Wednesday, 30 April 2008

It’s Not Nature, Dammit.

I was recently sent an article written by Rosie Boycott, one of the founders of Spare Rib, published in, of all places, The Daily Mail. In it she highlights that in the early days of Spare Rib, she thought it would be only a matter of time before women scaled the ladders of success, broke through the glass ceiling and made it to the boardroom. When women’s opportunities and successes began to dramatically increase, as they did in the 70s and 80s, she believed, like many other feminists, that this was evidence that it was society, not biology, that limited women in society. Now, and this I found quite shocking, she is not so sure. As women have failed to consolidate their successes by achieving the highest level of management, dropping out of the ‘rat race’ for middle management, mothering and running their own businesses, she wonders whether it actually is the fault of society.

After all, Boycott has read a new book by Susan Pinker that suggests that women do not succeed because of hormones. When describing, Pinker’s work, Boycott writes,

Women, she says, care more about intrinsic rewards. They have broader interests, they are more service oriented and are better at gauging the effect they have on others. They are "wired for empathy". Crucially, she explains that these aren't learned traits, forced into them by a sexist society; they're the result of genes and hormones. The trends begin in the uterus when men are exposed to higher levels of testosterone, driving them to be more competitive, assertive, vengeful and daring. Girls, meanwhile, get a regular dose of oestrogen, which helps them read people's emotions. [...]You can see these differences from very early on - and they cannot be "overridden". Nature wins over nurture every time.
Boycott thinks in light of these findings that we now need to accept that women are different from men and stop seeing women who step off the career ladder as having failed (the latter part I can agree with).

Now I have a number of problems with this narrative. First, and this is just a small point, women who leave ‘big business’ to set up their own workplaces are not jumping off the career ladder. They often run very successful businesses, with work cultures that are women friendly, and even make similar amounts of money as CEOs in large multi-nationals- it is just their companies are not as large so do not make the FTSE 100.

Second, how can you prove that women who leave work for motherhood do so because of hormones and not because the work environment (and society more generally) is so inhospitable to mothers? This is taking one piece of evidence (women have different hormones in the womb) and equating it with another piece of evidence that may be entirely unrelated.

Third, hormones may mean that the body develops differently in the womb and behaves differently in adulthood, but it is far from a determining factor. Children (male or female), who are brought up by wolves or abandoned in Romanian orphanages, do not have basic communication skills. They cannot read body language. They cannot tell what another person’s emotional state is. They often have very little sense of their own physicality (so they don’t know themselves in a mirror, or even understand that their arm belongs to their body). Girl children certainly don’t have an innate ability to read people’s emotions. In fact, children brought up in such circumstances can be very ‘emotionally promiscuous’, hugging strangers and mis-interpreting basic reactions, or the opposite, unable to make emotional bonds. Amongst Romanian orphans, who were later adopted, boys tend to have more behavioural problems, often related to aggression, than girls. What is less clear is whether such behaviour is learned after adoption (i.e. boys learn that aggression is an acceptable response to emotional or other turmoil in the adopted home) or whether it is driven by hormones. I am not denying that hormones play a part in physical development, but their relationship to the way people behave is far from clear, especially given that children who have no early social development do not grow up to have ‘traditional’ gendered traits. Gendered behaviour is almost entirely learned.

Finally, even if we take a perspective (which I am not sold on) where, because of hormones, women do not tolerate the long hours, exclusive focus and non-emotive nature of work, this does not mean it is ‘natural’ that they do not get promoted. It means that work culture is masculine, exclusionary, and should change, not that women should get out of the race. Why is it that a workplace that benefits behaviours driven by testosterone (if we buy this story) is 'natural', 'normal' and accepted as the standard? If the working world is designed to benefit men over women then it is sexist. Full Stop.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

I went to London... (but Didn't Buy a Heat Magazine).

