In ‘You Are Killing Me': On Hate Speech and Feminist Silencing, Jane Clare Jones examines what’s behind the claim that radical feminist critiques of gender are a form of transphobic hate speech.
In ‘You Are Killing Me': On Hate Speech and Feminist Silencing, Jane Clare Jones examines what’s behind the claim that radical feminist critiques of gender are a form of transphobic hate speech.
As the General Election looms, Debbie Cameron wishes people would stop talking nonsense about women doing politics differently.
Last Wednesday on The World at One, the BBC’s Martha Kearney interviewed two politicians about their parties’ newly-launched manifestos. The first interview was a bit of a gladiatorial contest, with the participants competing to set the agenda. Though Kearney cut in frequently in an attempt to stem the flow, she was often defeated by the time-honoured tactics of the experienced politician—raising the pitch and volume of your voice and continuing to say what you came to say, whether or not it’s an answer to the question you were asked. There was a lot of simultaneous speech, and at times it got quite heated. But the interviewee stayed on-message, and ultimately in control.
The second interview was different. It began as a polite, almost stilted exchange, with none of the overlap that is normal in conversation. The interviewee allowed Kearney to direct the proceedings, waiting for her to finish each question before starting to speak, and sticking to the terms of the question. At times the answers were rather halting, but Kearney showed no impatience. A few minutes in, though, she asked a question which elicited some obvious waffle. At that point she did interrupt: her guest tried to keep going, and the exchange turned into something more like the first interview, with both speakers raising their voices and talking over each other. The interviewee became increasingly flustered, and struggled to respond to Kearney’s challenges. If you judged it as a contest, then Kearney won on points.
If I asked a random sample of people to tell me who they imagined these interviewees were, most would probably say that they imagined the first one as a man and the second as a woman. If I asked them to explain their reasoning, they might point out that men are generally more assertive and less intimidated by adversarial situations; they tend to take up more speaking time, and they frequently interrupt and talk over other people, especially when those people are women. Women, by contrast, are less assertive and more supportive, more respectful of others’ speaking rights and more attentive to their contributions. They don’t typically enjoy verbal duelling, and may not perform well in situations that demand it.
These differences between men and women have been a recurring theme in the 2015 election campaign. The campaign has been a multi-party affair: neither of the main parties is expected to win the election outright, so more attention than usual has been given to the smaller parties they may have to rely on for support. Three of those parties are led by women: the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. Their profiles have been raised by their appearance in televised debates, and it is widely agreed that they have performed well. Many positive comments have focused on their style of debating. ‘Look’, people say approvingly, ‘these women are showing us that political debates don’t have to be competitive shouting matches. They’re listening to their opponents rather than constantly interrupting them. They’re not just hurling insults or trying to score points, they’re engaging constructively with the arguments. How civilized! What a refreshing change! Let’s have more women in politics!’
For some of us this is déjà vu all over again. In 1997, when the landslide Labour victory brought a record 119 women into Westminster, we were told that their civilizing influence was going to change the culture of politics and make the House of Commons ‘less of a bear-garden’. Gisela Stuart, the Labour MP for Edgbaston, declared that female politicians were a good thing because ‘democracy is about consensus rather than imposing will’. Over in Swindon South, her colleague Julia Drown opined that ‘women are more co-operative: they’re not so into scoring points and more interested in hearing different points of view’.
As a feminist I am broadly in favour of female politicians. But these observations about their more co-operative, more ‘civilized’ style of speaking make me want to bang my head against a wall. Why? First, because they’re factually wrong; second, because they’re patronising; and third, because the thinking behind them is sexist to the core.
Women in the debates: how did they really speak?
I have struggled to reconcile my own observations of the female party leaders with the comments made by other people on their behaviour. The suggestion that these women’s approach is less adversarial than the men’s—that they don’t compete for the floor or talk over other speakers or try to score points off their opponents—is so inaccurate, I can only understand it as a case of what scientists call ‘confirmation bias’, the tendency to pay attention to things that match our expectations while overlooking things that conflict with them. We expect women to be different from men, so we look for differences and pass over similarities. We think certain behaviours are typical of women, so examples of those behaviours—even if there are very few—get noticed and remembered in a way the counter-examples don’t.
Consider, for instance, one of the most memorable moments in the first TV debate that featured seven party leaders. The UKIP leader Nigel Farage made some racist, scaremongering remarks about immigrants with HIV, and Leanne Wood told him—to applause from the studio audience—that he should be ashamed of himself. This was a highly adversarial move. Wood jumped in to deliver, in tones of unmistakable disgust, a highly effective put-down. Her behaviour contrasted starkly with that of the three male politicians, Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, who were conspicuously silent. She deserved the applause for her guts and her presence of mind. But how can anyone who watched this intervention maintain that women ‘aren’t into point-scoring’? What did her comment to Farage have to do with being constructive or preferring consensus to conflict?
Nicola Sturgeon is seriously into point-scoring. The most experienced of the three women, and for many people the most impressive, she is also the one with the most consistently adversarial debating style. In the second, ‘challengers’ debate (involving five opposition party leaders, but not the leaders of the governing coalition parties), she provided one of the night’s main talking points when she confronted Ed Miliband about his unwillingness to work with the Scottish Nationalists. In this section of the debate it was Sturgeon who took the initiative, forcing Miliband onto the defensive. She did it by issuing a series of challenges, putting him on the spot with a direct command or request (‘tell me, Ed…’ ‘so are you saying…?’). Rather than listening politely to his responses, she rarely allowed him to finish his turn uninterrupted. She repeatedly talked over him, and refused to stop speaking when he did the same to her.
Sturgeon wins points not only because her arguments are good, but also because she doesn’t shy away from attacking her opponents, and she doesn’t give ground when they attack her. She is not only a skilful exponent of the adversarial style, she is also a highly competitive one: there’s no doubt she’s in it to win it. In fact, I would say she’s a more competitive debater than either Miliband or Farage (who comes across as combative because the substance of what he says is often inflammatory, but whose discourse style is actually not particularly adversarial).
