Monday, 30 June 2008


Agent of Desire recently posited an experiment (which I discussed briefly in the last post) where women should take of the trappings of femininity and go out into the world as ‘sex agents’, looking to objectify men. She suggests:

Consciously look the men on the carriage and analyse how attracted you feel to them. This will feel quite predatory, almost as though you are looking through the sight of a gun. You may well have a lot of resistance to this as you don't want to treat others in a way you don't want to be treated, but don't worry for now - this is your theraputic exercise. [...] Really indulge in your own sexually preditory nature and enjoy feeling the power of choice this gives you. This is a power men enjoy the feeling of daily, even if it is delusional. As a woman, it is not a delusion because you are female and men aren't naturally as selective as women when it comes to sex, because nature gave you the power of choice over them because you are the one with the womb.
The basis for Agent of Desire’s experiment is that women ‘in nature’ should be the objectifiers, because men are not particularly selective about who they mate with, and women carry huge risks (pregnancy) through having sex and so should be the selective mate. She argues that men have conspired to remove women’s right to objectify men and have reversed the natural order. Her experiment is meant to give power back to women.

Now, there are some obvious problems with this post. First, is the notion that all women perform a particular type of femininity (discussed in the post below), and, second, this post is very heteronormative. But, in other ways, I think that she is right that for heterosexual women to engage so actively in objectification is quite a challenging thing to do and so might be an ‘interesting’ experiment, in the way that ‘new’ experiences are.

But, the experiment actually raised some much bigger questions for me about the nature of desire. As feminists, we are usually happy to recognise that gender and sexuality are both constructions, but, when it comes to desire, we fall back on a narrative that claims desire is ‘natural’, ‘innate’, ‘biological’. After-all, the purpose of the human race is to have babies, or something like that. As a result, we never fully condemn objectification. Time and again, I have seen feminists telling men that they are allowed to objectify women, but just not overtly, or, perhaps, not without permission. (And this is despite the fact that we will all agree that not all women want babies, that not all women want to have sex with men (or for that matter vice versa), and that rape sure as hell isn’t about sex drive). But, heaven forbid, we suggest that people can’t get their jollies through looking at hawt bod (with permission and in an unexploitative context).

Ultimately, the problem is that we have is an inability to reconceptualise desire. And I think as feminists we really need to. Reclaiming objectification for women is problematic for just the reason’s Agent of Desire promotes it. Objectification is predatory; it promotes an unequal power relationship between the viewer and viewed, and it removes the humanity of the ‘object’. Do we really want to be introducing inequality into our personal lives, even if we are in the seat of power? Does a good sex life have to require the removal of one partner’s humanity?

Can we learn to appreciate the physical body without objectifying it?

Saturday, 28 June 2008

On Being Born a Woman.

One of the debates that accompanies the transgender wars is how one becomes a woman. Most feminists are agreed that no one is born a woman. At least in the twenty-first century West, ‘woman’ is a classification that is placed on people with particular sex organs and which is expected to be manifested in particular behaviours- behaviours which most people recognise are taught and some think are innate. Currently, we believe that there are only two genders, which are often conceived as polar opposites from each other, despite this being a very contrived binary.

The classification of ‘woman’ did not always follow sex organs as tightly as it does today. In the European past, gender was closely related to sex organs, but was not a direct consequence of them. Under a humeral model of the body, women were people who were cold and wet, men were hot and dry. It was men’s greater body heat that expelled the sex organs from the body. Some people with female sex organs, however, were otherwise very manly (they contained considerable heat); they just didn’t have enough heat to expel their sex organs. This could allow ‘hot’ women (no not like that!) to take on many of the functions and status of men. Similarly some men were colder than normal and so more effeminate. It was even possible for women, who got too hot, to transition to full men if they managed to expel their genitals (and there are recorded instances of this happening).

In other cultures, gender is assigned based on social role. In certain tribes in New Guinea, women are people who grow crops; men are people who hunt and fight. Most people born with female sex organs tend to grow crops, but some have a desire or an aptitude for hunting and fighting and are accepted into ‘male’ society as full members, and vice-versa. When members of particular gender are on the low side (perhaps because of not enough male-sexed children being born), this fluidity becomes even more common as female-sexed people make up for a shortage of men, and vice versa. Female-sexed western anthropologists who visit these areas are often assumed to be male due to their lack of knowledge about rice and crop-growing. In Albania, as a recent study shows, a shortage of male-sexed people allowed for female-sexed people to become men and take on many of the rights and responsibilities of men. In some societies, gender is not, or has not been, so closely linked to sex organs and, in some, ‘transitioning’ between different genders at least had a generally accepted conceptual framework (or cultural explanation) to make it easier. (As does our own, by equating gender with sex organs and so allowing people who change sex organs to change gender).

But back to the question at hand, if we all agree that ‘woman’ is a category (not a reality), then what is to stop anybody declaring that they are a ‘woman’. What makes someone a ‘woman’? Some people argue that it takes a life-time of socialisation to be a woman and that sex organs or desire are not enough. Yet, even those of us who were born with the female sex and have a lifetime of socialisation that taught us what it is to be ‘woman’ are often not very ‘good’ women. Agent of Desire recently proposed an experiment where feminists should:

Instead of putting on make-up, styling your hair, wearing 'feminine' shoes or clothes that emphasise your figure, leave the house with none of the paraphernalia of objectification. Instead, don't put in contact lenses if you wear them, go for glasses instead, wear a loose coat that is not tailored to the waist, wear no make up or distracting jewelery, wear straight-cut trousers, tie your hair up or put it under a hat, and don't clutch a dainty handbag - put your keys, phone and money in your pockets. If you have manicured and polished long nails, wear gloves. This may be very difficult to do, because you are constantly told by the media that being sexually desireable is the most important thing about you, and that your sexual desireability depends on this paraphernalia, which is not true.

Her overall experiment (which is about objectifying others) is quite interesting, but it fails to realise that many women match her description already. If you were to describe me most days: I don’t wear make-up; I don’t always wear particularly ‘feminine’ clothes (although I do have a female body underneath them and this is certainly harder to disguise now I am a bit ‘rounder’ than when I was a size ten); I wear glasses (not contacts); I often wear hats and tie my hair up; I frequently use my large, shapeless army jacket with pockets as a handbag- and, more often than not, I have a rucksack if I need a bag. A lifetime of socialisation and I clearly didn’t learn many of my lessons particularly well. I am also not deferential. I certainly don’t keep my opinions to myself. I am not retiring. And yet, I don’t think I have ever been mistaken for a ‘man’. Furthermore, I have female-sexed friends who are androgynous enough to be regularly mistaken for men, yet their ‘passing’ does not make them men (and they have no desire to be ‘men’).

So, what does this mean? Does this tell us that being a woman is all about sex, and nothing to do with socialisation in our society? And, yet (like it or not), much of society will not accept male-sexed people who have ‘gender reassignment surgery’ as women, even if they are much better at performing femininity than me. Is it simply our classification on birth that makes us women?

The category of woman is a fiction. As it is a fiction, there are no women. There are people who are designated women and others who desire to have that designation (and not always because they think there is such a thing as woman). People accept or reject that designation to different degrees. There are characteristics that are associated with ‘woman’ and some people (regardless of their sex organs) have or perform those characteristics better than others. In the same manner, there are no men.

At this point, it is easy to say that the experience of being designated women from birth ensures that we can never be men (no matter at what age we choose to transition?). And it may certainly be true that no one who was designated female at birth will have identical experiences to someone designated male. But, the truth is that there are very few people designated woman that have the same experiences as other people designated woman. Other designations such as race and class ensure that all women are not alike. Furthermore, there is no universally agreed, model of ‘woman’ that we are trying to achieve and which the rest of us fail to live up to (although some models may have more power than others). Women have a vast range of experiences, desires, backgrounds, upbringings, levels of power and privilege and outlooks. Similarly, men are raised with different levels of privilege and power. Some are even raised in feminist households and taught to critique their privilege and the naturalness of their gender. Some are better or worse at being men than others. In some cultures, people born with male sex organs are raised as women. We are all individuals with different experiences, even as we share others. Why, as feminists, are we holding on to ‘born with female sex organs and socialised because of them to be women’ as so central to our identity when we all agree that no one is born a woman, when we all know that being male or female is a construction and we are all socialised differently, when in our own lives we recognise that it is impossible to be an ideal woman because she doesn’t exist?

Friday, 27 June 2008

A Pretty Good Week.

Well yesterday I finally graduated, 11 months after submitting the thesis. Yeay for me! So, you can now address me as Dr Feminist Avatar! (Just kidding- we don't hold with formalities here).

Don't really have much of substance to say today.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Transwars, Part 67458.

[This is a post that I have been reluctant to write because I am not trans* and don’t feel that I can talk for trans*people’s experience. But, the latest round of transphobia that has manifested in the latest Carnival of Feminists has made me want to say something. So, I apologise in advance to trans*people if I get it wrong and I direct non-trans* readers to here and here to talk to people who actually know something about it.]

Once upon a time, many, many moons ago, a famous philosopher said, ‘I think, therefore I am’ (only he wrote it in Latin). Descartes’ words are often flung about, but the larger point he was making at the time was to have significant repercussions for centuries to come. Descartes posited that there was a distinction between mind and body. The body was fallible and the senses flawed, but the mind was capable of deduction and so able to transcend the limitations of the physical. His model of mind and body led people to distinguish between the inner and outer body. The mind, or soul, was the person, where the humanity lay; the body was a mere vehicle for the mind and of little real significance other than as a means of communication. This differentiation led to a medical science that deals with the body and psychiatry/ psychology that deals with the mind. All that was important and real came from within; physical acts and behaviours were either inconvenient biological necessities or forms of communication controlled by the inner being.

‘Twas not always this way. Once a long time ago, and still today in some distant lands, the body and mind were not seen as separate, but the human operated as one, her mind and body in sync. Indeed, even in times and places where a Cartesian model was in place, not all people could free themselves from their bodies. Only the rational, the superior, the male, could truly rise above their physical beings. Women, with their hormones and menses and wombs and too much water and small brains, found it very difficult to make the separation between mind and body. They were never truly rational, never completely separate from nature, never fully human.

Then one day, feminism came along and women were allowed to be rational, our minds fully separated from our bodies. We ignored our menstrual cramps and swollen breasts and embraced Cartesianism. We determined that the body was a static model on which we placed meaning. Gender was a construction of the inner, not the outer (and sometimes the outer was constructed too). And as feminists, we built theories and more theories and some theories, and a bit of activism, and some more theories, but, all the while, the easy distinction between body and mind wasn’t all that easy.

We knew that gender was a construction, but we couldn’t quite figure out why our bodies continued to bug us. They niggled and wobbled and we ran and we ran, but still they followed. And then in twenty-first century came The Transpeople™*. They said our inners don’t match our outers and we want it fixed! And, the feminists cried, but your inner is constructed, so if it doesn’t match your outer, then you change it, not your genitals! And, they said, but my outer looks wrong. And the feminists cried, but gender isn’t real, so your genitals shouldn’t matter.**

But still the genitals mattered. And the Cartesian model allowed no in-between.

So we need to rethink the link between mind and body. My body is me. It is not just a vehicle that carries me. I love my body in all its lumpy, imperfect perfection. When I look in the mirror, it is what I expect to see and I expect people to react to me in particular ways because I have this body. I know that having this body led me to be raised to behave in particular ways and that as a result of this body, people respond to me differently from how they respond to other people. But, ultimately, I would not change this body. It is me.

Now, what if, one day, I looked in the mirror and I didn’t recognise the person looking back at me? It would fundamentally change who I am, both because I would be a different person, and because the world would react to me differently. Now, imagine that for as long as I could remember the person looking back at me didn’t feel right, for whatever reason, and then wonder what I might try to do to get my body to feel right. Women do this every day. They put on make-up to cover up the blemishes and wrinkles that aren’t them. They lose weight, and more weight, and get implants and surgery to try and make their bodies match who they are. And for many, the feeling of being right never comes.

Other people’s bodies are not sexed in the way they feel they should be. And sometimes they do things to try and make their bodies more like they believe they should be, whether dressing differently, taking hormones or having surgery. Indeed, if it was not because our genitals are what are used to separate us into two different genders, having genital reassignment surgery would only be more radical than breast implants in the degree to which it is a more complex surgery.

As it is however, the powers that be have determined that certain sexual organs come with certain behaviours. So when people choose to change their genitals, we assume it is because they are buying into the belief that gender exists and so reinforcing this binary. And, perhaps, sometimes this is true. Perhaps (and this is where I am a bit uncomfortable talking about experiences that are not my own), for some people, trained from birth that certain sex organs come with certain behaviours, when you change genitals, you also need to take on the traits of that sex- the two things come together. After all, it is only natural; it’s what we’ve been taught our whole lives. Certainly, this seems to be the line the medical profession takes. Want genital reassignment surgery, then you better act like a man/women (delete as appropriate). Lisa Harney in a comment over at Questioning Transphobia describes her experience thus:

In order to be diagnosed in the first place, I had to disavow any attraction I had to women, and state that I was attracted to men. In order to be prescribed hormones, the psychiatrist wanted to see me in a dress or skirt. The therapist I was seeing for voice work (and she was an awful voice therapist) insisted that I always wear dresses and skirts to her office. Even years later when I needed to see her about something, she insisted I wear a dress for the appointment, and not show up in my preferred (at the time) jeans.

And this wasn’t just something I experienced. Psychiatrists involved in the early days of gender clinics talked about assessing whether trans women would be attractive enough as women after they transitioned, and required a specific narrative to diagnose trans women that emphasized femininity. Since trans women are just diverse as cis women, a lot of us had to misrepresent ourselves as more feminine than we would have preferred just to get the treatment that would help encourage us to not kill ourselves, or at least not live out our lives in depression.

