they wanted the right to access to both. In the forty years between then and now the role of mothering has been diminished (as well as strangely fetishized) along with other caring roles; the cost of living has risen making two incomes almost essential for every family; market forces have been unleashed on childcare making it a low-skill, low-wage job; and state support for dual earner families, both fiscal and linguistic (“hardworking families”) far outweighs support for single earner households. This can’t have been what Second Wave women had in mind.

What Farage said in his speech was that women were not paid less because of discrimination by firms in the financial sector but instead because of the “lifestyle choice” some made by having a baby. He said that he does not believe that there is “any discrimination against women at all” in the City because women who are prepared to remain childless do “as well or better than men”. Not only is this inaccurate (figures released in August indicated a widening gender gap on bonus payments: in 2012, male managers received an average bonus of £6,442 compared with £3,029 for women, according to the Chartered Management Institute) but it is also the kind of lazy thinking shared by a huge number of people who think feminism has done its job because, on paper at least, women have equality. I’m inclined to believe that a society that thinks women should feel grateful to have achieved gender equality, on the proviso that we don’t procreate, is not one which is really listening to women and what they want.

This kind of ‘Choice Feminism’ is limited and limiting because it means that women are expected to suck up the consequences of the choices that they make on the basis that they made those choices ‘freely’. This is disingenuous when so many intersecting issues of gender, age, race and class dictate which choices are available to us and what the consequences of making them are. Once again, women are presented with a smorgasbord of ‘choice’ which has been carefully laid out by the patriarchy, and told to help themselves, but to keep quiet about any consequences they’re not satisfied with.

Changing the underlying structures which put women at a disadvantage when they take time out for their family is one of the tasks for 21st century feminism. Networking forum Citymothers’ survey revealed last year that only 12.5% of women in the City said their employer had taken a proactive role in supporting their maternity transition. Although 77% of respondents had a flexible working arrangement in place, 45% of these felt their path to career progress would be slower as a result, whilst 32% felt it would be unachievable as long as this arrangement was in place. Rather than smashing the glass ceiling only whilst simultaneously crossing our legs and forgoing motherhood, Citymothers say we need to normalise flexible working for women and men, change management perceptions that it is less productive than full time work, and eradicate a culture of presenteeism.

We also need to give proper respect to the work of mothering and recognise that it doesn’t result in complete atrophy of a woman’s brain. Beyond humorous posters which advertise motherhood as a ‘24/7 job with no holiday or pay, requiring the diplomatic skills of Ban Ki Moon’, there needs to be proper recognition that time taken out from employment does not represent a gaping hole which has to be justified or excused, particularly now many of us don’t anticipate retiring until we’re aged 70+; that women are as employable, if not more so, after time spent raising a family as they were before. Similarly, as well as asking women questions about whether the cost of childcare is a barrier to going back to work, we need to remember to also ask them if the high cost of living is a barrier to staying at home when their children are young. The results might be surprising.

Nigel Farage may quip that he “can’t change biology” and carry on swilling his pint while enjoying the workings of a system which favours men, but I say: “No, Nige, but we can change the system.”

Mel Tibbs is a freelance writer and maternal feminist, with 14 years spent at the sharp end of the politics of parenting. Find out more @CrunchyRedApple.

Photo: Euro Realist Newsletter

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Cate Blanchett, choice and complicity on the red carpet

We all know that the world of showbiz is sexist, hence any woman who involves herself in it will be complicit in whatever objectification she suffers. This seems to be the message of Lynden Barber’s gentlemanly trashing of Cate Blanchett, published in this Wednesday’s Guardian. Rather than celebrate Blanchett’s questioning of double standards (demonstrated by her asking a red carpet photographer whether his camera lens scanned male actors in the same manner), Barber calls out the actress for daring to bite the hand that feeds her:

“I can understand why an actor might be totally over the whole red carpet thing. But Cate, if you don’t want your dress to be photographed so that viewers and readers can admire the whole thing, then perhaps you could try turning up to the next awards nights in jeans and a T-shirt.”

Yeah, Cate. Live by the stylist, die by the stylist. You knew what you were getting into.

To a certain extent, I think Barber has a point. Blanchett – a tall, thin, white woman following the dress codes of an industry that objectifies tall, thin, white women – gains from her own objectification. You can’t get to where she has without a degree of compromise. But is it reasonable to play the system and then claim the moral high ground? For Barber it’s a definite no; I, on the other hand, would ask what else a woman is meant to do. What level of purity must she achieve before she’s entitled to speak out? And by the time she has achieved such purity, won’t she be backed into a corner so that no one can hear her words?

We’re not all Hollywood actresses but every single one of us is complicit in our own oppression and that of others. There are degrees of complicity, but every choice we make – every interaction, every utterance – takes place within a context of gender stereotyping, cultural conditioning and inequality. In order to forge any path of our own we work with the options we’re given. Unlike Blanchett, we may not be “the face of SK-II” but none of our choices take place in a vacuum. Sometimes these choices will benefit us to the detriment of other women. Often we won’t even know it.

Judging other women on the basis of this complicity is, I think, one of the reasons for deep cultural divisions within feminism. While as feminists we are critical of our own culture, our own personal practices will always feel defensible in a way that those of others do not. We know our own balance sheet but not that of anyone else. Hence your dress code demeans women while mine is an everyday compromise. When you choose to do that job you’re selling out, but when I choose to do mine I’m just feeding my family. There’s not a lot of time for empathy when you’re constantly repositioning yourself around double standards.

But when, as Blanchett did, you call out the double standards that you’ve played along with, you will be accused of hypocrisy. Do the same to another woman and it starts to look more like a personal attack. It should be neither of these things. We should be able to accept that in order to survive patriarchy, women have to have dealings with its rules and regulations within different cultural settings. This shouldn’t undermine any challenge. On the contrary, knowing the conditions of oppression should make us more forgiving of ourselves, each other and of those who oppress us.

The man who photographed Blanchett was only playing by the same rules as Blanchett. They’re rules which, to a greater or lesser extent, I play along with when I decide what to wear, how to speak, how best to get what I need. No one has to challenge these rules – and usually it’s easiest not to — but when anyone does, we should see it as a gain. If we aspire to a pure, untainted feminism we will only deny all women the space in which to breathe.

VJD Smith (Glosswitch) is a lifelong feminist and mother of two who edits language books when she’s not tied up with parenting, blogging and ranting.  Find out more @Glosswitch or glosswatch.com

Photo: Siebbi

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#IDontBuyIt: UnElfy working conditions under capitalism

Feminist Times interviewed 19-year-old Annabel*, a whistleblowing Elf, for an insight into life working for Father Christmas at a much-loved festive family attraction.

It’s a busy time of year for Santa’s little helpers so we caught up with Annabel while she was on her way to work in the grotto, on a chilly December morning, to find out what her job entails.

“My role as an elf involves greeting and memorising the names of the children before taking them and their guardians to meet Father Christmas,” she explains.

“On the way I try my best to get them excited about meeting him by asking about their day, what their favourite part was, and what they want for Christmas. It’s really important to involve the adults as well,” she adds, “as they’re also here for the experience, even if it was booked as a treat for the children.”

