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Why feminists sometimes forget to say thank you

We have to change the mindset that says women's choices must be “won” or “awarded”.

Tess Billington demonstrating at the House of Commons in 1906.
What men have "given", men can take away. Photograph: Getty Images

A few years ago – albeit still within the 21st century – my partner received an essay from a male student, the subject of which was women in the middle ages. Said student noted that while life was hard for ladies in days of yore (what with there being no internet, the black death AND sexism), things were better nowadays, not least because “we allow women to vote and to help us in the workplace”. My partner, ever restrained, merely wrote “who’s ‘we’?” in the margin. The student’s equally concise response?  “Us”. Yes, “us”. And by that I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean just himself and my partner. It’s an “us” that included both them, and billions of others, but not me, nor anyone else who wasn’t a cis man. Even so, perhaps we – the “not-us” – ought to be grateful for what we have. 

Men – by which I mean wealthy, white, cis, heterosexual men - are apparently the unsung heroes of feminism. According to a piece in the Spectator (by self-described male feminist Lloyd Evans) “feminism is largely a male achievement”. So, yes, thank you, patriarchy! If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’d be uneducated, without my own income or property, perhaps into my twentieth pregnancy (unless I’d died in childbirth or through a backstreet abortion)… Basically, absolutely everything would be crap! Ta very much, chaps!

Of course, I’m exaggerating. It’s not as though Lloyd Evans really means what he says. He isn’t really a feminist. No one who describes the ultimate outcomes of feminism in the following terms could possibly be one:

Women are smarter, sleeker, richer, better educated and bigger-boobed than they ever were. They get drunk more easily. They have sex more readily. Sometimes they even pay for dinner as well, ‘to assert their independence’. And do we stop them? No, Madame Chairperson, we do not. We’re feminists too, of course, and we make that pledge not because we’re shamed by the historic plight of women but because we’ve learned that it’s a great aphrodisiac.

Ha ha, liberated women! The joke’s on you! You’re not having it all, you’re doing it all – tee hee! It’s a familiar Daily Mail/men’s rights narrative. With feminism, not only have women shot themselves in the foot, but without men they’d have achieved nothing. And what men have given, they can also take away. The only reason they’ve not withdrawn their favours yet is because it’s useful for the ladies to be “liberated” – for the time being, that is.

On one level Evans’ piece is simply misogynist trolling. This is a man who doesn’t like women – one who finds the idea that men, himself included, still don’t shoulder their share of unpaid work simply hilarious – being given a public forum in which to express his bigotry. That’s a shame, but hey, that’s the Spectator. So Evans doesn’t get what feminism has achieved. So he doesn’t realise that economic equality isn’t about posh ladies paying for his dinner, but the attempt to reach a situation in which no woman has to choose between destitution or spending her entire life subject to the whims of a man such as Lloyd Evans – or worse. To me, that’s worth fighting for. But is someone like Lloyd Evans worth fighting? Perhaps not, at least not on his own. However, when Evans claims that the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act are “primarily male reforms, by the way, because men in the Commons at that time outnumbered women by 30 to one”, I start to feel alarmed. He might be joking, but many people – people who, on the surface, are more reasonable than he – believe this.

It’s not as though this is killer logic. It’s the logic of a five-year-old – my five-year-old, to be precise. He recently stole a balloon from his brother and gave it to a stranger’s child in the park. Afterwards he sauntered up to me, beaming: “Wasn’t I kind, Mummy?” I pointed out that it would have been kind to give his own balloon, not his brother’s. I said “it’s not kind to give things that weren’t yours in the first place”. He was crestfallen: “But giving is kind, isn’t it?” That’s all he could see – it might not have been mine by rights, but look, I gave it, didn’t I? Why isn’t everyone grateful? I see this logic – this bafflement at the lack of gratitude displayed by those who are given things by people who didn’t own them in the first place – in the attitude of my partner’s student. I see it in the words of Conservative MP Amber Rudd, who speaks glowingly of the way in which David Cameron and George Osborne are “naturally thoughtful about women”. I see it, too, in Christy Wampole’s New York Times blog post about the Newtown shootings, in which she casually links Adam Lanza’s actions to “the decline of the young man”:

Can you imagine being in the shoes of the one who feels his power slipping away? Who can find nothing stable to believe in? Who feels himself becoming unnecessary? That powerlessness and fear ties a dark knot in his stomach. As this knot thickens, a centripetal hatred moves inward toward the self as a centrifugal hatred is cast outward at others: his parents, his girlfriend, his boss, his classmates, society, life.

If we ignore the flowery language for a moment, it’s worth musing on what this “power slipping away” actually means. Who tells men that this power was ever theirs? And what is it that makes them – and women such as Wampole - believe it still?

In How To Be A Woman Caitlin Moran offers up the thesis that men had more power because in the past women were, basically, a bit shit:

I don’t think that women being seen as inferior is a prejudice based on a male hatred of women. When you look at history, it’s a prejudice based on simple fact.

Thus Britain’s “leading feminist” is not a million miles away from Evans, with his description of how men “were merely responding to Mother Nature’s uneven distribution of responsibilities which made sexual inequality a fact of life for hundreds of thousands of years” (to be honest, Evans is more generous than Moran). The truth – if it is possible to get to a single “truth” in all this – is more complex. Even now it’s difficult to point out that historical narratives, of the kind Evans and Moran offer up, are distorted, at least not without being accused of distorting the “edifice” of history itself. So much of the history of power – and by extension, the history of those who “deserved” power – is still written by the “us”. Some future historians still believe in the primacy of the “us”. This is true even of young men, of those who write essays and hand them in and can’t understand why others don’t see how enlightened they’ve been (another male student of my partner’s posed the intriguing question “was Empress Matilda a victim of sexism or was she just a stroppy mare?” A classic conundrum, you’ll agree).

We feminists – we women – are not the “us”. We’re still excluded from the discourse that defines rights and how they are bestowed. For many people – male and female – what choices women have must be “won” or “awarded”; it’s not as though they were ever stolen. And this mindset continues to threaten whatever advances we make. Changing it has to be central to feminism as a movement. On the surface we might be demanding freedom from violence, freedom from political exclusion, freedom from sexual, psychological and financial abuse. But we’re doing so because women are human beings. This world – these choices, these bodies, these thoughts - are ours, too. What’s more, they always were.