Some trans*women were forced to become feminine to justify their desire for surgery, whether or not that was how they personally wanted to behave (and of course the reverse is true for trans*men). Because genitals were never just genitals, they were the basis on which gender construction lies. If you want the outer characteristics, you damn well better have the inner ones too. And the thing is because gender is constructed and not natural, it becomes very difficult to decide what behaviours are natural/normal, and it all becomes very confusing. How much more so for people whose bodies do not feel right? As ciswomen, we spend so much time worrying about whether our behaviour/dress/bodyshape is feminine or too feminine or, better yet, is it feminist?

The thing is all behaviour is taught. There is not hidden or innate you (or me) waiting to emerge once we get rid of gender, like a heavy blanket holding us down. If we want to get rid of gender, we need to start normalising a much wider range of behaviours and questioning why certain behaviours are tied to certain biological characteristics- we effectively need to increase choice. This will not make behaviour ‘natural’, but will hopefully allow people more freedom in their identity. As feminists, we also need to challenge why power comes with certain traits or behaviours and why others are oppressed because of their characteristics. We also need to rethink the place of the body within identity. It is more than weight around our neck, pulling us down and restricting us.

Trans*women are like other women, except their situation is more complicated. They know that they are women whose bodies don’t fit with their expectations, and they have the same problem as the rest of us, trying to figure out what the hell it means to be a women, to dress like a women, to be a feminist women. Because, just like the rest of us, they have a very limited choice in what it means to be a woman (and because sometimes that choice is further constrained by the medical profession) they endorse models of femininity that are problematic. They are just doing exactly the same thing as every other woman, every other day.

*Please note that this is hyperbole. Gender non-conformity of all sorts has a very long history.

** Please also note that I realise that people who are transgendered are not all about the genitals and that not all transgendered people can or want to have genital reassignment surgery. The genitals here is a shorthand for a much wider range of behaviours.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Calling People Who Know English.

My gym has replaced the sign on the women's changing room door to 'female changing room'. This really annoys me, as my immediate thought is 'the changing room is a woman? Who knew?'. (Then, I go down a path of troubling moral ambiguity asking whether, as the changing room is female, I need her consent to use it?...) Anyway, I know that female can be used as a noun or as an adjective (although I personally HATE seeing it used as a noun). But, if we assume that in this context 'female' is used as a noun, would it not be grammatically correct to write "females' changing room"? Yet, this sounds ugly. So what is good grammar here? Does female used as an noun assume possession, like the pronouns 'her' or 'its'? And if it does, would it still need to be plural in this instance?

People who know English, help me out, please?

Monday, 23 June 2008

Uppity Students.

The BBC has an article on whether students are customers or learners. It uses words like ‘dangerously blurred’ to suggest that universities are lowering the standard of their degrees to attract students, especially lucrative overseas students. Apparently academics are under pressure to mark less harshly and, in particular, students with only a very basic grasp of English can successfully gain a degree. But, woe and behold, some of the leading academics ‘refuse to admit’ that such pressures exist! Apparently ‘there is an official wall of silence’ on this issue.

Well, I am afraid to say that I never got that memo, so here is my two cents. First, as a marker at both undergraduate and Masters level, I have never been asked to mark more leniently. Indeed, during my first year as a marker (when my work was second marked for my professional development), I was asked to lower a couple of grades, not raise them. One of the major obstacles to the claim that academics are under pressure to mark more leniently is that (at least at my university) a significant majority of marking is done by postgraduates on an hourly rate. In my department, all level one and two marking (except the final exam which can be split across pgs and academics) is done by postgrads. In the faculty graduate school, all of the core courses are first marked by postgrads and second marked by the course leader for consistency. Where marks are changed by the second marker (and they very rarely are), it is usually for consistency, rather than to raise grades per se. As postgrads, we have no investment in students getting good marks. (Unlike in the US perhaps) course evaluations are only for internal use and do not follow you in your career. You can’t use them to sell yourself on the job market. If anything, as most postgrads are also getting degrees from the institutions they mark in, they have an invested interest in keeping the standard of the degree high to ensure the reputation of their own degree. There are also internal and external controls to ensure quality of marking. Most departments are reviewed every 6 or so years to ensure quality of teaching and learning by a committee that includes people across the university, a student and an external examiner. Every year samples of all coursework (including all A grades) are reviewed by an external marker from a different university who can make damning decisions about the quality of your degree if necessary. If universities are lowering the standard of degrees, it must be a huge, cross institution conspiracy (and again I never got the memo- maybe it comes with a permanent academic post).

Another major flaw in this argument is that student’s fees make up such a huge amount of university funding. Maybe this is different for universities with top-up fees in England and for non-research universities, but at my university, student fees made up 16.6% of our funding, while research grants made up 67% of university funding. You can guess where the pressure lies for academics (and it’s not with the students). Indeed, when applying for jobs or promotions at universities in the UK (whether research or teaching orientated), you are always expected to give a list of your publications, rarely are you asked for a teaching profile or course outline. The pressure on academics within research institutes, or on the job market, is publish, publish, publish, followed very closely by research grant, research grant, research grant. The amount of time, effort or interest you show your students has almost no dividends other than your own personal satisfaction. We have no real interest in students as customers, because ultimately that isn’t where our bread is buttered.

The head of department has some interest in attracting overseas students as he has a university imposed quota to fill, and this may explain why some universities lie about their image, but ultimately, I would argue, this should ensure quality control over degrees. Nobody, especially people paying lots of money, wants to get a degree from a university that has a reputation for worthless degrees.

One concern that may be valid is whether students can graduate without perfect English. I actually think this may be possible. Now, if a student cannot communicate their ideas in English, they will never pass. But, it is perfectly possible to scrape by without perfect grammar or syntax. This element usually only makes up about 20-25% of a person’s grade, even in writing intensive courses like history, although, as it tends to influence the communication of ideas, it can often result in a much bigger grade deduction. Such a student would be unlikely to get a good mark, but they might pass. This might be more of a problem with ‘foreign’ students, but can exist in the work of ‘home’ students too. It raises an ongoing debate in subjects like history over whether we should be teaching ‘English’. As teachers of history, we usually try to drum in the structural element of essay writing skills (intro, middle, conclusion, etc) and how to reference properly, but, when it comes to grammar, we say ‘buy eats, shoots and leaves’. If it’s not our job to teach English (and honestly where would we cram it into an already full schedule), whose is it and is it really a necessary requisite of passing a degree?

One thing that I think has been an important change with the advent of the consumerist model, or the fetishization of education, is what the idea of the student has done to power relationships in the institution. The BBC article notes that students are ‘less deferential’ than in the past and complain more. To be honest, I think this is a good thing. While I think students should treat me with respect, as I do them, it is because we are all entitled to respect as human beings, not because I hold power over them (though I acknowledge that I do). In the past (even when I began university), there was frequently an attitude that students should pretty much put up with whatever they were dealt and this could result in massive abuses of power. Students were often short-changed on their education, because they weren’t a priority (they still aren’t but we have to disguise it better). They could wait months to receive feedback on coursework; their lecturers could miss class without giving them warning. They way they were talked to was dismissive and often rude. There was little sympathy towards students whose lives interfered in their work (as can happen to everyone) and no support for students who struggled- even if this was through bad teaching. This even manifested into silly things like students not being allowed to use lifts or only having one set of student toilets in a whole building. The consumerist model has tended towards a flattening of power hierarchies in the university and, while the staff/student relationship is far from equal, it is much improved. The article argues that a university has to be bigger than provider/ customer, but a learning community. Through forcing staff to recognise students as people, we are creating a new and better type of community.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Housework, part 2.

