Conflict among feminists isn’t new, but in ‘We need to talk about process’ Emma Stonebridge asks if it’s time for a new conversation about it.
Conflict among feminists isn’t new, but in ‘We need to talk about process’ Emma Stonebridge asks if it’s time for a new conversation about it.
At T&S we think it’s important to keep making connections between past feminist struggles and those of the present.
This autumn there’s been a lot of media debate on affirmative consent policies on college campuses. They are not an entirely new departure, though: here‘s an interesting article in which former student Bethany Salter remembers the pioneering consent policy adopted at Antioch College in Ohio in 1990, and reflects on the differences between then and now.
Debbie Cameron went to Antioch in 1993 and reported on the policy for T&S: you can read her article in our archive
Once we had ‘isms’, now we have ‘phobias’. Is this just a trivial terminological detail, or does it have a deeper political significance? In her article, Minding our language, Debbie Cameron considers what’s in a name.
Carol Ackroyd reviews Julie McNamara’s Let Me Stay, a play that challenges our attitudes to people living with dementia
Let Me Stay is a 50-minute, one-act, one-woman show, performed by playwright Julie McNamara, with two performances recently at Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank. It is billed as a love letter from Julie to her mother who lives with dementia: ‘………a celebration of life and love; a homage to Shirley McNamara, Queen of the Mersey’.
‘I have watched my Mother drifting away from me’, says Julie. ‘But I have to acknowledge the sorrow is mine. She is quite happy. Quite honestly Shirley’s having the time of her life!’ The play unpicks Julie’s efforts to keep her mum close and continue to know her through her changing persona. My friend Liz A’s description of a ‘poetic response to a much-needed sisterhood of mother-daughter chaos’ sums up the play’s feminist sharing of love and support for her mum conducted through surreal conversations and real-life frustrations.
Julie’s theatre company Vital Xposure aims to ‘engage with hidden voices with extraordinary stories to tell from people on the periphery of our communities’. The play has been written using her mother’s words and with involvement from her mum: ‘Thank you everyone – my audience – thank you for coming. I’ve had a very long career. Julie is my lover’s daughter. No, my daughter’s lover. No…yes. Thank you all! I’m a star’.
Director Paulette Randall makes great use of Julie’s ability to transform her character seamlessly from her own, questioning, doubtful or wicked self, into her bossy, cantankerous, boisterous or unsettled mother, the Catholic priest or middle class social worker. She keeps the flow through constant changes of mood and tempo.
Shirley enters the set blowing kisses, issuing personal greetings and ‘thanks for coming’ to random members of the audience. In a restaurant she hugs and greets the other diners, pinching and patting their cheeks to make them feel loved and welcome. At a formal ceremony where Julie is getting an award, Shirley arrives dressed in old gardening clothes and takes on the role of hostess, swiping champagne from the waiters, and explaining to a bemused reporter that she never knew Julie’s father. It’s a beautifully observed, loving and very funny account of how Shirley, living with dementia, has found ways to reinterpret her world and keep herself, as she has always been, centre stage.
Libby Watson’s set reflects the play’s theme. It consists of bare space with chair, part-encircled by white boxes stacked, somewhat haphazardly, to form a screen. Onto this screen is projected a slide show of faded and blurred monochrome images of Shirley’s past. Fragmented by the box-screen, the images appear, trigger a new partially understood thought, and disappear with a click. From time to time, the sign language interpreter appears to be a useful prop and gets briefly drawn in. It is a good metaphor for a mind becoming stripped of meaning and purpose, pulling in new interpretations.
Perhaps this play is in part a response to those ageing feminists whose longstanding preoccupations with patriarchal and corporate power structures sometimes seem at risk of being replaced by fear of personal decline and, in particular, of dementia. Alzheimers seems to represent a particular terror to many of us. Maybe it’s time to reassess these fears, and understand them as a manifestation of our own prejudices. Disabled people have long insisted they don’t want a ramp at the back of the building – they want accessible buildings as the norm. We may have begun to understand these physical or sensory access needs, but as a society we’re a long way from recognising what this means for people with dementia.
Each time we express frustration and impatience with someone in a queue taking time to find the right change, or don’t step in to help someone who’s struggling to manage, we make their lives a bit harder and reinforce and perpetuate their exclusion. Throughout the developed world we do this so effectively that we’ve managed to all but exclude people with dementia, as well as those with learning disabilities, from most public spaces and activities. Generally they are hidden at home with carers, mostly family, mostly women. Whenever they do appear in the outside world, they need an escort, a guard, since the rest of us can’t be trusted to look out for people with impaired cognition.
This play proposes an alternative. When football supporters in the pub join the frenzied chants of the crowd on the overhead TV screen, Shirley hears them chanting ‘Shirleee … Shirleeee ….. Shirleeee’ and turns to thank the pub crowd for her rapturous reception. Julie concludes that if you can’t beat them, she may as well join in the chanting : ‘Shirleee….’. Let Me Stay starts to consider what it means to be the same person when so much has changed and been lost. By finding threads and continuities and constancies of character, and working with these, Julie maintains and develops her relationship with her changing mother. It ends with Julie supporting and coaxing Shirley to sing along with her ‘let me stay, let me stay in your arms’.
The play doesn’t tackle the harshest realities of dementia – either the immense frustration, distress and fury experienced by many people with dementia struggling to understand or manage things that used to be effortless, or the mirror distress of relatives and friends, mainly women, managing a seemingly impossible and never-ending caring role, with minimal or no recognition or support. Nor does it address care services based on minimum wages with no recognition of the skills required to support someone with these impairments to lead a fulfilling life. These are brutal truths about dementia, but not what this play is about. Rather, it concerns our own, societal, attitudes to dementia, and challenges us to understand that our prejudices are just that, and are not inevitable. A world where the crowd is indeed calling ‘Shirlee ….. Shirlee …..’ as an expression of love and support is not impossible. The play is enormous fun, beautifully performed, and it makes you think. If you get the chance, go and see it.
‘From picket line to picket fence’, a quote from the back cover of Julie Bindel’s new book Straight Expectations, is a good indication of the content, style and tone of the book, in which she laments the decline of the gay liberation movement, with all its creative political resistance, in favour of assimilation and complacency. In this book she takes issue with gay marriage, the commercialisation of gay life-styles, and the lack of political solidarity amongst more privileged gays in the UK (those who have experienced a sea-change in attitudes towards homosexuality), with gays and lesbians internationally who face ongoing oppression and persecution. We here publish two extracts from the most controversial chapter in her book, Is It Something in the Genes?, in which she argues that gays and lesbians are ‘not born that way’, an argument which will be welcomed by most lesbian feminists, and readers of T&S, for whom the social construction of sexuality has long been a central plank of our politics (see the archive section for numerous articles on this subject, for example: Stevi Jackson Taking Liberties, or Deborah Cameron’s Old Het? ).