Some commentators have pointed out that the women have been very supportive to one another—agreeing with each other’s points, not challenging each other, and engaging in a group hug at the end of the second debate. All that is true, but I think it has more to do with party politics than female solidarity. The women have nothing to gain by challenging one another, because their parties are not in competition for the same votes. The two nationalist parties are only contesting seats in Wales and Scotland respectively, and the Greens are not a serious rival in either territory. On the other hand, they do have something to gain by supporting one another, because the main platform on which all of them are fighting this election is opposition to austerity. So, it makes sense for them to amplify that message by maintaining a united front, and it would equally make sense if they didn’t all happen to be women. Would they show the same supportiveness to women who were not their political allies? I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t: if UKIP were led by a British Marine Le Pen, I don’t think she’d have been invited to join in the group hug.
But we don’t have to speculate here. I’ve already described an extremely adversarial encounter between one of the three female leaders and another woman. Contrary to what you may have assumed, the first of Martha Kearney’s two interviewees, the one who dominated their exchange and resisted Kearney’s attempts to take control, was not a male politician. It was, in fact, Nicola Sturgeon.
You’re all individuals
The second interviewee, the one who initially deferred to Kearney’s authority but then got flustered and defensive when she challenged his waffling answers, was a male politician: he was UKIP’s Patrick O’Flynn. And if your reaction to that is ‘Who?’, you’ve anticipated my next point. It’s always a mistake to treat individual men and women as generic representatives of their gender, and to assume that any difference between them must be a gender difference. In the case of O’Flynn and Sturgeon I think it’s pretty clear that gender is a red herring. The key difference here is experience: Sturgeon has done far more political interviews than O’Flynn, and is therefore a much more confident and skilful performer.
The point that individuals are not generic men and women isn’t just something to bear in mind when making cross-sex comparisons. One reason why it is problematic to talk about a female style of speaking is that female speakers aren’t all the same. Some differences among women are produced by the intersection of gender with other social divisions like ethnicity and class; others reflect variation at the level of individual personality or life experience. It’s true that ‘female politicians’ is a much smaller and less internally diverse category than ‘women’. Even so, it cannot be assumed that they have a single style of speaking. In fact, it’s obvious they don’t: even among the three female party leaders I’ve been discussing there are clear individual differences.
There is a particularly striking contrast between the most experienced of the three, Nicola Sturgeon, and the least experienced, Natalie Bennett. Bennett is more reticent, more formal and less spontaneous; she’s much less inclined to challenge others directly or to take the initiative in the way Sturgeon did with Miliband (or Wood did with Farage). Apart from the difference in experience, the two women have different personalities and are differently positioned in terms of political influence (it’s a big advantage to Sturgeon that everyone expects her party to be a serious force in Westminster after the election; Bennett has no such leverage). The cumulative effect of these differences is large: you would no more confuse their debating styles than you would confuse their hairstyles, or their accents.
But the problem isn’t just that commentators make sweeping generalizations about women. The specific ways in which women are said to differ from men (more supportive and less aggressive, more into consensus and less into point-scoring, etc.) could come straight from the pages of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. These are hoary old gender stereotypes, which in other contexts feminists would decry as crude and sexist. Yet in the context of the election campaign they are being dusted off and trotted out as if they constituted a feminist argument. ‘Look, women are different from men, that’s why we need more of them in politics’. There is an excellent feminist case for equal political representation. So why use an argument whose basic assumption is that women deserve a place because they’re from Venus rather than Mars?
The burdens of civilization
Telling women they’re different, and that in some ways their difference makes them superior to men, has always been one way of consoling them for their inequality and powerlessness. It has also served as a convenient excuse for perpetuating that inequality: women demanding entry to some male-dominated institution can be told that they’re unsuited to it, or too good for it. The latter was a popular argument with Victorian anti-suffragists, who were fond of asking why the angel of the house would want to dabble her pristine wings in the sewer of politics.
At a certain point, when the angel’s demands can no longer be denied entirely, the argument changes tack: women can be allowed in after all, but not simply because they, like men, are people. Rather, because women’s distinctive qualities and ways of doing things are needed to civilize the institution. Like wives putting up curtains in their husbands’ sheds, women in politics, or business, or the Church, will use their feminine touch to smooth off the male rough edges, and everyone—men as well as women—will benefit.
This is exactly what was said about the women MPs who went to Westminster in 1997. Evidently their civilizing mission was not successful: eighteen years later, here we are again. Which, when you think about it, is no surprise: you can’t be expected to change an institution’s culture if your position within the institution is one of structural powerlessness. And the women MPs (or ‘Blair’s Babes’, as the Labour ones were different-but-equally called) were in exactly that position.
It wasn’t just that they were heavily outnumbered, though they were. The linguist Sylvia Shaw, who did research in the House of Commons a few years after the 1997 election, found that the men did not treat their female colleagues as equals, they treated them as interlopers. The women were subjected to sexist barracking when they rose to speak, and sanctioned for breaking the arcane rules of Parliamentary debate while men were allowed to break the same rules with impunity. As a result the women got less speaking time and had less influence in debates. They didn’t struggle with the adversarial debating style of the House of Commons; what they struggled with was the sexism of the men in the House of Commons.
This is another reason why I get angry when people say that women don’t shine as public speakers because the adversarial style doesn’t suit them: they aren’t into point-scoring, they’re not interested in power, they’re natural consensus-seekers who shy away from conflict. This implies that women are unequal in public life because they’re different, when really it’s the other way round. If women aren’t allowed to participate on equal terms, any differences we see are more likely to be effects of sexism than of sex. We can’t know what difference their sex makes until we see how they behave in conditions of sex equality.
That’s what makes the election debates so interesting. They’ve offered a rare opportunity to watch politicians performing in conditions of near equality (in one debate there were four men and three women, in the other three women and two men; all participants had the same status as party leaders; they were all bound by the same rules and had an equal number of pre-allocated turns). And under those conditions what I think we saw was not a male-female stylistic divide. There were differences between individuals, but no clear division by sex.