I received a number of great comments to my post on housework and some raised a number of issues I thought would be better addressed at length, rather than in the confines of a comments box.

The first major issue raised was that house-cleaning is not just seen as demeaning because it is associated with women, but because it is also associated with women of colour and poor women. In Scotland, cleaners are not usually women of colour (because we are a VERY white country- though that’s slowly changing), but they are almost always poor and frequently poorly educated. In a more global context, cleaners are frequently women of colour. This association arises from housework’s poor social status. As it is seen as having little social value, it falls to the people ranked lowest in the social order to do it (women/ poor women/ women of colour). As it has little social value, the people who clean homes are open to abuse of all natures. As it has little social value, the people who clean homes are seen as suspicious, dishonest, impure.

Yet, housework is absolutely vital to the survival of the human race. It is not just a frivolous, social desire to have a well-functioning house. Historically, until very recently, if no one performed the functions of the household, the people that lived within it would have starved and/or died from disease. Today, as we have outsourced considerable parts of the household economy (such as food preparation) and because we have technological conveniences (such as central heating, washing machines and cleaning fluids), the role of the housewife/ cleaner appears considerably less significant. But, this disguises how vital it is to our health, mental well-being and economic productivity that we live in clean, safe environments. It only takes a quick glance over to the average life expectancy of the poor in nineteenth century tenements to get a sense of the importance of decent living conditions to our health. (I distinguish between clean and tidy houses- it is unsafe to live amongst mould and rotting food, rubbish or bodily matter- dust isn’t likely to kill you).

Even economists recognise that housework is vital part of the economy. One study in Canada estimated unpaid housework and childcare to be worth $275 billion to the Canadian economy. Non-employed single mothers put in an average of 50 hours a week, worth $24,000 a year to the Canadian economy ‘at current market rates’. If anything, these numbers are low, due to the low value placed on these occupations. If housework had a higher social value, it would be worth more to the economy and the women, who worked in housework and childcare industries, would have higher social status, more money and more power. One of my commenters suggested that housework does not have the power to affect many lives. This is not true. Through allowing people to live healthy lives and have roles in society and economy, cleaners affect the lives of everybody. Furthermore, as a feminist, I would be worried about promoting a system that saw value as associated with how much power a person could exercise over others.

One response to this is that ‘anyone can do housework’, so that it will never be seen as valuable, or that it’s ‘grunt work’. But housework is a learned skill, like any job; it’s just one that most people are taught from childhood. And there are plenty of jobs that are well- paid or respectable that ‘most people’ could do with some training. Farming, rearing animals, dairy-work, food preparation, and cooking are all reasonably well-paid jobs that have been historically performed by women of various social classes, with little formal training (but, like housework, lots of informal training). Jobs in construction and plumbing, which are very well-paid, require only short apprenticeships and can be learned by people with a variety of educational levels and social backgrounds. But, even if housecleaning is easy or can be performed by ‘anybody’, it doesn’t mean it should be of lesser value than any other occupation. Let’s face it, the average prime minister could not function if his basic needs were not being met. Jobs, which are ‘low-skill’, are not less important; they just have less social value. Furthermore, there is an implication in this discussion that certain types of people are worth less than others and that is hugely problematic. People have different skills and some find certain tasks easier than others (and this is without reflecting on how poverty and social class impact on education, etc), but this should NOT reflect on their social value. Their value lies in their humanity.

Finally, the question of privilege inevitably enters into any discussion of housework. Only the privileged can afford to pay someone else to clean their house (although in the past almost every household at all social levels had servants). And this raises some really complicated issues. As raised by one commenter, being able to hire people to clean your home and look after your children, allows many women to enter the world of work, which would not be possible otherwise. For some women, working is necessary to survive and the extra income they earn can pay someone else to reduce their burden. This is more complicated than a simple exercise of privilege. This is about coping and surviving. Yet, there is also the question of who cleans the house of the cleaner, another working woman?

What about rich women with leisure time who would like to pay someone to clean their house, not to free them for work, but for pleasure? Is this an exercise of privilege too far? Is there something fundamentally different about employing someone to clean your house when it is acceptable to buy prepared food and ready-made clothes? In fact, could you argue that because you pay your cleaner directly (not through the middlemen of factory owners, product buyers and the shop), they get a fairer, less exploitative wage than many people under the capitalist system?

At some point, we have to accept that as a society we rely on each other for survival. Households in the past needed servants because two adults could not do everything that needed to be done to survive. This is true today, but, instead of work being done by servants within our homes, we purchase ready-made food and clothes and rely on new technologies to allow us to cope. Because so much of that labour is invisible, we forget that humanity is a giant organism. Increasingly, we are trying to make housework invisible too. We give it little or no social value; we refuse to recognise its vital function to survival; we resist paying people to do it as it highlights its existence- it highlights that our survival depends on others. When we do pay people to clean, we demean them and trivialise their role.

Under the current capitalist/ patriarchal system, employing people to clean your home is an exercise of privilege. So is being able to buy your meat, pre-slaughtered and butchered, your vegetables grown, cleaned and even diced! We would like to forget that. We like to imagine that our successes and failures came through our own merit and hardwork. This is not true. We got here together. Now, we need to recognise that and give credit where credit is due. Perhaps, when we do, the social/ class/ gender/race distinctions that permeate our society will be harder to sustain.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Congratulations to Me!!

So, I have been a bit silent earlier in the week because I had a job interview coming up and I was hectically trying to prepare, in addition to everything else I had to do, then I had a wee trip down south for the interview. But I found out today that I was successful. Woohoo! It's not a permanent job, but a two-year postdoctoral research contract on a subject very, very close to my own. So close, that it is actually a natural progression, rather than a detour, as research projects can sometimes be. So that is all great. To all those other recently completed Drs out-there swimming in the sea of unknown employment, I finally hit land, so have hope!

Now I just need to get the book finished before I start. And, the countdown (ten weeks) begins...

(I need to find out how to get one of those wee 'words written' counters on the side bar!!)

Thursday, 19 June 2008


Sometimes, mainly on American blogs, I come across comments of disgust that people pay other people to do their housework. The argument usually goes that people who pay other people to do their housework are exploiting them, regardless of how much they are paid. Apparently, there is no financial remuneration that could compensate somebody for the loss of status brought by cleaning a house. Implicit in this discussion is the sense that doing housework is so demeaning, so awful, that nobody should ask another person to do it for them. Now, why is housework viewed in this way?

First, I think at least part of this argument is driven by a sense of insecurity about placing a numeric value on women’s contribution to the economy. If we can decide on a going rate for house-cleaning, we can calculate how much a woman’s work in the home is worth; as worth decides your social status in a capitalist system, there is a risk that you devalue the social role of housewives. As housewives traditionally took their social status from their husband, there is a risk that women married to high-earning men would be worth less than them and thus risk losing power within their marriage. Implicit in all of this, of course, is the sense that housework isn’t worth very much, and even if it’s not at the bottom of the pile of poorly-paid jobs, it won’t be at the top. This is exasperated by the fact that housework is not seen to be driven by economic factors, so therefore the value of wages would not be driven by economic forces, but by an arbitrary social valuation.

Second, housework is seen as demeaning as it is women’s work. This, of course, is never explicitly said, but why else would such disgust arise at the idea of doing housework. Housework is not that difficult; it’s not that disgusting. I have cleaned houses for money and would much, much prefer that to, say, to having to bathe and dress elderly people, which is considered to a be a respectable (women’s) occupation. It is far less disgusting than working in an abattoir or cleaning out stables. For the queasy stomached like myself, it is far less disgusting that stitching up gushing head wounds or cutting out people’s hearts. The work is not that physically hard and it is only as demeaning as you are treated. I personally had much more patronising and sleazy employers in retail than in house cleaning. Furthermore, while it is not often recognised, housework is an essential part of the economy. If houses weren’t cleaned and laundry left undone, workers would not be able to go to work in clean clothes, or make themselves food; they would eventually be made ill by bacteria, germs and mould; eventually (ok this would take a while but...) houses would decay and fall down, leaving worker’s homeless. Housework is only considered demeaning because it is something that women do.

Third, housework is demeaning because it is associated with the private sphere. The inviolable private home is meant to be a haven from the economic forces of the ‘real world’; a sanctuary from the harsh competition and strife of the capitalist system. Yet, because we value things with an economic value, the private home is seen as worth less than the public sphere. It was meant to be an equal, but different, environment, but inevitably, as capitalism shaped how we viewed the world, it came to hold less social import. To be placed in that environment is to be worth less, whether you are there as a wife or as a worker. Furthermore, the acknowledgement that the private home is also an economic environment undermines the private/public divide. That people could be paid for what goes on inside the home problematises the public/ private distinction that is at the heart of middle class, patriarchal values.

For these reasons, housework is seen as demeaning and paying someone to do your housework is seen as demeaning someone (which is unacceptable for feminists). Paying someone to do your housework is also problematic as it makes very visible the social hierarchies that exist in society and which, especially the privileged, like to pretend we don’t play a part in. Yet, those social distinctions continue to operate in every sphere of life; they are just more obvious when we do it the home and are directly responsible for the payment of wages. Housework is not demeaning, in and of itself. It is seen that way, because we do not value it. This is something we need to respond to as feminists, both because housework is associated with women and tends to overwhelmingly fall to women, and because a critical rethinking of the economic value of housework destabilises the capitalist, patriarchal system.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

A Letter Sent.

This my response to the Scottish government's consultation on raising the age of alcoholic purchases for 18-21 year olds (Yes, I pinched quite a bit from an old blog post of mine).

Dear Madam or Sir,

I wish to strongly object to removing the legal right of 18-21 year-olds to purchase alcohol in supermarkets and off-licenses, as I believe that such legislation is discriminatory and unjustified. Legislation of this nature is a restriction on the legal rights of adults, and as such, could fall foul of age discrimination legislation. I believe that it is unjustified as, despite claims to the contrary, there is little statistical justification to single out 18-21 year-olds.

The justification for this legislation appears to be a ‘significant public concern’ that young people drink too much and that alcohol misuse is higher in this age group than other age groups, as suggested by attendances at Accident and Emergency, levels of drink-driving and assaults. While ‘significant public concern’ surrounds the issue of young people drinking, this alone cannot be used as the basis of legislation. Public concern is a notoriously problematic judge of social problems and often has no basis in fact. The public has continously been concerned with the behaviour of young people for the past three-hundred years and yet most of that concern is hyperbole and reflects poorly on ‘reality’.

There is also no real statistical evidence that the 18-21 age group are the major cause of alcohol related problems. As far as I know, there are no studies that exclusively look at the behaviour of this age group and show a different pattern of behaviour from those of people aged under 30. The statistics used for the government’s consultation back this up. The report says that drink-driving accidents are highest among young people, yet the 2005 police road casualties report shows that 25% of drivers and passengers, aged 16-19, killed while driving were drunk, compared to 33% of those aged 20-29 and 33% of those aged 30-39. Why pick out the 18-21 age group for particular punishment, when if anything they are better behaved? Similarly, while 65% of drunken assaults were amongst those aged under thirty, the average age of an assailant was 25 for men and 26 for women. Singling out 18-21 year olds seems rather arbitrary. The vast majority of 18-21 year olds do not binge drink (43% of men aged 16-24 binge drink and 24% of women) and, again, there are no studies that look particularly at the drinking behaviour of 18-21 year olds. If this change in legislation is about health benefits, then, younger people tend to drink more than older people, but, again, I am not aware of any studies that say alcohol consumption peaks between the ages of 18 and 21. Furthermore, as alcohol consumption is related to earnings, it is more likely that alcohol consumption would be higher amongst the 21-24 age group, who have a higher earning capacity. Legislating against the 18-21 age groups seems arbitrary and restricts the rights of adults based on their age. As such, it appears to fall foul of age discrimination legislation. It is a fact that men of all ages drink more than women aged 16-24, yet legislation that restricted the right to drink by gender would be discriminatory. Why would the same not apply to age?

Underage drinking is already a fact of life in Scotland. Raising the age limit, even if just in particular circumstances, criminalises the behaviour of another group of people with no real reduction in behaviour. More problematically, however, is what criminalising the behaviour of a group of adults based on their age says about our society. At a certain point, we grant people in society the rights of adulthood, which include the ability to make choices about their lives, whether or not they are good ones. What age do we want to set adulthood at? There is already considerable social discussion about the ever-increasing boundaries of youth as people put off marriage and family until their early-thirties, allowing them the freedoms of adolescence for longer and longer. Do we want to institutionalise youth into the twenties? The fact is society has a responsibility to protect its young people due to the fact that we restrict their behaviour. It is the pay off we make for not allowing them full human agency. If we raise the age limit for adulthood, we remove full human agency for a larger group of people and thus we change their role in society. We infantilise them and we cannot expect people who are not allowed to be adults in one area of their life to behave like adults in another. Are we willing to take on that responsibility? Furthermore, should we?

If we can agree that, in Scotland, people over fourteen can make legally binding contracts, that people over sixteen can have sex, marry without parental consent, leave school, live in their own homes, be held criminally responsible and tried as an adult, work and pay tax, that people over seventeen can drive, that people over eighteen can smoke and have mortgages, credit card debt and all the other rights and responsibilities of adulthood, then why should there be a separate rule for drinking? Much of the government’s alcohol use reduction strategy is based on education and teaching people to make good choices. Yet, at the same time, the government is removing the ability to exercise that choice. What does that say about the government’s faith in its own strategies and in its young people?