Nature or nurture?
The ‘nature versus nurture’ question has been bothering scientists, religious fundamentalists, parents and gay people themselves for over 100 years, with the first scientific study into the issue being published by the experimental psychologist Evelyn Hooker in 1956, and it was indeed her pioneering work that helped to establish the fact that homosexuality is not a mental disorder.
It is still a hotly debated subject. In July 2007 the New Statesman ran two articles on the topic in its ‘Gay Special’. One was by a gay man who had converted himself back to heterosexuality, and the other by a gay man who had spent two decades trying and failing to do the same, both with the ‘help’ of the anti-gay Christian conversion movement. The former argued strongly that being gay is a choice, the latter equally strongly that he was ‘born that way’.
For anyone vaguely liberal, it is persuasive to think that gay people are ‘born that way’, appealing to basic principles of tolerance, while reassuring the majority that support for minority rights will not impinge on their own prerogatives – that is, the need and desire to uphold the status quo. It reassures people more won’t choose to jump ship from traditional society. It is also about believing that gay people cannot help the way we are and therefore should not be on the receiving end of prejudice.
The positive side of the nature, or essentialist, argument is it allows some gay people surviving in a hostile environment not to have to feel responsible for their actions and desires; it can mean that heterosexuals having difficulty coming to terms with a loved one or colleague who is gay can rest assured that it is not catching; and for those who make the laws, policies and rules, thinking that ‘gayness’ is an inherent condition means that any sanctions against it are pointless.
The flip side of this is that those young men and women growing up in a hostile environment who do not wish to pursue a straight life and feel dissatisfied with their lot are being fed the line that some people are born gay and some straight, and that biology is most certainly destiny when it comes to sexual orientation. The nature line also gives the impression to bigots and sceptics that no one would actually choose such a lifestyle, and that everyone who is gay just can’t help it, otherwise they would be straight.
Obviously, the argument that being lesbian or gay is a choice gives the bigots an opportunity to argue that we should be made to live a straight life. After all, goes the logic, if one can choose to be gay, then one can choose to be heterosexual. However, it’s unlikely that any bigots will be reassured by the fact that some of us insist we are happily and proudly choosing being gay or lesbian over heterosexuality, even if it does mean more potential candidates for conversion therapy for them. Anyway, since when did a proud liberation movement allow its enemies to define the terms of the debate?
I have always believed that pushing nature over nurture plays straight into the hands of anti-gay bigots. By arguing that we are born this way, gay men and lesbians do not represent a challenge to the status quo. A gay gene is, by implication, something that is not really supposed to be present, and so to adopt this theory means that we are accepting that heterosexuality and straight folk are normal and we are outside of that, looking in.
When I argue that for me, being a lesbian is a positive choice rather than something imposed upon me by a quirk of nature, I am roundly criticised and viewed with suspicion. I have been accused of being a fake lesbian, a cold fish and of appropriating the term ‘lesbian’ to further my man-hating, anti-heterosexual agenda.
I made a conscious and happy choice to be a lesbian and reckon that when we have less anti-gay bigotry, more people will be free to do so. But when I use the word ‘choice’, I don’t mean in the same manner that you choose your cereal. Rather, I am suggesting that if we were not under such extreme pressure to be straight, and if we did not fear the inevitable prejudice and bigotry, we might be more open to falling for someone of the same sex.
In November 2012 I gave a speech on this very topic at the Free Thinking Festival in Gateshead, Newcastle, which was later broadcast on Radio 3. It was entitled ‘Not Born That Way’, and I argued that sexuality was a choice and not inherent, and that much of the science claiming to have discovered a gay gene was weak and had proved nothing. Following my speech, which was in front of a live audience, several heterosexual women and men approached me and told me that I had significantly challenged their beliefs – all had, prior to the event, assumed that sexuality was innate and therefore fixed and static. They all said that my arguments made sense to them, and that they had only ever heard anti- gay bigots suggest that gay people ‘choose’ their sexuality.
I abhor the bigoted view that promotes the notion of a cure for being lesbian or gay. My position is that if something is not a sickness or disease, there is no need to find a cure. I came away from the event feeling pleased that I had opened up some people’s minds to the possibility that being lesbian is such a positive alternative to heterosexuality it is good enough for some of us to choose it.
Yet clearly not everyone thinks this way. Why has so much time and effort been invested in discovering a cause for being gay or lesbian? So parents can decide whether to abort? Or is it because the majority of people cannot get to grips with the fact that bigotry and prejudice are the problems that need solving, and we do not need a cure. All the comments us lezzers have endured over the years – such as ‘you don’t you know what you’re missing’ – come from the mistaken belief that batting for the other side is a disadvantage. Actually, a lot of us know precisely what we are missing. That is the point.
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How beliefs about sexuality have changed over time
Despite the domination of the ‘born that way’ theory these days, it is interesting to note that it is a relatively recent phenomenon and has only become prevalent in the last couple of decades. In her 1999 book Generations of Women Choosing to Become Lesbian: Questioning the Essentialist Link, Australian academic Lorene Gottschalk interviewed three different generations of lesbians on whether or not they believed in biology. Gottschalk found that those who became lesbians in the 1970s believed they chose their sexuality, but those who became lesbians in the 1990s thought it was biology. More evidence that what we’re talking about is a set of fashionable ideas, rather than something that has a scientific basis.
Certainly, starting in the 1950s to the 1960s and 1970s, social constructionism was fashionable among scientists and academics generally. In 1968, for example, British sociologist Mary McIntosh wrote a wonderful piece entitled ‘The Homosexual Role’, which argued that the idea of the homosexual was constructed to keep the rest of the hetero-patriarchy safe: as long as they separated it out and said it was biological, everybody else was OK.
It seems, therefore, that gay sociologists were questioning the notion of innate sexuality as far back as the 1960s and 1970s. And before this time it was fashionable to believe that turning out lesbian or gay was all down to the parents: for men, an emotionally distant father or stifling mother; for women, an under-emotional mother and father, who took her to the pub often due to the absence of a son.
But by the 1980s this began to change and the idea of the gay gene (or, as anti-gays refer to it, ‘gay germ’ – homosexuality transmitted as some sort of infection) was born. Work began in earnest the following decade to try to track down the elusive gene. Such research was often perceived as pro-gay because it presented homosexuality as something that could not be freely chosen. However, biological accounts continued to describe gays and lesbians as somehow ill, deficient or imbalanced, and to suggest that heterosexuality was the norm.
The GLF, as evidenced in its 1971 manifesto, spurned the idea of a gay gene. But today we have an almost 180-degree shift in thinking. I asked Peter Tatchell, who was a member of the GLF, his views on the debate.
‘My argument at the time [of the GLF] was: “Let’s not play fast and loose with the truth. Let’s stick to the principle that the right to be different is a fundamental human right. We don’t have to be the same to get equal respect; we shouldn’t have to be the same to get equal respect and equal rights.” In this period there was very little evidence that gave any biological credibility to the coordination of homosexuality. A much more plausible explanation was the Freudian one that everyone is born with bisexual potential and that homosexuality is part of the natural spectrum of human sexuality. My view at the time was: “What causes homosexuality or heterosexuality is irrelevant; we are human beings and we deserve human rights.”’
In recent years, however, Tatchell’s views have shifted towards believing in a genetic or biological basis of sexual orientation, as he argues that the science is now more advanced. He believes that there is a ‘genetic component to sexual orientation’ and that there is ‘some significant influence from hormones in the womb’. He continues: ‘I say that as someone in the past who in the absence of this research was very sceptical about the biological factors having anything other than a small marginal influence, but I think over time the evidence has grown. However, I don’t believe it is the whole story, only part of it.’ Indeed, he retains an essential clarity as to the reason why so many people wish to argue in favour of the ‘innate’ argument: ‘I think there was really this kind of desperate sense to make whatever appeal might work. It was all about sympathy and appealing to people’s conscience regardless of the facts or the truth.’
The idea of being born gay has always seemed bonkers to me. I don’t know about you but I was born a baby, not a lesbian. At least, I don’t remember fancying the midwife. But perhaps my holding such strong and contrary views on this topic is partly because of the fact that I was exposed, while still in my teens, to the radical but commonsense position of some feminists on sexual preference – ie that it, like gender, is a social construction.
These feminists, living in the West Yorkshire city of Leeds, subscribed to the theory of political lesbianism that came from the early US feminists such as Jill Johnson and Adrienne Rich. In 1981 small group of them had written the infamous booklet Love Your Enemy? The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism and Political Lesbianism. It reads: ‘All feminists can and should be lesbians. Our definition of a political lesbian is a woman-identified woman who does not fuck men. It does not mean compulsory sexual activity with women.’
Appealing to their heterosexual sisters to get rid of men ‘from your beds and your heads’, the authors of Love Your Enemy? called for all feminists to embrace lesbianism. ‘We think serious feminists have no choice but to abandon heterosexuality,’ the manifesto reads. ‘Only in the system of oppression that is male supremacy does the oppressor actually invade and colonise the interior of the body of the oppressed.’
The message of Love Your Enemy? immediately provoked a strong and often negative reaction. While some radical feminists agreed with the group’s arguments, many went wild at being told they were ‘counter-revolutionaries’, undermining the fight for women’s liberation by sleeping with men.
The publication of Love Your Enemy? was one of the first times that the notion of sexuality as a choice had been publicly raised in the UK women’s movement. Many feminists considered sexuality purely a matter of personal desire, and the idea that lesbianism could be a political decision was perceived as ‘cold-blooded’. Heterosexual women tended to believe that one did not choose sexual orientation or feelings, but was overcome by them.
I learned from the feminists that, to them, lesbianism was a choice that women could make, not a condition we are born with. ‘All women can be lesbians’ was the mantra. I loved the sense that I had chosen my sexuality. Rather than being ashamed or apologetic about it, as many women were, I could be proud and see it as a privilege.
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Julie Bindel, Straight Expectations: What Does it Mean to be Gay Today? (Guardian Books, London, 2014)
For some current commentary on the book, see:
Review by Rosa Bennathan in Bad Housekeeping Magazine
Review by Alex Hopkins in The Huffington Post
Interview with Julie Bindel by Patrick Strudwick in The Independent:
In Oxford there’s been a sustained feminist campaign against The Lodge, a ‘gentlemen’s club’ on the edge of the city centre. T&S talked to two of the campaign organizers, Louise Livesey and Beth Penfold, about the successes, the setbacks and the lessons we can learn.
Drawing on the experience of three generations of feminists, Miriam David’s new book Feminism, Gender and Universities reflects on the difference higher education has made to women’s lives, and on the difference feminism has made to higher education. Here she talks to T&S about the past, present and future of feminism in the academy.
T&S: In your introduction you point out that there are lots of histories of feminism and the women’s movement, but not much work looking specifically at the history of feminism in the academy. Why did you feel that was an important story to tell?
Miriam David: I believe that feminism is an educational project as well as a political project, in the broadest sense of ‘educational’. I wanted to show how important learning has been to women, and how transformative in terms of their/our social and sexual relationships. I also wanted to show how feminist knowledge – the basis for feminist activism – has developed apace in higher education, universities especially, and how this has facilitated campaigning and social change.
T&S: You asked the women who participated in your research a number of questions about how they became feminist academics. How did you become a feminist academic yourself?
MD: I first became involved in the women’s movement in London in the late 1960s, after graduating from Leeds University in sociology, and becoming a researcher at various colleges of London University. I had been involved in socialist movements in my teens, and continued until I began to experience political campaigning around issues such as abortion and birth control through the women’s movement. After a year in the USA in the early 1970s, I went to Bristol University as a lecturer in social administration and quickly became involved in the women’s movement there. It was an incredibly active and vibrant time with campaigns for the working women’s charter, including equal educational and employment opportunities, birth control and abortion on demand. We also began to develop courses, but mainly outside university walls rather than for undergraduates. It was one of my first PhD students who convinced me to use the term ‘feminist’ proudly, since hers was a feminist study of birth control in the 1920s and I had to defend her use of the term to an assembled Academic Board. From that moment, I became a feisty feminist academic concerned with policy and politics.
T&S: You divide your research participants into three generational cohorts: women born before 1950, women born between 1950 and 1965, and women born after 1965. What were the similarities and differences among the cohorts?
MD: The first cohort (my cohort), nowadays known as second-wave feminists, tended to be political rather than purely academic, whilst developing feminist scholarship and knowledge. The second cohort tended to develop feminist knowledge and learning through their interaction with other feminist scholars on campus, often at the postgraduate and doctoral stage; the third cohort learned their feminism from undergraduate courses in women’s studies and their social interactions with other feminist academics and colleagues. These are fine distinctions, though, as the vast majority felt passionately about being feminist pedagogues – teachers and learners – and how feminism had transformed their lives.
T&S: In the early years a lot of feminist knowledge-making and knowledge-sharing went on outside universities—you mention institutions like the WEA and Ruskin College, but also specifically feminist initiatives like Women’s University Without Walls and the Bristol Women’s Studies Group which you were involved in yourself. Have these ‘alternative’ spaces become less important because feminism is now part of the academic mainstream?
