Laurie Penny on her book "Meat Market" and privilege in the modern age
Somewhere along the line women seem to have forgotten how far we’ve got to go.
The man in the audience is calling me a liar. He sits a few rows back, behind the women and the handful of men who have come to hear me do my talk about anti-capitalism and feminism, about sexual politics and the backlash against women's freedom in the west. He speaks with dull rage. He calls me a fantasist and a lunatic, tells me that men and women are as equal as they're ever going to be or need to be, that I’m hysterical, attention-seeking. I’ve met this guy before. I’ve met him with different faces, always in his mid-thirties, in a vicious mood and often, curiously enough, in one of those pseudo-liberal campaign groups that fights tirelessly for free speech - except when it’s women talking about feminism, because those bitches need to shut up already.
In the past month I've given talks all over Europe, mainly speaking about with Meat Market, my little anti-capitalist-feminist pop-theory book, doing interviews and discussions and readings in twelve cities. If this particular talk were happening in Italy, someone would have turned around and laughed in this guy’s face. In Britain you'd have had a bit of cross muttering followed by quietly furious people coming up to me after the event to ask if I'm sure I'm okay and isn’t it shocking, which is British for "this is fucked beyond belief". But this is Germany, and the room is an orgy of polite silence. And suddenly I’m tired beyond words.
It’s the kind of tiredness that’s mental as well as physical, the kind that makes your soul feel grimy. Rattling between Hamburg and Bumblefuck, West Germany, I find myself wishing, not for the first time this trip, that feminists could go on tour like rock bands. What I wouldn’t give for some interesting support acts, groupies, fascinating fall-outs, booze. Instead it’s just me, on my own, traveling in second-class and hoping there’ll be somewhere to wash my socks at the next stop before I actually have to beat out the crusty bits with a hammer. Somewhere between Paris and Athens I got sick - really sick, sick enough to have lain sweating and vomiting for twenty-for hours in a strange bed in a friend-of-a-friend’s house in Exarchia. The sickness hasn’t really gone away, though sprays and pills and a variety of culturally-specific alcoholic hot drinks have just about chased it off my chest, a product of too many late nights and cheap carbs and nasty cigarettes and unhygienic kisses and fascinating new friends who are more interesting than sleep.
Friends sometimes ask me why I do this. They ask why I live out of a suitcase and fling myself around the world writing for next to no money, work that keeps me from all the things young women my age are meant to want: the steady boyfriend, the the steady job, the shoe collection with a place to keep it in, the flat. Why do I do a job that makes me constantly nervous about being on show and not having the right answer, this work that means that I have to deal every single day with bullshit like this particular chap in the audience who right now seems to represent, perhaps unfairly, every single back-seat mouth-breather who ever set up a webpage dedicated to calling me a mad cunt who deserves to be raped to death? Why? I could have gone and worked in PR. I could have done fashion journalism. But instead, I do this, because I can, because the opportunity was there to live the sort of life denied to women like me well within living memory.
At my age, twenty- six, my grandmother was a recent immigrant with five kids and another on the way. She was shackled by religion to a violent alcoholic husband whom she had married in wartime to escape her island poverty. At twenty-six, my mother was already divorced, had begun the process of sacrificing herself to work and marriage and all the things expected of a second-generation immigrant career girl duped into believing you can ‘have it all’. Neither of them would have called themselves feminists. But feminism was what won for me and my sisters the birthright of all women in the twenty-first century, the one conservatives across the world are actively trying to confiscate right now: the right not to have to rely a man to keep you, the right to live your life without worrying whether or not you’re pretty enough or well-behaved enough to stop your boss or your husband getting sick of you, the right to be socially, sexually and financially independent.