I went to London (for work) and while there visited the Brilliant Women exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, plugged by Philobiblon a few weeks ago. The ‘Brilliant Women’ alluded to were the circle of eighteenth century blue-stockings, including Elizabeth Carter, Elizabeth Montagu, Mary Wollstonecraft, Hestor Chapone, Hannah More and others. As an eighteenth century historian, although not one that focuses on the blue-stockings, it was quite exciting to see an exhibition devoted to these women.

There were a number of things I thought the exhibition did well, and others that I thought could be better. There had been a concerted effort not to discuss these women in reference to the men in their lives. In many respects, I thought this was a good decision, as elite women are almost always discussed in reference to their fathers and husbands. Yet, I had a sense that the curators didn’t really know how to talk about these women in the absence of men. There was very little sense of these women’s achievements, or for that matter their social class (I think it was presumed that you knew women with the leisure and resources to be salon hostesses were well-connected- but is this obvious to the non-historian?). They were described as painters, writers and salon hostesses, but so what? To the non-informed visitor, why would this be important? There was little sense of their historical significance- why were the bluestockings exciting and revolutionary? They also didn’t really explain what it was they painted, wrote or composed- there was no sense of how their achievements fitted into a historical context and their import. Some of these women, after-all, wrote books of significance. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (which to be fair was mentioned) was of huge significance to the feminist movement. Hestor Chapone’s work was a best-seller and Hannah More was a cultural icon.

Speaking of Hannah More, the exhibition wrote her off as anti-feminist, explicitly saying she was against women’s rights. I found this a really problematic interpretation of her writing. Her conversion to evangelical Christianity, of course, meant that she believed that women were to be subordinate to their husbands. But beyond this, she argued for women’s education at all social levels; for women to be trained for work if they didn’t marry; she argued that the marriage system treated women like property and needed to be revised; she made her living from her writing and teaching. She may not have taken her arguments to their logical conclusions, and there is considerable tension in her work in that regard, but she was actively promoting women’s rights in particular areas, during a period where women’s rights were considerably constrained.

I enjoyed the split of the rooms into the blue-stockings as painted by men and as painted by each other. It was fascinating that when these women were painted by the likes of Alan Ramsay, they were dressed in the top fashions of the day in uber-femininity, but when painted by each other, they dressed as feminised versions of their male equivalents, perhaps, holding a history book to represent their occupation or, even dressed, in armoury to represent their association with the muses. The relationship with the Muses and the blue-stockings was also mentioned, although not really explained. I thought that even a brief mention that the Muses were the only female representations of women in art and literature that eighteenth century culture had to draw on would have both explained the relevance of the paintings and the social significance of the blue-stockings.

Over-all though, it was an interesting event to see and it is good to see women receiving recognition for their achievements, in exhibitions devoted exclusively to them. It is also interesting that this exhibition is on at the same time as the Vanity Fair portraits, representing career women of a different sort.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Subjectivity and Subject Positions, Part 5.

It is often thought that subjects are destroyed by postmodernism. The death of the author proclaimed by Barthes was thought to kill the subject. The focus of post-modernism on discourse and the idea that people and the way they view the world are a product of the societies which create them, has led to a disappearance of the individual from much post-modernist writing. This has been particularly problematic for feminists such as Susan Bordo, for who ‘subjectivity is the essence of personhood’; a personhood that has been traditionally denied to women (seen in the refusal to recognise them as full human beings). Yet, in fact, there is a place for the subject in post-modern thought. The subject is created through self-reflexivity, that is how people negotiate the gap between their experience and the discourse that informs that experience. In this sense, the individual or subject is both a product of her society and her experience. As a result, everybody is unique, although they share the same framework for interpreting meaning and as such are a product of their culture.

Individuals, while unique, are limited in their ability to act as historical agents within post-modern thought. First, as they are constrained from imagining the full possibilities of existence due to their reliance on discourse to interpret their experiences and second, as even if they have a revelation or insight that the current discourse is wrong or needs to change, there is no guarantee that everyone will immediately agree. Re-education takes time and changing discourse can be slow. But to be fair to post-modernism, Marxism conceives of individuals as agents of change in much the same way.

And thus ends a week of postmodernist blogging.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Why Post-modernism Is, and Is Not, Dangerous for Feminism, Part 4.

