Some years ago I had a job interview in which I was asked a question that breached equalities legislation. I knew this straight away, so of course, I panicked. How best to respond in a way that would show I wasn’t the kind of woman who cared about being asked such questions?
I can’t remember what I said, but I know I fluffed the answer. I didn’t get the job, but years later I still feel guilty. This is not for my failure to take a stand on behalf of all women being asked such questions, but for my failure to present a convincing #notallwomen riposte.
It wasn’t that I disagreed with the law. It’s that I knew that there were other rules in play, ones which made me, and not my interviewer, the transgressor. There I was, a woman of childbearing age, asking for a job. What had he done other than call me out on this ruse?
When women demand that their rights be respected, it’s rarely just because we believe that they should be. What’s there on paper doesn’t reflect what we’re actually allowed to expect for ourselves. We know this. We’re not stupid.
Every day is spent walking the same bitch vs doormat tightrope, that same cost-benefit analysis running through our heads before any action may be performed, any request made. What shall I wear? What shall I say? Is it worth asking for this? Is it worth saying no to that? Was it wrong of me to write “we’re not stupid” in the previous paragraph? What if it’s more useful to womankind in general for me to concede that particular point?
It’s exhausting. There is, on a micro level, the day-to-day headache of deciding whether any challenge is worth the pain (it rarely is). On a macro level, however, there’s that build-up of exhaustion that hardens into fury. Sooner or later, that dam will burst.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why women’s liberation is seen as such a patchy, intermittent process. We’re too busy surviving to do this shit all the time. Of course, for some women, feminist activism is a life’s work. These women are heroes. For others, though, the cost of fighting your own battles can outweigh the benefits, at least if you’re doing it alone.
We know, for instance, that actresses Mira Sorvino, Ashley Judd, Annabella Sciorra and Rose McGowan saw their careers falter after each refused to remain silent about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct. It’s only now, with the rise of #metoo, that strength in numbers is permitting more and more women in the film industry and elsewhere to raise their voices against harassment and assault in their place of work.
Of course one woman’s strength in numbers is another man’s bandwagon. When women join forces to ask that our voices be listened to – that our testimonies be taken seriously – some men hear only “ignore due process”. Even assuming good will, it’s not surprising that those in charge of dealing with women’s complaints are finding themselves on the back foot. It’s happened too quickly. Things that were wrong – but sort-of wrong, not-quite-wrong, every-man-does-it wrong – two years ago are a different kind of wrong today. The law itself hasn’t changed. What women are asking of it has.
Take the Labour Party’s management of activist Ava Etemadzadeh’s accusations of harassment against Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins. Hopkins is accused of rubbing his crotch against Etemadzadeh and of sending her the following text: “A nice young man would be lucky to have you as a girlfriend and lover. I am sure one such is soon to be found. Were I to be young … but I am not.”
Hopkins says he texted Etemadzadeh but denies “absolutely and categorically” inappropriate conduct. He has been suspended from the party. He has since described the issue as needing to be “dealt with by due process” and declared himself “happy to go to the NCC [an internal ruling body] to clear my name”.
Etemadzadeh, meanwhile, has expressed far less confidence in the party’s ability to deal with her case correctly. Having shared correspondence on Twitter which initially suggested Hopkins would have had the right to interrogate her via audio link, she says she has since been told the accused will have permission to cross-examine her in writing at a disciplinary hearing.
“It is hard even to be in the same building, even if it’s not the same room,” she has said. “It really stresses me out.” Several Labour MPs including Jess Phillips, Sarah Champion and John Mann have voiced their support and outrage. The Labour party said in a statement to the Guardian that Etemadzadeh would not be questioned directly by Hopkins.
It is surprising how messy the whole affair has become, almost as though, whatever the rules regarding harassment, no woman was ever expected to go so far as to call on them. It is surely fair that Hopkins must be given the right to defend himself against any accusations. At the same time, the way this has panned out – rational male accused on the side of good old “due process”, emotional female complainant left trying to protect herself – serves as a strong reminder of why so many women prefer to let things go.
Ultimately, both accused and complainant are at the mercy of whatever complaints procedure is laid out – or hastily cobbled together – before them. It is not, however, irrational for a woman in any organisation to feel that the game is rigged. That she is operating in a place in which women are talked over and undermined; in which women are paid less than men; in which past abuse has been trivialised and/or swept under the carpet; in which women become ever scarcer the closer you get to the top (I’m not, to be clear, referring to Labour specifically. I think this covers most institutions across the UK).
It would be obviously wrong to lay such issues at the feet of the particular individual you are accusing of harassment. But where do you lay them? They feed into your mistrust of any complaints procedure. They add to your humiliation when being told how you must interact with the man you are accusing. They colour your expectations of whether or not you will be believed (and even if you are, whether or not it will matter). They are the reason why you may have said nothing while the abuse was occurring (you may even have smiled politely).
You can’t say any of this, though. Say it, and you will be considered a bad sport. In this way, a rational response to the world as you experience it must be repressed for the sake of a justice that resides in the world as experienced by the man you accuse.
This is how patriarchy functions. It makes women appear inconsistent and accepting of the status quo when we’re biding our time. When our moments of bravery come, there’s surprise when it turns out we aren’t just questioning the rule-breakers, but the rules themselves. It has the look of a sneaky add-on demand, if not the sudden realisation that already we’ve asked for too much.
It isn’t, though. It’s perfectly fair. If we want a world in which no one feels taken by surprise at the failure of others to trust in their justice, it must be a world in which such justice can be tested at all times. Every single day women make painstaking decisions about what we’re prepared to risk in the selfhood versus quiet life game. Don’t imagine we’ve not thought about what we’re asking for now.