While similar legislation exists in other countries, notably the US, different countries have different legal standards for adulthood. Scotland has set the legal age of adulthood peculiarly young (effectively at 16) and, as such, it has created a culture of responsibility and adulthood from around that age, and certainly by 18. In the US, full adulthood is not granted until 21. In Scandinavia, the picture is similar to Scotland, but generally the age of legal responsibility is higher as is age at marriage. Legislative practice cannot be easily removed from one environment to another, especially when it would grievously infringe upon the rights of a social group that, until that moment, had been full adults.

Drink is a problem amongst all social groups and all age-groups. It is at the heart of our culture. Drink is brought out at all social occasions, whether organised by families, institutions or the state, often with no alternative given. It is given out as a reward or bonuses in the workplace based on an assumption that everybody drinks alcohol. Not drinking alcohol can exclude you from a large part of Scottish social life, and, if drink is calculated at cost, refusing alcohol can be refusing a (sometimes significant) part of your wage. Raising the drinking age pretends that alcohol related problems are about the irresponsibility of youth, while simultaneously reclassifying a group of adults as young people to solve a fictional problem. Our love affair with alcohol is a widespread social problem, institutionalised into our culture, and effecting people at all social levels and in all age-groups. If we want to reduce the harms caused by drinking, we need to change the significance of drinking to Scottish society, not redefine what it means to be an adult. Legislative practice often has much wider social implications than the single issue that it addresses. This sort of legislation is of this nature.

Thank you for your time and consideration,
Yours Sincerely,
Feminist Avatar.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Dear BBC,

I’m a bit behind, but yesterday the BBC was critiqued for its poor coverage of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish news.* A study shows that people outside of England feel that their country is poorly represented in the BBC’s national news and that there needs to be more coverage to promote fuller and clearer democracy. There are various comments by leading figures saying that we need more ‘local’ news on the link. But the thing that is not really being said is that it is not just about ‘more’ news. It is about how UK news is reported and made relevant to viewers outside England.

First of all, the UK is not synonymous with England; if you are using the term, you are including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There is no such thing as UK law, a UK education system or, for many purposes, even a UK NHS. There is definitely not UK weather (please note snow in England does not mean the whole of the UK has snow). Studies of England are not studies of the UK. Please get the terminology right. It is just bad reporting to have headlines that talk about the UK, when you mean England. Don’t believe they do it, check out these statistics for the ‘UK’, the scroll to the bottom to find out where they got them- yup England.

Second, just because something is important in England does not mean it matters to the rest of the UK. House prices aren’t yet falling in Scotland and there is no reason why they should as we did not have similar rates of price inflation to England. Yet, reportage suggests that the plummeting house prices in England also apply to Scotland, making Scottish buyers nervous. You are reporting us into an unnecessary downturn. Similarly, while English economic growth rates are in decline; this is not true of Scotland. Our growth rates are stable. Stop including us in your proclamations of doom.

Third, major events do not affect all nations of the UK equally. This is really important to remember as it is key to democratic processes. The rise in immigration that has England upset and frightened has been great for Scotland. It has brought in young people into our aging population, filled undesirable jobs (which I am sure is problematic at other levels, bu,t...), and increased our declining birth rate. A BBC that perpetuates the myth that immigration is harmful to all of the UK, because certain areas experience over-crowding in England and, through doing so creates hostile attitudes to immigrants amongst the Scottish population, doubly harms Scotland, both through encouraging racism and through damaging our economy.

The problem is that there is a general assumption that England is the norm and that the rest of the UK is peripheral and our experiences interesting curiosities. The ‘United’ in UK is meant to suggest that all four nations are equal, that our experiences are similarly valid, if different. Treating three of the four nations as if their experiences are not relevant or assuming that one nation’s experience is relevant to the rest of the UK, but that the rest of the UK has nothing to offer in return, is undemocratic and removes any sense of true partnership.

So, BBC, it’s good that you recognise that you have a problem with news reportage, but, when you fix it, please don’t ignore the actual problem in favour of ‘more’.

*To any readers not convinced by Scottish Nationalism, go read the comment thread that goes with this article.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Criticising Women.

Beyond Feminism has started a flurry of blog posts on whether it is right for feminists to criticise other women, both for and against. Debs at Burning Times argues that criticising other women, who regardless of their wealth or status in society, share our oppression is pointless and divides women. Poly Styrene argues that we need to be able to criticise women, or, otherwise, we would never challenge women who further women’s oppression. So, despite being days behind, I thought I’d throw my hat in to the ring.

First, I think feminists can legitimately challenge and criticise other people’s ideas and behaviours. But, I think that we have to be careful how and for what reason we do so. There are certain ideas that most, if not all, feminists agree on. We agree that women are human beings who should be extended all the rights and privileges of men. We, generally, agree that women should be represented in the public sphere and in politics. We, generally, agree that women should have the same rights to education and the same legal privileges, such as with regard to divorce law, as men. We, generally, agree that women have the right to be paid equally to men for the same job, to have the same opportunity of employment and promotion to men, and, for many, to challenge traditional working practices that limit women’s ability to achieve in the workplace. Many feminists agree that we should challenge social norms that locate women in the private sphere and in an exclusively child-rearing, forced domestic role. Most agree that women should be equal to their husbands within in marriage. Most feminists support the right of women to have intimate, and/or sexual, relationships with women and still hold all the privileges of straight women and men. Most feminists support women’s right to control their own bodies, including the right to access abortion and contraceptives. Most feminists recognise that men hold socially recognised and legitimate power over women that frequently, but not exclusively, manifests itself in domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, and that this is wrong. Many feminists believe that male power over women is systematic, and we describe that system as patriarchy. This is nowhere near an exhaustive list of the things most feminists would agree on, and this is without even broaching on how sexism intersects with other forms of oppression, including racism, dis-ablism and homophobia.

If someone, male or female, says, writes, sings or otherwise conveys that these ideas are wrong, then as feminists we have the right, and perhaps even the duty, to challenge this. We have the right to say why we think these ideas are wrong and to critique them.

So, what about new territory? Surely, if the feminist movement is to continue to grow and evolve, feminists have to be able to challenge new ideas that oppress women. This, too, I think is acceptable and important. If an idea, behaviour or a product comes along that needs to be given a feminist critique, then that is valuable.

However, I think this is different from blaming women who conform to patriarchal standards for that conformity. First of all, all women to some extent conform to patriarchal standards. This is because how we understand femininity, masculinity and gender is shaped by patriarchal discourses. To use but one example, how we dress is always determined by patriarchal standards. Currently, dressing sexily is frequently critiqued as conforming to patriarchal standards, but the problem is that dressing in any other way is given meaning by how it relates to the norm. So, we can reject sexy, but then we are just frumpy, unsexy, undesirable. Being undesirable may seem good in a world where women’s worth is measured by desirability, but it does not overturn the system. Alternative fashions are not anti-patriarchal, because they are still given meaning or definition within the patriarchal system. And this is before we get into the fact that the patriarchal standard for fashion is constantly shifting. We cannot dress ourselves out of the patriarchal system; it will take something more revolutionary.