Annabel does this through “small references to the ‘human world’ – so if the child says their favourite activity that day was ice skating, you can joke that you won the gold bell for ice skating in ‘elf olympics’ 1888, or that you’re so clumsy Father Christmas won’t let you on the ice.”

For her, working with children is the highlight of her job: “What I love is being able to help make children continue to believe in the magic of Christmas for at least another year, and watching their faces light up as they meet the man who brings them so much joy every Christmas day.

“I love it when you get a little girl or boy at around 10 years old, who still deeply believes in Father Christmas and is genuinely wrapped up in the whole experience.”

The second aspect of Annabel’s job is taking photos of the families with Father Christmas, helping hand out and restock the gift throughout the day, and preparing the house for routine evening inspections.

“Photos with Santa aren’t included in the price of the ticket and must be purchased separately,” she tells us. “Filming and photos, other than those taken ‘professionally’, are not allowed within Father Christmas’s house.”

As an actress, Annabel says working as an elf for nine hours a day is a very full-on role: “You must always be prepared with an answer no matter what the question, always be bouncy and full of energy – nobody wants to talk to a grumpy elf.

“You can NEVER break character, even if an adult asks your age or what you do when you’re not ‘elfing’. You can make up any age – I usually say 178 – and you have to act confused: “what do you mean when I’m not at work? We elves are always hard at work making toys for all the good boys and girls all over the world!” and “why, we live here of course! All of us together in this forest – in fact, there are many elves napping nearby because they’ve been so hard at work making toys for you, so we have to be very quiet now so we don’t wake them up!”

In fact, it’s not so far from the truth: “My least favourite part of the job is the hours – roughly 10 hours a day with only two unpaid half hour breaks whilst being on your feet all day, going back and forth,” Annabel says.

She started work with Father Christmas at the end of November, after two days of training, and had a total of four days off before starting a two-week stint of 11am-9pm days, leading up to Christmas. Understandably, she’s exhausted.

“Then there’s the lack of pay,” Annabel adds. “For over 21s it’s an average of £7.07 an hour and for under 21s (like me) it’s roughly £5.54. Being separated by age when both age groups are doing the same job and the same amount of work is extremely frustrating and generally unfair.

“Considering being an elf in these circumstances could fall under the category of immersive theatre, in the opinion of myself and all my co-workers, we are grossly underpaid.” The Independent Theatre Council recommends a minimum salary of £420 a week; even at 9 hours a day (with one hour of unpaid breaks), 7 days a week, Annabel only gets £349.02 gross. Santa how could you?!

Annabel’s biggest disillusionment lies with the management’s capitalistic drive to maximise profits at any cost. “I genuinely believe that the owners started the company with a view to create a magical experience for families and children,” she says.

“But due to the nature of business, various things inevitably falter due to costs and profit margins – the little things can often be lost, like a serious lack of training and employees not being trained to the highest standard.

“A full time worker was asked to cover for an understudy because of so many people quitting due to poor working conditions and then wasn’t trained properly in that area,” she tells us.

“Very long shifts, with so few breaks, in such a physical job can be mentally and physically draining, causing strain on the employees, both among themselves and the managers.”

Although Annabel enjoys the job itself, she reveals that other elves aren’t so lucky: “Elves from other sections of the Christmas experience, whose roles allow less freedom than my own, have all expressed great frustration and stress at the monotonous repetitions that their jobs entail, and are emotionally worn out – often to the point of exhaustion – causing many to either quit or consider quitting.”

And despite the company’s additional charges for photographs with Father Christmas, and a gift shop full of “extremely overpriced gifts”, Annabel says she and many of her co-elves remain “underappreciated as staff and grossly underpaid.”

A kid might think of being an elf as a dream job – even as adults, many of us spend a good afternoon “elfing” ourselves and our colleagues. In reality, the modern workplace offers instability, lack of training and unpaid breaks. For many workers Christmas really means retail prices high, staff wages low, and feeling that you are totally unappreciated. Santa’s grotto is a 3D Christmas metaphor for life under grotty capitalism.

It would be nice to think of Santa’s workshop as being more like a cooperative and less like a sweatshop. Come on Santa, if Christmas is about giving and not receiving, as a boss like many others, you can afford to be a bit more generous…

*Not her real name

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#IDontBuyIt: Profile – Echo

Our economic system is in trouble. Despite an apparent recovery and booming house prices, debt is rising, wages are stagnant and statistics show women are being harder hit.

It’s easy to feel depressed about the spiralling cost of living and growing economic inequality, but since I started working on Echo I’ve been excited to discover that there are alternatives.

Echo is an Economy of Hours, a marketplace without the money. Our members trade the skills, services or resources they have for those they need, using a currency called Echoes. The exchange rate is simple: 1 hour = 1 Echo.

Echo is built on the principles of time banking.  Time banking has been around in the UK for a while, often working with individuals in local community settings. Echo is the first time bank specifically designed to allow businesses and organisations to exchange in this way. We also support a growing network of P2P time banks enabling individuals in local communities to get involved.

I think Echo is exciting because it’s fundamentally challenging the way we place value on things. Time banking asserts there’s more value in the system than just that which is valued by the market. By valuing every skill and resource at an hour for an hour, charities, businesses and individuals are able to participate on an equal footing, and we’re able to give a value to things traditionally de-valued in a market economy – like helping a neighbour, caring for children, etc.

One of my favourite things about my job is bringing people together, sometimes in unexpected ways! Whether that’s enabling local charity the New Hanbury project to earn Echoes by fitting out a Dalston-based photography studio, or the Feminist Times renting desk space for Echoes in a somewhat male-dominated creative workspace in Haggerston, Echo makes interesting things possible without money changing hands. Over the last few months, we’ve used Echo as a tool to facilitate exchange of skills and resources ranging from from barista training to pop-up restaurant space, website design to bike fixing, haircuts to business mentorship.

Since starting work on this project, I’ve been inspired by other initiatives also challenging us to look at the way we manage resources differently. Whether it’s the Meanwhile Project making creative use of empty spaces, or Streetbank helping local people share their stuff, there’s an exciting array of initiatives out there helping people and businesses make better use of resources, and I’m pleased to be a part of that with Echo.

At a time of year when all of us (and I’d argue especially women) are being bombarded with messages to buy more and consume more, I’m really pleased to be working on a project where people and organisations are valued not by their net-worth or economic spending-power, but by their intrinsic value and what they can do for each other.

Echo is currently London-based but we hope to build similar models elsewhere before long. If you’re a Londoner you can join here (either as an organisation, or as an individual, or both). If you’re from elsewhere, google time banks in your local area and get involved!

Sarah Henderson is the broker at Echo, helping individuals and organisations trade their skills and time. She tweets @economyofhours

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#IDontBuyIt: Profile – Buy Nothing Day

Buy Nothing Day was started by the Canadian organisation Adbusters in the 90s and has grown into an international event celebrated in more than 65 countries. It’s a simple idea, which challenges consumer culture by asking us to switch off from shopping for a day. The day is celebrated as a holiday by some, a street party by others; anyone can take part provided they spend a day without spending!

The idea of not shopping for a day (particularly the busiest Saturday before Christmas) seems absurd! But there is a serious side to Buy Nothing Day, which highlights the environmental and ethical consequences of consumerism. The rich western countries – only 20 per cent of the world population is consuming over 80 per cent of the earth’s natural resources, causing a disproportionate level of environmental damage and unfair distribution of wealth.

As consumers we need to question our culture of shopping, especially when people simply shop to feel good or just to impress each other. We all have different needs and ultimately we are all consumers, so will never be able to escape consumerism altogether. But this shouldn’t stop us from questioning the products we buy or challenging the companies who produce them.

The issues connected with Buy Nothing Day are broad and deep, but we focus on promoting ethical and responsible consumerism, recycling and re-using. We want people to become aware that large corporations are exploiting labour conditions in developing countries, using up vital resources because they are cheap, and there aren’t the systems in place to protect workers or the environment like those in the west.

The gap between rich and poor nations is growing in spite of the much-heralded benefits of globalisation. There are still 1.3 billion people world wide who live on less than $1 a day and a similar number of people do not have access to clean water.

Workers’ rights in developing countries are frequently violated, including payment of low wages and long working hours. The lives of workers may also be endangered by poor health and safety provision. Supporters of globalisation offer economic growth as a solution to world poverty; they propose that impoverished nations and individuals can eventually attain a standard of living similar to our own through the ‘trickle down’ of wealth. But the current globalisation model is leading to an increase in world poverty and inequality.

Buy Nothing Day is a non-confrontational campaign – we ask people to have a bit of fun, play a few pranks, use their imagination, and simply escape consumerism for a day. It could be argued that this method of campaigning won’t capture the public’s attention or is laughing in the face of the more important issues, but if people laugh at the ingenuity and genius of Buy Nothing Day, then we’ve got their attention and we are opening the door.

Buy Nothing Day isn’t about changing your lifestyle for just one day – hopefully it becomes a lasting relationship – maybe a life changing experience? Modern consumerism may offer great choice, but this shouldn’t be at the cost of people developing countries or the environment.

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VIDEO: Afghan Women’s Rights – A doctor’s story

To coincide with International Human Rights Day, Amnesty International today launches two short films on women’s rights in Afghanistan, telling the stories of two women: a teacher and a doctor.

The second tells the story of Dr D, an Afghan gynaecologist, recounted by Dr Caroline Wright – a gynaecologist at Epsom General hospital, Surrey.

Dr. D. works as a gynaecologist providing healthcare to women suffering from abuse, including rape and domestic violence.  Here she tells Amnesty International how her family was targeted by the Taliban as a result of her work. 

The problems started back in 2007 when I was living in Kunar province. I was working in a clinic frequently carrying out abortions on girls who had fallen pregnant after being raped by their male relatives. There were different kinds of cases, for example, girls pregnant by their uncles, others by their brother-in-laws. They came to my clinic because they had to have an abortion [or they would have been killed by their relatives or members or their community as an “honour” killing]. I would receive threatening night letters and phone calls from the Taliban, warning that they would kill me and my family because of my work.

Two years later, in March 2009, it was evening and I heard an explosion and rushed outside. My children had been playing in the front yard. My 11-year-old son was very badly wounded and lying on the ground. I was shocked and don’t remember what happened next.

My son had to have medical treatment for almost a year and we were busy moving him from hospital to hospital. The incident badly affected him. He became mentally ill. He is always tired and depressed and always asks why this incident happened to him.

Six months later, my 22-year old brother was also killed in a grenade attack in front of our house. They threw a grenade at him while he was walking to our home. We have suffered a lot in our life.

We reported the threats to the government, but nobody listened to us and we have felt very discouraged. They have done nothing so far. I tried to seek justice and asked the government agencies to find the perpetrators, but they ignored us and did nothing.

We moved from Kunar in 2009 after my son was wounded in the grenade attack.

Now I have stopped doing abortions and keep a low profile at work. Nobody knows my address. If they know my whereabouts they will start threatening me again.

The situation here is very bad for women.  Women have problems going out to work and girls are prevented from going to school. There are too many cases of violence against women. I have witnessed 30 to 50 cases in a month. When I tell [the women] to report their case to the police they refuse because their family would be ashamed of them and would treat them very badly. They don’t go to the police and they tolerate the violence and harassment.

We have to help our people, particularly women, they need us and we have to serve the country and the people. I can’t sit at home and doing nothing, this is not in my nature.

* Dr D’s name has been withheld for her safety

For more information about the film campaign, follow @AmnestyUK

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VIDEO: Afghan Women’s Rights – A teacher’s story

To coincide with International Human Rights Day, Amnesty International today launches two short films on women’s rights in Afghanistan, telling the stories of two women: a teacher and a doctor.

The first tells the story of Parween, an Afghan headteacher, recounted by Jo Dibb – the headteacher at a school in north London.

Parween, a headmistress from Laghman province, was targeted for running a girls’ school. After receiving repeated threats from unknown men warning her to stop working, her son, Hamayoon, was abducted and killed. Here, she tells Amnesty International her story.

In April 2009 my young son Hamayoon, who was 18 years-old at the time, was kidnapped by unknown men. They are the people who are opposed to the progress and are the enemies of this country. Three days later I received a call from the kidnappers who told me that I could talk to my son for as long as I wanted as this was the last time I would speak to him.

My husband spoke to them and asked them why are you doing this to us? They said ‘because you’re working for the government [running a girls’ school] and for the Americans. Your wife is working, she was a [parliamentary] candidate, and was awarded the Malalai gold medal by Afghan-Americans. And you still say you have done nothing and ask why we are cruel to you?’

They handed the phone to my son and he asked me to come and take him back home. My son said that the kidnappers had told him to warn your mother and father to stop working otherwise they would face far severe consequences. That was the last time I spoke to my son.

A year and three months later, after heavy rainfall, a flood brought my son’s corpse to a Gardel desert. His body was caught in a tree. Nomads living close by found his body and contacted the government and police who contacted us. My husband went to the police station and recognised the body as our son’s. His body was taken to the public health hospital. We received his body from there and buried him.

The hospital gave us the post-mortem report. My son had 12 gun shot wounds to his body. The doctors told us that he had been killed at least three months before.

Before that, when we had been searching for him, we saw some 30 other corpses. My husband and his brothers, other relatives and villagers, whenever they heard that a corpse had been recovered, went rushing to see if it was my son’s body. We even opened some unknown graves to search for my son’s body. We saw corpses which were half-eaten by animals, rotten bodies, some corpse had ropes around their necks, some had been strangled by strings which were still wrapped around their necks, others had gun shot wounds to their heads and other parts of their bodies. We suffered a lot of torment searching for my son. We are still receiving death threats but we continue with our work.

We registered the kidnapping of my son with all the government agencies, like the police, the National Directorate of Security [Afghanistan’s Intelligence Service]. The NDS said that all the mobile numbers [of the kidnappers] originated from different provinces, like Kabul, Mazar, Laghman, Logar, and were linked to fake ID cards, making it very difficult to trace these people. We don’t have a strong government to investigate and find these people.

I also went to human rights organisations, but no one listened to what we had to say. Nobody cares what is happening to us.

On 21 February 2012, when I was returning home from work by car, they detonated a bomb and my husband received serious wounds to his face and hands. The children and I had a lucky escape and received minor injuries but the car was completely destroyed.