The most common criticism made of post-modernism is that it destroys the category ‘women’ and as a result there is no political basis for the feminist movement. From what subject position do we fight if woman is a construction. This was the concern that Michelle over at Lonergrrl raised that inspired this set of posts. It is argued that postmodernism is paralysing for feminism as it destabilises the categories, such as women and oppression, upon which feminism is based. If ‘woman’ is not universal she cannot have any political agency and indeed by utilising constructions such as ‘woman’ feminists keep alive this discourse thus continuing their own oppression. Yet, what this argument misses is that while post-modernism argues that gender and patriarchy are constructions, it recognises that they are constructions that are integral to people’s lives and identities. It shows that it is through these constructions that people make sense of their experiences and their understanding of the world. It argues that these constructions are powerful. ‘Woman’ may be a historically contingent, unstable category but she is integral to identity. This relationship gives feminism political legitimacy.

Linda Alcoff points out that,

[w]hen the concept 'woman' is defined not by a particular set of attributes but by a particular position, the internal characteristics of the person thus identified are not denoted so much as the external context within which that person is situated [among a network of relations]....If it is possible to identify women by their position within this network...then it becomes possible to ground a feminist argument for women, not on a claim that their innate capacities are being stunted, but that their position within the network lacks power and mobility and requires radical change.*

That constructions are lived, political categories allows feminists to challenge and reconstruct them.

Furthermore, because what it means to be a woman is constructed, you have the opportunity to change society. If women were innately stupid, incapable and weak, there would be nothing you could do about it. It is only because post-modernism gave you the tools to deconstruct the categories that shaped how you view the world that you were able to envision a new future.

A second threat that has been blamed on post-modernism is the focus on identity politics within the feminist movement. It is, of course, natural that in the same way we realised that gender was constructed that the other facets of people’s identities, including race, class, sexuality, able-bodiedness and numerous other categories, came under the spotlight. And furthermore it was essential to the feminist movement that this was the case, because the experience of a black woman cannot be divided into her experiences as a woman and her experiences as a black person. Her experiences interact in complex ways and can only be understood in conjunction with each other. The idea that there are experiences that all women have in common as women is actually controversial. What we share as women is social inequality. How we experience that inequality is much more varied. Identity politics is often pointed to as the destroyer of the feminist movement as it fragmented experience. But identity politics are not just in people’s imagination. A black woman’s experience of being a woman is different from mine. We can’t just ignore that, especially when ignoring it tends to favour those with privilege. Now, I absolutely agree that choosing to do nothing about women’s oppression, because it seems complicated is entirely useless and helps no one. But blaming this on identity politics, and as a result postmodernism, is not the way to go. This was not postmodernism’s fault. It was a lack of imagination amongst feminists. A vision for a feminist future has to find away to incorporate difference, not pretend it’s not there. (A good discussion of ways to do this can be found here). Because who does ignoring it actually benefit? In fact, what sort of feminism do you want that does ignore identity politics? If we pretend that postmodernism doesn’t exist, what would that feminism look like? (And don’t say the second wave, because postmodern and identity politics were the inevitable conclusion to second wave debates.)

So, what are the dangers of postmodernism? To my mind, the major danger of postmodernism is its focus on the individual. It is not true that post-modernism denies subject positions (in fact see tomorrow on pomo and the subject), but in fact that it creates as many subject positions as they are people. I think this is problematic as I like the idea of community and I am suspicious that individuality tends towards a very Western conception of the self, that perhaps would not fit with conceptions of the self based within the family or cultural group. This form of individualism is in danger of pushing for an individual rights based politics that tends to homogenise experience into a peculiarly westernised view of the self. In other words, we needed to be careful about what we mean by the individual and the self when we think about politics. But to be honest, I think a sensitivity to this problem can be incorporated into any difference-based feminist movement, and as such, it is not immobilising.