Criticising women for conforming to patriarchal standards is not helpful, because we all have to do it in our daily lives. Criticising women for conforming is not helpful, because in the case of much behaviour, it is not the behaviour itself that is problematic, but the meaning given to it by the culture. Wearing high heels or short skirts is not of itself problematic, it is how the wearing of such items is interpreted that is problematic. If we start limiting what women can do, because it conforms to patriarchy, we will soon be limited to a very small range of behaviours, and that cannot be good for women. We also get into the very problematic territory of what behaviour is better, or more feminist, than others, and this sort of ranking tends to discriminate against women without cultural authority (and please note that authority may be different in feminist circles than in patriarchal society).

This is not to say behaviour should be left uncritiqued. It is perfectly legitimate to question why women choose to dress in particular ways (although I think it would be difficult to create a simple good dress/ bad dress dichotomy). It is perfectly legitimate to say why certain behaviours help reinforce the patriarchal system, and ideally explain how they do. It is also legitimate to take a stand against certain behaviours. Few women would agree that domestic violence was ever acceptable, and many feminist are uncomfortable with cosmetic surgery. Feminists are allowed to have opinions on these topics. But, we also have to accept that it is very difficult to make black and white rules within patriarchal society and that women should not be attacked because of the choices they make to survive within that system. We also have to accept that there will be some disagreement over what behaviours are feminist, or not, and that is ok, in fact it makes for great blog posts. We need to separate our criticism of women from our criticism of behaviour. They are not synonymous. Few women are the sum of what they wear, or the image they present, or even the ideas they express. Furthermore, as human beings, they are entitled to hold the opinions they hold, even if we think they are despicable. That is the right we grant men and should be granted to all women. We might want women to behave better, but expecting women to always be perfect or to represent the rest of womankind is to remove them of their humanity, a humanity that is flawed. Through doing so, we defeat our own aims.

Sunday, 8 June 2008


"A 15 year old boy is charged with 11 indecent assaults which were alleged to have taken place in Glasgow".

Is it just me or does this sentence read that it is the location that is in doubt, not the crime?

Blood, DNA and Feminism.

The obsession with blood and DNA as markers of familial relationship in contemporary society is increasingly disturbing. Throughout history, blood lineage has always been important amongst certain social groups, especially for inheritance reasons, and, as a result, the chastity of women was vital. Female virginity on marriage and chastity throughout ensured that any children she gave birth to could be identified as legitimate heirs. Male chastity was less important as they could not pass off illegitimate children as someone else’s. The concern with blood led to significant social, cultural and physical restrictions on women’s lives, but it also required a significant amount of trust, as it was never absolutely possible to prove legitimacy.

Despite this obsession, British society in the past was open to familial relationships that were broader than blood alone. Amongst the Scottish clans, a system of fosterage existed, where a child (often the heir) of warring (or uneasily allied) kin groups would be brought up by the enemy family to promote harmony in the next generation. This link was often consolidated through marriage within the kin groups. These children were expected to be loved and well-treated, like a biological child, to ensure good relationships. It was also true that where families were without heirs, they would adopt children from other families, while orphaned children could be adopted by loving parents (although I would not like to suggest that there was a golden age without orphanages or other institutions). The complexities of the apprenticeship system, where children went to live with another family at around age 12, also meant that people often raised the children of other families. Apprenticeship contracts often include clauses that require moral guidance and care as well as occupational training. In the Victorian period, it was not unusual for single (mainly middle-class) women to adopt orphaned children, as it was considered good for the child and good for the woman to release her ‘innate motherly urges’ (check this out single mothers!!). While blood was important, having an invested interest in the children of other people was not considered problematic or a waste of time or energy.

Today, our obsession with blood continues, but often in a more extreme form. We no longer require women to be chaste as we can do a DNA test to prove paternity, but if a child is not biologically related then we pretty much cut all ties. The idea that fatherhood (or, for that matter, motherhood) is about action, behaviour and desire is quickly being replaced by a biological link. Recently, the advice columnist Joan Burnie was sent a letter by a man who had recently discovered that his sperm count was low and questioned whether his, now adult, daughter was really his. He asked whether he should demand a DNA test. As Joan responded, what’s the point, other than to hurt your daughter? Does DNA really replace a lifetime relationship? Are you any less a father because your genetic code hasn’t been passed on? Similarly, the American writer, Rebecca Walker, has recently said that she loves her biological child more than her stepson, whom she also raised. When did a piece of paper, or an abstract bit of code, become more important than a relationship?

In many ways, I think that this trend is represented in the desire for IVF. Now, I think IVF is a good and important thing and should be widely available, but you have to wonder why it is fast replacing adoption. In part, I think this is caused by widespread fear that nature may be stronger than nurture. Awareness of genetics has led us to obsess about hereditary diseases, hereditary personality traits, hereditary criminality, as if who we are is entirely the result of our DNA, not (at least in part) our upbringing. And yet at the same time, we increasingly cordon our children off from society, for fear that strangers may corrupt or abuse them. We contain ourselves in smaller and smaller, privatised boxes, not only rejecting outsiders, but even those within our families whose genetic origins are suspect. We have also begun to obsess about our origins in another light, tracing back family trees to find out who we are, and then adjusting our perception of self and identity to match a long dead heritage (aha! We were actually a criminal underclass; Look at the purity of our roots over several generations).

As feminists, we should be wary of a call to blood and DNA as this attitude has never been great for women in the past. As we worry about genetics, it tends to be women’s bodies that are increasingly policed. It is women whose eggs have to be in prime condition to stop ‘genetic’ defaults; despite evidence that poor quality sperm is also ‘a problem’. Women with disabilities, or undesirable genetic traits, are increasingly outcast and their reproductive options limited by a call to genetic perfection. It almost goes without saying that such attitudes tend to work against groups in the population that are already viewed suspiciously: black people, Asian people, poor people, etc. DNA tests allow men to walk away from responsibility towards children, never mothers. It is frequently women who suffer most by the privatisation of the household, where, let’s not forget, the vast majority of violence and abuse that children and women face occurs. The privatisation of children makes it more difficult for women to ask other women for support in child-rearing without this seeming like a unreasonable burden. An inability to share links with humanity beyond the family is bad for women as it isolates them, and it is bad for feminism as we cannot create a movement due to fear of the other, an ‘other’ that is an increasingly large part of the population.

It is also bad for children. Children, especially those who are not white, middle-class newborns, who end up in care are no longer fostered or adopted, but cared for by the state in institutions. This is not (just?) due to an increase in IVF removing the demand (plenty of foster and adoptive parents have biological children, plus much of this is due to the lack of support for parents in society generally, making having or fostering children difficult), but a fear that the potential disruption that these unvetted elements may add to a household are too great a risk. Children who live with their parents (biological or otherwise) no longer get to interact with other adults, and, through doing so, learning about other cultures and values, and being able to access alternative sources of support and advice. Through this, they are taught that involvement with other people’s lives is suspicious and unwanted, and the basis for any social movement, which relies on a sense of commonality, unity and ultimately involvement with other people, is lost.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Power: What Is It? Or No Answers Today, Folks.

Poor and working-class women did not become the role models for bourgeois white women because they were not seen by them as exercising forms of power valued in this society. In other words, their exercise of strength was not synonymous with economic power. Their power is in no way linked to domination or control over others, and this is the form of power that many bourgeois women are intrigued by and fascinated with.

(bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre, (South End Press, 1984),

(I realise that this post may sound like I am challenging the utility of removing patriarchy/ capitalism. That is not its intent. Rather I am trying to conceptualise how theories of power actually relate to the complex operation of life, in order to move forward past an unequal society. Suggestions welcome.)

Women can and do exercise power. In Scotland, working-class women were often in control of the household income, giving their husband’s pocket money. They often lived in communities where being independent, strong and exercising power over their families was expected and normal. Yet, for much of history, they couldn’t vote, their ‘choice’ (to work or not, in what occupation, where to live, what to buy, etc) was incredibly limited, the power they exercised was not socially legitimate or recognised, they were understood by society to be less than their husbands and had all the constraints that the law and society put on women because of their gender.

What is power? Is it power to have control over others, even if they are lower down the social ladder? Is it power to be able to exercise choice, even if that choice is constrained? Is it power if its exercise is limited to a particular sphere, such as the household? I think we would answer ‘yes’ to all of these questions, even if we recognised that power was constrained in many cases.

But what if we rank power? Do you have more power if you exercise power in the household, like a working-class women, or if you have the vote, like a working-class man (at certain points in history)? Is it more power to have more earning power due to your sex, like a working class man, or to be given your husband’s entire wage at the end of the week, like a working-class women? Is it more power to be recognised by society as a superior form of life (like working-class men vis-à-vis working-class women), or to have access to economic resources that give you a wider range of choice (like say a working-class women in charge of the household budget)? Are symbolic forms of power, such as maleness, more or less real than more physical forms of power, such as economic power? How do we conceptualise, and dismantle, patriarchy if we don't understand how it operates- or perhaps, how do we justify that men hold power over women in a systematic way, if women sometimes hold power oven men? When does power become patriarchal and not just the interactions of individuals competing for power?

The intention of this discussion is not to start a fight about who is more oppressed, or what criteria of identity is more important as a marker of subjugation (gender, race, sexuality, etc, etc.). But to ask, what is power? What do we mean by that term and when is it useful? Perhaps, drawing on Marx, we often see money as a marker of power. The more money a person has, the more power they can exercise. But if that person spends 100+ hours a week earning that money, so that s/he has wealth but not time, is that more empowering than being poor, but with leisure time? Is it a balance- the middle-class person who earns enough to be comfortable and have choice, but also the time to use that choice? Or, is about the potential- the potential to buy, to bribe, to pay one’s way out of the system, that makes it power? Are you powerful if you are massively wealthy, but never do anything at all but sit in your house and watch TV?

Is power measured by how many people are influenced or affected by your actions? Are MPs powerful because they make decisions that affect the lives of whole nations of people? Are they more or less powerful than the man who can bribe MPs to, say, give him a Visa (a decision without broader repercussions on society than having an extra person in the country)? Let’s contrast this with power within the family. Does the man who exercises complete control over his household have less power than an MP, whose decisions affect many, or, more power, because the exercise of power is more direct, perhaps takes up more time, and gives him more immediate benefits? If power is judged by what you get out of exercising it- the benefits of holding authority- is it more powerful to be the Prime Minister or to be the abusive husband?

bell hooks suggests that working-class women, through their independence, capability and strength, hold power (or as I would term this form of power-agency). She argues that we need to get out of a mindset that sees power as about controlling other people, or equates power with economic resources. And, I think this is something that most feminists would agree on. Yet, what is less clear, is what it means to be an agent or to hold power outside of these traditional structures, especially because it is unclear how those traditional structures give you power in the first place. What does it mean to hold the vote in a world where your most immediate concern is feeding your household? Does a Prime Minister feel more power when his policy successfully passes into law, or when he beats his wife? Are you more powerful if everyone in the world is equal (same resources; same social conception and value), or less- and if we no longer have capitalism-how do we measure this? Do we need to?

If we equate agency with having choice then no one can ever hold true power, because our choice is always constrained by the rights of others- is that the key? How do we work out the line between constraining your rights for the greater good, and oppression?

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

BBC Headline.

"Guard Jailed for Male Sex Attacks."

I think the word you are looking for is rape.

Women Continuing to Die.

Scottish women are more likely to die in childbirth than anywhere else in Western Europe. We are twice as likely to die as the European and UK average. This reflects our dreadful health record more generally and our high levels of poverty.

Apparently, we can be grateful that they have a worse record in the Third World. Don’t know what else to say really, except that we need to do better.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Bugged Again.

This weekend two women were murdered in Glasgow in what appear to be separate incidents. In one instance, a woman, Moira Jones, aged 40 (but described as a ‘young woman’ by police- patronising??), was raped and battered to death in a park near her home. She was a businesswoman who worked as a sales consultant for Britvic. In the second incident, trainee manager, Eleni Pachou was stabbed to death, apparently attacked as she closed up the restaurant where she worked. These are both horrible murders and probably not that typical of Glasgow, though hardly untypical experiences for womenkind. But what has bugged me is how these women are described by the press and officials over the case.

The BBC described Moira as a ‘respectable’ businesswoman, while Detective Chief Superintendent Ruaraidh Nicolson commented yesterday:
To have two decent, respectable women murdered in such a short period of time is very, very unusual and not something I would want to be repeated in the force.
Decent and respectable?? Now, I am sure these women were decent and respectable, but why the need to emphasis this point? Does a woman have to be ‘decent and respectable’ for her murder to matter; for people to care whether such an incident is repeated? Do the police not realise what they are saying about the numerous other female victims that have been murdered this year? Are the police actually saying they care more about these victims than, for example, the several women who have been killed in Maryhill over the last few months? Do they matter less because the police did not deem them respectable; because poverty ensured they lived in a deprived area?

Is a woman's value forever to lie in her 'respectability'?

Sunday, 1 June 2008


A few days ago, I saw a flyer (which I unfortunately lost) for a local kitchen supplier. It featured a black and white cartoon of a muscled, square-jawed man in an apron, holding a frying pan over a stove in a kitchen. Above the cartoon the flyer asked ‘Do you want to be this modern man?’ Beneath it read, ‘[company name] presents new curvy kitchens’ and had a colour picture of a (quite fabulous) kitchen, followed by the words ‘Show you softer side’. And something bugged me.

Perhaps, it’s the idea that only ‘modern men’ would wear an apron and cook. Perhaps, it was the idea that only ‘modern men’ would have an interest in choosing their kitchens. Perhaps, it was the idea that only ‘modern men’ would want a ‘curvy’ kitchen, or want to show their ‘softer side’ (or that the decor in your kitchen would actually reflect your personality). Perhaps, it was the ‘modern’ in modern man.

Is our conception of masculinity so narrow that we can only conceive of a man who cooks as an aberrance or ‘type’? Do men, who are happy to show their softer sides, have to be categorised separately? I understand that ‘modern man’ is a complex category, being embraced by some men and rejected by others, but what does it mean to say that only ‘modern men’ like curves in their kitchens? From the other perspective, do cooking, kitchen choice and a softer side make the modern man?

Why did the question not read ‘do you want to be this man?’