MD: Yes, to some extent feminism has become incorporated into the conventional structures of academe, and especially as part of a scholarly and research culture. There is much less of a counter and campaigning structure than in the past, but that is also because of the countervailing changes towards neo-liberalism, marketization or commercialisation of universities.
T&S: There’s a perception that academic feminism used to be closer to the concerns of feminist activists in the ‘real world’. Today’s feminist academics are often criticized for being preoccupied with a kind of theory that’s irrelevant and incomprehensible to anyone outside the academy. What do you think about that argument?
MD: It’s both true and not true. In the last few years there has been a resurgence of a more politically aware feminism in academe with projects around everyday sexism, sexual harassment and abuse, and engaging with feminisms in schools, contesting sexualisation and sexting in an increasingly pornified society, and doing training work with teachers and youth workers around violence against women and children.
T&S: Fifty years ago, only a small minority of people had any access to higher education, and women were a minority of that minority. Today women are an overall majority of students in UK universities, and that statistic is sometimes cited to argue that gender inequality is no longer an issue. In the book you’re very critical of this idea. What problems do you think women face in universities now?
MD: There has been an increase in overt misogyny on campus both directed against students and academic staff. For instance, the culture of ‘laddism’ is pervading campuses and needs to be addressed, given increases in sexual harassment. Secondly, feminist academic staff are subject to sexist and discriminatory practices, as ever, and including in leadership and management. There is a pressing need to change ‘the rules of the numbers game’, directly confronting patriarchy and misogyny in university leadership.
T&S: The idea that equality can be measured just by counting heads is part of a more general trend towards managerialism and target-setting as universities become integrated into the global, neoliberal order. How has this affected the position of feminism in universities?
MD: Adversely, as feminist academics are not routinely included in any ‘metric’ or performance indicators and feminist courses and curricula are subject to early closure. And the ethic of academic freedom seems to have been lost in this melee of figures.
T&S: What do you think feminists in the academy should be fighting for now?
MD: Feminists still need to fight for women’s rights in the academy and the world, for an end to patriarchy and misogyny, and especially violence against women and girls whether symbolic or ‘real’. Having a vision of a feminist-friendly world and feminist places and spaces enables one to imagine a better world: one in which women are treated with the same respect, reverence and inclusion as men.
Becoming a feminist, becoming an academic: stories from three generations
Feminism, Gender and Universities draws on the life-histories of more than 100 feminist academics who participated in Miriam David’s research. We’ve picked out some short extracts from the accounts given by three women of the paths they took to feminism and to academic careers.
The first generation: Sandra Acker
In one sense I was always a feminist. I did not see why my mother, who was so intelligent, was a housewife and devoted to her children (us) without directly using her education. My parents encouraged all of us to do well in school and go on to higher education and into careers (though we were also to get married). I think my first exposure to feminism per se was reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which I loved. However, I can’t remember when I read it. I think it must have been when I was at graduate school, not undergraduate. The late 60s were such a time of upheaval and feminism came along with student protest and civil rights and anti-Vietnam protests. Students formed CR groups and I belonged to one of them. It was exhilarating …
I think I have approached most of my scholarly pursuits through the lens of feminism – both research and teaching. I also have a feminist way of looking at relationships, family, media, and everyday life. I have never been an activist in the usual sense but have tried to change people’s thinking through my teaching and writing.
The second generation: Heidi Mirza
I went to an all girls’ school in Trinidad, which was quite high achieving in a gendered way. High achieving girls didn’t mean careers for girls, it meant good wives for husbands! The school was started up by my grandmother about thirty years before I had gone there. So there was a tradition of education among the women in the family. My aunts in Trinidad were all teachers – so there were strong female “role models” in my early life – but they lived very traditional lives in a very patriarchal culture. Growing up in Trinidad I was very influenced by the black power movement in the early 70s – I remember seeing Angela Davis on the TV speaking confidently to crowds and raising her hand in a black power salute. I thought she was amazing. We had an attempted coup on the island – black power was an empowering political vision and a crucible for my postcolonial/black feminist thinking.
When we came back to England in 1973 we lived in Brixton and I went to the local school. The racism there was incredible.I was determined to show the teachers and the girls in the school that I was as good as them, if not better. And that’s what really drove me to do quite well in my O and A levels. I do think I was racialized before I was feminized! That came later at university when I got married. It was so important to get a place at university that was funded! I think if it weren’t a free place at university I would never have gone! There was this whole expansion of education in the late 70s, there was a grant system. If I was growing up today I would not have that chance. It was an opportunity that was there for everybody. Higher education was being opened out for the working classes, and for girls as well, and it was seen as a natural progression.
When I graduated … it was very racist times in the UK, with the National Front in its zenith. It was very hard to get a job and on top of that I had a young baby. I had got a first for my dissertation so I sent off to Goldsmiths College sociology department and I got an ESRC quota award in 1981. This amazing opportunity changed my life! My PhD thesis was a small-scale ethnography of young Caribbean girls like myself in a London school. Because of my experience I wanted to write about the interplay between career choices and educational structures. So in a way the thesis was about my own life, it was a process of exploring the practices of racism and exclusion which I saw around me. Young Female and Black became a best-selling book with Routledge. It was a cathartic thing to see it in print. I am amazed it did so well. At the time it was very exciting for me … [but] there was a lot of sexual harassment of young women students by male lecturers in universities … a group of women academics … got together to speak out about their transgressions … but … no one would … risk everything … At least as women we felt some safety in numbers and found common ground and solace with each other. … My life chances shaped my feminism which then spilled over into my academic development.
The third generation: Fin Cullen
I was born in the 70s in Lancashire. The second of four kids, and the only girl…I was first-in- the-family to go to university. I saw university as an escape. I chose one as far as I could from the family home and saved all summer. After leaving home at eighteen, I never returned during holidays, and spent the vacations in the university city working as an office worker, a security guard and an usherette to fund my studies …
I became a feminist probably from the age of ten or eleven. By the age of twelve, I was writing to the editors of the now defunct Shocking Pink magazine asking to contribute. My father [a policeman] intercepted a missive from the radical feminist collective (based in a squat in Brixton) which somewhat thwarted my early dream of feminist journalism. By fifteen I was organizing a debating society at my school, on themes such as “Should page 3 be banned” and by eighteen I had read Valerie Solanas, Andrea Dworkin, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, and happily introduced myself to a local feminist library … The feminist library and community centre in the large city I moved to was a bit of a shock to me as a small-town teenage feminist. I met women there who described themselves as “political lesbians” and afraid that I might be found out for dating a boy, I promptly had my hair cropped short, wore dungarees and big boots. …I tried to “pass” as gay throughout my first few years at university, fearful that my heterosexual relationship might somewhat destabilise my “authenticity” as a “true” feminist.