It is often said that deconstruction does not give the building blocks to move forward, but, in many ways, that it not the point of post-structuralism. Post-structuralism is not feminism. It is a tool for understanding how the world works. What we want the world to be or to look like is up to us. Post-structuralism is like an artist’s handbook. It shows us how to put paint (words) on a canvas (the world which we construct through language), using various techniques (discourse). We can’t blame the handbook if we fail to make a masterpiece. How we as feminists move forward is to educate and demand that the world recognise that as women we are disadvantaged (in a myriad of ways) and it is time to change. We have to educate people to questions their preconceptions every time they encounter a woman and, for that matter, a man. To ask themselves would I treat this person in this way if they were male, female, black, white, gay, straight, disabled, able-bodied etc etc, until people can be seen as something other than the labels we place on them; until the labels have so little meaning that they fall into desuetude.

* Linda Alcoff, ‘Cultural feminism versus post-structuralism: the identity crisis in feminist theory’, Signs, 13, (1988), pp.433-434.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Postmodernism 101, Part 3.

The major criticism of post-structuralism is that it does not appear to allow for change. What do you mean, you cry. Well, if how we view the world is shaped by how we are trained to see it, how do ideas change? How can we have a shift from the medieval to the modern to the postmodern view of the world? The answer to this lies in the gap between the sign and experience. As discussed yesterday, language can never fully capture human experience and, because of this, language is never stable. The word women can mean so many things and, yet due to the huge number of people and experiences it encompasses, it can mean almost nothing at all. The flexibility of a single word allows for new experiences to be adopted under its label, like transwomen under women for example. With each new experience, the word 'woman’ expands and is altered at the same time. And the word ‘woman’ is now different, so when it encounters a new experience how it adapts will be different from if it had never encountered transwomen. Language constantly adapts to account for change.

Yet, this still leads to a problem. If a sign, such as ‘woman’ just keeps expanding its definition, how do we result in real change? How do we destroy the concept of ‘woman’ and with it the patriarchal system that places women in a subordinate position to men, if the system just keeps finding new ways to oppress more people? And this is a great question. And there is not a single answer to it.

One solution may be that presented by thinkers, such as Thomas Kuhn, is the paradigm shift, where one way of understanding the world is dramatically dismissed and replaced by another. From a post-structuralist perspective, a paradigm shift would involve a sudden realisation that a particular construction of the world does not adequately explain the experience it encounters. Perhaps in the context of gender, we suddenly have to throw the concept of biological sex out of the window in light of evidence that penises and vaginas are actually the same thing and so gender is a totally ridiculous way of defining the population (just an imaginary scenario). As a result, we have to rethink how we categorise people. Now, even with paradigm shifts, the new solution is not pulled out of the ether. A new solution will be based on alternative knowledges or concepts that exist in society, which will be adapted for the new experience- but ultimately something ‘big’ (like the move from medieval to modern) will be recognised as having happened.

An alternative is a more gradual process. Language will adapt to new experience and eventually words that have no real significance shall fall into desuetude. So, eventually the experiences of women shall become so diverse that woman is no longer a useful explanatory category. Or, perhaps, in a more cheerful sense, we can now imagine a world where gender does not mean inequality, so we work very hard to change people’s minds and the language that they use, so that they no longer view ‘women’ in the same way.

The paradigm shift seems more exciting, but it may be the latter that defeats patriarchy in the end. Tomorrow, why post-modernism is and is not dangerous for feminism.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Postmodernism 101, Part 2.

So, as I discussed yesterday in incredibly simplistic terms, the modern condition took language at its word. In fact, more than this, it believed in concepts such as a single ‘truth’ that could be discovered through empirical science, which relied on the truth of observation. In other words, as humans, we could view the world and, through reason, figure out what we saw before us. There was a direct relationship between the object before us and how we understood or made sense of it. In turn, language could represent that object fully through carefully constructed sentences or descriptions. As long as we understood the language, we could understand the world.

Yet, the niggling thought at the back of the minds of humanity was that this was just a bit too easy. Even amongst the most literate people, miscommunication constantly occurred. New scientific developments, such as the discovery of the atom, highlighted that what we saw with our eyes wasn’t necessarily what was happening at all. And the labels that we placed upon things chafed as they didn’t quite fit. And in this moment of doubt came the post-structuralists.*

Post-structuralism argues that language does not fully encompass human experience. There is a gap between the word and the experience or object that it describes. The word ‘woman’ describes you, but what does it mean to be a woman? Women are people with the female biological sex. But what is female biological sex? Well, it’s having a vagina and breasts. But not all women have breasts. Some women don’t have vaginas. Some women don’t menstruate or have babies. How can this word capture what it means to be a woman? Women can mean so many things and yet this multiplicity of experiences is captured by one word. What use is the word ‘woman’ when no two ‘women’ have the same experiences? For post-structuralists, language can never entirely capture experience.

More importantly is the concept of categorisation. Why do we group all people with vaginas and breasts together under the label ‘women’? Perhaps, we could destroy the concept of ‘women’ altogether and label people with different terms. So now people are no longer divided into men and women, but blondes, brunettes, and redheads, regardless of whether they have penises or vaginas. How would getting rid of the concept of ‘women’ alter how we understood the world? Now take this idea and multiply it for every word in every language. Why are those four shades of blue all categorised as blue? Why are Fords, Peugeots and Nissans all grouped together as cars, but that we distinguish cars from vans? Perhaps grouping things together based on colour or age or distance from the ground is a more useful way of organising the world?

Now at first glance this idea does not seem too revolutionary, but the implications are huge. If how we categorise things gives them meaning, then language constructs experience. This is not to say that experiences aren’t real. An earthquake or eating your dinner doesn’t just exist in your imagination. But, how you understand what you did or what happened around you is entirely decided by how you understand the world, which in turn is shaped by language. You just painted your living room red. This physical event happened. But, the name of the colour you painted it was constructed. The signification of that colour- is it warm or cold, peaceful or angry, does make the room feel smaller or larger- is entirely constructed. Was painting your room about making the house more homely, about being more sellable? Any meaning that the event had was a function of the cultural language system in which you live.

Furthermore, the physical is also to a large extent constructed by language. You just painted a ‘room’. What is a room? Where does it stop? Does it stop at a doorway? Why? Why is that a ‘natural’ stopping point? Why not see all houses as a single room, as an indivisible space, or perhaps rooms are about function- all bedrooms should be the same colour? What about the body? Why does the arm go from your wrist to your shoulder? Why not get rid of the concept of arm and instead thinking of things in smaller chunks (hand, wrist, forearm, top-arm, shoulder) or bigger chunks (you have one arm that goes from right hand to left)? Perhaps the hand should include the wrist and so the order would go hand to forearm. Why is the mind separate from the body? If we see mental health as part of the physical body would we treat it differently? Would we treat the physical body differently if we could imagine that it worked in the same way as the mind? The physical, therefore, is not a static, observable object waiting to force its meaning on the world. The very act of observation relies on how we have been trained to categorise and view the world.

That training, or language that we use to interpret experience, is called discourse. Discourses are the bigger stories that link together different words, or signs, and give them meaning in relation to each other. In fact, in many ways, discourse precedes the sign as the sign is meaningless without the discourse. For example, the significance of a banana can only be seen when we have an understanding of the category ‘fruit’. What it means to be woman can only be understood when contrasted with what it means to be a man. Like pieces of a jigsaw, when words are removed from their context they become meaningless. In the context of patriarchal society, what woman is can only be understood as part of a larger discussion about power and authority and what types of authority women are entitled to hold. The word ‘woman’ does not just mean someone who has a vagina; it situates someone with that label into a much larger and complex construction of the world. Knowing that women should have vaginas actually tells you almost nothing about being a woman. Just like meeting a woman and being told that she is a woman tells you almost nothing about her life, and yet tells you everything. (In this sense, the sign can be both empty and full at the same time).

Ok, I think this is enough for today. Tomorrow we will discuss the implications of this theory for how change happens in post-structuralist thought. Class dismissed.

