Whose story is it anyway? 1

The stewardship of feminism’s collective memory raises all kinds of ethical questions. Can our approach be based on trust alone?  Frankie Green shares some thoughts on feminism, archiving and accountability.


No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you, I write myself anew. I am still author, authority. I am still the colonizer, the speaking subject, and you are now at the center of my talk (bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics).

The context in which bell hooks writes is very different from mine. Yet her words resonate strongly with me, illuminating some questions I want to explore here.

Archiving the history of the WLM is well-established, as we who experienced that era believe it crucial to ensure that our movement is not lost to history. The importance of taking this task seriously has been elucidated by Jalna Hanmer, and many have worked tirelessly on collecting and cataloguing information, making it available to new generations of activists, students and historians. Our collections provide insights into the aims, achievements and processes of the movement and show how it was sustained at grassroots level by thousands of women – many of whom did not become well-known, since they never attracted the attention of the mainstream media.

We want these archives to be seen not as reliquaries, but as resources in our ongoing struggles, useful in the continuing quest for the ending of women’s oppression. As I said when speaking on behalf of the Women’s Liberation Music Archive (WLMA) in the workshop ‘Archives and Activism: Knowing our Past – Creating our Future’ at 2014’s Feminism in London conference, they ‘are not about preserving history in aspic, or rosy-tinted nostalgia.’ WLMA documents feminist music-making in the 1970s/80s, and is the fruit of discussions among musicians and activists who generously donated time, money and material in the belief that it’s important to illustrate the role of culture within political movements. It complements other feminist archives.

But while there’s a consensus that such archiving is important, I haven’t come across much discussion regarding the subsequent use made of these archives. I have become interested in issues raised by this usage, the value created by it and the process of its production.

Ethics and interpretation

The ethics of archiving appear self-evident: responsibility to those who make the collections possible; respect for the holdings and their provenance, integrity and placement; adherence to written or verbal agreements between parties; good practice regarding a professional standard of behavior (including amongst amateurs/volunteers). Such codes of conduct are affirmed by various professional bodies, including the International Council on Archives, which states:

archivists should not collect original documents or participate in any commerce of documents on their own behalf. They should avoid activities that could create in the public mind the appearance of a conflict of interest

What recourse is available to us if such codes are not adhered to? Are there additional, specific principles that feminists need to incorporate into our practice?

These questions point to some wider issues relating to the interpretation of feminist history.

In her 1966 essay Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag said that interpretation

presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy … Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he [sic] can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning.

Interpretation creates another layer of temporality and text. Print media acquire legitimacy, being mostly less ephemeral than other forms, bestowing a mantle of authority on writers. Published books acquire credibility, as anyone who’s challenged the texts used on Women’s Studies courses knows. Myriad implications are involved, meaning that this creation of a secondary layer of theorizing and analysis is worth attention. How is this creation achieved? What does it leave out or invisibilise? What checks can be used for verification of data presented? And the age-old question: cui bono – who benefits?

It is unfortunate that amongst people who have contributed oral or written histories to collections, the experience of having their work or words  misrepresented or quoted without permission seems to be quite common. I know of some who feel exploited by researchers who have behaved less than honourably or betrayed the trust placed in them. Donors have cooperated with authors only to find the ensuing publications disappointing or inaccurate. If people have not been consulted or if they feel their own narratives have been taken from them, they are left with a sense of disillusionment.

Disputes frequently arise, and enter public discourse; one recent example concerned a book about the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands which was produced without consulting his family about the accuracy of the portrayal of his life. The cultural appropriation of people’s history on a greater scale is a longstanding unethical practice affecting indigenous people, exemplified by the use of sacred Native American myths in Peter Nabokov’s publication ofThe Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo. The issue of ownership arises, as in the question asked of me by a woman who found herself quoted in a book by an author who had misled her: ‘whose story is it anyway?’

Claiming our own histories

Many of us have had to assert a claim to our own histories. It is understood that memory may be fallible, narrators unreliable and, of course, the field of oral history contains many pitfalls. The standpoint of personal experience has been challenged for its claim to epistemological privilege and authenticity. Nevertheless, there is significance in the fact of having been there: of being present at, participating in and causing actual events to which we ascribe meaning and of which we have clear recollections. Having our stories regurgitated in an unrecognisable form is a galling experience. As a mature student in the 1980s, I found myself disagreeing with tutors confident they knew the truth about WLM events of the previous decade – events in which I had taken part. Lived experience lost out in competition with what had become received wisdom. It is disorientatingly unpleasant to feel like a ghost in one’s own story; a kind of cognitive dissonance occurs.

Those of us from that era hope to ensure our stories are accurately represented. Which begs the question of whether we need others to tell those stories and republish them into the world. We were there; we are the experts in our own lives. Do we need interpretation to ‘disclose … true meaning’? And what do we do if an interpreter fails to consult us or has an outlook with which we disagree?

Perhaps the campaigning maxim of ‘nothing about us without us’ needs to be borne in mind. Many people now insist on a caveat ensuring that they retain the right of veto, that they see what is written about them prior to publication. To provide that option may seem a matter of common courtesy, but it does not always happen. In such cases, as with an unauthorised biography, readers need to be aware of issues arising from the lack of consent and that the veracity or reliability of the account may be in question. Editors and publishers rely on their authors acting in good faith, but perhaps they also have a pro-active role to play. Do authors have a responsibility to inform people and organisations that they are being written about? How do our moral criteria as feminists differ from general notions of ethics, if at all?

Of course, the meaning of stories cannot be controlled, and it is not necessarily desirable that they be so; we need to be able to let them go, and hope they will be treated ethically. We can disassociate ourselves if an account is found to be inaccurate or misleading, though of course pre-empting such a thing happening in the first place would be preferable. Feminist projects frequently depend on goodwill; it is to be hoped that negative examples are rare.

We can adopt guidelines, codes, standards of behavior, but the question of enforceability remains. How do we resolve moral dilemmas, rather than rigidly policing, if we wish to work non-hierarchically? How can problems be addressed, not to punish, but to prevent unethical behaviour, and in a professional way, taking care to avoid a descent into trolling and trashing?

Academic careers and capital can be built on the work of others, both original creators of material and those who have collected and curated it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this; indeed, the desired outcome of making material publicly available is that users will find it valuable for exploration and exegesis. WLMA has constructive interactions with students who find us useful, as we hoped. There’s reciprocity involved and it’s positive when they make their writings available to us in turn to be archived. Less responsible researchers can cause disillusionment. Perhaps the need for funding can be corrupting, in the scramble to secure it corners are cut, principles relaxed. We expect exploitation from the capitalist marketplace ripping the world apart as it monetises every last thing, but can only hope it does not prevail in the sphere of feminism.

To see one’s writings reprinted or actions written about, when one would not wish them to be so used, is to feel colonised. Under colonisation, a territory’s original inhabitants’ inherent value is less than that which they produce for those taking it over. This throws into sharp relief the difference between intrinsic worth – dignity, rights, inalienable personhood – and extractable, appropriated value. Attitudinally, it’s like the difference between respect and contempt, care and indifference. The momentum that carries colonisers along normalizes their actions, but they make conscious choices for which they are responsible.

A coloniser likes to take over not simply a terrain’s resources and the labour of the inhabitants, but control of the narrative, inscribing their own being into the story that is already there. Setting themselves up as expert and writing in an ostensibly authoritative manner allows disregard for the subjectivity of the people of whom they write. The colonised subject struggles then not only to regain material control but for recognition of more nebulous aspects of the problem: attachment to their history and culture, the personal meaning of an era in a lifetime – the emotions which inform their resistance against exploitation.

The coloniser also casts themselves as the discoverer, intrepid explorer opening up unknown realms, an academic maverick boldly going where no researcher has gone before. For the people who are already there of course this knowledge is not new, as they are already know it, indeed created it. Sometimes the person already there is friendly, not sceptical, having no reason for suspicion, only later regretting the openness which facilitated their own exploitation. Then their resistance to being taken over is an obstructive nuisance; they have the temerity to be insufficiently grateful.

Feminists are not a dispossessed ethnic group, our memories or memorabilia are not sacred texts or artefacts, our narratives are not arcane. But it can widen our debate to consider different ways of regarding intellectual property ownership that co-exist in the world. There are models which augment the western legal one regarding protocols, wherein the less technical aspects are valued, elements harder to quantify – intangibles like respect, trust, integrity. Publicly available material can be used under the principle of Fair Use, but that does not grant license to plunder it at will regardless of people’s feelings and wishes. Having no compunction about assuming an entitlement within such narrow strictures, leaving out these other factors, would be self-servingly convenient. Challenging the right assumed by Nabokov and other white authors to retell Acoma Pueblo stories, Fred S. Vallo Sr., discussing cultural property rights, concludes that ‘we like to tell our own story. Let us do it.’