We don’t feel safe anymore now and we don’t know what to do. We have left our house. We are always on the move from one place to another and from one house to another. We are all living in a fear. Whenever there is sound at the front door I get scared that something bad may happen to us. My children are always scared, even in their sleep and while awake. Whenever the kidnappers traced our new mobile number they made threatening phone calls. I don’t know what to do. We are all suffering from mental health problems because of the continuous threats.

My father was a liberal and educated man. He gave us an education and religious lessons and told us that we should work for the progress and prosperity of our country.

If we want we can also leave this place and run away, but this is not our aim. Our main goal is to serve the people of this country by promoting education for children and rebuilding the country.

When my father was dying he took a vow from his children that we would serve the country even if this meant sacrificing our lives. So we are committed to fulfilling our father’s wish and the only way to fight ignorant people is to promote education in this country.

For more information about the film campaign, follow @AmnestyUK

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‘Who can afford 50 weeks of unpaid leave?’

This week I went through a life-changing event: the birth of my first child, a little girl we’ve named Marnie Rose Lorette. Obviously to my wife and I she’s the best baby that ever existed. Having spent the bulk of my 20s declaring I would never get married and never have children, this is an unexpected place to find myself, but d’you know what? It’s actually great. Proper great. Even her cries are the best sound in the world. Mind you, we’re only on day four. It’s all still to play for.

With almost perfect timing, this week the government has announced their long-trumpeted, much debated changes to parental leave entitlement. The big headline is that fathers are now able to share up to 50 weeks of leave with their partners. Rather than the current two weeks of paternity versus nine months of maternity leave, from 2015 new parents will theoretically be able to divide their time off into multiple extended breaks between them, subject to the agreement of their employers.

In an interview this morning, Nick Clegg has particularly trumpeted two points – firstly that this creates much-needed flexibility around parental leave arrangements and secondly, it also provides greater equality between the sexes, allowing men to be more involved in childcare.

One of my biggest concerns prior to the nipper’s arrival was the hours I work. I often leave the house at 6.30am and get home after 8pm. Once she settles into a routine and a normal bedtime, I run the risk of never actually seeing my child during the working week, let alone being able to actively contribute to childcare. So when I saw this on the news, I got all excited. As the story unfolded, random thoughts popped into my brain.

“50 weeks off?! AMAZING!”

“Unpaid. Oh.”

“Um, how is that different from a standard unpaid leave request?”

“Who can bloody afford 50 weeks of unpaid leave?” (“Millionaire old Etonians!” Cries the gallery.)

“Oh well.”

Elation turned to a disaffected shrug. There isn’t anything that looks that helpful. Fathers will have the right to attend up to two antenatal appointments unpaid? My work lets me do that already. The rest of it? The employer has the right to decline. So not massively helpful. Why?

Parental leave is described by ‘business leaders’ as a massive pain. I can understand why, but any large block of time away from the job can be planned for. Employees have to inform employers of maternity/paternity leave plans well in advance so businesses can plan cover effectively and arrange handovers to ensure a smooth transition. Even then, there is risk of further disruption.

Our child was early, and I was struck by manflu just before she arrived, so I was not able to provide as much handover as I would have liked. My team are all super-competent, so I’m more than sure they’re covering for me just fine, but does any business want this level of disruption every other month? I can’t help wondering how long-term leave cover would work if my wife and I were to split the time off between us. Where I work, if someone goes on maternity leave for nine months a temporary replacement is found for the full duration. In practice, how would this work if my wife and I were to take every other month off in rotation? Or every couple of months?

It’s worth noting that I’m writing this from the perspective of working for a large, global organisation. Can I see smaller businesses jumping at this one? Even without the disruption and recruitment costs. Advertising, agency fees, interview time. None of this is free.

I also can’t help but think that it’s a shame that the proposed extension from the current two weeks of paternity leave to six weeks didn’t happen. I’m coming to the end of week one of my leave. I have one week left before I’m back to work. Caring for the baby is a big job. My wife has just been through an incredibly traumatic physical experience. There is the pain of the actual birth itself, but then there are 9 months of body changes and unpredictable hormones before that, and then after? More body changes, more unpredictable hormones. Recovery from any complications, difficulty using the toilet due to stitches. So she has just over a week left of me being around to help before I’m back to work, leaving her on her own regardless of her physical state for 13 hours a day alone to look after a needy newborn.

So in theory? Brilliant! Anything that helps us split the childcare is a Good Thing. I can’t see how anyone could complain about that. Personally, I want to be an active participant in bringing my child up. I know lots of other men who would also jump at the chance. We’ll have to wait ‘till 2015 to see how many couples decide to share leave, but from where I’m sitting at the moment, the whole process feels like a logistical headache – great in theory, but far too easy to pick apart once you start thinking about practicalities.

Steve Horry is a resource manager by day, club promoter, freelance illustrator and guitarist in the regenerated Menswe@r by night. He has a website at http://www.mrstevenhorrythesecond.com Follow: @shedsteven

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Zaha Hadid or Ann Widdecombe: What’s your idea of the childless spinster?

Just a generation ago, one of the most socially unacceptable things a woman could be was ‘an unmarried mother’; now it seems that it’s the single, childless older woman – the ‘spinster’ – who’s once again become the social punch bag. Whether it’s by choice or circumstance, being in this situation once you’re past ‘child-bearing age’ (a newly taboo phrase) is to be seen as some kind of freak and an easy target for office jokes and Daily Mail articles.

1 in 5 women born in the UK in the mid 1960s have turned 45 without having had a child. It’s too early for the data, but it seems likely that the rate of childlessness will be higher for those born in the 1970s. That’s almost double what it was a generation ago.

The last time childlessness was at a similar level was for those women born around 1900, who lost a generation of young men in the First World War and then lived through the Great Depression. In the 1920s they were known as the ‘surplus women’.

Whilst some women today do chose not to become mothers (and may refer to themselves as ‘childfree’), many others are childless-by-circumstance – with those circumstances including a great deal more than medical infertility. An increasingly common reason, termed ‘social infertility’, is not finding a suitable partner during your fertile years.

While ‘bachelor’ is a term that implies a future, ‘spinster’ is one loaded with implied social failure – and reinforces the idea that it’s only by finding a (male) partner that a woman’s life can move forward to a truly ‘adult’ state. It’s as if all possibilities of happiness are quashed by the word ‘spinster’. Ironically the term was originally benign; in medieval English it meant a woman who span wool, and was later the legal definition of an unmarried woman.

Spinsters also had the potential of remaining unmarried and able to support themselves – which, as any reader of Jane Austen novels will know, was a radically new development. However, it didn’t take long for this potential independence to be cast as a problem and Victorian women who remained unmarried were seen as ‘finicky’ – a criticism today often levelled at unmarried women as being ‘too picky’.

These days, the term spinster also carries the unstated prefix: ‘bitter’ and implies a woman who is presumed to have been too stupid, unattractive, picky or ambitious to form a long-term partnership during her fertile years. For many women this is not a situation they’ve actively chosen but one that they’ve ended up in because they’ve made intelligent, honourable choices; many of them have cared for vulnerable family members through their fertile years, have refrained from getting pregnant ‘accidentally’ without a partner’s consent, and have worked hard as members of their families, workplaces and communities.