Of course, as my feminism developed it became more nuanced. I read more widely and peculiarly, it was my retreat from activism that gave me the space and air to deliberate and explore in a more thoughtful manner a broader range of issues from personal and sexual ethics, societies’ attitudes toward sex and women’s bodies, attitudes towards porn, to women’s position in the labour market… My professional background is very much tied up with the history of identity politics and an interplay between the theoretical, my practice and my activism is entirely possible.
My feminism for the most part has been largely self-sustaining. I grew up knowing few feminists in “real life”. Those I knew were in books, or by the time I reached my teens in the few feminist youth workers, and teachers I came across. My family have at various times been bemused, confused, irked, ashamed, surprised, and amused by my feminism. I think they saw it as a phase – a bit like dyeing your hair pink, when I was in my teens. My mother is of the “second wave” generation, but the women’s movement if it indeed ever indeed reached our town – didn’t seem to have made much of a splash in our circle. I do wonder what might have happened if my mum had attended a CR group rather than a Tupperware party in the lounge of a friend in the mid-70s … I like to imagine a more content life, although I am not sure feminism makes any of us more “content” …
Miriam David’s Feminism, Gender and Universities: Politics, Passion and Pedagogies is published by Ashgate Press in July 2014 (details available here). Thanks to the author and publisher for permission to reprint extracts from the book.
Attachment parenting, mommy blogging, hipster homemakers and urban homesteaders…Delilah Campbell reads a book about the new domesticity.
Emily Matchar, Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity (Simon & Schuster, 2013).
Back in 2001, I wrote an article for T&S about the ‘new domesticity’– a sudden revival of popular interest in the art of keeping house. Knitting was back in vogue, and cleaning was the subject of a popular reality TV show. Nigella Lawson published a book entitled How To Be a Domestic Goddess, and a rash of glossy magazine articles featured women who had given up their high-powered careers to concentrate on full-time homemaking.
Thirteen years later, it’s clear that this was not just a passing fad. Cath Kidston, the queen of retro household accessories, is a global brand; the Great British Bake-Off is a national institution. University students have formed branches of the Women’s Institute. And the new domesticity is also big on the other side of the Atlantic, where according to Emily Matchar, the return of the full-time housewife is a genuine trend. Her book Homeward Bound is an attempt to investigate what’s behind this phenomenon, and to ask what it might tell us about the times in which we live. She thinks it has a lot to tell us: ‘Our current collective nostalgia and domesticity-mania’, she argues, ‘speak to deep cultural longings and a profound shift in the way Americans view life’ (4).
Whatever happened to Betty Friedan?
Homeward Bound was published in 2013, exactly 50 years after another book–Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique–helped to propel an earlier generation of women out of the kitchen and into the workforce. The main audience for Friedan’s denunciation of the 1950s cult of domesticity was white middle-class women with college degrees. And it is women from this same demographic who are now moving back into the home. Not surprisingly, Matchar wonders what’s behind this reversal: why are these young women voluntarily embracing a role their mothers and grandmothers were desperate to escape from?
One major reason is the state of the economy. Since the financial meltdown of 2008, un- and under-employment have been serious problems for the young adults of ‘Generation Y’ (born between the mid-1970s and the 1990s). Many find themselves drifting through a series of unpaid internships and unfulfilling temp jobs; even if they find jobs with more security and status, the conditions which are common in US workplaces (80-hour weeks, no statutory maternity or sick leave) make no accommodation to the desire for ‘work/life balance’, or the practical needs of women with children. Rather than ‘leaning in’, these women are opting out.
For some of the homeward bound, another important motivation is concern about the future of the planet. In their search for more sustainable ways of living, some of today’s hipsters are following the earlier example of the hippies by going back to the land (though not, it seems, to set up communes: these days it’s more about the small family farm). Others have adopted the practice of ‘urban homesteading’, where the aim is to live self-sufficiently or ‘off the grid’ in the city or the suburbs. A related trend is the growth of anxiety about what’s in our food (pesticides? E Coli? horsemeat?). The new middle-class ideal is to avoid industrially produced food by cooking from scratch with seasonal, local ingredients. Even if you don’t aspire to grow your own produce, this approach to feeding a family demands significant time and effort.
Matchar sees these worries about the environment and food as part of a more general distrust of authority and ‘the system’ which extends to all kinds of public institutions. Home birth and homeschooling are both on the rise, especially among the white middle classes. There is also a new enthusiasm for time and labour-intensive forms of childcare, like ‘attachment parenting’ (a rather creepy phenomenon which I’ll come back to later on).
Another factor Matchar mentions is the attraction of low-tech, DIY lifestyles for people who grew up in the digital age. It’s true that the new domesticity celebrates traditional, pre-industrial modes of production, but to me it is also striking how heavily the lifestyles described in the book rely on access to digital technology. Social media, in particular, have transformed the experience of being at home: they’re a major reason why today’s housewives do not experience the isolation, alienation and lack of recognition which their 1960s counterparts found so oppressive. All the women Matchar interviewed were involved in online networks; some spent several hours a day at their computers.
Is domesticity the new feminism?
If Matchar’s first question is about the larger social forces that are driving the new domesticity, her second is about its sexual politics, and how today’s domesticated women relate to feminism. The ones she spoke to were certainly critical of a particular kind of feminism: the kind espoused by their own mothers, women who had heeded Betty Friedan’s advice and put their energies into their careers. But they denied that they were anti-feminist. On the contrary, a number of them claimed to be more authentically and radically feminist than the overstressed career-women who raised them.
Matchar explains this by invoking the distinction between liberal, equal rights feminism and what she calls ‘cultural feminism’. The women she talked to were cultural feminists: they criticized their mothers’ liberal feminism for putting ‘male’ values (like money and status) above ‘female’ ones (like taking care of others), and for devaluing women’s traditional skills. Some felt that by relearning the skills their mothers had rejected, they were reclaiming a rich female cultural heritage.
I don’t like the term ‘cultural feminism’ (which I’ve never heard any woman use to describe her own politics), but what Matchar describes using that label has always been one strand in feminism, and up to a point (the point at which it becomes mystical, essentialist bullshit) there is something to be said for it. In my ideal feminist world there would certainly be a shift in values as well as in the distribution of wealth and power. In this world, however, there are some serious problems with the claim that the new domesticity is a ‘feminist’ movement.
The political economy of the new domesticity
The first problem is economic. Almost without exception, the women Matchar talked to were dependent on a male partner’s wage to pay the rent and the bills, and (this being the US) for access to health insurance. Betty Friedan may have seen paid work as a source of personal fulfilment, but for most early second-wave feminists its importance had more to do with financial independence and autonomy/equality within heterosexual relationships. Women needed to earn money, among other things, to avoid being dependent on a man who might walk out on them, or who might abuse them. Those were not rare scenarios then, and they are not rare scenarios now. Yet Matchar’s subjects seemed not to have considered what they would do if their relationships broke down and they were left to fend for themselves.