Still here

The contents of archives can be viewed as part of what Bernard Steigler has conceptualized as constituting the ‘already-there’, using a theoretical framework drawn on, for instance, by Deborah Withers in the book Feminism, Digital Culture and the Politics of Transmission. But however useful such analyses may be, in relation to the documentation of feminist history perhaps what needs to take priority is the ‘still-here’: us. Real women engaged in active processes of being, women who embody the political consciousness of that time, who inhabited the ‘structures of feeling’ of its lived experience, to borrow Raymond Williams’ phrase. Though sadly some of us are no longer here, many of us are still alive and very much kicking, carrying on doing what we’ve always done – and archiving our own history.

I’m suggesting that  setting up grassroots projects to do this work without incorporating a formal code of conduct–basing the work on trust alone–may not ensure that our history is safeguarded. Stewardship of collective memory needs to continue to be done with care, always bearing in mind the actual women with whose stories we are entrusted, with respect and transparency as guiding principles.

It would be ironic if women whose work is claimed as feminist heritage, who made possible the very context in which today’s researchers work, felt the latter were careless of upsetting or alienating them. What price feminist scholarship or academic careers if they rest on the invisible labour of people who feel they have been treated unethically or indifferently? It would be nonsensical to treat people’s creations as more valuable than the people themselves. If our histories, ourselves, our politics, are worth taking seriously, then surely so must be the moral parameters deployed in chronicling them.

Frankie Green is the Administrator of the Women’s Liberation Music Archive:

How have we come to this? 1

Yasmin Rehman reviews Christine Delphy’s Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror

The sociologist and theorist Christine Delphy has been one of the most influential figures in French feminism since the 1970s, when she was active in the Mouvement de libération des femmes (Women’s Liberation Movement), and co-founded the journal Nouvelles questions féministes with Simone de Beauvoir. Separate and Dominate is a collection of ten essays which she began writing in 1996. Originally published in French in 2008, this is the first English translation, and it contains an opening chapter written specifically for this volume.

I read the book in the midst of the fierce social media debate surrounding the Charlie Hebdo cartoon featuring Aylan Kurdi, in which those who criticised the satirical magazine for using an image of the dead toddler were accused of failing to understand satire and/or the French.[1]  I was aware that my own lack of inside knowledge might affect my understanding: Delphy makes repeated reference to details of French governance, political controversies and pieces of legislation with which I am unfamiliar. But the issues and arguments raised by the book—terrorism, racism and imperialism, identity—are relevant and timely for British readers too.

I’ve taken the title of my review from a question Christine Delphy herself asks (p.65), though it has also been asked by politicians and policy-makers, academics, community activists, faith leaders and others in different parts of the world. With each terror attack in the West and each new report of Western-born Muslims and/or converts travelling to join Daesh (ISIS), the inevitable question is: how have we come to this?

Delphy’s aim, which she sets out in the opening sentences of the book, is ‘to elaborate a materialist approach to not only oppression and marginalization, but also domination and normality’ (p.1). She explores the way social divisions and hierarchies are constructed, and focuses on ‘the oppression of women, of non-whites and of gays’, which ‘divide the whole of society into two categories, two camps …. the Ones and the Others’. Domination relies on classification and separation in order to exert and retain power. Her objective is to demonstrate that hatred of the Other is not a natural, human trait but is socially constructed through concrete material practices, including ideological and discursive ones. She is interested in the way dominance operates and is imposed by the Ones, contrasting this with the ‘psychic suffering’ of the Others.

This juxtaposition of the dominant and the dominated is thought-provoking and challenging, but there are problems with Delphy’s binary opposition. It ignores the diversity that exists within both groups, and particularly among the ‘Others’.

Delphy suggests that Muslims in France are a homogenous group originating from former French colonies. She does not make reference to minorities within oppressed groups, or acknowledge differing cultural traditions (the Pew Forum estimates that there are 4.7 million Muslims in France, and whilst most hail from North Africa, there are also hundreds of thousands from the Indian sub-continent, Turkey and elsewhere bringing with them their own diverse experiences of Islam). She also fails to distinguish between Muslims, Islam and Islamism. She does not discuss Islamism as a political movement which has spread through communities across the world, nor the opposition to Islamism that exists within the same communities. As Karima Bennoune observes, we rarely hear ‘the perspectives of secular people of Muslim heritage concerned with both rising fundamentalism and increasing discrimination against Muslims’.

In Britain since the ‘Rushdie affair’ in 1989 (when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses), there has been a shift away from identity categories based on racial, ethnic or national affiliation, and towards identities based on religious faith. South Asian communities in particular are now divided and identified along religious lines, and there has been a growing demand for more sensitivity to religious values, especially in the light of growing anti-Muslim racism. However, framing a feminist political response to these demands requires us, as Pragna Patel points out, to consider who defines ‘religious values’ and for what purpose.  Although Delphy discusses the war on terror and its impact on Muslims living in the West, she glosses over the conservative, fundamentalist forces which may be at work within these same Muslim minority communities.

To veil or not to veil

Very few issues attract as much attention or public discussion as the niqab or face veil. Is it a symbol of oppression or of minority women asserting their religious identity? In 2004, when France became the first country in Europe to introduce legislation banning the wearing of religious symbols in schools, the law was initially presented as a matter of laïcité (state secularism) and what it means to be French. This ban in schools was later extended to wearing of the hijab in public spaces in 2007. It was followed by a ban on face coverings in 2011 based on security concerns. Delphy puts these events in the context of increasing anti-Muslim racism and growing support for the far right in France. She argues that banning the veil will further marginalise and isolate the very women and girls the State says it wishes to protect.

Other feminists take an opposing view. Marième Hélie-Lucas, an Algerian living in France, argues that

When talking of veils in schools, one automatically refers to the veiling of under-aged girls, i.e. not the veiling of women. The question thus becomes: who is to decide on girls’ veiling—themselves or the adults who are in charge of them? And which adults? This point requires special consideration given the new trend to veil girls as young as 5 as shown in the numerous campaigns going on now throughout North Africa.

Hélie-Lucas locates the debate about the hijab/niqab within a context that once applied to FGM and forced marriage. She asks, who is the adult in charge of protecting the girl-child’s rights? The state already plays this role when it prevents families from performing FGM on girls, or subjecting them to forced marriages. Why should it not also take responsibility for preventing the deep psychological damage induced by wearing a veil before adulthood? Why should the state be seen as authoritarian when it prevents the veiling of girls but not when it protects them from FGM? In the 1970s in Europe and North America there were many on the Left, as well as some feminists, who defended FGM as a ’cultural right’ and denounced efforts to eradicate the practice in Europe as ‘western imperialism’. At no point was any reference made to the struggles of women on the ground to eradicate FGM in parts of Africa. We see the same pattern replicated regarding the ‘right to veil’, which is now seen as a ‘religious right’ despite the fact that numerous progressive interpreters of the Qur’an have stated that it is not an Islamic injunction.

Delphy accuses feminists who support the ban of failing Muslim women by supporting racist laws. She also criticises organisations like Ni Putes Ni Soumises (‘neither whores nor submissive women’), which was established by Fadela Amara—an activist with roots in the anti-racist organization SOS Racisme—to break the silence about violence against Muslim women in French immigrant communities. She commends the group for challenging sexism but accuses it of supporting a racist agenda in order to secure government funds (p.154). This attack on minority women makes me deeply uncomfortable. Delphy fails to recognise the very real risks minority women face when they challenge violence against women and girls and the power structures within their communities. Why should the government not fund organisations to protect those at risk of violence and abuse?

The veil is only the latest example of men in minority communities using the imposition of traditional/religious dress codes to control women and girls. Many South Asian women and girls have spoken in the past about being forced to wear shalwar kameez in order to maintain modesty and conform to community norms. Over the years schools in many areas adjusted their uniform policy to allow the wearing of trousers for girls and/or shalwar kameez in school colours. This accommodation to community dress code demands later incorporated the hijab/ headscarf, but not the face veil.