You might be thinking: but surely there are good feminist arguments for a less adversarial style of political discourse? I’m not sure I agree. I do agree that some of the conventions and rituals of Westminster have little to contribute to modern democratic debate (the cheer-and-jeerfest that is Prime Minister’s Questions comes to mind). But I have never bought the argument that adversarial discourse itself is a ‘male’ thing, and serves only as a vehicle for macho posturing.
Since conflict is an integral part of politics, I think adversarial discourse will always have a place in it. It’s not the only game in town—deliberation and negotiation are also important—but I can’t imagine a political movement or a democratic assembly that wouldn’t require its members to engage in debate. Saying that women are too civilized to get involved in the adversarial stuff is like saying that angels shouldn’t dabble in sewers. It’s saying that women can’t do politics at all. And if that’s a feminist argument, I’m a banana.
Debbie Cameron reviews Finn Mackay’s book Radical Feminism, which tells the story of Reclaim the Night and reflects on its place in feminist politics.
Finn Mackay’s new book is several things at once. It’s a brief history of British feminisms from the beginning of the ‘second wave’ to the present day (with contextualizing excursions to the US and mainland Europe); it’s an explanation of what radical feminism was and is (and wasn’t and isn’t); it’s a detailed look at the origins and development of Reclaim The Night (RTN) as a form of feminist protest; and it explores the attitudes and motivations of activists involved in RTN today. Though the book is published by an academic press, it is evidently written (in plain English rather than theory-speak) to be accessible to a wider feminist audience. As well as the standard bibliography of references, it includes a list of resources for readers who want to get involved in campaigning, and a section on how to organize a RTN march.
The centre of the book is the author’s research on RTN, which draws not only on her own extensive experience as an organizer, but also on detailed interviews with 25 activists past and present, plus an online survey with 100 respondents. This material shows that RTN is not only a high-profile public protest against male violence and the way it constrains women’s lives: it is also a lightning rod for the larger political arguments going on within feminism at any given time. In the past RTN marches were the scene of arguments between radical feminists and leftist groups like Wages For Housework; they also prompted debate on racism in the women’s movement. Today they have become one arena in which ongoing conflicts about the sex industry, trans politics and the place of men in feminism are played out.
The first RTN march (though it was not yet actually called ‘Reclaim the Night’) took place in Brussels in 1976, following an international conference on crimes against women. It did not take long for similar events to be organized in Italy and Germany; and in November 1977 RTN came to Britain, with marches taking place in a dozen cities around the country. One of them was held in Leeds: the event had a special resonance there, because it was happening at a time when the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, an as yet-unidentified sadistic sexual killer, was targeting women in several northern English cities. (He was, in fact, Peter Sutcliffe, a lorry driver living in Bradford.) The feminists who organized the Leeds march were tapping into a widely-felt anger, as well as fear, among women who were constantly told to protect themselves from the Ripper by staying off the streets at night, or making sure they were accompanied by men.
The route of the march went through Chapeltown, a part of Leeds where Sutcliffe had already killed. But Chapeltown was also an area with a significant Black and minority ethnic population, and this led to a long-running controversy about RTN and racism. The organizers were criticised for apparently suggesting that Black men were more likely than white men to engage in violence against women, and for demanding more aggressive policing of a community already subject to racist police harassment.
The idea that RTN was racist has been repeated in print sources many times since, as has the more general idea that radical feminists are uncritical supporters of the police and other agencies of state power. However, Finn Mackay’s research suggests that in this case it is based on a misrepresentation. The Leeds RTN organizer Al Garthwaite told her there had been no demand for more policing, of Chapeltown or anywhere else. The point was for women to reclaim public space themselves, not to get male authorities to do it for them. As well as being significant in the specific context of the Yorkshire Ripper murders, Chapeltown was an area where many feminists themselves lived, and those factors had determined its inclusion on the route of the march. As Al Garthwaite also pointed out, local feminists at the time had no trust in the police, whose response to the Ripper killings had been consistently sexist and victim-blaming, as well as ineffectual in practical terms.
In fact, Finn Mackay found that none of the 1970s RTN organizers she interviewed had much of a relationship with their local police force. Sandra McNeill, who organized the first London RTN, went so far as to say that even getting police permission to march, let alone enlisting their support, would have been ‘anathema’. Like most radicals in the 1970s, feminists (of all tendencies) were apt to regard the police as reactionary, more likely to arrest them than to offer them useful assistance.
Today RTN organizers have a closer and more positive relationship with the police, though Finn Mackay found there were differing views on this among activists. Some had similar opinions to Sandra McNeill, while others felt that policing is a public service, and women are entitled to demand that their safety should be taken seriously. However, the issues which are most difficult and divisive in current RTN organizing have less to do with feminism’s relationship to agents of state power, and more to do with conflicting views about the politics of ‘inclusiveness’ and women-only space.
RTN (like feminist activism generally) has become more receptive than it was in the 1970s to the active participation of men: whereas the early marches were women’s events, most current ones are mixed (though some limit men to a supporting role or ask them to stay at the back.) Again, this is something activists do not all agree about. The march organizers Finn Mackay interviewed were pragmatic: to maximise the impact of RTN you need large numbers of people marching, so it makes sense to include male supporters (especially if excluding them will also make some women reluctant to participate). However, most of the interviewees were in favour of marches being woman-led, and some expressed reservations about men’s involvement, saying it confused the issue or defeated the object of the exercise (if the point is about women reclaiming public space, it does not make much sense for them to be accompanied—or as onlookers might see it, chaperoned—by men). Some interviewees distrusted men’s motives even where they were placed in supporting roles: one referred to them as ‘glory stewards’, drawing attention to their own status as ‘good guys’.
Explaining her own support for women-only actions, Finn Mackay makes the point that arguments based on the idea of ‘inclusiveness’ are never quite as simple as they look. As one of her interviewees pointed out,
Similarly, organizers cannot guarantee that an inclusive policy statement about who can march will generate an inclusive or positive experience for everyone who does march. There are, for instance, ongoing tensions around the participation of pro-sex industry organizations like the English Collective of Prostitutes (an offshoot of Wages for Housework), and there are always questions about how welcoming RTN is to trans women. Both groups have considerable experience of street harassment and male violence, and as a matter of policy they are not excluded from marching at RTN events. But that does not prevent arguments ‘on the ground’ with other marchers who oppose the policy of including them. Trans and the sex industry are significant faultlines within contemporary feminism, and these have always shown up on RTN marches just as they have in other, less public feminist forums.