I do this because I can and because they couldn't, and because most women, even in the privileged west, still can’t. Feminism has won social mobility for a minority of women, but not social justice for all of us, not yet. I travel with a purse full of lipstick and birth control and books because if I didn’t I would be dishonoring the memory of my grandmother and generations of women like her who grew up frightened of the things they most wanted, of sex and power and self-reliance. I feel I have a duty to live as freely as I possibly can and to join the fight to defend and extend that freedom to women who did not grow up with my privilege. Let me explain this another way:
There’s a great deal of reading I ought to be doing, dull but important books I’d set aside to read on the interminable trains, but when I’m lonely on the road I keep coming back to science fiction. I lose myself in stories of other worlds, Dune and The Dispossessed and Use of Weapons and the Vorkosigan books, whizzing through the cold flatlands of mid-west Germany on trains that are a little like spaceships themselves, with doors that swish open at the slightest touch and, not for the first time, I find a hot, urgent sort of longing swelling in my chest. I always get emotional when I read books or watch films about space travel. I know that I won’t ever get to the stars, or have adventures under the light of strange moons. My friend Deirdre Ruane wrote a fantastic comic about just this feeling. I wonder, often, if this is what women of my nanna’s generation felt when they saw girls like me living our lives today.
I wonder if the shiver of impossible yearning I experience when I watch space-battles on the television is what my nanna and women like her felt when they watched us going to university, having boyfriends before marriage, travelling to other countries, dancing all night in dresses cut short so you can feel the sweaty air of dark clubs on your thighs. For her, my life was, is, science fiction: strange and frightening, enabled by technology, and I see women my age handling it all as casually as a extra on Original Star Trek might handle one of those palm-computers that looked so exciting in the 1970s and now look like dated, old-model smartphones. We handle it all casually because we’re unable to conceive of an even better world. We’ve been told that this shaky picture is the best we’re ever going to get.
In Frankfurt, the fifth stop on my book tour, I walked alone to the student social centre through the city's small, grisly red light district and felt my phone buzz in my pocket: an email from a comrade, had I seen the news? Back home the minister for Work and Pensions had made a speech declaring that the big reason the British economy is in trouble has nothing to do with corporate tax avoidance, irresponsible banks, or the decision to sell off the welfare state to pay for the mistakes of the financial elite. No: women are the problem. Poor women, and their children. How dare they reproduce without husbands to support them? How dare they demand ‘handouts’ from the state?
The week before that it was women who have late-term abortions under fire. How dare they? How dare they presume to have the right to decide what happens to their own bodies, how dare the brazen hussies ask for access to basic medical services? Whenever right-wing governments want to distract attention from their frenzied evisceration of the social contract, they point to women, particularly poor women and women of colour, and tell us that those women are the real problem. And we let them, because we still live in a world where structural misogyny and the machinations of post-Fordist capitalism dance together like Fred and Ginger dancing to "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes", moving as one. Look at him driving her backwards in high heels.
Somewhere along the line we seem to have forgotten how far we’ve got to go. Women have made enormous strides in the past hundred years, yes, of course we have, but let’s get beyond this idea that we’re supposed to be grateful that some of us are now permitted a warped sort of equality in a fundamentally unequal labour market. We have no reason to be grateful. We have every right to want more. We have a right to want everything, including not being morally and financially attacked by bigots in government with a business agenda every time they want to distract attention from their own fuckups. We have every right to demand more than this.
The man in the audience who called me a liar is not happy with my answer. He shrugs on his coat and marches out. Once he’s gone, the rest of us get down to the serious questions. Spiky-haired students and parents with young kids who’ve crossed town to be there ask me: where do we go from here? And just what are we supposed to want? And what do I believe can really change? And every answer is a little different, a little bit personal, and every answer comes back to this:
Feminism isn’t about telling women how to live or who to love or what not to wear. Feminism is about imagining a future where gender isn’t destiny and sexism isn’t rampant, and then working to achieve that future. I believe it’ll happen, if we want it enough. If we allow ourselves to want it.
So that's what I told the shy student with the curtains of dark hair who asked the last question on the last stop in my little book-tour, the girl who asked if we really have so much further to go. I told her - your mileage may vary, but I’m a utopian. I believe that the time will come when women have full control over our bodies and our lives, when girls do not grow up ashamed of our sexuality, when we do not have to fear violence at home and in the streets if we step out of line and poverty if we are not born rich. I believe there will be a time when the world is better and braver and freer than we can possibly imagine. And hey, maybe I won’t get to live in that world for very long, but I’m prepared to believe that some of the women who will lead it and build futures in it have already been born. Until then, I’ll keep on writing and talking and watching the star battles on television, because it’s longing like that that sets us free.
You can watch Laurie reading from the conclusion of Meat Market here: