Thursday, 28 February 2008

Where is your Fighting Spirit?

Dear Janet Street Porter,

In this month’s Sainsbury’s Magazine in an article designed to advise women on how to live with men, you effectively argue that women should accept their lot as second-class citizens. As a woman who has such an influential voice and who had to fight a long battle to achieve the level of success you have today in, what was and to a large extent still is, a male dominated industry, this is a really surprising response. Why not encourage women to claim back their lives and demand equality. It’s not as if you don’t recognise that the way men behave is about the operation of power. As you note:

When men come up with that classic phrase, ‘stop nagging me, I’m going to get around to it in my own time’, we all know that the three magic words ‘my own time’ really mean this year, next year, sometime, generally never. It’s one of the few simple and 100%-guaranteed ways men exercise power and control over women. My best advice in this situation: just feel inwardly superior- because you are!

What! You recognise that this response is a form of abuse by men and you advocate doing nothing! Feeling inwardly superior has always been the advice given to women when they protest about their maltreatment, but it doesn’t make them feel better and it doesn’t stop men abusing them. This is terrible advice. The rest of your article makes similar points. You argue that older women should ignore the fact that they are passed over for younger models because of their looks with complaint. You advise women to:
Accept that you are going to have to work 50% harder to get where you want if men are managers.
When it comes to housework, you note:

Don’t even attempt to argue, just accept the reality that women do this stuff better. Get even in other ways.

Telling women to accept the reality that they will be treated badly is not good advice. It just perpetrates hurt and abuse. It tells men and women that the world will not change and, by saying that, you make it that much harder for women who are desperately trying to make life better for everybody else. I appreciate that you are essentially advocating trying to minimise the effect men have over your life, as you note:
But it’s harnessing all that, so that our lives are not disrupted to an acceptable extent by trying to accommodate and cater for them, that’s the difficult part.
But, that is not a solution, because we do have to live alongside men. We have to work with men. We give birth to men. We have to live in societies where the decisions that affect our lives are made by men. Trying to ignore their bad behaviour is not going to be effective. It’s just burying our heads in the sand. For a woman who is very outspoken about other social injustices, it is really surprising that you are so reticent to speak up for your sex. Conservative advice of this nature is harmful to women.

Please reconsider.

Yours Sincerely,
Feminist Avatar.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

The ‘Modern’ Wife.

I recently read an academic article on domestic violence, which stated:
‘even for working women, self-respect, identity, and sense of value are still rooted in most cases, is [sic] their role of as wife and mother’.
And I wondered is this still true. Now I am not a mother, but I am a wife and a working woman. It made me wonder what part of my identity comes from being a wife. As a historian, when I think of what qualities mark out a wife, I think obedience to one’s spouse, service to one’s spouse and family, and good housewifery, none of which excluded the working wife. Yet, I am very uncomfortable with using any of those qualities to define my identity.

I try to keep our house clean and tidy, but, like many working women, I find this is not always the reality. But, I don’t think this is solely my responsibility. If our house is dirty, I don’t blame myself. I see this as a joint failure by me and my husband, and a failure that is relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I sometimes worry that people will judge me if our house is untidy, but, to be honest, I just find this irritating and sexist, rather than motivating. I certainly don’t see it as a failure on my part, but rather a failure by society. Similarly, I don’t believe in being obedient to my husband and I don’t think it is my role to serve him. He is my equal and our marriage is something we negotiate together.

Yet, I like being married and, in that sense, I like being a wife. So, it occurred to me to ask, what does it mean to be a wife today? When I tell people I am married, what am I trying to say? For me, telling people I am married is saying that the decisions that I make are not just about what is good for me. It is saying that my life involves negotiation and that I need to make choices that are good for both me and my husband; that my decisions are not entirely selfish, but not uninterested either. Telling people that I am a wife is about saying that sometimes I have other commitments and responsibilities that are important to me. It is also about saying that I will put my relationship first, but that does not mean that I am not committed to the other things in my life. It is not about sacrifice. I expect my husband to make the same compromises that I do and to be part of the negotiation. I expect him to be flexible towards my other commitments as I am to his. I also expect him to put our relationship first.

So is being a wife central to my identity? It is certainly central to understanding the decisions that I make, so, in that sense, yes. But do I see being a wife as making me different or special from non-married women, or having particular social characteristics? Not so much. Would my life be different if I wasn’t married? Certainly.

Is being a 'wife' at the root of my self-esteem or sense of value? I really don’t know. I am sure that much of my self-esteem comes from having someone to support and encourage me. I am sure that being loved makes me feel valued. Would my self-esteem be lower if I wasn’t married? I don’t think so. I have other people in my life who also love and support me. I have achievements which I am proud of. Is being a wife something that I am proud of? Not particularly, but only because I don’t really see it as an achievement, but rather a state of being. I am not ’proud’ that I am a woman, but I wouldn’t want to be a man.

So is my identity and value still rooted in my role as a wife? I guess it depends on how you define ‘wife’, how you define ‘identity’ and ‘value’, and how you define ‘rooted’. Am I married? Yes.

ETA: Another important part of a wife's identity that just occurred to me would be her provisioning role, whether that is through bringing home a wage or otherwise through her labour. This is something that I do take pride in, although I am not sure that this is unique to being a wife or a woman.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

But 'He Knew Her'.

Why is it that violence between people who know each other, especially when those people are of different genders or in a romantic or familial relationship, not as serious as violence between strangers? Cara at The Curvature, who I have to say has an uncanny knack of finding horrendous stories, highlights a case where an attendant in a halls of residence was not fired for raping a woman in his halls, because ‘he knew her’. On one level, I know that this is both an attack on women in the public sphere and an attempt to control women. Rape, of any sort outside of marriage or long-term relationship, usually comes down to a questioning of what the woman did to deserve it and, usually, this involves her having, at some point in her life, left her home. So to blame the victim and not the rapist is effectively a challenge on women’s right to be in public. Rape within in marriage or family environments, goes unchallenged as it questions male ownership of women and a man’s ‘right’ to control the women that he owns. Both of these techniques are a form of restricting women’s rights and spheres of operation, and of empowering men.

Yet, the ‘he knew her’ defence is more complicated than this. It implies that non-familial men have rights to women they don’t own. After-all, most men know quite a lot of women. It is not that hard. In the case Cara cites, the rapist lived in the same halls as his victim. Considering his position, he presumably ‘knew’ all or most of the women living there. Does that mean he could rape them all and have no consequences? Does his position of authority in the halls make it his own harem? This seems to be more complicated than an attack on women for being in the public sphere and more akin to a defence that argues that women he ‘knew’ were his property. Yet, traditionally when women were seen as property, they were owned by one man at a time, not many. Indeed, it used to be the case that if you raped a woman, your offence was a crime of property against her father or husband.

A ‘he knew her’ defence suggests that men have property in all the women that they know. But, if that is the case, multiple men own the same women. Furthermore, they have ownership without having responsibility. Under the traditional patriarchal family model, men owned women, but they also had responsibilities to provide for them, protect them and in many ways compensate them for the disadvantages of their bondage. Under the ‘he knew them’ model, men get all the privileges of ownership and none of the responsibilities or consequences.

In many ways, it is a defence that perfectly reflects modern patriarchal culture. Modern proponents want to have control over women’s bodies, whether that is to rape them or stop them from having abortions, but want to have no part in the consequences. The same people that call for restrictions on abortion do not also call for state funded childcare or free healthcare. The same people who advocate ‘he knew her’ as a defence for rape expect to walk away without consequences and leave women to shoulder the burden of the trauma. In many ways, this is death by a thousand cuts. Women’s power in society is reduced by the unbearable burden that they have to carry. It is the patriarchal system in operation in modern life; it is time it is removed.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Prostitution: Capitalism or Exploitation?

The BBC today interviewed some men who used prostitutes regularly and asked them why they did it. Now I expected to hear that they believed that prostitution was not unethical as the sex was between two consenting adults and to an extent this is what they said. This is not that surprising given that even in some feminist circles paying for sex can be viewed in this way. Yet, what surprised me (although I am not sure why) was the difficulty that they had making the argument that paying for sex wasn’t exploitative. Patrick, who uses prostitutes, commented:

"Some of my friends are fully aware that I visit prostitutes. Many of them do themselves. There is this fear that it is in some way abusive. I would disagree with the idea that nobody chooses to do it for a living. [...] I see us as adults. I want to pay and someone wants to sell. As long as I'm not hurting them in any way what harm am I doing. I'm distributing my wealth to people who don't have it."

He continues that the real root of prostitution is the economic system:

"There are a lot of single mothers who feel that's the only way they can make money. If you want to get rid of prostitution the way is to reform the welfare system."
So, prostitution is not exploitative, but it relies on desperate women who cannot make money in any other way. Does he not see the contradiction? If prostitution was a real choice, surely women would continue to do it even if there were other jobs or a brilliant welfare system available to them? They would continue to do it even if they were the people with the money to distribute. That, at least, would go some way toward making it a choice.

Another ‘punter’ called Mark only used escorts and massage parlours because: "There is a slightly exploitative element to street prostitution." How can he in good conscience distinguish between these groups? Because one group is paid better and is less likely to have a drug habit, or at least have it under control, it’s not exploitation? Do we measure different levels of desperation (drug habit: high exploitation; mortgage payment: medium level) when we decide whether something is exploitative?

The reasons why prostitution is exploitative are vastly more complicated than the fact prostitutes are usually poor and desperate. Yet, I find it interesting that even on these terms, these men found it difficult to justify their actions.


A vision for a post-patriarchal future. Suggestions welcome.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Wearing the Face that She Keeps in a Jar by the Door.

This post is inspired by Dr Crazy’s decision (a long time ago) to change blogs to allow her to recreate ‘herself’ and by a seemingly innocuous remark in the New York Review of Books to the effect that bloggers are obsessed by masked superheroes (via Twisty). Dr Crazy changed blogs as she felt that the persona, or voice, that she had created restricted what she wished to say and the way in which she spoke. Similarly, the reviewer at NYRB argued that bloggers loved masked superheroes as they could identify with the dual identity of the masked superhero (or in this case anonymous blogger) and the real life person.

As soon as you make the decision to blog, the issue of voice becomes very apparent. Unlike writing for academia, where you are expected to adopt a neutral, ‘rational’ voice, and writing literature, where the voice you create has limited time span or word count, a blogging persona is meant to convey something of you and often with an expectation that the persona will last the test of time. Yet, ‘you’ are not a static structure, but change in different contexts and over time. My physical voice has many tones, yet there is often an expectation that the blog persona will have a single style.

My avatar, Feminist Avatar, in many ways reflects the questions I have about voice. I couldn’t think of a pseudonym that defined me or accurately represented me. An avatar is an empty shell waiting to be filled up with content. I chose Feminist Avatar as the only thing I definitely knew I wanted to convey was my feminism. Yet, as feminism has multiple meanings, this still allowed flexibility of voice. I wanted to give my name meaning through my writing, rather than through a name.

Yet, the more I write, the less distinctive my voice becomes, and yet at the same time, I feel restricted by previous styles, so that I could not now dramatically change direction. Like a masked superhero, I increasingly buy into the myth of my identity and so become more rigid in behaviour, yet in this case it is a myth that I have created. It’s an interesting journey. It will be fun to see where it goes.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Immigrants to Learn to Blog (in English).

The Labour government has just laid out its new plans for immigration. They use phrases such as immigrants shall need to ‘prove their worth’ and show that they are ‘active’ citizens, which apparently means getting involved in the ‘community’. They, of course, are expected to learn ‘English’. Now I am always suspicious of plans that are designed to hold people from other countries to a higher standard than which we expect from ourselves, but, beyond this, I am actually quite intrigued as to how these aims will be carried out.

Let’s start with the easy one: learning English. I don’t consider myself to speak English. I speak Scots (I write in English, but only after many years in academia rid me of my Scottish phraseology and grammar). Even within England, there are a variety of dialects. How will ‘English’ be tested and what counts as English?

How community will be defined will also raise interesting questions. One of the major debates being had by government and academic bodies that is topical at the moment is the extent to which the sense of community has died everywhere from small villages to large towns. The Carnegie Trust has just started a major project to try and encourage the growth of 'communities' in rural areas, as a means to stimulating economic growth. The fact is people no longer gossip on street corners, but confine themselves to their homes, their mobile phones and the internet. People still have communities, but these are often no longer geographical. Communities exist through networking sites and blogging, through gaming sites and by instant messaging and texting. Communities are now based on shared interest, of which a shared workplace is still one of the strongest things that ties people together. The electronic nature of these interactions allow people to communicate over bigger distances, and let’s not forget with cars and public transport, not that many people still work in the communities in which they live. Yet, the government explicitly says that immigrants will need to be involved in the community BEYOND working and paying taxes. The government wants immigrants to be involved in a community that it is not sure even exists and to speak a language no one (maybe the queen) actually speaks.

It’s an interesting society that is being presented by the government, but does it exist. And if it doesn't what does that mean for immigrants.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Society and Science.

Recently the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences, which it often seems co-exist only reluctantly, have encountered one another, both in the blogosphere and in academia proper. Recent news reports discussing the nature of hereditary genetics, in relation to obesity, disability, and numerous other ‘conditions’, have left sociologists in the blogosphere questioning how science can make tenuous biological claims without making any reference to sociological literature. Similarly, the Journal of Social and Cultural History recently discussed whether historians should be more open to theories of evolutionary biology. The response within the discipline was roughly ‘probably, but we need to be aware that not all biologists are singing from the same songbook’.

The obvious problem, which has long been identified by inter-disciplinary obsessed research councils, is if we can’t even agree within our own discipline, how can we engage with others from different disciplines? In many ways, what often seems to be the biggest hurdle to an engagement between all the sciences is that physical science wants to create a model for humanity that is inherent and long-lasting, while the social science want an explanation that allows for cultural variation and change. Coming from a social science background, I wonder whether understanding the body as essentially unchanging is problematic. It is claimed that criminality is genetic, while there are very good social explanations for criminal behaviour. Similarly, obesity can be explained by genetics and by social factors. There is evidence that men and women have different brain patterns, but that people can be trained to think differently, and thus change their brain patterns. Children who are born with damaged brains can grow to be fully functional adults as their bodies are still flexible enough to adapt to compensate for the damaged areas. Perhaps, we need to think about the body as malleable, especially in childhood. But just as children’s bones eventually harden, the adult body eventually sets and the social leaves its mark, like a scar, but at a more ingrained, perhaps even genetic, level. Perhaps, we need an interpretation of the body where it not only wears the social, but has the social engraved on it, over a lifetime.

Slippery Slope.

Cara at The Curvature has highlighted a case in Italy, where a woman was interrogated, while still under sedation after a legal abortion, and the foetus taken for examination. It was suspected that the women was having an abortion later than the legal limit of twenty-four weeks, although the hospital claim it was at twenty-one weeks and for severe foetal deformities. Now while the state has a right to investigate when it believes illegal activity is occurring, interviewing a women who is still recovering from a medical procedure is at best insensitive, and at worst, a gross violation of her rights. The lack of sensitivity by the state in this case is appalling and it raises the question as to whether we can read her treatment by the police as ‘punishment’ for her abortion. Cara has more details and outlines many of the major concerns about this woman’s treatment. Given the current climate in the UK, where the right to abortion that many women take for granted is under challenge, it is worth highlighting our outrage at this case before it happens here.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Twenty-first Century Feminism

What behaviour counts as feminism is a contentious issue, especially if you are a historian trying to evaluate and classify the behaviour of women in the past. There is considerable debate over whether women’s organisations, who are not overtly feminist, but who work towards helping women or promoting their rights are feminist organisations. It becomes even more complex when we consider movements such as the Women’s Cooperative Guild or phenomena such as the professionalisation of nursing. If a phenomenon raises women’s self-esteem and teaches, or trains, them to be independent and autonomous individuals, but does so within a restricted, feminine sphere, is it feminist?