In 2002 Shabina Begum, a young Muslim girl, took legal action against her school for refusing her permission to wear the jilbab (full ankle-length dress). She claimed that this breached her human right to manifest her religion, and also her right to an education, since she was barred from the school unless she complied with its uniform policy. In 2006 the House of Lords delivered a judgement stating that Shabina’s rights had not been violated, and that any infringement was necessary and proportionate for the protection and well-being of the wider school community. The judges stated that school’s uniform policy already took account of ‘mainstream’ Muslim opinion.

According to Pragna Patel, this decision reflected an understanding of the political context: Shabina’s challenge had been motivated by the desire of others to impose a politicized religious identity on women and girls at the school. Shabina was represented by her older brother, who appeared to be part of an extreme Muslim political group. The group had protested outside the school—not against the uniform policy, but against the education of Muslim children in secular schools.

However, some feminists, like Maleiha Malik, criticised the judgement for failing to recognise that Shabina was exercising her autonomy by wearing the jilbab in an environment where Muslims are constantly demonised and discriminated against. Like Delphy, Malik located the debate primarily in relation to the issue of anti-Muslim racism. But what both overlook is that for a woman to wear the veil is not necessarily an act of individual agency, but is profoundly shaped by political processes that involve the privileging of a religious identity over others.

This is not to deny that Muslim women may wear the veil by choice. Muslim women themselves have talked about wearing the hijab or niqab as a visible symbol of their religious identity, or to protect themselves from male attention and aggression. As Mona Eltahawy says in her book Headscarves and Hymens,  the act of wearing the hijab is far from simple. But let us not forget that some Muslim women face violence and abuse for daring to challenge community norms justified by so-called codes of honour. Both Eltahawy and Aliyah Saleem, an ex-Muslim and former student at an Islamic school, have written about their experiences of being forced to wear the hijab. Aliyah has recently produced a series of videos discussing the challenges she faced when she decided to remove her hijab.

The veil continues to be a source of challenge in both Muslim majority and minority contexts. There is a long tradition of Muslim academics and theologians offering feminist interpretations of Qur’anic verses including references to the veil. The late Fatima Mernissi, a leading Moroccan sociologist and feminist, Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian American scholar, and Amina Wadud are among the women who have argued that the Qur’an prescribes modesty, and not specifically veiling. Delphy, however, makes no reference to these arguments.

Racism, Identity and the War on Terror

Like the debate on the hijab, discussions of the ‘war on terror’ are polarised, with neither side moving towards the other. Are there only two positions? Must we either support the war on terror and recognise the Islamist threat, or else maintain that the war on terror is a war against Islam and an excuse to demonize Muslims?

It would appear that the French Left, like its British equivalent, views terrorism as the result of imperialist interventions in Iraq and elsewhere, or as a result of earlier injustices during the period of colonial rule. Yet the first of these arguments seems unconvincing in relation to France, which opposed the war in Iraq but has still seen terror unleashed on the streets of Paris. If we accept the argument that terrorism and violence are a response to the West’s attacks on Muslims, then as a strategy I would argue it has failed spectacularly. Every act of terrorism, from the bombings of American targets in the 1980s and 1990s to the recent killings in Paris and Brussels, has prompted increased military action by the West and its allies, resulting in further loss of Muslim lives. In the West it has led to increased surveillance of Muslims, fuelled the growth of anti-Muslim racism and promoted the rise of the far Right.

In the context of increasing anti-Muslim hatred and discrimination it is incredibly difficult to raise concerns about political Islamist movements, violations of human rights by Islamists or the oppression of Muslim women, without feeding an anti-Muslim discourse. In Double Bind: the Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Right and Universal Human Rights, Meredith Tax asks:

When US diplomats invoke the oppression of Muslim women to sanctify war, how do we practice feminist solidarity without strengthening Orientalism and neo-colonialism? When the US targets jihadis for assassination by drone, should human rights defenders worry about violations perpetrated those same jihadis or focus on violations by the State?

Conversely, how does one raise the points discussed by Delphy with regard to the war on terror, drone strikes, Guantanamo, and the denial of any discussion about the real or perceived causes for terrorism, without feeding the Islamist agenda and reinforcing the Muslim victim narrative?

In her discussion of Guantanamo Bay, Delphy is right to denounce the utter lack of due process and the incarceration of prisoners without charge, but I disagree with her claim that ‘their only crime is to be of Arab origin or Muslim faith’. The reality is more complex: it is possible to be both a victim of injustice and a supporter of terrorism. Delphy’s portrayal of French Muslims as passive victims of discrimination and prejudice—the Others dominated by the Ones—repeats the very same argument propagated by Islamists. It could be asked whether this helps to give credibility to the Islamist narrative—a narrative which is strongly contested in Muslim majority countries, as Karima Bennoune and others have shown.

Delphy identifies the centrality of racism to a construction of Muslim Others as backward, patriarchal and oppressive. That racism is fuelled on a daily basis by media portrayals of Muslims as oppressed women, rapists, terrorists, child abusers, illegal immigrants and benefits cheats. However, it is also unhelpful to deny that some people in Muslim communities do fall into those categories. To move forward, we need a more open and honest debate, including women and men, those of faith and of no faith, whites and non-whites, gay and straight people and all minority groups. We should heed the call to action with which Separate and Dominate ends:

We all need to revisit our way of thinking about the articulation and imbrication of patriarchy and racism, as well as the way we ‘do’ activism. The feminist movement cannot survive unless it becomes truly universal, taking all women, all their situations and all their revolts into account.


[1]  The cartoon shows Aylan Kurdi – the child whose picture, lying face down on a beach, highlighted the refugee crisis – with a message “What would have happened to little Aylan if he grew up?” The answer, “A groper of women in Germany.” Under the headline “Migrants”, the cartoon shows two men with their tongues out and arms outstretched running behind a woman. It clearly alludes to the recent incident in Cologne, Germany where mass sexual assaults were reported on New Year’s Eve, allegedly perpetrated by refugees.


Christine Delphy, Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror,  translated by David Broder, published by Verso Books, 2015.

Find Yasmin Rehman on Twitter @RehmanYasmin



T&S choices for the festive season 1

It’s the season for round-ups of the year’s cultural highlights, but instead of giving you our views on the books and films everyone was talking about in 2015, we’ve decided to suggest some you might have missed. In other words, here are a few of the things we’ve enjoyed, and think our readers will too. Not all our recommendations are from this year, but they’re fairly recent and all available, and in our opinion they’re all absorbing and entertaining. So, put some feminism into your festive season with the T&S collective’s Christmas list.

Books worth reading:

Liz Kelly:

My recommendations for holiday reading are two novels written by friends and one which opened up new vistas of sci-fi/fantasy. All of them are available on Kindle and as a real book

Hotel Arcadia, Sunny Singh

Promoted as a thriller, and with a number of glowing reviews, this is a novel written by one of my colleagues. Set in a luxury hotel which is subjected to a terrorist attack the text moves between two central characters who challenge gender stereotypes. Sam, a fearless, yet traumatised, war photographer, is a woman who appears to in control of her life, who has her own ethics and moral compass. Ahbi, the hotel manager and a closeted gay man, angsts about having failed to live up to his military father’s hopes and expectations.

The terrorists and the past are the backdrops against which the Sam and Ahbi enter a conversation with each other and themselves, although they never actually meet. The extreme context creates a situation in which they muse on the personal in the political, the global for the individual. The central section is taught, tense – I found myself holding my breath and had to keep on reading as the writing evoked this small dangerous space.

Golddigger, Hilary McCollum

Written by a long time friend and radical feminist, Golddigger is in the tradition of lesbian historical fiction. The book traces the early life of Frances Moriarty as she escapes the cruel ty of famine hit Ireland for the promise of the US. The scenes in Ireland are full of the stolen moments of a first and forbidden love, the delight and amazement when women fall in love with each other, the simple pleasure of a look, a touch and that first electric kiss. Tragedy strikes and the writing turns to loss and grief, as Frances has to face the challenge and adventure alone. Unsurprisingly she decides to dress as a man and whilst in New York decides to join the legions travelling to California to make their fortune in the gold rush. You have to read the book to find out if she makes it. Ultimately this story is a quest, by a poor but determined woman for a life unconstrained by religion, tradition and feminine conformity, of loving and living against the grain.

Lagoon, Nnedi Okarafor

The plot line comes straight out of B movie science fiction – aliens land on earth and are not impressed by what they find. What makes this different is that it is set in Lagos, which made me realise how much of the scifi and fantasy I read takes the West as its template. More than this how the aliens are realised, and the uncertainty of whether they might be saviours or tyrants, offers more than a late night movie. This coupled with the machinations of various groupings to use the aliens for their own agendas – a failing sick president, a corrupt pastor, the ambitious military man, and a street gang – make for a complex and at times chaotic plot. What I most enjoyed, however, were the encounters with Nigerian mythology and the chapters which were written from the perspective of a swordfish, a giant spider and even a section of road. Speculative fiction at its best, and part of the new genre of Afrofuturism.

Debbie Cameron:

Dietland, Sarai Walker

Sarai Walker’s Dietland takes the upbeat, anarchic political spirit of the early Women’s Liberation Movement and infuses it into a novel with a contemporary setting and pop-culture sensibility. Set in present-day New York City, it’s the story of Plum Kettle, an isolated and initially somewhat downtrodden woman whose job is answering the anguished letters readers send to the editor of a teen girls’ magazine. Plum’s own problem is that she’s fat in a world where fat women are despised: she’s waiting and saving for the bariatric surgery that she thinks will change her life.

But then she stumbles into a parallel world. An anti-beauty industry activist who has infiltrated the magazine where she works leads her to Verena, a philanthropist who inherited a fortune from her mother’s slimming business (the Dietland of the title), and is using what she regards as the proceeds of the devil’s work to do the work of feminism instead. She makes Plum an offer: she’ll pay for the surgery if Plum still wants to have it after a period of living in Verena’s all-female communal household.

Meanwhile, there’s a subplot about a shadowy organization calling itself ‘Jennifer’ (the name has been chosen because it’s so generic, the most popular girls’ name of the 1980s). Jennifer is essentially a terrorist group, and its targets are men who have perpetrated violence against women. It kidnaps them and either kills them or uses them as leverage to make feminist demands (such as the removal of degrading images of women from public sale).

I won’t reveal how it all comes out, but the reason I think it’s a great radical feminist read is not, in any case, the plot. It’s the mixture of what you might call political satire and fantasy. Walker is both incisive and uncompromising in her critique of the misogyny of contemporary ‘post-feminist’ societies. There is almost no aspect of the contempt, violence and hatred women are subjected to—by capitalism, by their own internalized self-loathing, and above all by men—that isn’t touched on at some point in the novel. Yet it doesn’t turn into a horrorfest or a one-note rant; first, because the satire is often funny as well as enraging, and second, because of the fantasy element. The ‘Jennifer’ subplot has women rising up and turning the tables on their oppressors: we might not approve of their methods in real life, but in fiction this revenge is sweet.

In a way Dietland is a (feminist) novel of ideas, but it’s unlikely to be described as such, because it isn’t a ‘difficult’ or inaccessible book, and it’s not aimed at readers who like their writing self-consciously literary. Some reviewers have been a bit sniffy about it for that reason; a few have gone so far as to compare it to chick-lit. Some readers clearly made that assumption too, to judge from their online comments expressing disappointment that the initially sympathetic Plum turned out so ‘unlikeable’.

I’m more in agreement with the reviewer who described Dietland as ‘a thrilling, incendiary manifesto disguised as a beach read’. And what you can enjoy on a beach, you can equally enjoy during the inevitable longueurs of the festive season, or use to lighten the gloom of a British January. Think of it as a feminist alternative to joining the gym and going on a detox diet.

Films worth watching

Joan Scanlon:

My recommendations begin with two films that are more about pleasure than politics, the first an elegiac film about women and wine-making, and the second a romantic comedy with a twist.

Les Cabotines: le vin au feminin

Les Cabotines: le vin au feminin (freely translated as: Wine, Women & Friends, which is the English title of the film) was produced and directed by Fiona Cunningham-Reid. It is the story of Carole Leblanc and Jo Béfort, who started their wine adventure eight years ago in Collias, France. Their dream was to produce excellent wine. They had no experience, no professional support, just their passion for wine – and the support of their friends. This captivating film follows their wine-making adventure and gently explores their relationships with the village and each other. This is not a lesbian separatist community; far from it. Key to the success of their integration in the village is their absolute determination to make the best possible wine, and vice versa. The villager from whom they hire their cellar is thoroughly approving of the quality of their wine, which far exceeds that of the previous occupant. When asked about their sexuality, he says: “It was talked about, but there’s no problem.” Their sexuality is neither here nor there, but a remarkable unremarkability nonetheless in the context of village life.

The film was screened at Channel 4 on  23rd January 2013 at the launch of Stonewall’s female supporter initiative, followed by a wine tasting of Carole & Jo’s latest vintage. Long lingering shots of the Pays du Gard landscape, Jo mucking out a wine press, Carole lyricizing about the quality of the grapes, warm evenings eating outdoors with quantities of friends celebrating (and consuming) the fruits of their labour. The film is not coy about the physically arduous work involved in wine-making, but in spite of this, I doubt there were many lesbians in the audience (materially influenced by a glass or two of the very fine Les Dames d’Epicure), who didn’t consider packing up shop and moving to Languedoc-Roussillon. A recent review in G3 magazine (mostly very positive to be fair), nonetheless argues that: ‘the documentary is at times almost sickly sweet and idyllic beyond belief’, and I can’t help wondering if this isn’t a warning to the readers of G3, Diva et al, that this film isn’t about power, danger and sex – it’s purely a film about pleasure.

To buy or download the film: or you can simply order a copy of the DVD from Amazon (under the English title). Sadly, their wine is not available in the UK, but it would scarcely be a hardship to visit the vineyard and buy it for yourself:


Margarita – a film by Dominique Cardona & Laurie Colbert – was screened on the closing night of the London Lesbian & Gay film festival, 24th March 2013. Ostensibly a lesbian love story, here, as in Les Cabotines, sexuality is not the issue. Margarita, a young Mexican nanny, has been living and working in Canada illegally for the previous six years. She is employed by Gail and Ben, a cash-strapped power couple (brilliantly acted by Patrick McKenna and Gail Lautier), who are oblivious to her dependence on them – and theirs on her: she does everything in the house, from cleaning and cooking to building maintenance (there’s a very funny scene where she appears as a kind of superwoman with a tool belt strapped to her ready for any DIY task).

When the couple decide they have to make economies, Margarita’s tiny salary is on their hit list, although they struggle to inform her of this, and their teenage daughter Mali goes into full rebellion when she finds out. The film is wonderfully ironic – Margarita is self-consciously portrayed by Nicola Correia-Damude as a Mexican Mary Poppins (the reference is explicit). Everyone loves her (not just the family, but Carlos the gardener, the shopkeepers – and, of course, her commitment-phobic lover Jane). When Margarita is knocked off her bicycle, and thus brought to the attention of the authorities and threatened with deportation, Ben and Gail realise they can’t manage without her, and, since they are not married themselves (on principle) each of them in turn propose marriage to her in order to keep her in the country (and of course managing their household). These scenes are hilariously funny – the heterosexual couple convinced that each of them is making an irresistible offer.

Margarita (à la Poppins) is of course only interested in marrying for love, and the film ends with Jane (finally) proposing. Do we have a Jane Austen conclusion: all the social divisions, turmoil and personal tragedies, neatly resolved by matrimony? I may be attributing too much satire to the film, but it was so consistently self-ironising that I was inclined to read the conclusion in that light too. We suspect that the rather shallow Jane is probably commitment-phobic at least in part because of Margarita’s class and race, and I for one did not feel the lesbian marriage conclusion was the end of her struggles. In the end, the film was more a feminist film than a lesbian feel-good movie. It is not a coming out story; Margarita just happens to be a lesbian (and this is simply accepted by all the other characters in the film). Her sexuality is not the focus: the film is more concerned with issues of social justice (class, race and immigration policy) and with parenting, heterosexuality, marriage. However, it deals with all these issues with a light touch, and was that rare thing: a beautifully crafted, surprisingly funny, thought-provoking film, which I can recommend whole-heartedly.


If you want stir some history and politics into your festive viewing, then you can now get hold of a copy of Myriam Fougère’s Lesbiana: A Parallel Revolution. This documentary about lesbian separatist communities in North America in the 1980s was screened on the opening night of the first London Feminist Film Festival on 30th November 2012. It is now available on DVD from the following website:

Shortly after the screening, the Trouble & Strife collective mulled over the history and significance of lesbian separatism, and you can hear this discussion on our podcast, downloadable via this link.

Picture this

If you want to get ahead, get a head-shot–on a professional profile or a company website, your photo is not an optional extra. But why should women be obliged to put their faces on public display? It’s a recipe for sexism, says Debbie Cameron

Remember Charlotte Proudman? She’s the barrister who made headlines this year after a male lawyer commented on the ‘stunning’ photo that adorned her profile on the professional networking site LinkedIn. Her response was to shame him on social media, telling him that she didn’t appreciate being objectified in this way. The emphasis put on looks, she said, ‘silences women’s professional attributes as their physical appearance becomes the subject’.