One of the hardest things to bear about the stigma of being a childless (rather than childfree) spinster today is the sense of having ‘obeyed all the rules’ of our culture yet to have ended up without the ‘prize’. Many have been careful not to get pregnant as teenagers or at university, have studied hard, broken up with partners deemed ‘unsuitable’ (according to their family, peers and women’s magazines), have worked hard to establish their careers, actively sought out relationships with partners who would be good ‘father material’ and given disciplined attention to their emotional, mental, physical and economic health. And the end result? To watch their peers attain ‘respectability’ because they have given birth, whilst they are seen to have ‘failed’ because they haven’t.

It’s a cruel irony because many of them didn’t see the spinster gulag coming – for many formerly ‘successful’ women it first comes into view as a potential identity in their mid to late 30s – a realisation that can lead to a desperate search for a partner. Many either find one and are unable to get pregnant due to age, even with the help of fertility treatments, or ‘fail’ to mate and enter a period of profound grief and shame – not only grieving for the family they will never have, but also for the shock of finding themselves isolated and ridiculed as social outcasts.

I have described being an older, single, childless woman in our culture right now as akin to being an exile in your own land. Those who haven’t experienced it think I’m wildly exaggerating, but the many thousands of women who are involved with the Gateway Women Online Community, who self-identify as being in the ‘double whammy’ category, know exactly what I mean.

Apart from the spinster, who in acceptable modern usage is referred to as a ‘career woman’, there are other, equally unappealing stereotypes for the mature childless woman – the mad old cat lady, a dried up old bat/bag/hag, the maiden aunt or old maid, and perhaps even the witch.

Could it be that much of the misogyny that it is no longer acceptable to use towards women has settled on the childless spinster?

When young women today look at how older childless women are ridiculed, what possible message can they take from this except that equality is bunk? That, despite what feminism says, having a family is still the only guaranteed route to having lifelong power and social standing as a woman?

Where are the visible and acceptable role models in either real life or fiction of older childless women that aren’t also seen as a joke or a cautionary tale? Most people when asked will mention Miss Haversham, Bridget Jones, Ann Widdecombe or Jennifer Anniston: insane or neurotic fictional spinsters, a life-long celibate and a Hollywood film star who can’t ‘keep a man’. Personally, I choose Zaha Hadid, Germaine Greer, Carmen Calil or Gloria Steinem as my role models.

Many childless women now look to me as a role model as I am one of the very few childless women who is prepared to speak openly and publicly about my life. I am 49, divorced, single, menopausal and live alone with my cat – and if I refuse to be ashamed by that, no one can shame me with it. That’s how taboos get broken – by individuals choosing not to buy into them – for good or ill.

Those of us born in the 60s and 70s are what I call ‘the shock absorber generation for the sexual revolution.’ But it’s not just mothers who are adjusting to this new world – it’s childless women too.

The ‘surplus women’ post WWI were the first generation of women who felt the brunt of inequality between men and women’s life opportunities and felt powerful enough after their experience of war to do something about it. Many of them supported the Women’s Suffrage Movement as a result.

In many ways, the women’s movement owes a big debt to the childless spinster, so it’s time to let our voice join that of our childed sisters, as a valid part of the continuing fight for equality for all women – whether we choose not to be mothers, or whether life and history makes that choice for us.

Jody Day is the founder of Gateway Women and author of Rocking the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfiling Life Without Children. Find out more @gatewaywomen.

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Engineering for girls: Addressing the image problem

It’s a shocking fact that only six per cent of practising engineers in the UK, and fewer than one in 20 apprentice engineers, are women. With a strong demand for engineering graduates in the UK, the government, industry and educational professionals must work together to attract more girls into engineering careers.

So what’s the issue? Engineering has an image problem. It is often portrayed as a dirty job, not particularly creative, based in factories, and performed by men in boiler suits. Due to these misguided perceptions, it’s not surprising that two thirds of girls report[1] that they don’t fancy a career in engineering.

We need to tackle this ‘not for me’ perception early and show young women that engineering offers a huge range of careers in exciting, rewarding sectors.

Engineers provide creative solutions to tackle problems across an array of industries – from fashion to music, technology to sport, environmental to aerospace. And engineering graduates’ starting salary is 15.7%[2] above the national average.

By capturing girls’ imaginations, and illustrating how engineering feeds into their interests, we can challenge these outdated perceptions. Young people aren’t the only people we need to convince. Parents of daughters hold similar views; three quarters of them haven’t encouraged their daughters to consider engineering as a career option[3].

We must tap into the fact that many young people – both boys and girls – are using engineering-related skills in everyday life. For instance, 72% of 11-14-year-olds love using the latest technology, 58% like designing and creating things and 51% like learning how things work[4]. We need to build on these interests and demonstrate that they can become a life-long passion and a fulfilling career.

Earlier this month, at the launch event for Professor John Perkins’ Review of Engineering Skills and Tomorrow’s Engineers Week – a government and industry campaign to inspire future engineering talent – I was fortunate to meet with a number of female engineers, including Yewande Akinola, IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year 2012 (pictured) and Roma Agrawal, IET Young Woman Engineer finalist 2012.

These talented women defied outdated engineering stereotypes. Yewande has been recognised for her commitment to sustainability and innovation, especially around water supply technology, and Roma is a structural engineer who worked on one of London’s most iconic modern projects, The Shard. These women were aspirational to the young people in the room.

At the event I called upon the media to play their part in ensuring that a wider variety of engineering careers are showcased in the press. Rather than illustrating the latest engineering story with images of production lines and construction sites, I’d love to see the media also focus on music production and software coders behind the latest apps; some of the very things that young people enjoy most.

But the media can’t do it alone. In his Review, Professor Perkins called for action from businesses, professional bodies, educational institutions, and government to ensure that there is a strong flow of talented men and women into engineering.

Tomorrow’s Engineers Week saw government work with over 70 organisations across the engineering community to demonstrate to young people the diversity and opportunities of the engineering industry. And government must continue to work with the industry to position engineering as an aspirational career choice.

Many engineering organisations are already proactive in engaging with schools. But much more can be done. I’d like to see engineering organisations of all sizes, from FTSE 100 to small family firms, empower their staff to go out and speak to young people about engineering careers.

Employers and schools should make use of the free resources available to them, from organisations such as Inspiring the Future and STEMNET whose ambassadors go into schools and colleges to talk about their jobs and sectors. Young people really benefit from hearing about real-life working experiences, so signing up to be an ambassador for engineering careers is particularly valuable.

This is an agenda for everyone with an interest in ensuring that future engineering talent amongst young people – and in particular, young women – is not wasted. Together, we can show teachers, parents and young people that engineering is a modern, creative, high-skill career.

Jo Swinson is Minister for Women and Equalities and Minister for Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs. Follow her on Twitter @joswinson

Image courtesy of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), showing Yewande Akinola, IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year 2012.

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[1] Vision Critical data collected by BIS (October 2013)

[3] Vision Critical data collected by BIS (October 2013)

[4] Vision Critical data collected by BIS (October 2013)

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These women are not me

Women with strong career ambitions are the ones who find themselves in the few positions of power available to them, yet they cannot represent others whose ambitions fit less easily into a patriarchal world.

I once confessed to a friend that I wasn’t very ambitious.  She immediately contradicted me: “Yes you are; you’re ambitious about your life,” she said.  Our concept of what it is to ‘achieve’ or ‘succeed’ has been appropriated by a consumerist system, which operates in a patriarchal framework. To step outside this system in any way you’ll need a very good sense of your goals and how you want to achieve them. My friend’s reassurance has sustained me for a decade

As someone with strong maternal feelings, my objectives have been to look after my children at home and to make sure that, for the fleeting time that they were growing up, I was engaged with and available for them. All hail the feminists who allowed me the freedom to become educated, choose my partner, control my fertility, and have an equal say in how our family was run. Where this freedom is curtailed, however, is in the arena of ‘achievement’ and its equivalence with success in the world of work.

I’ve only ever encountered respect between women whose maternal feelings led them to make differing choices about working and parenting. The so-called ‘Mommy Wars’ are a divisive concept invented by the media to weaken women’s resolve about their choices and it diminishes us all.  What is real, however, is the fact that women in positions of power (and therefore making decisions which affect us all) be they in the board-, the newspaper- , or the cabinet-room are, by the very nature of the fact that they’ve arrived in those positions, likely to have less strong maternal feelings- meaning they’ve delayed or avoided motherhood, and most likely outsource childcare. That’s fine – there’s room for us all – but these women don’t represent all of us. Similarly, to equate full-time parenting with privileged cupcake baking is to dismiss a raft of ambitious, independent women whose strong maternal feelings make them want to invest time in raising their children.

Politically, we’re faced with the choice between childcare minister Liz Truss who accuses two year olds of ‘wandering around aimlessly’ and shadow minister Lucy Powell who depicts caring for children as a ‘barrier to work’; in politics, if you are not a woman in the workforce you simply do not count, and if you’re not a child in childcare you’re unproductive before you’ve even started school. Female politicians who take stances like these progress the furthest in the existing system; it understands and approves of such capitalist concepts, and getting women into work ticks the box marked ‘equality’. This is something Cherie Blair lifted the lid on when she admitted that she was so intent on “beating the men at their own game” that she didn’t take maternity leave. “It is only now looking back that I realise I wasn’t beating the system but reinforcing it,” she wrote.  By contrast Marie Peacock, who campaigns on behalf of full time parents, finds that when she is occasionally present at parliamentary meetings about childcare, introducing concepts of ‘love’ into the discussion is regarded as a weakness at best, an irrelevance at worse. Maternal feelings are not welcome, but why is that?

Sheila Rowbotham has long rejected the commodification of human relationships and maintains that capitalism and sexism are so closely linked that the only way to destroy both is a radical change in our ‘cultural conditioning’. Voices like those of Rowbotham and Ecofeminist Vandana Shiva, who argues that an obsession with growth has eclipsed our concern for sustainability, justice and human dignity, need to be heard if all women are going to be equally represented in public life.

Mel Tibbs is a freelance writer and maternal feminist, with 14 years spent at the sharp end of the politics of parenting. Find out more @CrunchyRedApple.

If you enjoyed this article and want to meet other feminists like, and unlike, yourself, join Feminist Times as a Member. Join us and support the building of an incredible feminist organisation and resources like this website.

Image credits: Theresa May – UK Home Office, Sheryl Sandberg – Drew Alitzer for Financial TimesKarren Brady – John Morris, Elisabeth Murdoch – Nordiske Mediedag

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Profile: Mothers at Home Matter

When it comes to the word ‘mother’, it’s all too easy to be labelled. Are you a working mother or a stay at home mother (SAHM)? Is that a question about income, professional status or how much time you spend cooking and changing nappies? The question is too black and white and ignores some all-important nuances. In real life, a part-time working, taxpaying mother may have more time available for cooking than her friend down the road described as being a SAHM, whereas some SAHMs may well have a small income from home-based employment and a partner who shares care. Things aren’t always as they appear. Some working mothers may not financially depend on paid work to put food on the table, and others would really rather be at home full-time. Similarly, few stay at home mums could be described as earth mothers and many struggle with care responsibilities due to lack of support and recognition. Most people just get on with life best they can and their actual circumstances do not always reflect their choices, values or whether they feel equal.

Our campaign, Mothers at Home Matter (MAHM), was set up over twenty years ago, not to inadvertently collude in divisive and often misleading stereotypical labelling, but rather to challenge mounting social and economic pressures on all mothers to access uninterrupted paid employment and paid childcare, rather than devote some time to caring for their children at home. We don’t believe it’s possible to measure a person’s worth or contribution only by assessing how long they’ve engaged in economic activity or whether they earn enough to pay tax. We reject the temptation to ‘label’ people, as most parents dip in and out of work, responding to real-life challenges and depending on children’s individual needs – not to mention other pressures such as health, income levels, changing employment opportunities and unexpected events. It’s not what you do at any particular moment in time that matters, but rather what you’ve done looking back over a lifetime, and hopefully that’s involved some work and care, and you’ve been valued and treated equally in both roles.

It’s regrettable that media coverage of women’s issues often divides women rather than bringing them together, often referring to school-gate rivalry, which is merely a distraction from the policies we try to challenge. Within Mothers at Home Matter we know our campaign attracts a wide range of women with different experiences and ideas. We are not affiliated to any political or faith group, and it’s just as well because it wouldn’t reflect the diversity of our membership. Some of us may describe ourselves as ‘feminists’, whilst other people haven’t found time to engage and some reject it outright, perhaps believing that feminism hasn’t been interested in supporting mothers to nurture their children. Motherhood is universal and children’s needs do not change. But it’s a fast-changing society and there’s less and less time for caring. Are we changing the very nature of human beings by denying people time to learn and engage in caring, whether it’s children, the elderly or the neighbour down the road?

One of MAHM’s strength is in our diversity. People who write to us talk about very different backgrounds, experiences, professional lives and household income levels, as well as numbers of children, marital status and work patterns. What brings them together is a belief that mothers’ voices are not being taken seriously and that it’s all too easy to be invisible in the system when caring for dependents at home. They are ignored because what they do doesn’t ‘count’ in GDP, although they know that it’s the one of the most important jobs in the world and if it wasn’t done it would cost the state billions to step in with more formal replacement care. There’s growing unease about the commercialisation of care and an instinct that children deserve a more natural, gentler start to childhood. The language of policy lets mothers down, depicting motherhood as somehow ‘retrograde’, whilst juggling work and family is a ‘progressive’ model. A puzzle then that having a dad at home is deemed by some to be a ‘modern’ choice. Same job, different label; one is celebrated, whilst the other implies you are downtrodden and demoted.

Yet many mothers find motherhood immensely satisfying and liberating. There’s a sense of disbelief that when women’s groups have campaigned for so long for equality, motherhood itself continues to be devalued and sidelined in policy and endless barriers put in the way of nurturing your child. Child benefit is constantly under threat and fiscal policies discriminate against couples with a parent at home so that the ‘one-wage’ family is expected to pay more tax on the same household income than another couple using childcare. There is effectively a penalty on care and family time and the main losers are women. Taxpayer funded subsidies are directed at commercial transactions in childcare but not to support family life. Meanwhile, working women often find employment in the care sector where they continue to be underpaid and undervalued while simultaneously denied the opportunity to care for their own children.

Mothers at Home Matter seeks to provide support for mothers who feel they’re somehow out of step by being at home. Whilst some parents have a voice in policy by virtue of their employment in journalism, research, politics and other professions – where their opinions are regularly sought and valued – their equally hard-working sisters at home find they have no reliable outlet for expressing their views. It’s vital that professional ‘gatekeepers of information’ do not deny other women a voice and the opportunity to campaign for a level playing field where all roles are respected as part of the family life cycle.