Very simplistically, we could posit that there are two types of feminism. The first hopes to broaden or widen women’s sphere through utilising present power structures. The second challenges those power structures. As a radical feminist, I think we should be doing the latter.

As a teacher of history, I often ask my students whether they believe women should vote; have equal pay; have equality of employment. If they say yes, I respond ‘you are a feminist’. But it occurs to me, if we live in a society where those things have been incorporated into the current power structures, can we still count belief in them as feminist activity? If feminism is about challenging power structures, is it enough to believe women should have their present rights, or do we need to demand more to be feminist?

As historians, if we only accept challenges to power structures as feminism, how do we classify all those other behaviours that support and empower women?

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

A Second Open Letter to Kenny MacAskill

Dear Kenny MacAskill,

I have previously written to you for holding women to a higher standard than men, while simultaneously ignoring male bad behaviour, pointing out your obvious sexism. Your comments reported today about the rise in numbers of women in (our singular female) Scottish prison seem to hold the same sentiment. You are reported as saying:
It's quite shameful in Scotland. It goes across both genders but clearly it's exacerbated amongst the female population.
Now what exactly do you mean by shameful? If you are commenting on the fact women are disproportionately jailed for minor offences, then I agree, this is shameful. If you are commenting on the continued use of the prison system to solve what are underlying structural social problems, then I agree this is shameful. If you are once more holding women to a different standard to men by expecting them to behave better, then I disagree. If this is the case, it is your sexism that is shameful.

Yours sincerely,
Feminist Avatar.

Monday, 11 February 2008

The More Things Change...

In 1839, JC Symons, assistant Royal Commissioner on handloom weaving, commented:
It is my firm belief that penury, dirt, misery, drunkeness, disease and crime culminate in Glasgow to a pitch unparalleled in Great Britain.
Let’s contrast this with Iain Duncan Smith’s conclusion in 2008.

1839: Penury

2008: Almost 30% of Glasgow’s working age population is ‘economically inactive’.

1839: Dirt

2008: Almost a quarter of Glasgow’s total population live the most deprived 5% of Scotland’s neighbourhoods- almost half in the most deprived 15%.

1839: Misery

2008: In the east end of Glasgow, over 60% of children live in workless households. Male life expectancy in 54 in Calton; 63 in Shettleston.

1839: Drunkeness

2008: It is estimated there are 15,000 problem drug-users in Glasgow and 6,000 children live with a parent with a substance abuse problem. Men and women in Scotland are twice as likely to die an alcohol-related death than in the United Kingdom as a whole. In 2003, male liver cirrhosis mortality rates in Glasgow exceeded the maximum national figure in Western Europe.

1839: Disease

2008: The number of incapacity benefit claimants in Glasgow in double the British average and the highest of all major UK cities.

1839: Crime

2008: Nearly 1 in 5 crimes in Scotland were committed in Glasgow. Serious assault in Glasgow is 2½ times higher than the national average. There are over 170 gangs in Glasgow compared to 169 in London, which is six times the size.

I know let’s make them homeless.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Because Racism Disguised as Science Annoys Me.

Dear Phil Woolas,

If you are going to criticise cultural practices in the Pakistani community under the guise of science by suggesting that cousin marriage increases the risk of having disabled children, please do your research first. This study of the high incidence of ‘recessive disorders’ amongst the British Pakistani community suggests that the picture is far more complex than a simple correlation between cousin marriage and the birth of disabled children. A couple of points that leap out include: cousin marriage over many generations actually reduces the incidence of ‘recessive disorders’, so the Pakistani community cannot be marrying their cousins as frequently as you suggest; cousin marriage is popular amongst the Muslim community, but not amongst the Sikh community, which is almost exclusively exogamous (although there is marriage within caste), yet both have a similar rate of recessive disorders; that some studies have shown that recessive alleles (which cause inherited disability) are similar in both white and Pakistani populations, yet the incidence of disability amongst Pakinstani infants is ten time higher. The study cannot explain why the Pakistani population has a greater incidence of disability than the white population, but, whatever the answer is, it’s more complicated than cousin marriage.