*Post-structuralism is a way of understanding language that is at the basis of post-modern thought- post-modernism however is bigger that post-structuralism

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Simone de Beauvoir, the Second Wave and Modern Thought, part 1.

Post-modernism is often seen as a threat to feminism, as can be seen in a recent discussion over at Lonergrrl. Now I actually agree that post-modernism has created problems for the feminist movement, but these problems are not the one’s cited by Michelle and many other critics. Over the next couple of days (cause this ain’t a single blog post discussion), I would like to address some of the issues that arise from this debate. But today I would like to clear up a little confusion that always seems to arise when feminism is discussed alongside post-modernism- that the second wave is somehow the anti-thesis of postmodern thought. This is actually a misunderstanding of the history of post-modernism and the origins of the second wave movement.

The way people relate to the world is not set in stone. In fact, modern thought and how we create knowledge has a distinct and reasonably well charted, if not uncontroversial, history. During the medieval period in Western Europe, up until about the sixteenth century, people saw the world as a picture, or collection of symbols, which if read correctly would allow access to God. The way people behaved and the choices they made were part of a larger plan that could be interpreted to give a sense of God’s will. Language did not offer a literal representation of experience, but instead people’s words had to be interpreted for meaning. Each word operated like a symbol that took its meaning from its culture, history and the context in which was placed.

With the rise of the modern period, a change in how we understood the world occurred. The stories and symbols of old were no longer understood, but instead seen as an inefficient form of communication (perhaps because of the rise of print culture?). Words came to literally represent objects. The word table was the table. The word woman was a woman. As a result, people took language literally. They no longer looked for hidden meanings, but instead obsessed over the literal meaning of the words on the (newly created printed) page.

This way of thinking about the world was relatively short-lived. It soon became apparent that this understanding of language could not capture the complexity of experience, and after a few thought experiments, the rise of the individual, the Enlightenment and the invention of modern science, some philosophers began to point out its flaws. Now the critique of this way of thinking about the world actually has quite a long history, but it really came to the fore in the twentieth century and was spurred to even greater heights in the climate of cultural pessimism that resulted from world war one. In the sciences, people like Einstein, with his theory of relativity, offered a major challenge to this world view. In the humanities, the major thinkers were existential thinkers, like Sartre and Kierkegaard, and post-structuralists, like Derrida, Foucault and Lacan. Now, while these groups approached the same problem- what to do with modernity- in different ways, they were all motivated from the same problems and they drew heavily on each other. They were creating a postmodern worldview.

One of the major philosophers involved in this critique of modernity, and whose writing was heavily influenced by post-structuralist thought, is the academic and philosopher Simone De Beauvoir, the mother of second wave feminism. Her challenge to the naturalness of gender and her discussion of woman as ‘other’ is directly influenced by post-structuralist thought and, in turn, while most of her writing is of an existentialist variety, The Second Sex places her as a post-structuralist thinker.

From its outset, the Second Wave had its roots in post-modernism. In many senses it had to, because it was the product of a post-modern historical moment. First Wave feminism fought on the grounds that women were different from men, but that difference should not make them second class citizens. The Second Wave argued that difference was socially constructed. They fought from a post-modern world view. Now, feminism and post-modernism have moved on and the Third Wave has extended the discussion of social construction beyond gender into identity politics, and for many people this fragmentation is dangerous. But it isn’t because the Second Wave isn’t post-modern; it’s because the feminist movement has taken post-modern thought to its logical conclusions.

You may have noticed that I have not explored how postmodernist’s view the world and that will be tomorrow’s post: Post-modernism 101. To be closely followed by why post-modernism is dangerous for feminism, and perhaps how to move forward.

ETA: That post-modernism is more than a theory, but a historical movement, means that we do not have the luxury of ignoring it. If you don't like it, then you are going to have to address it and find a way to move past it.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

The Myth of the Non-Working Woman.