This may be because they didn’t see how limited their economic options really were. The new domesticity has spawned its own market economy, and many women imagine that they will be able to use that to generate an income. It is possible, for instance, to make money from blogging about your domestic life: a popular blog with a large number of followers can attract advertising revenue, commercial sponsorship and—in exceptional cases—very lucrative book or TV deals. There’s a whole meta-industry of courses and conventions for women who want to break into this business. But in reality it’s an overcrowded market: a few ‘mommy bloggers’ have become rich and famous, but the majority, even with sponsorship, do not make enough to live on.
The same goes for the other main route through which the new domesticity can be ‘monetized’, which is selling your handicrafts on websites like Etsy. Etsy is a globally successful business started by three hipster dudes (i.e., men). They provide the (virtual) retail space, and in return, the makers/sellers (the vast majority of whom are women) pay them commission on every sale. It’s a business model that works well for the site-owners, but the only way for women to make more than a pittance is to collude in their own exploitation by working extremely long hours. Betty Friedan compared the 1950s suburban home to ‘a comfortable concentration camp’; some of the new urban homesteads where women have set up businesses making jam or soap or baby clothes could be likened to comfortable sweatshops.
No such thing as society?
The ‘alternative’ market economy Matchar describes seemed to me very much in the entrepreneurial capitalist spirit of the late Margaret Thatcher. Mrs Thatcher is a guiding spirit in another way, too: it was she who famously declared that there was no such thing as society, only individuals and families. As Emily Matchar observes, the new domesticity puts that principle into practice, offering small-scale, privatized solutions to large-scale social problems like environmental degradation, corporate greed, unfair working conditions and the dearth of affordable, decent-quality childcare. And as she also says, the result is a vicious circle. The more individuals and families assert their right to do their own thing (grow their own food or home-school their own children), the less likely it is that there will be collective pressure for changes which would benefit everyone—including or especially those who can’t afford to go down the DIY route. This rejection of collective politics and social solidarity is another respect in which the new domesticity is anything but feminist.
In some cases, the right to do your own thing clearly conflicts with the interests of the larger community. An example is the opposition to vaccination which has become widespread among middle-class devotees of attachment parenting. In some areas the number of parents refusing vaccination has decreased overall ‘herd immunity’ to the point where there have been major outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough. When that happens, it’s the poorest children who are most likely to die or suffer serious complications. But the anti-vaccine parents feel no obligation to other people’s kids. What they demand is the right to do what they believe is best for their own.
Some of the beliefs espoused by Matchar’s interviewees suggest youthful idealism (‘I don’t want to work for the Man’/ ‘I want to live lightly on the earth’) and naive optimism (‘my husband/boyfriend will always support me/ ‘my kids will always need me’) rather than overtly reactionary political ideologies. But with the anti-vaccine crusaders we begin to see a darker side: what Matchar calls ‘cultural feminism’ meeting up with religious and/or right-wing extremism. On her travels around the US, Matchar found hipster homemakers rubbing shoulders with evangelical Christian or Mormon women who believed their roles were ordained by God, and self-sufficient urban homesteaders finding common ground with ‘preppers’—survivalists preparing for Armageddon, whose political views are so right-wing (think hardcore gun nuts, conspiracy theorists and white supremacists), they make the Tea Party look like, well, a tea party.
Perhaps the most significant of these peculiar political alliances has formed around the practice of attachment parenting (AP), an approach to child-rearing developed by the paediatrician William Sears. Dr Sears is a Christian fundamentalist who advocates the submission of wives to husbands; but this has not prevented his ideas from becoming popular among liberal and hipster parents (including lesbian and gay couples), and getting public endorsement from high-profile media celebrities (the late Peaches Geldof was a British devotee).
The AP approach demands total responsiveness to the needs of your developing child, and it clearly reflects its inventor’s ultra-conservative gender politics. In the first six weeks Sears maintains that mothers should be with their infants 24/7; thereafter, babies should be carried in a sling, sleep in their parents’ bed and be breastfed for an extended period. They should not have fixed schedules for eating or sleeping, and they should not be left to cry even for a few minutes. This makes childcare an all-consuming task, and in Sears’s view it is ‘natural’ for that task to fall to the mother, who alone is biologically equipped with the instincts it demands. And this doesn’t stop as the baby gets older: AP also maintains that ‘natural’ is best when it comes to weaning (commercial baby food is poison, so it should all be home-made), toilet training (use cloth nappies or no nappies), and education (kids should learn at their own pace, about whatever they want—so the answer is home-schooling with Mom as the teacher).
You wonder how all these intensively attached, 24/7 career mothers are going fill the 30+ years after their kids leave home; but in the meantime, what you mostly wonder is (a) how women whose own parents did send them to school can believe so much crap, and (b) how liberal/hipster types can manage to ignore who else, apart from their babies, they’re getting into bed with.
A new feminine mystique
In 2001 I was ambivalent about the new domesticity. I still think some aspects of it are harmless (if you want to make pastry or knit socks, be my guest), and some of the impulses behind it are arguably quite progressive. We should all be more concerned about the environment, and we should all recognise–as feminists have always done–that caring for other people is essential work which no society could function without. Overall, though, reading Homeward Bound has made me feel that any positive aspects of the new domesticity are more than outweighed by its reactionary elements.
What’s particularly problematic about it from a feminist perspective is its underlying ideology of gender: it assumes that caring for others and saving the planet are women’s responsibilities rather than everyone’s, and that they are best done (or can only be done) within the traditional, patriarchal family. This is what enables the liberal/green/hipster version of domesticity to coexist so comfortably with the religious fundamentalist version. Both buy into traditional views of masculinity and femininity, and both affirm the doctrine of ‘separate spheres’, which says that women should exercise their authority in the home while men have power in the wider world.
It’s depressing that this idea has proved to be so persistent, but perhaps it should not surprise us. The ‘separate spheres’ arrangement, unequal though it is, has some appeal for women living in patriarchal societies. At least it gives them one undisputed sphere of influence, a domain where they can rule without anyone questioning their right to be in charge.
But in addition to reproducing patriarchal attitudes and structures, this arrangement has a toxic effect on women’s relationships with each other. The domesticated woman may not compete with men for status, but since she isn’t, in reality, a modest self-effacing angel, she competes instead with other woman on the terrain of domesticity itself. We see this in the endless hostilities between full-time homemakers and ‘career women’; we see it in what daughters say about their feminist mothers (and vice-versa—a lot of women told Emily Matchar that their mothers disapproved of them ‘throwing away’ their educations and career prospects); we see it in a particularly ugly form when middle-class attachment mothers judge poorer women as ignorant and negligent because they don’t breastfeed for years or make their own organic baby food.