Yours sincerely,
Feminist Avatar.

A Call to Arms; or Why We Can No Longer Live with Nostalgia.

A family conversation, inspired by A.A. Gill’s The Angry Island, has me thinking of nostalgia. Apparently Gill argues that nostalgia in Britain is a modern invention, created after WW1. He believes that the nation becomes incredibly backward looking, longing for a past golden age. Now having never read this book, I have no idea whether this is what Gill says, but it has certainly been argued that WW1 resulted in great cultural pessimism and that this is the period where we start to question the idea of ‘progress’, while ‘relativism’ is popularised. So I am sympathetic towards this proposition. Now I don’t think that being backward looking is a new to this period. Certainly every generation, for hundreds of years, has expressed concern at the behaviour of their youth, questioning their fashions and values and harking back to their own youth when everything was simpler and more orderly! Nostalgia in that sense is not new.

But I think that Gill is on to something. The combination of Enlightenment ideas of progress, industrialisation, and the ‘success’ of the British Empire, meant that British Victorian society was extremely confident in itself as a nation. In another context, the Victorians are incredibly backward looking. History was never so popular; antiquarians abounded; Walter Scott’s historical novels were best-sellers. Yet, the lesson they learnt from history was ‘look how far we have come’. They were not a nostalgic generation; they looked to the present at their current success and to the future which never looked so bright.

WW1 shattered that vision. It left Britain economically vulnerable and socially insecure with rising class tensions, manifested in the growth of trade unionism and the Labour movement. Men returned from war physically and mentally damaged. The effects of WW1 on the male psyche began to challenge notions of masculinity, because it became evident that war was not natural to men and they were not designed to tolerate the stresses and losses that came with war. This belief that war was ingrained in men’s nature is probably why so many men were shot for PTSD. After the war, this began to be seriously challenged as we could no longer ignore the horrendous psychological effects of war. Similarly, women had risen to the challenge of war and more than adequately replaced men within the workplace. They too were challenging the meaning of gender and with that came social advances such as the vote, but also shorter skirts and short hair and greater freedom in behaviour. For the feminist historian, this challenge to gender norms is ‘progress’, but this belies the uncertainty and insecurity that accompanied these changes. Immediately after WW1, women experienced a backlash, being forced back into the home or, at least, out of traditionally male industries to allow for the returning men needing work. Trade unions were particularly threatened by women and women were often marginalised or excluded entirely. The Labour Movement promised a family wage for men and, by doing so, sacrificed women to pocket money pay.

Longing for and looking back to a time when the nation was powerful and society, at least appeared, stable was natural under the circumstances. Yet, it is interesting that nostalgia has not left us, but continued to haunt each generation as they look back to a not-so distant past to a golden age. Furthermore, that past has not fossilised in the Victorian period, but kept apace, so that we now worship nuclear family values located in a mythical 1960s and 1970s. We look to the young age at marriage, that was peculiar to this period and a definite aberration in the historical trend; to lowish divorce rates; to women in part-time, but very gendered and child-friendly (but not necessarily woman-friendly) work; to a slightly higher birth-rate; to present and non-working grandparents; to contraception without abortion; to an assumption about the availability of pre-marital sex without the ladette culture that (it is thought) mars women today. We look at a time which is similar to ours, but not quite the same, and we block out the social unrest, the high levels of unemployment, the shot-gun weddings and all the other things that made that period less than ideal.

Part of that nostalgia is because we have not regained our place as leaders of the world and that we have not yet figured out what our new role should be. Part of that nostalgia is that we need an explanation for why we live in a less than perfect world. Part of that nostalgia is that we are desperately trying to hold on to our power, as a nation, and as people: as men trying to hold on to a time when their power over women was greater, but within the bounds of what is acceptable today; and as white people trying to feel culturally superior in an increasingly multi-cultural society.