We applaud campaigns for decent employment opportunities for women, equal pay, access to education, more part-time work opportunities around the school day and other feminist campaigns in the UK and further afield, but MAHM questions why we can’t also have a more honest debate about motherhood and how much the role of ‘caring’ means to a lot of us. Surely progress, equality, choice and a decent standard of living for all women means an end to mothers at home being ignored, and the same goes for fathers at home. How can it be ‘progress’ if babies as young as three months are increasingly likely to spend most of the day away from both their parents?

A MAHM volunteer recently took part in a live BBC debate about women’s lives, motherhood and equality. They debated these questions: ‘’Is motherhood a barrier to equality?’’ and ‘’Can women escape their biological imperative?’’ As one mother commented: ‘’Actually, economics just needs reforming to ‘include’ motherhood and factor in the time we all need to care for one another, young and old.’’

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Equal Pay Day: women working for free

Today is Equal Pay Day, the point in the year when women will effectively be working the rest of the year for free because of the gender pay gap. According to Fawcett Society statistics, for every £1 a man takes home, a woman takes home only 85p – despite the Equal Pay Act being introduced more than 40 years ago. Maria Miller, Gloria de Piero and Natalie Bennett sent us their responses.

Maria MillerWomen and Equalities Minister Maria Miller said:

“Women are vital in building a stronger economy and we need to make sure we are making full use of their talents. We are making good progress – we have record numbers of women in work and the gender pay gap is closing, but we know there is more to do.

“Transparency is key to this, which is why pay secrecy clauses are now unlawful under the Equality Act and we are encouraging companies to sign up to our voluntary initiative Think, Act, Report, to improve gender equality at work. This approach is working with more than 130 companies signed up. This Government is committed to ensuring there is a cultural change around women in work and that cultural change is happening.”

Labour MP PhotocallShadow Minister for Women and Equalities, Gloria De Piero MP said:

“It is simply not good enough that forty years after the Equal Pay Act women still don’t earn equal pay for equal work, and despite doing better at school and university more women end up in lower skilled and lower paid jobs than men.

“We’ll never close the pay gap until we challenge the stereotypes which lead to gender segregation in occupations and take action to support women progress to the top of their professions, such as affordable childcare and tackling maternity discrimination too.

“But on David Cameron’s watch decades of progress for women is slipping backwards. Women are paying three times more than men to bring down the deficit, and with female unemployment reaching its highest levels for a generation we need a Government that will deliver a recovery not just for a few at the top but one that works for women. Because the whole economy loses when women’s talents and skills are under-valued and under-used.”

Natalie BennettGreen Party leader Natalie Bennett said:

“Equal pay day is a reminder that we still lack the tools to provide for full workplace equality for women. There are two main issues – “women’s work” being attributed lower value, and women having less opportunities to advance in the workplace. To deal with the former, medium and large companies should be obliged to conduct gender pay audits, and joint suits for equal pay made easier.

“In terms of advancement, the Green Party is calling for the highly successful Norwegian system of 40% quotas for the membership of boards of major companies to be instituted here, for greater opportunities for part-time workers, both female and male, and for a shared system of maternity/paternity pay.

“We also need to tackle the broader issue of our low-pay economy. Making the minimum wage a living wage, enforcing the minimum wage (a particularly huge issue for social care workers, of whom more than 80% are female), banning zero-hours contracts and tackling the forced casualisation of jobs, particularly in the retail sector are all essential steps to ensuring that all workers, but particularly lower paid women workers, are paid a fair wage. Saying that a job should pay you enough to live on is not a radical statement.”

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Smoke from the vatican

How do you become… the UK’s first feminist prime minister?

In light of the news that David Cameron is now “a feminist”, we use our regular “How do you become…?” feature to take a look at how he smashed the glass ceiling to become our first feminist prime minister.

Like Sir John, Mr Cameron was privately educated from a young age, before starting at the prestigious Eton College at the age of 13. After acing A-levels in History of Art, History and Economics with Politics, Cameron took a gap yah long before gap yahs were trendy, working as a researcher for Conservative MP Tim Rathbone (his godfather) before spending time in Hong Kong and the Soviet Union.

To fulfil his political destiny, Cameron then moved on to the University of Oxford, where he studied the unlikely choice of Philosophy, Politics and Economics. This is believed to have been a formative time for Cameron’s feminist politics, particularly as a result of lively debates on gender performativity and intersectionality with his Bullingdon Club chum Boris Johnson.

After graduating with a first and a newfound passion for the works of Shulamith Firestone and Mary Woolstonecraft, Cameron began work in the Conservative Research Department. He then worked his way up through the Tory Party ranks, as a party strategist and then a SpAd, before taking a break to briefly turn his hand to the media, working for Carlton Communications.

Following his election as a Conservative MP, Cameron was on the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, before becoming a Shadow Minister and then the party vice-chairman. Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party in 2005 and, following the 2010 general election, achieved his ambition of prime minister.

A passionate advocate of “equal rights for women”, as we all know, Cameron quickly put his feminist politics into action, pledging that one in three of his Ministers would be women by the end of his first term as Prime Minister. True to his word, Cameron graciously put five women in his first cabinet, alongside 17 men. That’s almost one in three, right?

Having made this promise, Cameron used the 2012 reshuffle to promote two new women – Maria Miller and Theresa Villiers. Admittedly that was only after firing three others, but he wouldn’t want to look too much like a radical feminist. The backbenchers would brouhaha in the streets, and just think of all that womanly hysteria at cabinet meetings. There’s only so many times you can tell your senior ministers to “calm down, dear” – far safer to go for a manageable four out of 22.

Following his shock “I am a feminist” revelation last week, David Cameron used his most recent reshuffle to promote a number of women up the ministerial ladder – not into cabinet minister roles, of course, we’ve still only got four of those. These promotions, generously described as a “move towards more women in cabinet” included Esther McVey, who was promoted from Disabilities Minister to Employment Minister.

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Power and glory

Power and the glory seekers

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So says Lord Acton and anyone who’s ever had a conversation about power since. But is it true? Perhaps power attracts the corruptible? Or maybe it’s only the weak of mind that bathe in solid gold bathtubs and douse children in sarin gas.

“Power is like nuclear energy, it can be used for good or evil,” says Professor Andy Yap, unafraid of melodrama. Yap is Postdoctoral Associate and Lecturer at MIT. He studies power and teaches MBAs to our future great and good. “Power is going to influence you and you won’t even be conscious of it.”

Some of the world’s worst cock-ups could be said to be caused by individuals who allow power to inflate their egos to Hindenburg proportions. Consider the Iraq war, the banking fiasco, Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance. Somewhere in the debris stands at least one swivel-eyed loon whose rampant self belief has caused misery to rain down on countless millions.

Yap has scientific proof that power can distort the way a person views the world. In one of his experiments Yap found that people who were manipulated to feel powerful underestimated the size of those they had met that day, “When someone feels powerful, they tend to perceive others are less powerful than themselves and their expectations of what a powerless person would look like influences how they view others”.