Often when perusing the internets, I come across references to the ‘non-working woman’, or ‘housewife’ as she is occasionally referred. She is idealised as a woman of perfect femininity who correctly understands her place in the world (by the sink). She is fulfilled and happy in her role as a wife and mother, which provides her with perfect mental and physical health (unlike the poor working woman), and is able to provide for all the needs and desires of her working husband, who in turn is perfectly mentally and physically healthy and happy in his role as breadwinner. As parents in a nuclear household, their children are raised in the perfect environment, loving but disciplined, and their children will grow to be healthy, responsible members of society. As the perfect mother, who does not work, she is able to devote vast amounts of time to the development and upbringing of children. Unfortunately, the feminist movement destroyed this woman. They forced her out of her home and into the workplace, leading to the disintegration of society, the corruption of children, rising crime rates, greater alcoholism and a turning away from God. Woman everywhere desire to return to an ideal time, where they can once more take pleasure in scrubbing floors and mending stockings within the comfort of their own home, but they are scared to admit that to themselves or to other women, because it is desperately unfashionable.

What is often not mentioned in such discussions is that such a household, such a woman, is a myth. She has never existed. So let’s break this myth down. There are three major components to this ideal: the myth of the nuclear household; the myth of the non-working woman and the myth of the child-devoted mother. Let’s put these myths to bed.

First, the nuclear household. Historically, while the nuclear household, certainly in the West, has been the preferred living arrangement, it has never been dominant. Why? Death; divorce; singleness. For a long time, in western Europe, around a third of the population NEVER married (that is they were single for their whole lives). And guess what? This wasn’t considered freakish- indeed we can blame the Victorians for such an attitude, interestingly a period where women out-numbered men by between a quarter and a third in Britain. This led to a large number of non-nuclear households. Many households were headed by women, either single or widowed. People often live in composite households. Siblings lived together for a lifetime. Non-married relatives lived with married family. High death rates ensured that nuclear households were not nuclear for long, while divorce replaced death in the twentieth century. Only a very few people ever lived in a nuclear household for their entire lives.

Second, the non-working woman. A fairly obvious contradiction to such ideals is that working-class women have always worked and almost always outside the home. Now, I know what you’re thinking- what about subsistence farming- surely in a long ago past, people worked on family farms where they may have lived on the breadline, but they worked as a family? Nope. Myth. Almost all subsistence farming was supplemented by additional occupations. Women were heavily involved in running inns, taking in lodgers, brewing beer, weaving, lace-making, textiles, knitting, baking, laundry, child-care, domestic service, out-working on other farms, in addition to the work they performed in their own homes. In some areas, subsistence farming was supplemented through itinerant work, such as men who went fishing for the season, or women who moved to cities to work as servants during ‘the season’. In certain areas, women were heavily involved in itinerant work, leaving their husbands and children for months at a time. At other times, working class women have worked long hours outside of the home in other people’s homes, in factories, in fields and numerous other occupations.

Well, you might say, obviously such an ideal excluded the working classes, but what about middle class women? They must have been able to meet such as ideal. Nope. Myth. The middle classes or middling sorts, depending on the period, can be split into two groups: women who worked and women who had ‘leisure’. Many lower middle class women had to work like their working class counterparts, although their occupations differed. It was not uncommon for middle class women to own their own businesses, particularly inns and a wide range of shops from grocery to textiles. Depending on the legal position of married women which varied across countries, many of these shops were owned independently from their husbands. Other women worked within the family business as shopkeepers, receptionists, secretaries and middle-management. Many lower middle-class women took in lodgers; some worked as governesses; some took in laundry.

Wealth may have appeared to free the upper-middle class women from such burdens as their lower class sisters, but their position brought with it a new range of responsibilities. Such women often ran households with thirty employees; upper class families could have even larger staff. Women were responsible for employing staff, ensuring they were paid, replacing staff as they moved to new employment (a very common occurrence with servants moving regularly). They had to ensure that they were always occupied and that the functions of the household were being performed. They had to manage large budgets ensuring that such large households were fed, clothed, cleaned and generally ran smoothly. Furthermore, with ‘leisure’ came the role of the hostess. The function of hostess was not a simple case of throwing parties (if such a thing was simple). A good hostess had to ensure that the right people were invited and the wrong people excluded. They had to seat people to best advantage. They had to ensure that over the course of a season that one’s friends, colleagues and contacts, were all invited to the appropriate number and right type of parties. They had to ensure that they attended other people’s parties in turn. Now before you accuse these women of a life of frivolity, remember that for most of time (and probably still today) politics and business were conducted as such events. These soirees were not about entertainment; they were about ensuring the family’s name and prestige. They were a massive responsibility and they offered hostesses great authority through the power of the 'invitation’. They were the gatekeepers to their husbands and families.