Yet, that nostalgia is crippling. It is preventing us learning the lessons we need to from the past. And it is preventing us from imagining a new and radically different future. If we can learn anything from the Victorians, it is that radical change, such as that marked by the industrial revolution, took incredible confidence in ourselves and a belief that something new and different was possible. It required us to look forward with hope and vision. The question now is: what is that vision and what should we as feminists being doing to shape it?

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

An Open Letter to Catherine Flint.

Dear Catherine Flint and your colleagues at the Labour Party,

Now it wouldn’t be the first time that New Labour has been accused of being Old Conservative, but for a Labour minister, you, to suggest that unemployed council house renters should be made homeless is actually draw-dropping. Indeed, when it takes the Tories to point out that this travesty is in fact illegal, we should seriously start to worry about where you and your party's head is at. This proposal is not only bad social policy; it’s dreadful politics.

Let’s forget for a moment that unemployment is a structural problem caused by lack of the right types of jobs in the right areas. Let’s forget that many areas of long-term, high level unemployment are places where major industries, such as coal-mining, steel works, manufacturing and textiles, have disappeared and not been replaced. Let’s forget that those areas have been forgotten about by the government as they consistently fail to come up solutions to poverty and structural unemployment. Let’s forget that the government fails to recognise that economic policy needs to apply outside London, and has pretty much ignored the north and especially rural areas. Let’s forget that, as a society, we have been unable to help the homeless we already have, and that they still cost the state money in shelters and food banks. Let’s forget that homeless people don’t have addresses so they can’t be contacted by employers if they apply for jobs; that being homeless has such a stigma that nobody is going to employ you; that being homeless means that you can’t get washed or properly dressed for interviews; that surviving while being homeless takes up so much time that looking for employment is just not possible. Let’s forget about why this is bad social policy.

Let’s look at why this is bad politics. Council Housing, unemployment benefit and welfare were the standing stones that the Labour Party was built on. The working class voter, whose labour this country was built on, but who never reaped the rewards, and instead faced insecurity in employment and poverty in old age, was who you were established to protect. That is your heritage and, while you may have forgotten it in your blind chase of the middle-English voter, this heritage is still what gets you votes. Has it never occurred to you that the parts of Britain where you can consistently rely on winning seats and where you place your leaders, so that they are sure to be elected, are areas of high and structural unemployment? Can you not imagine how terrifying it is for your voters to hear that you are going to make them homeless after government after government has failed to provide them with jobs? Do you not realise that many of your voters, because of the areas they live in, have at some point in their life been unemployed, even if that is not currently the case? Do you not realise that they can remember being unemployed and that the idea that they might have been made homeless will strike fear in their hearts? Do you not realise that these people are who put you in power? And now, in the chase of a demographic that is flighty and untrue, you throw away your values and your heritage and betray the loyal people who brought you into being and gave you power and continue to support you. This is foolishness; it’s bad politics; it’s bad social policy and it’s going to lose you votes.

Where is this General Election?

Yours sincerely,
Feminist Avatar.

Monday, 4 February 2008

The Pros and Cons of Menstruation

I tried to post a comment over at The Curvature on this topic, but was banished as spam. In any case, I was hijacking the thread so it was probably for the best that I blog my comment here. Cara was critiquing a discussion of menstruation suppression (in this case caused by the pill) which posited ‘women’ (pro suppression) versus ‘feminists’ (anti suppression and clearly not female it seems) in the debate over whether menstruation is good or bad. Anyway, Cara raises lots of interesting questions about how women actually view menstruation. And always keen to rise to a challenge, I thought I would answer some of those questions, based on my very scientific sample of one.

It is my experience that menstruation is not a love it or hate it dichotomy. It is a phenomenon that I, for one, am very ambivalent about. On the one hand, menstruation can cause relief (no unwanted pregnancy- wipe brow!); it reassures me that my body is working; it suggests fertility. Somewhere, deep down, I think it reassures me that I am a ‘normal’ adult woman (a guilty admission given my distaste for normality). On the other hand, I have suppressed my periods for five years (not by choice per se, but as a side effect of my contraception) and I love not having the inconvenience of needing to use sanitary protection (and carrying it around); I love not having blood soaked underwear and bed sheets; I love being able to have sex whenever I (and my enthusiastically consenting partner) want.