Does this mean Obama imagines he’s tripping over hoards of Borrowers every time he leaves the White House? Perhaps the reason hasn’t closed Gitmo because he thinks it’s an Oompa Loompa colony. It’s the only excuse I’ll accept.

Joe Magee is Associate Professor of Management at NYU. His research revealed that people made to feel powerful were less good at remembering or conceiving information that might stand in the way of their goals.

“It’s not a willful ignorance,” explains Magee, “It’s this idea that there’s an actual change in the way they see the world. That’s what power does to people. Powerful people seem to act as if they don’t have the same constraints on their behaviour as people with less power. They’re freed up to act on their own desires. The consequences are going to depend on what their desires are, and what motivated them to get power in the first place.”  That’s the riddle of Berlusconi solved then.

So the next time you’re marveling at the balls-out courage of a powerful risk-taking friend or colleague, pause to think, it may not be that they’re particularly brave and daring, the poor love might not have noticed the gaping pitfalls that deterred everyone else.

“The scandals that have plagued a number of U.S. politicians, such as being caught in bed with prostitutes, are an example of this,” explains Magee “Their focus is on the reward and they disregard the downsides, such as getting caught. They don’t think it’s going to happen”.

Magee’s research shows that people in power have problems seeing the world from any perspective but their own, “High powered people are less likely to take the perspectives of less powerful people. There’s a negative relationship between power and perspective taking”. In one experiment subjects were asked to draw the letter E on their foreheads. Those who were in positions of power drew the E as though they would be reading it. Those with less power drew the E so that anyone looking at them would be able to read it. A small but telling result.

More alarming is the study that revealed that the most powerful groups in an experiment tended more towards unethical behaviour, such as willingness to exploit others, aggression and dishonesty, along with the group with the least power and fewest options.

Lord David Owen knows a thing or two about power, having held posts such as Navy Minister, Health Minister and Foreign Secretary; he’s now an independent cross bencher in the House of Lords and he has a theory.

“The Hubris Syndrome is an acquired personality change,” says Lord Owen carefully, “I’m interested in people you elect or appoint as leader, CEO or Chairman, who appear normal but once in power, seem to change. This is much more common than people realise. It seems to be driven not by outside factors but from within the individual”.

To have the syndrome a person must present at least three or four out of a group of excruciatingly unflattering symptoms, such as: a narcissistic propensity to see the world as an arena in which they exercise power to seek glory; a predisposition to take actions which cast them in a good light; a disproportionate concern with image so that presentation becomes more important than substance; a messianic manner of talking; a tendency to talk about oneself using the third person, or the royal we; excessive confidence; exaggerated beliefs; a certainty that you’re accountable only to history or even god; the unshakeable belief that  you will be vindicated; restlessness; recklessness and hubristic incompetence. Sound familiar?

Lord Owen reminisces about his dinners with Tony Blair, “It was December ’98 and it was very relaxed, we talked about the Euro and what to do about Iraq, we could discuss almost anything. Then in 2002, when he had made his mind up to go into Iraq, we had another dinner, it was very noticeable that there was not much of an exchange; he was very different. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but driving back in the car my wife said to me, “He’s Messianic,” It was a very accurate description.”

People with the Hubris Syndrome can become dangerous if left unchecked. “These people make very bad decisions, they don’t really care about or bother to find out about the technicalities or the difficulties, they intervene for presentational reasons,” Lord Owen warms to his topic, “That’s the only way to describe why both Bush and Blair landed us all in this appalling mess. The military actually conducted the invasion quite successfully, it was the absence of any planning that for the aftermath, the feeling that they were all going to be treated as heroes or liberators, the refusal to listen to the military who warned them of the dangers of insurrection, who warned them there weren’t enough troops, but they ignored all this because they had a certainty about it. The aftermath was not an accident, it was a feature of their personality.”

David Cameron hasn’t escaped Lord Owen’s keen gaze. “I think he better watch it,” he warns. The fiasco of the Syrian debate – too fast, not heeding warnings, sticking the American agenda – all smack of someone treading the path worn by Blair, “There are warning signs there, but I would say he has not yet got Hubris Syndrome.” Take two doses of humility per day, dear leader, and you might just catch it before it becomes malignant.

Lord Owen, who is also a neuroscientist, thinks chemical changes involving dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline are involved in the syndrome. He’s set up a multi disciplinary initiative, The Daedalus Trust, to raise awareness of the affects of power on those who exercise it.

“Such out of control egos, high risk and reckless behaviour, arrogance and contempt for others have disastrous consequences,” reads the Daedalus Trust website, “Economic value is destroyed, careers are ruined, great ideas and institutions are subverted and lives are lost in unnecessary conflicts”.

Philip Augar used to head up Schroders investment bank and now writes about finance. He’s known many bankers in his time, “There’s a tendency for people in power to want to talk to people who agree with them and consequently they close out radically different voices,” he says, “They like people they feel comfortable with, they don’t really like people who challenge accepted wisdom”.

Joe Magee is in agreement, “If you surround yourself with like-minded people you’re going to reinforce the tendencies that being in power already brings.”

It seems the only way to prevent yourself from becoming a crazed megalomaniac is to surround yourself with dissenting voices and alternative perspectives, in other words, really annoying people you’d give a wide berth in your social life.

Curiously, Lord Owen identifies women as being less likely to develop the syndrome, Margaret Thatcher being one blistering exception. He needs to meet some of my friends.

So, does power corrupt? Hell, yes. But it can be dodged. If you find yourself being carried around the office in a sedan chair, then I suggest you give yourself a slap and hire some fearless souls to tell you it’s not really dignified to wear a crown to the office, that slapping your subordinates in the face with leather gloves could get you into trouble, and that hiring a groom of the stool would probably be frowned upon.


Rachel Salvidge is a freelance journalist specialising in the environment, with a background in book publishing. Find out more @RachSalv.

Illustration by Miranda Sofroniou: www.mirandasofroniou.com

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Smoke from the vatican

How do you become… Lord Chief Justice?

As Sir John Thomas takes up the role of Lord Chief Justice, we take a look at his unusual and surprising route up the career ladder to find out how you too could become Lord Chief Justice.

A public school boy, Sir John was educated at Rugby School before taking the unpredictable step of studying at the University of Cambridge, like his predecessor Baron Judge.

To pursue his legal career Sir John travelled to the University of Chicago where he gained a Juris Doctorate, before being called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn.

A high flyer, Sir John became a Queen’s Counsel in 1984, working his way through the legal ranks as a Recorder and then a High Court Judge. On becoming a High Court Judge he was awarded the customary knighthood and assigned to the Queen’s Bench Division, following in the footsteps of the departing Baron Judge.

Sir John went on to become a Lord Justice of Appeal and (as is customary) was appointed to the Privy Council as one of the Queen’s advisers.

He served as the Senior Presiding Judge in the Court of Appeal, before becoming president of the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary.

Sir John subsequently became Vice-President of the Queen’s Bench Division and Deputy Head of Criminal Justice, before upgrading to President of the Queen’s Bench Division.

After all that hard work, Sir John must have been surprised when, in July this year, he was asked to become Baron Judge’s successor. With 108 men filling the role since the year 1234, he may have been worried that a woman might finally take her turn.

Fear not Sir John, the mighty task of leading our judiciary remains a firmly male domain. We’re sure you’ll settle in very quickly.

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