Predictably, she was pilloried by the likes of the Daily Mail, which called her both ‘prim’ and a ‘feminazi’, but what Proudman was saying struck a chord with many women. For anyone old enough to remember the 1970s, it was déjà vu all over again, with men telling us that they were only being friendly and that most women enjoyed the attention (i.e., you feminists are just jealous), or plaintively asking what the world was coming to if a man couldn’t pay a gal a compliment without someone outing him as a lech on Twitter.

But there was one question nobody seemed to be asking. If a person’s physical appearance is irrelevant to the judgment of their professional attributes, why do people put photos on their LinkedIn profiles at all?

When I ask this question, I’m not trying to blame Charlotte Proudman for her own objectification. I’m not saying, ‘if she didn’t want men to fixate on her looks, all she had to do was not display her photo on her profile’. My point is the opposite: this is not really a free choice. And that’s one thing that makes 2015 different from 1970. In the age of the internet and the digital camera, it has come to be more or less taken for granted that your professional profile—whether on LinkedIn, on your company’s website, or on the announcement of the talk you’re giving next month at a conference on Facilities Management—will be accompanied by a picture of your face. If you don’t put a photo on it, your profile will look ‘unprofessional’ (LinkedIn profiles with photos get seven times more clicks than those without), and if you don’t agree to provide a photo on request you will be judged as eccentric, uncooperative and rude.

I know this because it happens to me all the time.

I am an academic: I belong to a professional community where in theory your looks could hardly matter less. (Male academics’ inattention to professional standards of dress and grooming is legendary: there’s even a popular website called Professor or Hobo, where the game is to guess whether you’re looking at a photo of an expert on string theory or a homeless person.) When I started my career, in the early 1980s, there was no demand whatever for photos of people like me. Photos were only for models and celebrities, not least because in those pre-digital days it required skill and fancy equipment to take a professional-quality photo, and you also had to send the film away to be developed.

Then, one day in the mid-1990s, a man knocked on the door of my office and announced he’d come to take my photo for a display of staff head-shots that was going to be put up on the departmental noticeboard. When I asked him why, he said it was a ‘customer care’ initiative to make the staff more accessible to students and visitors. ‘If there’s a picture of what you look like on the noticeboard they’ll know who you are’.

I pointed out that students already knew who their lecturers were: we were the ones on the podium in lectures, or in front of the whiteboard in classes. He said, ‘and what if someone wants to see you who isn’t in your class?’ I replied that a student in that position would probably do exactly what he’d just done: come to my office, and then proceed on the assumption that the person inside was the person whose name appeared ON THE DOOR.

But this snark got me nowhere: it was the first of many arguments on this subject I was destined to lose. Within a few years, the parade of staff mugshots on the departmental noticeboard had become the norm in every university. It’s a symbol of institutional approachability, and if you didn’t have one it would be like putting up a notice saying ‘in this department we’re remote, unfriendly bastards’.

Within a few more years, as the internet became the main medium for all kinds of communication, and digital images became ever simpler to produce and then reproduce, it also became the norm for people to expect photos with everything. Today, if I’ve been invited to speak at a conference, or visit a university abroad, or give a talk at my local bookshop, whoever’s doing the publicity will ask me not only for the traditional things (name, academic affiliation, title and brief description of my talk), but also for a picture of myself.

I have sometimes asked, ‘but why does it matter what I look like?’ Invariably, the answer I get is that of course the actual details of my appearance aren’t important, but being able to see my face makes it easier for people to relate to me. Or as one put it recently, ‘a picture makes you more relatable’. Being ‘relatable’ is now an obligation, a professional imperative if you want to be successful. And part of that imperative is to show your face.

You’re probably wondering why this bothers me so much. Am I hideously ugly? Exceptionally shy? No: and even if I were both, that wouldn’t be the point. My objection to the routine use of photos in professional contexts isn’t about the way it makes individual women feel. (Which is, of course, variable.) It’s a political objection: although it is rarely discussed as such, I think this is very much a feminist issue. It affects men and women differently, in ways that work to the disadvantage of women as a group.

It wouldn’t be true to say it doesn’t affect men at all. Everyone today has to pay attention to their self-presentation and ‘public image’. From the moment a teenager constructs her or his first Facebook profile, s/he’s engaged in the process of deliberate self-commodification for an audience with certain expectations. But while both sexes expect to be judged, and are liable to develop the kind of self-consciousness that entails, the standards are not the same for males and females, and nor are the consequences of failing to meet them.

I’ve mentioned Facebook, but Facebook isn’t really what I’m complaining about. On Facebook you can choose not to put your photo on your profile: many of my own friends use an image of something else entirely. You can also control who sees what you post. But in professional life, you don’t always have a choice, and you certainly don’t have the same control. I sometimes used to dodge the request for a photo by saying I didn’t have a suitable one; but what usually happened was that whoever it was just went off and found some random old photo on the web. If you’ve ever had an image of it publicly displayed, your face becomes a kind of permanent public property. And for women that can cause all sorts of problems.

The most obvious problem is the one Charlotte Proudman had: unwanted sexual attention in what’s supposed to be a professional context. Lest we forget, that’s the basic definition of sexual harassment. But because it’s happening at a distance, most often in the form of online verbal communications like comments on a woman’s profile or email sent to them directly, it’s rarely put in the same category as the classic form of workplace harassment where the harasser and the target work in close physical proximity.

Proudman’s experience was relatively mild: the unwanted attention didn’t escalate to explicit sexual propositions, or threats, or stalking. Those things do happen, though, and arguably they are more likely to happen if your profile displays your face than if it merely displays your CV. The trouble is that for women, being ‘relatable’ is often a euphemism for being sexually available. The question isn’t whether men can relate to your views on best practice in accountancy, it’s whether they’d like to relate to you in a more intimate way. If they think you’re attractive you’ll get comments, and if they don’t you may get comments of a different kind.

Judging by appearances is not just something harassers do. Research suggests we all do it. People who are ‘good looking’ by the prevailing standards of their culture get hired more easily, promoted more quickly and earn more than their less attractive peers. As a broad generalization this applies to both sexes, but if you look at research on the way career prospects are affected by specific aspects of appearance—in particular, whether you’re fat, skinny or average—it becomes clear that the effects are both different and more severe for women. Putting photos on everything makes this kind of bias worse, if only because it kicks in sooner than it might otherwise: if a picture is the first thing someone sees, that will colour their judgment of the stuff that’s actually relevant. Actually, there’s research suggesting that ‘colour their judgment’ is an understatement. According to one study,

recruiters spend 19% of their time on your online profile looking at your picture. Not as much time is spent on your skills or past work experience. Therefore, your picture plays a big role in whether you’re able to interest a recruiter enough to reach out to you.

The use of profile pictures also facilitates other kinds of discrimination, since a photo reveals not only a person’s sex, but also their race and their approximate age.

Advice on what constitutes a ‘good’ profile picture makes clear that the expectations are not gender-neutral. Men are told to present themselves in a suitably professional way. This will probably involve tidying whatever hair they’ve got on their head, shaving (or trimming their facial hair) and wearing a collar and tie. For women it’s more complicated. You’re expected to be ‘well-groomed’, which means, in the words of one site, ‘appropriate make-up and jewellery’, and you must combine looking professional with not looking ‘unapproachable’ (severe, bossy, intimidating). These demands mean you have to pay attention not only to what you wear, but to every nuance of your posture and facial expression. Should you smile or look serious? What kind of pose, or gaze, will make you look approachable but not too girly? And of course, you worry that whatever you decide, you’ll be judged and found wanting. Because you’re a woman, and that means everyone feels entitled to judge the way you look.

Once I was interviewed for a Sunday newspaper, and they sent a professional photographer to take some pictures. His most ‘successful’ shot showed me in profile; he explained that in his expert opinion a standard full-face shot would not flatter me. At the time, I didn’t resent him telling me that: I figured it was his job to make those judgments. But later, I wondered: would he have said the same if I’d been a man? In that case I think he’d probably have taken the full-face picture, because he wouldn’t have cared so much about whether the shot was ‘flattering’. You can show a man the way he is: you can look for the individual personality in his face. With a woman, though, it’s assumed that what you should do is make her look more conventionally attractive, which may also mean less individual. It’s also assumed that she will want that.

I do resent it when I get random blokes on Twitter telling me how ugly I look in my profile photo. Or advising me, as one once did, that I should cut my fringe and use better hair products. I think: what’s it to them? They don’t know me personally; Twitter isn’t a dating site, and I haven’t made my appearance the subject of a poll. Yet they seem to take what they see as its shortcomings very personally. As if my lack of attention to what they consider proper standards of grooming were a calculated insult that they can’t allow to pass.

The photo I use on Twitter is a drastically cropped version of an ineptly-taken selfie, and I don’t use it for professional purposes: since it doesn’t show me looking ‘professional’, it isn’t suitable for putting on a poster or a university website. The photo that does appear on my department’s website is less casual, but so out of date, you could probably sue it for false advertising. And as I write that, I realise it’s not just a figure of speech: in professional and public contexts, these endless head-shots basically are a form of advertising, with you as the product.

In the final analysis, I think that’s what bothers me most—not just that I’m expected to sell myself, but that I’m expected to do it in the way women always have, by using my looks. And however women look, there’s a price to pay for that: a ‘stunning’ photo will get you objectified, while a not-so-stunning photo will get you sneered at. No photo at all will get you a rep for being snotty, or out of touch with the self-promotional demands of the 21st century world.

Meanwhile, men who look like the ones on ‘Hobo or Professor’ just upload their warts-and-all images and then forget it. They know they have more important things to advertise; we are constantly reminded that we don’t.

Bringing up the body

Maddy Coy reviews Alison Phipps’s book The Politics of the Body, and finds it partial in both senses of the word

By Alison Phipps’s own account, her book The Politics of the Body sets out to ask ‘questions about how contemporary discussions of issues to do with women’s bodies reflect how we conceptualise embodiment’. Each chapter picks out a particular issue, or set of issues, relating to this general theme: the topics examined are sexual violence, gender and Islam, the politics of the sex industry and the reproductive regimes of birth and breastfeeding.

On the plus side, it’s good to see a feminist book that’s critical of the way neoliberalism has normalised ‘the politics of personal responsibility’ and conferred feminist status on any choice a woman makes, regardless of the constraints of social structure. It’s good to see someone examining discourses and debates around women’s bodies, and drawing on academic research to support, or dispute, what have become normative frameworks at best and incontestable truths at their most divisive. But it’s disappointing and frustrating to see this much-needed analysis marred by blind spots, misunderstandings and a thorough, seemingly deliberate hatchet-job on radical feminism.

For me, the book’s best and most accessible chapter is the last one, on birth and breastfeeding – the ‘new reproductive regimes of truth’. How, Phipps asks, has the ‘natural’ become so idealised, often robbing women of medical, technological advances that have made modern motherhood less painful and frankly, more convenient? When practices of attachment parenting and ‘the breastfeeding mafia’ are both lauded and decried by the mainstream media, even to suggest that there might be a place for epidurals, caesareans and formula milk as means for women to reclaim and re-inhabit a maternal body is no small stake in the ground.

Not that this is necessarily Phipps’ aim: rather she presents a careful argument about how choosing a ‘normal’ birth and the ‘self-sacrifice’ of breastfeeding is inextricably linked to privilege. In ‘attempt[ing] to apply the principle of intersectionality’, she calls out the way campaigns, initiatives and organisations that promote less intervention and ‘normal’ birth have become yardsticks by which to judge, as ill-informed and selfish, the choices made by the working class and minority women who are more likely to opt for pain relief and formula feeding. She unpicks the gender essentialisms behind these maternalist ideals, and how they have pushed women’s bodily autonomy aside in favour of ‘prescribed practices’. Never mind that research shows most women experiencing some form of ‘birth trauma’ have had ‘normal’ deliveries, or the inconsistencies in the evidence base on the benefits of breastfeeding. She points out that ‘only women who know they are able to give birth safely are able to reject the trappings of technology’, thus making a structural link with the romanticisation of natural birth in many parts of the world where there is little or  no access to medical care. This, as she astutely observes, illustrates the ‘shift from rights to choices’.

Nor does the merchandising industry that has sprung up around managing labour pains, aiding ‘natural’ birth, breastfeeding and kangaroo care-style attachment parenting, escape her forensic gaze. How neat that a movement supposedly empowering women to do what comes naturally requires relentless consumerism! Here Phipps identifies the way feminist goals have been co-opted by a neoliberal fetishization of personal responsibility. It’s the kind of incisive analysis many feminists will have been hoping for.

The chapter on sexual violence also starts promisingly, with a critical account of the controversies that swirl around Julian Assange, his refusal to answer questions about allegations of sexual assault in Sweden, and the similar defences of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Roman Polanski. The lefties who vocally supported Assange are painstakingly exposed. That powerful men have been allowed to abuse women with impunity has perhaps never been so publicly evident than at present, in the aftermath of the Jimmy Savile revelations and the arrests of various celebrities. Phipps shows that responses to Strauss-Kahn, Polanski and Assange were similarly revealing, and she distils these cases to explore ‘rape apologism’.

However, I am less than convinced by her argument that a central problem on the left is ‘an assumption that left-wing men are above misogyny’—not because I doubt that this assumption exists, but because it elides sexual violence with men’s hatred of women rather than their abuse of power. Some left-wing men might well be misogynists, but as feminists have long known, they can also be capable of abusing gendered power in ways that jar with their awareness of classed power. In this chapter on sexual violence (and the politics of victimhood), men’s entitlement to women’s bodies is discussed only once, with reference to Adrienne Rich, when surely it is central to any understanding of how all of these men were variously excused and idealised. Nor is there any reference here to the huge body of feminist work (much of it radical feminist) which relates to the debate on victimhood. It was after all Kathleen Barry who introduced the concept of ‘victimism’ in 1979 in her book Female Sexual Slavery.

Phipps does explore how the women abused by these men were interrogated by the media and found wanting, and links this insightfully to the way choice, agency and personal responsibility have come to dominate understandings of human behaviour. Yet her passing concern at how little attention is paid to the choices and agency of perpetrators is mirrored by the chapter itself. The argument here that only women’s choices have been ‘responsibilised’, especially with respect to sexual violence, leaves an echoing silence about men’s actions. The chapter ends with an ambivalent account of the controversy surrounding ‘Slutwalks’, celebrated as an initiative that rejects victim-blame and personal responsibility, but criticised at least in part because of concerns voiced by Black women about the racialisation of the term slut.

In the end, this chapter felt like a missed opportunity – a set of expectations raised and dashed, not least because of the sledge-hammer approach to radical feminism, which is repeatedly accused of an unholy alliance with neoconservative moralism, and used as the scapegoat for the deep suspicion with which left wing movements now regard victimhood.

Radical feminism: an enemy within?

In a book where every assertion is meticulously referenced, a strange and telling absence is the total lack of any reference to sources when repeating the assertion that radical feminism has embraced a ‘neoconservative gender essentialism’. So striking is this absence that it comes to define the author’s point of view. The refrain that there is a ‘convergence of radical feminism with neoconservative and neo-conservative law and order agendas’ is sprinkled throughout the entire text, sometimes on almost every page. In a couple of places ‘trafficking’ is invoked as an example of this alliance, but with no specific examples (of campaigns, support services or research) which might substantiate the point. In a book of this scope and potential, containing a thoughtful and sophisticated discussion of how neoliberalism and neoconservatism are defined and understood, it’s a pity Phipps fails to offer readers even the most basic definition of a strand of feminism that she repeatedly vilifies. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this omission is deliberate, for fear of giving radical feminist politics any intellectual legitimacy. Instead she reinforces every stereotype and myth (I’m sure you can reel them off without too much thought) in ways which ultimately diminish the intellectual integrity of her own position.

Taken at its most basic, radical feminism identifies men’s privilege over women as the root of women’s inequality, exercised particularly through entitlement to women’s bodies, and thus many activists on violence against women and girls trace the way we understand violence back to radical feminism. Many of the issues she engages with in the book – sexual violence, prostitution, crimes in the name of honour – owe their public profile to these very activists and the framings they use.

This is not to question the legitimacy of critiquing any political position, or the need to challenge the ways in which intersections with race and class have been less prominent than they should have been in some aspects of radical feminist theory and practice. But there is a disconnection throughout this book from the grassroots feminists who work on violence against women and girls. At times this is more of a shadow cast by the now familiar refrain about radical feminists jumping into bed with neocons, but it is also explicitly articulated, nowhere more obviously than in the chapter on gender and Islam.

For instance, Phipps insists on using the term ‘female genital cutting’ (linking the word ‘mutilation’ to an ‘Orientalist framework’) and when she uses the full term ‘female genital mutilation’ (FGM), she adds ‘[sic]’ to distance herself from it. There are interesting and legitimate debates about the meanings of the word mutilation, and particularly what it means for women who have undergone this form of violence to be labelled ‘mutilated’. Some use the term FGM/C to denote the complexities of finding language that does not alienate whilst also naming and defining. I would have welcomed discussion of this. But five seconds on the Internet would have told Phipps that many of the grassroots women’s organisations who specialise in campaigning against FGM (e.g. FORWARD, Daughters of Eve), led by women from practising communities who identify as survivors, use the term ‘mutilation’. This links the procedure to other forms of violence against women and girls. By insisting on using the term ‘cutting’ instead of ‘FGM’, Phipps manages at one stroke to decouple FGM from VAWG, placing herself at odds with international human rights approaches, and inadvertently slipping into both cultural relativism and colonial feminism.

It jars more than slightly for a privileged academic (Phipps refers to herself as ‘a white, western, able-bodied and cisgendered woman married to a man, living a fairly conventional middle-class lifestyle’) to reject the language that activists from the most respected and prominent NGOs use to frame the experiences of women in communities that practice FGM. I found myself wondering if Phipps deliberately rejects this framing because she views these organisations and survivors as under the umbrella of the radical feminists who are in turn in thrall to neocon law-and-order agendas. If so, then this example illustrates another way in which the intellectual positioning of this book, and Phipps’ wilful misrepresentation of radical feminism, leaves her arguments circulating within the rarefied sphere of the academy and totally detached from contemporary activism.

Not only is the term ‘female genital cutting’ used in this chapter, but the similarly problematic ‘wife-beating’ (with no ‘[sic]’ to suggest that it is someone else’s term with which she disagrees). There is a short section in this chapter on constructions of honour killing, which succinctly addresses the ways in which ‘culture’ (conflated with Islam?) is used as justification and explanation, whilst the motivations of ‘white’ men who kill women are not attributed to notions of honour. However, once again, to devote less than a page to violations of women’s bodies in a chapter of this potential scope, and instead spend most of its space on veiling, is wholly inadequate. What the key issues are for a political sociology of women’s bodies with respect to Islam depends on perspective; in the media it is indeed about veiling, and the contentions around ‘banning the burqa’. For those of us in the VAWG sector, there are deeper questions about the violations of women’s bodies, and representations of the Black woman’s body in relation to honour-based violence. There is, of course, a broad argument made here about the challenges facing feminism. But language matters, and ideas matter, and Phipps has chosen to position herself at one remove from specialists in the field and from many feminist activists.

The chapter on the sex industry reinforces this. Trafficking is only referenced in relation to that now rather tired old refrain about rad fems cheering on neocon rescue industries, a charge levelled at feminist organisations providing support to women who have been trafficked. Elsewhere, this slur is more insidiously used to suggest that such NGOs exaggerate the extent of trafficking. Again, my point here is not that the notions of rescue do not feature in the framings used by some of those that support victims of trafficking. I would have welcomed a discussion unpicking and evidencing this. Unfortunately, Phipps manages to problematise critical feminist perspectives on trafficking while providing no evidence for what is often a lazy pejoration.

The main thrust of this chapter, however, is a deconstruction of the ways in which arguments about women’s agency have been used to make the voices and experiences of the most privileged women in the sex industry the loudest. The wonderful term ‘sex work glitterati’ is deployed to great effect, exposing again how the appearance of cool liberalism privileges women who already enjoy social and economic capital, yet have become the ‘authentic’ voice of the sex industry. There is brief acknowledgement of how structural inequalities result in women choosing to commodify their bodies, which is then plated with a seemingly impenetrable veneer of voluntarism. The gendered asymmetry of prostitution is recognised, and ‘whorephobia’ – an accusation levelled noisily at most of us who critique the social institution of the sex industry – is identified as an example of the ‘politics of recognition’ which chooses to ignore structural inequalities.

So why might this otherwise trenchant critique be so disquieting? The first reason is relatively superficial – she insists on using the term ‘sex work’ throughout, language inextricably associated with the position that she critiques, rarely used by women in the sex industry (except by the ‘sex work glitterati’ that she discusses) and of course rejected by those of us with a more critical engagement. Secondly, in the binary of philosophically incompatible positions that Phipps discusses – sex radicals who celebrate the empowering potential of the sex industry and radical feminists for whose position she provides no explanation – she draws entirely on sex radical writing and research. Fair enough for a chapter aiming to interrogate this position. But it seems disingenuous to write a chapter on the politics of the sex industry which does not acknowledge any of the feminists who have for decades developed our thinking and empirical knowledge about it. It effaces our history, doubly so because it allows her to claim radical feminists’ arguments as her own.

Let us take a couple of her examples. (1) Evidence of trauma in ‘sex work’ – referenced to her own review of literature on this, not the radical feminist-inspired original research by Melissa Farley and her colleagues. (2) Failure of sex radicals to make the link between wider commodification of women’s bodies, especially in heterosexual exchanges? I can think of several pioneering – and radical – feminists who first put forward these very arguments. Kate Millett, Andrea Dworkin, Catharine Mackinnon and Sheila Jeffreys all developed analyses which linked heterosexuality, the social institution of marriage, women’s economic dependence and men’s entitlement to women’s bodies. Yet they are invisible here.

We all build on the work of others, of course, and sometimes we may be unaware of some of these influences and omit to credit those who first say new things. However, combined with the constant belittling of radical feminism, the omission here seems less the self-absorption of which we can all be guilty and more a conscious attempt by Phipps to make the work of those with critical views of the sex industry invisible, and thus unimportant. I think of my students, who might take this chapter as a measured and balanced discussion of feminist politics on prostitution, and how they might finish it with no sense of the richness and complexity of radical feminist critiques; instead they will have a fist full of references for writers on the sex industry from a different position, and be left with a completely unbalanced view of the history and present shape of this debate. A deeper analysis would have considered the argument that there is nothing ‘sex radical’ about accepting that men need access to the bodies of the world’s poorest women and girls for sexual release. Phipps seems again unable to critique men’s actions and the choices they make to use women’s bodies.

As a treatise on how progressive movements, with progressive goals, have been co-opted by neoliberal agendas, this book will be a thought provoking and uncomfortable read for many. Phipps identifies some hugely important questions, not least the problem for feminism of figuring out how it got itself into a kind of ideological impasse: caught between a libertarian position, which holds to questionable notions of agency, and an experiential position which runs the risk of being cast as moralistic and authoritarian. The disappointing thing is that Phipps herself reinforces this dichotomy, uncritically reproducing the caricature version of a materialist feminism which is at the root of most activism around violence against women. For those of us that locate our politics of the body in radical feminism, however loosely, this book will cause discomfort because of the way it dismisses or misrepresents our thinking and political activism.

Alison Phipps, The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neoliberal and Neoconservative Age. Polity Press, 2014.

Let’s have a heated debate! 5

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 anotherBRITAIN-POLITICS-VOTE-TELEVISION—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.

Marching on

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,

if it’s mixed then you’re not including everyone. You’re always excluding someone, and you’re choosing to exclude women who are survivors and who don’t want to march next to men, and you are making a decision to exclude them. So it’s not like you can include everyone, you’re always making a choice to exclude someone (159).

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:

I reckon that I wouldn’t be the person I am if it wasn’t for RTN, and I wouldn’t be doing the things I am. Because you get the solidarity, but you get aware of all the organisations as well, like Rape Crisis, and it’s great, motivating and inspiring (p.261).


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:

I’m kind of fascinated by whether we do actually need a card-carrying feminist, you know, back to the Seven Demands. So, this is what it means to be a feminist, and if you don’t agree with these, you’re not a fucking feminist (p.286).

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.finn

Classic Review: Surviving Sexual Violence 1

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):

• most women have experienced sexual violence in their lives;
• there is a range of male behaviour that women experience as abusive;
• sexual violence occurs in the context of men’s power and women’s resistance.

Acknowledging sexual violence: something ‘most women have experienced’

Liz Kelly writes in her preface to SSV that

most men and many women do not want to acknowledge the extent of sexual violence in, and its impact on women’s lives. It is still illegitimate for us to refer to it as being of “epidemic” proportions, threatening women’s “basic human rights” (p ix).

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

. . . includes any physical, visual, verbal or sexual act that is experienced by the woman or girl, at the time or later, as a threat, invasion or assault, that has the effect of hurting her or degrading her and/or takes away her ability to control intimate contact (p 41).