As someone who participated in a few RTN actions in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was interested in the comments some activists made to Finn Mackay about the ‘institutionalization’ of the marches—the well-organized rallies, the introduction of sponsorship, the greater involvement of the police, and conversely the loss of certain ‘unruly’ features of the old protests, which sometimes deviated from the planned route and often involved a certain amount of direct action (like graffiti-writing or gluing the locks of sex-shops). Part of the reason for this is size: in the old days a lot of marches were relatively small, sometimes organized at short notice as a protest against something that had happened locally, and there was no need to close the streets to accommodate them. Also, as some veteran activists pointed out, since the early 1980s there has been a tightening of the legal restrictions on public protest (you do need permission now, and you can’t just go where you like), along with a huge growth in the use of CCTV (which means that if you do take direct action there is a high risk you will be caught). Even the traditional flaming torches carried by marchers in the 1970s are no longer permitted because of the cost of cleaning spilled wax off the pavement.
RTN was always an example of the ‘politics of spectacle’, i.e. the point was public visibility, but what’s most spectacular about it has changed: especially in London and other large cities, what’s impressive is the sheer number of people marching (also their colourful appearance and the noise they make). At the much smaller events I remember from the past, the spectacle had more to do with a group of women appearing and behaving in a noisy, confrontational way in areas where their presence was not expected or welcomed, or—in normal circumstances—considered ‘safe’. Maybe this is ironic, since the point of RTN was (and still is) to affirm women’s right to be safe in public space, but for me what was most positive about the (old) experience of marching was the feeling of actually confronting danger (and the men who embodied it) without the usual fears and inhibitions. I don’t think you get that from marching through closed-off city-centre streets under the watchful eyes of stewards and the police. I don’t think you get it in the same way in a mixed march, either.
But Finn Mackay has a good answer to those of us who may occasionally feel that RTN has lost its edge and become just another annual fixture on the feminist calendar. As she points out, it serves as a gateway through which many women find their way into feminist activism. As one of her interviewees put it, ‘RTN is a pretty easy banner to unite under. …When a RTN is organised in your city, it acts as a platform for collaborating, networking, awareness raising, relationship building’. Another woman who had become very active in local anti-VAW organizations since first taking part in a march, said:
Motivating and inspiring is an important task for any radical political movement, and it’s something Finn Mackay is good at. She is well-known among feminists for her energy and positivity as a campaigner, her practical approach to political organizing and her ability to speak in a straightforward, engaging way to both feminist and general audiences. All those qualities are also visible in her book. She is clear about her own views on issues like the sex industry and women-only space, but other views expressed by the women she interviewed are presented fairly and not unsympathetically. In general she is more inclined to emphasize the positive (what feminists of different persuasions share, and can therefore build on in campaigning) than the negative and divisive. You might say it’s an activist’s preference rather than a theorist’s—we’re never going to agree with everyone about everything, but what matters in the real world is building bridges where we can, so that something can actually be achieved.
Another kind of bridge-building Finn Mackay is clearly committed to is between the present and the past, or to put it another way, between different generations of feminists. For those who weren’t around in the 1970s, the early chapters contain a lot of informative stuff about British second wave feminism, and particularly the radical variety, which (as we have remarked in T&S many times) is appallingly badly served by most existing histories. This book doesn’t totally fill the gap: it’s more a sketch than a detailed portrait, because it’s trying to do other things as well. But it does cover some important basics.
It also makes an explicit break with the assumption that what should be emphasized in any historical narrative about feminism is change rather than continuity, and that ‘change’ essentially means ‘progress’. Often this leads to the feminism of the recent past being represented merely as a catalogue of errors and failures, making it impossible for those who weren’t involved to relate to their predecessors in a positive way. By contrast, Finn Mackay thinks today’s activists can learn something important from the women who came before. She recommends that readers should seek out both the classic writings of the second wave and the archives in which past feminist ideas and actions are recorded (the T&S archive, available on this site, is one of those she lists).
She also makes an argument about continuity which I was not expecting. Even if the new generation of feminists uses a different language, a lot of what they believe (as demonstrated in her interviews, where she asked women what they wanted to see feminism actually accomplish) is in practice quite close to the ‘seven demands’ of the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement* . One of her interviewees even said this:
Now, there’s a radical thought.
* The seven demands were: (1) equal pay; (2) equal opportunities in education and employment; (3) free contraception and abortion on demand; (4) free 24-hour nurseries; (5) legal and financial independence; (6) the right of women to define their own sexuality and an end to discrimination against lesbians; (7) freedom from intimidation by the threat or the use of violence and sexual coercion.
Finn Mackay, Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement is published by Palgrave in February 2015–details here.
Ever since it began publishing in 1983, T&S has included an occasional ‘classic review’ feature in which a contemporary feminist re-reads an important text from the past. The latest addition to the series features Liz Kelly’s groundbreaking 1988 book Surviving Sexual Violence. Revisiting it in 2015, Alison Boydell finds it as relevant as ever.
I first read Surviving Sexual Violence (SSV) in the 1990s for a postgraduate Women’s Studies dissertation about abusive men who murder their current/ex-partners. Today my understanding is informed by both reading and experience of working with survivors: I am involved in providing front line services to survivors of sexual violence, and will be shortly working in the domestic violence sector. I’m also studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Advocacy for Victims of Sexual Violence: SSV is on my reading list. Since it’s now more than a quarter of a century since it was first published, this is surely a testament to Liz Kelly’s work.
In the 1970s, feminists had analysed rape as an act of male power, raised awareness about its prevalence and deconstructed the myths that surrounded it. However, it was only later that literature about other forms of male sexual violence began to emerge. SSV focused on a wide range of manifestations: it was one of two ground-breaking books published in 1988 which forced childhood sexual abuse onto the public agenda (the other was an American self-help book, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis’s The Courage to Heal).