Recently, when I changed contraception, I began to menstruate again and I found it disconcerting, as if I had forgotten what to do. It felt unnatural after all this time.

Yet, my feelings towards menstruation are also made complex by my uncertainty as to what I am meant to think about them. On the one hand, I am fully signed up feminist so I know they are nothing to be ashamed about; I am happy to talk about ‘women’s issues’ to my students when they come up; I hope that if I am ever a parent I will talk openly about this to my children. Yet, my experience of menstruation is not one of shared solidarity amongst female-kind. It is having the women behind the till avoid eye contact and double bag sanitary-ware. It is being nervous of other women in case discussing it makes them uncomfortable. It is being very aware that menstruation is not something that women talk about.

And, this is where my survey of one comes in, I think that part of that uncertainty is caused by a reluctance to acknowledge a physical trait (even if it is one that every women has) that has associations with weakness, nature and incapability (even is this just an assumption that periods mean days off work), when in other aspects of my life I try so hard to be strong and capable and ‘not natural’. I also think that, while it not often acknowledged, menstruation is still seen as ‘unclean’. I think that all these things mean that I don’t want to be associated with that trait and so I don’t want to acknowledge it as something that happens to me.

I think that this is really problematic, because for as long as we are silenced on this issue, we cannot challenge these cultural associations. I think we need to acknowledge what happens to our bodies, but not because that is what defines us, but to allow us to critique what menstruation actually means to us as women. We need to ask what role we want it to play in our identities and to move away from a simple dichotomy where menstruation=good or maybe bad, but certainly not both.

Provoked Rape?

Police in Fife are looking for three men after they viciously raped a woman in a quarry. Detectives from Fife Constabulary said 'the assault was totally unprovoked'.

What is this ‘provoked rape’ of which you speak?

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Who Is Terrorising Who?

Does anybody else think that it is ironic that the government restates the right for MPs’ conversations not to be bugged at the same time as it proposes that juries can be removed from inquests and even the coroner replaced, at the request of a politician? On the one hand, they want to restrict the rights of the secret service, but, on the other, they want to take away the means that we, the public, get accountability for the secret services’ actions. Does anyone notice who gets to hold all the cards here? Yes, the politician. They get to decide whether the secret service is behaving appropriately; they get to keep that information from the public; and they get to be protected from that organisation by default of their position, unlike any other member of the public. I appreciate that the family of Azelle Rodney want an explanation for their son’s death. I think they should get one. But, surely secrecy at the demand of politicians is a very dangerous path to go down. I am not sure I want to live in a country where people can be shot in the street in the name of national security and no explanation is given. All this creates is a country that is suspicious of the police and the government and where accountability is held in the hands of a very interested minority. The police’s reputation is already in tatters after the death of Jean Charles de Menezes. We do not trust them to use intelligence reliably or without harm. Yet, now we are being asked to agree to the removal of their accountability? The police and the state’s refusal to give explanations for actions in the name of national security has to be questioned. We need a more rigorous and open system that allows the public to make informed choices, instead of accepting the removal of our rights, and the restrictions of our actions, in the name of threat that cannot be evidenced ‘due to national security’.

Recently in Scotland,
train commuters have been randomly searched despite police claims that they are not responding to a known threat. Why should we be put through a stressful and threatening ordeal that wastes our time and makes us suspicious of the police? An action, which in its ability to generate fear, seems to be a much more real form of terrorism than what may or may not happen in the future. Especially considering that at the train station I use every day, there has been a spate of violent and random attacks on innocent commuters. Yet, there is no budget to put a policeperson where actual crimes are regularly committed. Why is fear of a future crime being given a higher priority than real crimes? Why are our rights being eroded in the name of what may or may not happen? Why are we worrying about terrorists, when our own government is instilling fear; restricting our movements and removing our rights, and all the while creating an ever more powerful state without accountability?