There is also the issue of mothers’ power over their children. One woman who had given up attachment parenting told Matchar she thought it appealed to some women because it legitimized their desire to have total control, shutting out both the father and outside institutions. Homeschooling extended that monopoly into childhood and adolescence. This kind of maternal control is the acceptable face of female power, since it is presented as ‘natural’, and as self-sacrificing rather than self-aggrandising. But radical feminists like Christine Delphy have argued that it is oppressive: children should not be treated as women’s personal property any more than women should be treated as the property of men.
The return to domesticity does show up a lot of things that are wrong with the societies we live in (and the USA is not alone here), but it is not the radical alternative movement its supporters claim. Neither the fact that today’s women are embracing it by choice, nor the idyllic portrayals we encounter in the media, should prevent us from seeing it for what it really is: a 21st century ‘upcycling’ of the feminine mystique.
When a UN expert’s report identified serious shortcomings in the UK government’s approach to violence against women and girls, the media coverage reduced her careful analysis to a debate on whether Britain was ‘the world’s most sexist country’. Sarah Green explains how this kind of distortion happens—and how feminists can use the media more effectively to get their message across.
Rashida Manjoo, UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, made her first ever mission to the UK in April. At the end of an intense two-week tour she produced an authoritative analysis of the state’s key systemic failings on VAWG. News channels, radio stations, blogs and the next day’s newspapers reported this as… ‘Is Britain the world’s most sexist country?’ If you knew anything about VAWG policy and practice in the UK, and if you’d seen Ms Manjoo’s statement that day, you might well have found the headlines bizarre on one level and infuriating on another. How did it happen?
Media: just part of the patriarchy?
It’s easy to say that the news media, especially the ‘traditional’ media—commercial newspapers and commercial/public broadcasters—are as much a scene of white male privilege and resistance to women’s liberation as the ‘free’ market, the state, much public space and the private sphere. And there are plenty of facts which back that up. There are fewer women than men working in journalism; women face discrimination and the glass ceiling which keeps most of them out of positions of influence as editors, controllers, directors and commissioners. Women are also under-represented as media commentators and guests, especially Black and working-class women. The point is also demonstrated by the media’s daily perpetuation of misogynistic myths about women as workers, mothers, lovers and survivors of violence, and of racist-sexist stereotypes about Black women; by the retailing of porn in national newspapers; and by the failure to investigate and report on women’s lack of equality. We might conclude that the news media are bastions of patriarchy: why would we expect them to convey an analysis of the state’s failure to protect women in the UK?
I believe however that the truth is more complicated. The media can be oppressive, but they can also offer feminists a precious platform.
The contemporary media industry is compelled to search endlessly for ‘product’ which is new, entertaining and comprehensible to the target audience. Sometimes women’s equality stories suit these needs. From Roger Graef’s exposure of the shortcomings of police rape investigations in 1982 to ITV’s broadcast of the Savile victims’ stories in 2012, investigations by TV current affairs programmes have sometimes created change. Newspapers have run committed campaigns on women’s equality issues at national level, such as the Daily Mirror’s 2005 campaign for the UK to sign up to the European Trafficking Convention, and locally the Carlisle News & Star’s 2013 campaign to prevent the closure of its local Rape Crisis centre. As I write this, Nigerian women and their supporters are using the media, in all its forms, to force a response to the kidnapping of their daughters.
The industrial production of news
To understand what happened to Rashida Manjoo, it helps to know something about the production regime in contemporary British newsrooms. That regime is intense: ten years ago a reporter might have been given days—or at least one day—to investigate and produce a story, but today if you flick through a newspaper you will see the same journalist’s byline several times. There have been enormous cuts in the editorial departments of commercial newspapers and broadcasters over the last few years. This is related to the consolidation of global media groups (like the Murdoch empire) which increase their profits and ‘competitiveness’ by squeezing labour costs, just like most other industries. It’s a wonder journalists are not yet on zero hours contracts! (I suppose freelancers are.) Fewer people are doing more work; in journalism this means less time to research each story, and less time to meet and develop contacts. The result has been a worrying decline in specialist expertise.
The same is true of comment. Retained columnists and outsiders can be asked at 3pm for 1,000 words of analysis on a breaking story by 5pm. It can be done, but it’s obvious that such tight deadlines reduce the opportunities for fact checking and talking to different people. But if you turn an assignment down you are taking a risk; the same ‘reliable’ names are used again and again.
Press conferences are less a feature of the working news day than they used to be. It’s simply harder to get reporters to leave their desks. They are more ‘efficient’ on the news assembly line if they are at a desk doing internet and phone based fact checking. If you’re not the PM, think seriously before investing in a press conference; if you really must, do it at 8 or 9am with a free breakfast so media workers can catch it on the way into work.
Broadcasters have an additional emphasis on sound and picture quality, and a need for guests and visuals, needs which can work to the detriment of time spent on story research. It’s a cliché to talk about the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle, but actually this can’t be overstated: there is constant pressure to fill airtime. Online news, live blogs on big stories, constant comment and sharing, all need feeding. In itself this is not necessarily a bad thing—more people than ever before can be constantly in touch with global events—but the way news production is organized means that many smart, sharp journalists who are committed to the public interest spend their time processing news nuggets for us at speed (think beefburgers). If you are a supplier of news, your line had better be clear and easy to grasp (digestible, to continue the beefburger metaphor, but not necessarily fortifying).
The public relations industry ‘packages’ news before it reaches journalists. There are acres of critiques of PR as a profession, but in the context of fewer reporters, working intensively on the churn of the daily news cycle, a ready-made news-burger is perfect. Press releases are literally cut and pasted into newspaper/wire/broadcast script copy. I was amazed and delighted the first time I held in my hand a clipping from a local paper which looked exactly like a news report and was my press release word for word. At national level the news media are served not only by press releases but by pre-briefing (face-to-face or on the phone) before a story is published, and by helpful arrangement of accompanying statistics and case studies by the interested actor in the story (the Government, a business or a charity, for instance).
How it happened: some mechanics
All this helps to explain why the UN Special Rapporteur was so misrepresented: why her considered statement turned into a debate on whether Britain was the world’s most sexist country, even worse than Saudi Arabia.
First of all, it seems that Rashida Manjoo might not have pre-briefed the press on what she was going to say. Given their limited resources, the news media have come to expect advance briefing as a matter of course. Stories and reactions are generally at least sketched out the day before and commentator guests are provisionally booked in. In the organisation where I work we are commonly asked to produce a response to Government statistics which have not yet been published (the press supply them to us) and booked to comment on stories which are still under embargo until the next day.