The word ‘surviving’ in Kelly’s title was significant. As she observed, ‘the term victim…makes invisible the other side of women’s victimization: the active and positive ways in which women resist, cope and survive’ (p.163). This resistance figures among the book’s main themes, which are summarized at the beginning (p.1):
Acknowledging sexual violence: something ‘most women have experienced’
Liz Kelly writes in her preface to SSV that
The research reported in the book is instructive about the true extent of the problem. As well as asking her 60 research participants about their own experiences of sexual violence, Liz Kelly asked them about their female friends’ experiences. A total number of 435 women known to the participants had experienced rape, incest or domestic violence; only 6 [10%] did not know any women who had experienced these forms of sexual violence (p. 95). There was a considerable range of experience of sexual violence within the group, which was also diverse in ‘age, class of origin, marital status, work experience and sexual identity’ (p. 11).
Yet the statement that most people do not want to acknowledge this is as true today as it was 25 years ago. We still frequently hear and read that acts of male violence (including fatal ones) are ‘isolated incidents’; recently, Julie Bindel wrote about the perils of single case campaigns and petitions which obscure structural and endemic male violence.
Researching sexual violence: feminist research practice
The research SSV is based on was innovative, reflecting Kelly’s view that ‘we should shift our attention from discussions of “feminist methods” to what I now call “feminist research practice”’ (p. 7). She argued that the originality of feminist research did not lie in the methods it used so much as ‘the questions we have asked, [and] the way we locate ourselves within those questions’.
Sixty women drawn from a wide range of women’s groups took part in Kelly’s research. Her design rejected previous methodologies predicated on ‘analytic definitions into which women’s experiences are slotted’: rather, ‘an important principle of this project’s methodology that women define their own experience’ (p. 140). The questions were carefully worded to avoid presuming a shared understanding of sexual violence, and to respect women’s own understandings. In the book women are quoted directly rather than paraphrased. This allows the reader to communicate directly with them and has a powerful impact. As someone who works directly with survivors, I feel it is important not to put women’s experiences into a third person narrative which is itself disempowering.
Creating an alternative to the dominant patriarchal discourse is critical to feminist analysis. To reflect the range of women’s experiences, Kelly created new terms to describe women’s own perceptions and definitions. She deliberately created a ‘continuum of non-consensual sex’ (p. 109): the term ‘pressurized sex’ was used for what previous studies called ‘altruistic’ or ‘compliant’ sex, and ‘coercive sex’ was introduced to cover experiences women described as being ‘like rape’. This ‘continuum within a continuum’ may seem contentious in a climate where there are apologists wishing to minimize rape by renaming it ‘non-consensual sex’. However, the dominant narrative of rape as an act perpetrated by a stranger wielding a weapon, leaping out of the dark in a public place, exerted and continues to exert enormous influence on the public’s understanding of sexual violence. Given that reality, Kelly’s approach was the most effective way of capturing the range of women’s actual experiences, most of which do not match the dominant narrative. Some sexual experiences were defined by some women as neither rape nor consensual. It is worth noting here that language is also very important in the Rape Crisis counselling context: counsellors are guided by the clients’/survivors’ choice of language and would never use terms such as ‘rape’ or ‘abuse’ without the client/survivor being able to deal with that language.
Women’s definitions of sexual violence altered a number of times following an assault. At different stages of the research, they went through a process of ‘redefinition’, remembering more incidents of sexual violence between the first and second interviews. This is an indication of how carefully constructed research can be a consciousness raising process.
Defining sexual violence: ‘a range of male behaviour’
Sexual violence does not happen in a vacuum; it is both cause and effect of sexual inequality and manifests structurally and institutionally. As Kelly states, ‘feminist analysis sees all forms of sexual violence as involving the exercise of power, functioning as a form of social control by denying women freedom and autonomy’ (p. 41). The definition of sexual violence she uses in SSV
This was the first time that a comprehensive woman-centred definition of sexual violence focused on its impact rather than the behaviours and acts involved. What is also especially prescient here is the qualifier ‘or later’. Today we are witnessing unprecedented reporting of ‘historic’ abuse.
Kelly says her definition is ‘rather lengthy'; yet it is comprehensive and enduring. A quarter of a century on it continues to be used in academia as well as in the training of front line service providers supporting women survivors. I continue to engage with it in both arenas, having completed the Rape Crisis National Training Programme a year ago and now embarking on the new academic journey I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. A number of us on my course have discussed the continuum in our presentations. Three separate training programmes I have in been involved with in the past year, two in sexual violence and one in domestic abuse, have quoted Kelly’s definition.
The continuum she identifies encapsulates the myriad different forms of sexual violence as follows: threat of violence; sexual harassment (includes street harassment, workplace harassment and harassment in other public spaces); pressure to have sex; sexual assault (ranging from any unwanted physical contact to attempted rape); obscene phone calls; coercive sex; domestic violence; sexual abuse; flashing; rape and incest. Threat of violence and harassment were the most common forms of sexual violence; a glance at the Everyday Sexism project’s website shows that this is still the case today.
The placement of each behaviour on the continuum does not indicate its seriousness, but its incidence, i.e. the most prevalent forms that women are most likely to experience on multiple occasions. Kelly stresses that ‘with the exception of sexual violence which results in death, the degree of impact cannot be simply inferred from the form of sexual violence women experience or its place within the continuum. What is fundamental is that these behaviours are not discrete; they blend into one another. Men use a variety of coercive and abusive methods to control women.
Kelly’s careful avoidance of a hierarchy of abusive behaviours has been criticised. Writing in 1990, Lynne Segal suggested that SSV renders all men guilty, and fails to acknowledge that there are ‘different types of violent men’ or to discuss how violent men differ from their non-violent counterparts. Another kind of criticism was made in Sheila Jeffreys’s book The Idea of Prostitution, which noted that while Kelly ‘includes a particularly wide range of abusive male practices within her continuum of sexual violence, [she] does not mention the violence of prostitution’ (p. 247). Reviewing Jeffreys’s book, Liz Kelly responded: ‘Sheila makes the point powerfully that prostitution should be included in the continuum of violence against women, and rightly takes me to task for not doing so’. I would argue that although it is not explicitly included within the continuum, it is implicit in Kelly’s definition of ‘sexual violence’. Jeffreys herself states that ‘there is nothing… about Kelly’s definition that that would exclude the abuse of prostitutes, and much that would seem to relate to it’.