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:

Yet again sexual violence sits at the heart of a crisis that rocks institutions. I am left wondering whether we have made more change that we recognize. Have there ever been more feminist and survivor voices – in the mainstream media and social media – refusing to be belittled or silenced? (p. 137)

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)
Jennifer M Brown and Sandra L Walklate (eds) Handbook of Sexual Violence (Routledge 2012)
Sheila Jeffreys The Idea of Prostitution (Spinifex 1997)
Lynne Segal Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities Changing Men (Virago 1990)

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.


A Rock and a Hard Place 19

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.

The truth about dogs and cats 5

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.

Let Me Stay 1

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.

Straight Expectations: extracts from Julie Bindel’s new book 4

Cover of the book Straight Expectations by Julie Bindel‘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:

University Challenge

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.



A Sphere of One’s Own

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.

Not All Bad News

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

New article: book review by Debbie Cameron of Sex Itself by Sarah S. Richardson

Why are feminists frightened of science, asks Debbie Cameron, when they have no such qualms about engaging in debates on other complex issues, and even reading dense theoretical texts about culture?  Sarah Richardson’s book, Sex Itself, about the fascinating history of the X and Y chromosomes and their cultural significance, is, Debbie argues in her review, a thoroughly rewarding read.

cartoon by cath jackson with X chromosomes oohing and aahing Y chromosome with willy

Oh You Sexied Thing!

Cartoon by Cath Jackson © Cath Jackson 2014

End of Equality

Why did the feminist revolution stall, and how do we get it back on track? Those questions are at the heart of Beatrix Campbell’s new book End of Equality. Marina S thinks it’s a timely intervention which should enrage and inspire us all.

Beatrix Campbell, End of Equality (Seagull Books, 2014)

We live in a liberal age. I mean the term in its technical sense: rule of law, individual rights, social contract, John Stuart Mill, the lot. And one of the founding beliefs of liberalism is the progressive paradigm: that the world naturally tends towards more equal and just conditions on a liberal progression towards ultimate equality.

The danger of such a belief is that it could lead to quietism—a passive expectation that the liberal hereafter will arrive on its own and with no need for active political striving on our part. Arguably, this liberal quietism is where feminism was for the two decades leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, and is the key characteristic of the so-called third wave. Against the background of an inexorable march towards liberation, political engagement was unnecessary; a retreat to the individual and a critical gaze turned inwards were the logical next steps. Liberation became personal: a state of mind, a stance of being a liberated or empowered women. The material reality will take care of itself; the wage gap will gradually narrow, political representation will gradually increase, the glass ceiling will gradually dissolve, male violence will gradually decrease.

Well, none of these things has happened. Progress on all equality measures – and many others such as division of labour in the home, civil liberties for women across the Global South and so on – has either stalled or gone into reverse. The first half of Bea Campbell’s new book End of Equality sketches in devastating detail just how stuck the progressive agenda is: the wage gap has been the same for years; men have added just one minute a year to their share of housework; male violence against women is static and unchanging on any measure – against a backdrop of dramatic and prolonged drops in other forms of violent crime – except in Asia where it is devastatingly on the increase in the form of female feticide and dowry murders.

Unfinished revolution

As is often the case with the best of feminist writing, this slim volume makes clear something which has been stubbornly inexplicable: what went wrong for the feminist movement? Why was our revolution unfinished? How could we have failed so badly (we think) when seemingly so close to achieving our goals? Two generations of feminists have wrestled with these questions, quite often wrestling with each other in the process. Recrimination and antagonism was bred from a frustrating failure of the liberal paradigm to explain the backlash of the 80s and beyond. If history always marches towards greater equality, and we are not seeing that equality manifest for women, then the fault, the thinking goes, must be in us: we have failed to be inclusive; we have failed to understand race; we have failed to take the correct attitudes to sexuality, marriage, domestic labour, sex work.

In contrast to this soul-searching, Campbell locates the seeming retreat of feminism in a squarely material framework. The reassertion of capital’s power after its brief post-World War II retreat rolled back or arrested not only feminist politics, but the civil rights movement, the student rebellions and other political liberation movements that were active in the 60s and early 70s. What she terms the ‘neo-patriarchal’ paradigm congealed around and in support of the neoliberal economic and political turn in global affairs in the last third of the 20th century. Not just Britain and the US, but countries as politically diverse as China and India went through processes of ‘liberalisation’ beginning in the 70s, and the impact of these changes on women has often been profoundly regressive.

In China in particular, the retrenchment of government support for childcare, healthcare and retirement has resulted in what Campbell calls the greatest redistribution in history – from women to men. But that redistribution is present elsewhere: here in the UK, Parliament’s own research has shown that 72% of the current government’s budget cuts were taken from women’s pockets. Women financed the bank bailout; women carry the cost – in money and labour – of the retrenching welfare state. And the load is getting greater: research shows that, contrary to expectations, women do much more hours of childcare now than they did in the halcyon days of the patriarchal fifties.

We are being deliberately squeezed at home and abroad, and in many countries (Campbell concentrates on Japan and Korea, but this is the case in Italy and other European countries as well) women are responding by withdrawing their labour. Literally. Birth rates in many advanced economies are significantly below replacement rates and the looming crisis of elderly care is enormous – and likely to play out almost entirely at the expense of women. Paid less for doing the same jobs and, crucially, taking on the majority of severely underpaid part time work, women’s pensions are on average half those of men upon retirement.

It is refreshing to read a book that places the blame for the ‘unfinished revolution’ somewhere other than the revolutionaries. Apart from anything else, there is something deeply intellectually unsatisfying about the notion that with the election of Margaret Thatcher, feminists just kind of stopped; that the second wavers became gullible and immediately bought into the radical individualism of the Me Decade (they didn’t – their daughters and granddaughters did), or that they suddenly lost a weight of power and influence they had previously possessed. The latter in particular is nonsense. Feminists have never run a single government, dominated a single board, been the majority of any judiciary. To conceive of backlash politics as a retreat of feminist influence – or even as a kind of counter revolutionary reaction from a conservative groundswell – is to ignore the wider political context and to pretend that, in the favourite atomistic idiom of neoliberalism, social movements and liberation politics happen as discrete events with no contextual relationship to the wider socio-political environment. In the final analysis, this breathtakingly infuriating book simply makes sense – and helps us make sense of what the next move of feminist politics can and should be.

A call to arms

Bea Campbell may not thank me for saying this, but this is a book for the Twitter age: terse but perfectly formed sentences tumble over each other in breathless rapidity, making one want to reach for one’s phone at a rate of three times per page. It’s also a book crammed full of facts – enraging facts, sad facts, alarming facts, frustrating facts. But the bleak blandness of exhaustively referenced numbers is borne along on a stream of beautiful, heart-swelling prose.

The biggest philosophical difference between neoliberal, patriarchal politics and feminism is that the former is profoundly pessimistic. Human nature in the neoliberal reading is base, selfish, violent and grasping – and incapable of reform. All radical politics is embedded in a confidence that people will strive to cooperate, coexist and care for each other if the material conditions they find themselves in don’t militate against it.

It is no coincidence, in this view, that we live in an age of war without end; an unintelligible series of local skirmishes and conflicts in which women, and the cooperative, relational social capital they nurture, are often the hardest hit, not as accidental ‘collateral damage’ but through deliberate acts of mass rape and disenfranchisement that hit purposefully at the heart of social existence. Violations of human rights, in Campbell’s phrase, ‘are not side effects, but a decisive methodology’. Feminism’s project, in her view, is to bear witness to the ‘wit and heroism that makes up everyday life amid chronic violence’.

This is a hard picture of the world to face up to, to take responsibility for; but it is also a call to arms. In calling for a new revolution, Bea Campbell arms us would-be revolutionaries with an explanatory framework and a set of milestones to strive towards in order to achieve the fundamentally optimistic, life-loving aims of a world free of degradation and destruction. So by all means, let’s live-tweet this book. Let’s send all of it out there into the world to enrage and inspire us all. Now is the right time, and we are the right people. I’ll end with a quote from Campbell herself:

Imagine men without violence. Imagine sex without violence. Imagine that men stop stealing our stuff – our time, our money and our bodies; imagine societies that share the costs of care, that share the costs of everything; that make cities fit for children; that renew rather that wreck and waste. This is women’s liberation. It is do-able, reasonable and revolutionary.


Marina S blogs at It’s Not a Zero Sum Game. Find her on Twitter at @marstrina

See Beatrix Campbell talking about End of Equality here