Secondly, at her press conference (which I didn’t attend), Ms Manjoo read out her nine page statement, and it’s possible she didn’t give a steer at the beginning, middle and end as to what the ‘topline’ should be. Her analysis is of course thorough, authoritative, expertly annotated, reasonable, comprehensive. It is no doubt a good basis for an ongoing dialogue with Government. But if it’s going to be communicated, by a journalist with multiple deadlines, to a student listening to the radio in the shower in Edinburgh, a mum watching the early evening TV news bulletin in Birmingham, and a commuter reading Metro on the London tube the next morning, it needs a shape, a digest, a key message.
And then comes another irony. It’s much harder to get the press pack to a press conference than it used to be. If you do manage to get them there and then you don’t provide a steer by pre-briefing, or in your statement, they are still going to need a story: unless it’s a furious news day, in which case you’ll just be dropped, they’ll have to get what they need by taking the best ‘nuggets’ from the Q&A.
Predictable questions for a visiting global expert might well include – ‘is the UK best or worst then?’ Anything with a superlative is good, as are comparisons with known ‘hotspots’ (‘is it as bad as Saudi Arabia?’) If the discussion starts to shift towards the visiting expert’s opinions, rather than a straight factual report of her findings, it will need to be shaped into something the listener/viewer could also have an opinion on, which further sucks away the depth. Lots of people will have a view on levels of sexism based on their own life experience and reporters are in tune with this; but most people can’t take a view on whether Britain’s provision of specialist services is adequate because only a very tiny minority would have any idea of what that provision is. The expert might resist the superlative question – is the UK the worst then? – and try to nuance it with references to an ‘overtly sexualised culture’, but this is likely to be lost in more popular outlets and as the story gets relayed through the wires. What happened in the hours following the press conference was classic media cannibalism: first a couple of outlets wrote it up as being all about sexism, and then lots more piled in.
This became a story ‘with legs’, running for more than two days as news channels debated with guests, Newsnight gathered a panel, and commentators used it to crucify the UN or to propel strong progressive arguments on UK culture. It’s a really interesting case study which shows there is an appetite among journalists and editors for news stories which assess VAWG. It also shows, however, that the press has come to expect pre-briefing and gets a bit panicked without it. Press conferences need to follow press release rules, and steer strongly from the outset to a reasonable headline for readers/viewers; if there isn’t a strong news ‘line’, the press pack might just create its own.
The importance of engaging
I worked in the press office at Amnesty for many years and I saw how different countries and different institutions have different approaches to dealing with the media. I saw UN agencies take a very formal, hands-off approach, which should in many ways be applauded because it is less open to cronyism, fraud and worse than the matey style you sometimes find between press and PRs in the UK. I have enormous respect for the UN Special Rapporteur and her office. I am also pretty cynical about the practice and growth of PR at the expense of impartial, investigative journalism.
But—just to throw a bit more fuel on the fire –was this episode really a bad thing? There was actually quite a lot of media coverage (which is positive on the principle that ‘the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about’). Much of it was infuriating in its dismissal of the notion of Britain being super-sexist. But there was smart stuff too. And many feminists joined the debate, from Laura Bates on Newsnight to End Violence Against Women’s Liz McKean debating Edwina Currie (‘what harm is there in a little groping’) on Sky News. Lots of women, and men, will have heard that debate, and while some will have half-heard ‘some UN nonsense’ and turned off, others will have been pricked by an apparent authority citing Britain as sexist. For many women it will have been meaningful. Serious aspects of Ms Manjoo’s findings were not entirely missed: the Government’s refusal to let her visit Yarls Wood was covered in some depth.
Feminist understandings of VAWG have been under intense media scrutiny since the Jimmy Savile revelations began in October 2012. Although it is challenging and wearing, it is essential that we are engaged. It has been heartbreaking to have to oppose again and again the calls for rape defendant anonymity, which we know is extremely regressive and based on misogyny. But when I did a high- profile interview debating the opposing view last year, I was unexpectedly warmed, lifted, touched and re-inspired by the dozens on dozens of Twitter messages I received immediately afterwards from women who had seen it – and who had just really wanted to see a feminist in the debate, putting across why anonymity is wrong. Media audiences include thousands of survivors. They want and need to hear us. I wholly endorse Liz Kelly’s recent use of a BBC Woman’s Hour interview to at one point cut through the presenter and speak directly, on live national radio, to survivors who were listening. Let’s never defer to media, let’s take it and do this with it.
Being on the front foot
I think that as a movement we are growing more confident in holding the media to account through regulators and the law. We’ve done it with the police and other parts of the state for years, why not the media? The feminist organizations Eaves, Equality Now, Object and EVAW have been involved with the Leveson Inquiry on newspaper conduct since it began in late 2011. They submitted compelling evidence about the way some newspapers uphold harmful VAWG myths, and later published a report illustrating this with examples. All continue to push for a complaints mechanism that works for women and will allow feminists to challenge misogyny on a permanent basis and show editors that it won’t pass scrutiny.
Similarly, young Black women led the charge against sexist-racist music videos from late last year in the Rewind&Reframe project. As well as challenging music industry culture they have been getting complaints in where they can (to the Advertising Standards Authority and the media regulator Ofcom) and pressing for age restrictions online. EVAW will soon produce a media complaints hub to make it easier to complain to the right media authority when nasty media portrayals of women appear – they anticipate #marywhitehouse hashtags but do not care!
We need to have more conversations about getting a variety of feminist commentators into the news media in response to stories. We are many, and among us we have know-how and contacts. And we need to keep talking about the ethics of survivors being used as case studies by the media, including how we can promote alternatives and better practice when it does happen.
I was in a lecture recently where the idea that trafficking is organised crime was challenged – the empirical evidence shows it’s more accurate to look at it as ‘disorganised crime’. To a large extent, in my view, the media is a comparable case. It’s not a monolithic reinforcer of patriarchy, but a chaotic, mostly commercially-driven one, with lots of cracks and holes. If we don’t use its platforms, we can’t create social change.
Sarah Green works in the VAWG sector and as a freelance media consultant. Find her on Twitter at @sarahthegreen
On May 1, International Workers’ Day, we highlight a couple of classic T&S pieces dealing with women’s experiences of work and the workplace. In ‘Don’t ask her, she’s just the cleaner‘, Norah Al-Ani recalls working for £10 a week in a job that’s still underpaid, disrespected and mostly done (whether for wages or in the home) by women. In ‘Bully for Men’ Deborah Lee weighs in on an issue that’s still very much with us: sexual harassment–or should that be sexist harassment?–at work. The struggle continues…