Criticisms have been made regarding so called ‘honour based violence’. Kelly addresses this herself in the preface of The Handbook of Sexual Violence (2012) which revisits the continuum in a series of multi-disciplinary essays written by researchers and practitioners. One of the concerns that many feminist activists have tried to address is that certain forms of sexual violence should not be ‘othered’: this is something that Southall Black Sisters, for example, have campaigned about for years.
Resisting sexual violence: ‘men’s power and women’s resistance’
Feminists who work to expose the widespread nature of male sexual violence against women are often criticised for making all women into victims. Kelly argues that this is a lack of understanding of the avoidance strategies that women employ. She questions the theory of ‘learned helplessness’ that was popular at the time, since her research indicated that women’s resistance increased before leaving. (p. 181)
Drawing on Black feminist critique, Kelly stresses that coping with sexual violence is an active process (p. 185) and that women had varied forms of resistance and survival strategies (pp. 183-184). Minimising was found to be a common coping strategy: women expressed it in forms like ‘it could have been worse’ and ‘it wasn’t that bad’. This can control the impact by mitigating the pressure to take action and/or respond in a certain way. Furthermore, women were reluctant to be ascribed ‘victim status’ given the pervasiveness of the image of a pathetic and downtrodden woman. They indicated that they had not accessed specialist women’s services as they felt that others were in greater need. In my experience of working on a specialist helpline for women, this is not an atypical response.
Kelly sees links between women’s experiences, feminism, collective action and resistance. She ends with the powerful message ‘No matter how effective our services and support networks, no matter how much change in policy and practice is achieved, without a mass movement of women committed to resisting sexual violence in all its forms there will continue to be casualties in the “shadow war” and women’s and girl’s lives will continue to be circumscribed by the reality of sexual violence’ (p. 238). This, I totally agree with: we must go beyond being service providers.
New times and new challenges
Some things have changed the book’s publication. Our language has evolved: for example, terms such as ‘battered women’ are no longer used as this is a barrier to abused women recognising the coercive control that can occur in the absence of physical abuse.
Sadly, societal attitudes have changed little. Myths, stereotypes and dominant media narratives are still barriers to survivors identifying and naming their experiences of sexual violence. One of Kelly’s conclusions was to call for further research to inform social policy. Today we also need to use this research to bring about cultural change.
Kelly noted ‘how many women had experienced more than one form of sexual violence, yet these forms were separated from one another in service provision’ (p. 2). That continues to be the case. At the same time, specialist women’s services have had their funding slashed and some have disappeared altogether due to the Coalition’s austerity measures. Many organizations have also been forced into providing a unisex service. This weakens the feminist model of empowerment used by women’s services to support survivors. It is also unnecessary, since sexual violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men (and boys) against women and girls, as reflected in Kelly’s definition.
It is critical that we keep up the momentum. As Kelly writes about Savile and Assange in 50 Shades of Feminism, published a quarter of a century after SSV:
We witnessed this very recently with the Ched Evans case, where a veritable chorus of feminist and survivor voices rang out in mainstream and social media.
A few months ago I gave a presentation for my course, where I argued that Kelly’s continuum should inform our practice as Independent Sexual Violence Advisers (ISVAs); we should never assume the impact of any form of sexual violence or treat them separately. This is the very antithesis of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, sentencing guidelines (2014) and the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme (2012).
If Surviving Sexual Violence were to be updated, it would need to include the forms of abuse made possible by new media, mobile phones and the Internet. We also, as Kelly says, need to explore how incidences of sexual violence correlate with individual and collective attempts at resistance via feminist activism. We are currently experiencing a misogynistic backlash against the gains feminists have made in the last few decades. We must continue to challenge sexual violence both individually and collectively. For me, revisiting Surviving Sexual Violence has been a consciousness raising exercise in itself.
Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach (eds) Fifty Shades of Feminism (Virago 2013)
Liz Kelly’s Surviving Sexual Violence was published by Polity Press in 1988, and is still available in paperback and Kindle editions.
Alison Boydell works with survivors of sexual violence and is one of the organizers of JURIES, a campaign for jurors to receive mandatory briefings on the myths and realities of sexual violence. Find the campaign here, and follow it on Twitter @UnderstandingSV.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, Delilah Campbell has more questions than answers.
Imagine that three women, wearing face-masks and armed with automatic weapons, went into the office of a leading pornographic magazine and shot several pornographers dead. Imagine that as they left they were heard to shout ‘men are scum’ and ‘we have avenged the women’. Imagine, in other words, a version of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris where the perpetrators were feminists, and the offence to which they were responding was not the circulation of cartoons depicting the Prophet, but the circulation of images depicting the violent sexual degradation of women.
I do not believe I know a single feminist who would defend such an action. Even committed feminist anti-porn campaigners would deny that violence and killing are legitimate responses to the harm they believe pornography does. ‘Not in my name’, they would say. ‘Feminism is a non-violent political movement, and we condemn these brutal killings’.
But in other ways the feminist response would be different from the response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. I don’t think we’d be carrying placards saying ‘I am Hustler’, or tweeting messages of support adorned with that hashtag. I don’t think we’d be exalting the freedom of men to make and use pornography as one of the defining features of a civilized society. I don’t think we’d be sharing pornographic images as a tribute to the victims.
I also don’t think we’d be saying, as some people have said about the cartoons that provoked the attack in Paris, ‘they’re only pictures, FFS’. I don’t think we’d be saying that even if the attack had targeted men whose products were not photographs of actual women, but—for instance—the pornographic drawings of girls which are a subgenre of Japanese manga (and are explicit enough to be illegal under the UK’s child pornography laws). Most feminists who oppose pornography do not think its harm is limited to the women actually depicted in it. We think it harms all women, because it influences the way they are looked at, thought about and treated by those who use it.
I am using this imaginary scenario to explain why I have found it difficult to frame a response to the events in Paris. My view on the killings themselves is unambiguous: there is no possible justification for what the killers did. I am also absolutely clear about my opposition to Islamism and other forms of modern religious fundamentalism. These are right-wing political movements and the submission of women to patriarchal authority is a central tenet of all of them. On these points I’m not conflicted, nor at odds with the prevailing view. But my difficulty begins when the conversation turns to the more general issue of freedom of expression.
Before this week I’d never looked at what Charlie Hebdo published, but when I saw the cartoons that were reproduced in the wake of the killings, I found them even more offensive than I’d imagined they would be. I know they belong to a French tradition of overtly and deliberately crude caricature, but even so I was struck, looking at recent covers depicting Muslims, by how much they reminded me of some of the iconography of the Nazis. Take away the turbans, and these malevolent hook-nosed figures could have come from the pages of an anti-semitic pamphlet in 1930s Germany.
Many commentators have made the point that Charlie Hebdo was even-handed in its offence-giving: there was, in fact, one cover in the montage I saw featuring a Jewish subject, and there were also some grotesque depictions of non-Semites, from the Pope to the leaders of the fascist National Front. But the problem with this argument—‘it’s OK because they treated everyone with equal contempt’—should be obvious: the context in which these images circulate is one in which everyone is not, in fact, equal. In France, where Muslims are the main targets of racism and religious bigotry, racist representations of Muslims are not ‘the same thing’ as stereotypical representations of white politicians or Catholic priests. They reinforce a view of the group that contributes to the real social injustice suffered by members of that group. You might as well say that pornography is even-handed because it depicts men as well as women in gross and objectionable ways, or because some of the men who work in the industry have suffered abuse or been coerced. The point remains that in the world at large, pornography does not affect men in the same way it affects women.
Although I think pornography is harmful, I have never supported campaigns for outright censorship, because I think the dangers are on balance greater than any benefits more restriction would bring (I say ‘more’ because it is nonsense to suggest that there is no censorship in western democracies at all). There are particular reasons for feminists to be wary of restrictions on ‘offensive’ speech. This is a time when any statement deemed offensive by a vocal minority can cause the feminist who made it to be ‘no platformed’, or deluged with rape and death threats: we know these are effective ways of silencing dissent.
But none of this means I feel impelled to join in with the chorus of ‘we must defend freedom of expression at all costs!’ Of course I don’t want to live in an authoritarian state where I could be arrested and imprisoned for saying anything the government disapproved of. But still, the rhetorical celebration of free speech in capitalist democracies can feel a bit naive and self-satisfied. Catharine MacKinnon once remarked that what free speech often comes down to in practice is the freedom of the wealthy and powerful, who have privileged access to public platforms, to drown out all other voices. Rupert Murdoch, proprietor of the Times, the Sun, Fox News, etc., has the freedom to broadcast his views to millions of people every day; in theory I have exactly the same freedom to broadcast mine, but since I don’t have my own global media empire, that does not make me an equal player in what liberals refer to as the ‘marketplace of ideas’.
For feminism that marketplace is a particularly unequal one. The idea that women are commodities for men’s use is one of the oldest and most entrenched ideas there is; it is also one of the most profitable. It will inevitably dominate the most powerful forums in which the right to free speech (or in many cases, ‘paid for speech’) is exercised.
Charlie Hebdo is not a global media empire, but in the pictures that were published of the contributors who died, it looked a lot like the (white, male) French establishment it lampooned. It may be irreverent, but it’s closer to the centre than the margins of French society, and that has given it a license to provoke the powerful which might not be extended to more radically dissenting voices. If disgruntled Muslims had made what liberals consider the ‘proper’ response to offensive speech—set up their own magazine with liberal secularism as their target—they would probably not have had to wait very long for a visit from the security services, who would have taxed them with aiding and abetting terrorism, and banned their publication as an incitement.
Of course that doesn’t mean that my imaginary Islamist cartoonists, or feminist anti-porn crusaders, are entitled to take up arms and kill people. But it might help to explain where the rage comes from. Nothing is more conducive to rage than being constantly told that you live in an equal, tolerant society, a society in which you suffer no structural oppression, no systematic social disadvantage, no unreasonable constraints on your freedom or irrational prejudice from others, when your entire life experience screams otherwise. And when you know that however reasonably you present your grievances, you will not be listened to by anyone who counts.
Being told we’re not oppressed as women, and being ignored or pilloried when we try to draw attention to injustice, is a common experience for feminists too. It is fortunate for the world that we do generally reject violence as a political strategy, and that we do not belong to the sex which is socialized to see it as a solution to both political and personal problems.
So, although I condemn the actions (and the motives) of the men who killed the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, I refuse to glorify the symbolic violence that may be committed in the name of free expression, or under the illusion that it actually exists.
It’s been a full-on year here at T&S: we’ve covered obesity, domestic violence, feminism in universities, female serial killers, science, language and more. But there’s one debate we’ve hesitated to tackle: are dogs the new feminist cats?
Media commentary on this issue has been dominated by the liberal argument that companion-animal preferences are a matter of individual choice. For radical feminists, though, the personal is always political. So, as we head towards a new year, we have invited two radical feminists with sharply differing views to explain where they stand on one of the most important–and most divisive–questions facing our movement today. Planet Cath explains why she believes a dog is woman’s best friend, while Finn Mackay makes the case for staying true to our foremothers’ feline traditions. Their feminism will be about pets, or it will be bullshit.
Planet Cath: ‘Dogs are the number one companion for feminists’
Traditionally, feminists have been drawn to our feline friends. We believe that cats have all the qualities a feminist needs. They present as independent, aloof yet affectionate when needed. They aren’t needy, or demanding of your time, or wanting more than you can give. I say we’re kidding ourselves. Cats are not a feminist pet. They have no sense of community or sisterhood. They will destroy anything and everything to sharpen their claws, not caring that it’s a much loved piece of furniture. Cats don’t care. They don’t care about other cats, and they don’t care about you.
Feminists need to face the truth. We kid ourselves that our cats love us, wait for us, are happy when we return home from work. Not so. Cats are only interested in food and heat stealing.
In fact, the best pet for a feminist is a dog.
I stand before you a long time cat owner, but recent dog convert.
I have to nail my animal colours to the mast now; it’s all about the dog.
Not that I don’t love my cats. They are each, in their own special way, amusing and entertaining. They have their own personalities and characteristics, and a couple of them aren’t averse to a cuddle. But my Basil? Basil literally jumps into your arms. Just coming back into a room you left ten minutes ago is a joy to him. “Where have you BEEN?” he cries. “I thought you had gone FOREVER!!!”
He runs around in circles, leaping with joy, and then brings you a present. I admit, the presents are not necessarily the best ones I’ve ever had. A well-chewed ball or soft toy, often covered in spit or dirt. However, I will take that over my cats’ last offering, which was a dead rat, insides ripped out and deliberately positioned on the kitchen floor en route to the kettle for the optimum, barefoot-6am-half-asleep effect.
Cats are affectionate, don’t get me wrong. But they are not willing companions. They are independent, often aloof and walk their own path. They are stubborn, difficult to engage and refuse to do anything that might make your life easier.
Whereas dogs love nothing more than pleasing you. They will watch TV with you (literally sit and watch TV), accompany you on walks, listen to your problems with an interested expression, and treat every word you utter as a meaningful statement to be considered and obeyed.
But you know, it’s more than that. For the single lesbian, dog-walking opens up a whole new potential dating world. You can’t walk your cat, but take your dog out to the park, armed with a variety of toys, and watch women flock to you. In just a few weeks, we’ve made friends with Lisa and Rosie, Emma and Alfred, Karen and Jack. We are all on the local park at 7am, staggering around half asleep, clutching flasks of tea and watching our dogs run and play like proud mothers.
There’s no doubt in my mind that dogs are the number one companion for feminists. If you don’t believe me, take a good look at your cat right now. Chances are, they are washing themselves, seemingly ignoring you but actually waiting for you to leave the room so they can help themselves (aka steal) to the milk jug you’ve left out. Basil, on the other hand, is gazing at me with adoring eyes and waiting for the signal that he can come and snuggle up and lick my ear.
Women. You know I’m right.
Finn Mackay: ‘Cats are enlightened spiritual beings’
Let’s face it, we all know the real problem with dogs. Do you have a property without a garden? Don’t live near a park? Do you work a normal job rather than running your own self-employed equalities training and consultancy business from home? Are you required to be out of the house or away for any length of time ever? Do you live in a flat and have a fancy for Huskies and Alsatians? If so, then all well and good; fascinating. A person of your standing will be well aware, then, that the main problem with dogs is their support for the capitalist patriarchal military and state industrial complex.
That’s right. If only Battersea could address this, their kennels would empty in a flash. If you for any second doubt this fundamental flaw, just ask yourself – have you ever seen a police cat? A bomb disposal cat? A drugs sniffer cat? No. Unlike their equine and canine fellows, cats have never sold out. Amongst the liberals, the sell-outs and the ‘just following orders’ types, they stand tall, sometimes even nine to ten inches high from paw to ear.
A cat is the perfect Feminist companion, and will fit right in to any commune, caucus or conference. We are uniquely placed to live with cats and, in turn, they mirror our own behaviours and proclivities, meaning that we can be comfortable around their all-too-familiar habits. Just like Feminists, cats are triggered by almost everything. Bin bags, for example. Hoovers. Car journeys. Vets. Which of us can honestly say she has not felt the same at some point over our life course? Luckily we are familiar with the proactive use of quiet rooms, mindfulness and healing circles, and we share this with cats, who are impressively skilled at being quiet and mindful; we could all learn a thing or two from them. My cat is in fact running a workshop on this over International Women’s Day next year; watch this space for entry requirements and inclusivity statement.
If you are still doubtful as to the merits of cats, it is worth pointing out that it is precisely at this time of year that cats really come into their own. Like us, cats display their distaste for the seasonal consumerist atrocity that is Christmas. If ever you should slip, and be seduced by the globalised nothings on offer in the stores, which can happen when suffering from postmodern anomie, a cat will tear down your Christmas tree for you and shred your presents, thus helpfully reminding you of your principles.
Like Feminists, cats are enlightened spiritual beings. They walk their own path, the path of the heart. This means they don’t need to be taken out for walks on a lead, like the less advanced canine. While they are walking their own walk and delicately tipper-tappering their own path, they will not roll in fox poo or rabbit entrails. This is a major plus.
Cats are certainly clean of habit, and clean of coat. They do not smell of dog. This is very important. Glade plug-ins were invented by dog owners. Cats on the other hand, like the Buddha, are odourless. This means they are ideally placed to fit in with your home rituals, such as Shamanic smudge stick cleansings, and they may even be qualified to lead minor domestic shadow work for example–unless they find shadows triggering or over-stimulating, which some do.
Unlike dogs, but like vaginas, cats are self-cleansing. Very occasionally however, cats may shed some fur. This can be gathered up and used for jumpers, merkins or art installations. In addition, while dogs must always toilet outside, despite most Western homes having the imperialist legacy of indoor plumbing, if need be cats can take care of their own bodily waste via the provision of a small recycled plastic box and some environmentally friendly and tree conscious woodchip. Like a gift, cats offer up to us the experience of managing this waste as a symbolic reminder of own bodily liminality, and challenge us to face Kristeva’s feminist theory of the abject.
Like Feminists, cats are independent, unlike simpering dogs. This means we can respect cats, and that is so important in a companion animal. As we must always eschew all those creatures who continue centuries of oppression by demanding a maternal reaction, it is vital that we turn to a pet we can look up to rather than look after. This is why cats have infamously been the totem of choice for self-respecting lesbian feminists the world over. Sisters, some traditions are worth maintaining, feeding, worming and flea treating. Get a cat, you’re worth it.
You can follow @PlanetCath and @Finn_Mackay on Twitter. Their non-human companions have so far elected not to maintain a social media presence.
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.