There was no such thing as a non-working woman. Let’s face it! The discussion above doesn’t even include housework or cooking. And I’ll let you in on a secret: paying someone else to cook your meals or clean your house is not new or middle class. Working-class women frequently paid people to clean their homes, and especially do their laundry, when they worked outside the home. Before the advent of convenience foods, working class women often bought ready-made pies, bread and prepared meals from other women in their community. Even wet-nursing was not exclusive to the upper classes. French working-class mothers who went to Paris for seasonal work left their babies with wet-nurses. This leads me nicely on to myth number three.

Three: The child-devoted mother. Do you seriously think that the women described above had time to devote every minute to their children? Even middle class women employed nannies and saw their children at prescribed times each day. There was no expectation that women devote their lives to their children. In Scotland in the seventeenth century, the school day began at 6am and lasted for 8 to 12 hours a day. School was attended six days a week. There were no official school holidays, although children were often removed from school when needed to work. Children attended school from the age of five until they were old enough to work (around aged 8 for the working class). Babies were watched by professional child-minders who often watched several children in the neighbourhood or older siblings (aged around 9). Even if we jump forward to the twentieth century middle class, non-working woman, the realities of running a household, especially before the advent of the vacuum cleaner, the washing machine, cleaning chemicals and convenience food, required a significant amount of time and effort. Children were expected to play independently and entertain themselves. Furthermore, despite the fact that children were raised by servants and wider kin as well as their parents, the vast majority of the population managed to grow up to be productive and no less warped that anybody else.

Now, I am not saying that the way people behaved in the past was in anyway ideal, or that we should not envision a new future for the family, but don’t feed me a picture of some ideal time where the nuclear family was in transcendence and all was well with the world. It didn’t exist. It is a myth. So stop harping on about it.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

The Iraq War: About as Violent as a Football Game.

As I was walking through Partick tube station, I spied an army recruitment poster with the picture of a soldier and the words:
it can get rough in Iraq, especially when the Old Firms on.
For my non-Glaswegian readers, the ‘Old Firm’ refers to the two main football teams in Glasgow, Rangers and Celtic. They have a huge following throughout Scotland and dominate the league. Little Scottish boys and girls everywhere dream that they one day will play for their team, and for a considerable part of the population, the world literally stops when the old firm play. Celtic and Rangers, perhaps, have a more volatile relationship than many rival football teams with games frequently accompanied by violence both at and after the actual game. This rivalry is exasperated by sectarianism, with Rangers traditionally being a Protestant team and Celtic, a Catholic team. Old firm matches often operate as a way of venting religious tensions amongst the tight-knit community of Glasgow and, as such, the rivalry often disguises the bitter religious divide that marks many Scottish communities. Furthermore, as church attendance falls, but levels of sectarianism do not, the football stadium operates as a church- a place where people meet weekly to express devotion and to have fellowship. Sectarianism, and the Old Firm as a symbol of that sectarianism, is undoubtedly a blight on Scotland, responsible for many deaths and murders.

Despite this, Scotland is not Iraq. The Scottish people do not live in constant fear and terror of being bombed, murdered or dying from starvation or disease. They do not live in rubble. They do not have armed soldiers patrolling their streets as a constant reminder of the conflict that goes on around them. A football game, whatever its history, is not a war.

Now, I appreciate that this recruitment poster is not actually meant to be implying that Iraq is like Scotland- after all they don’t want to frighten away the recruits. It is meant to suggest that joining the army is about camaraderie and friendship, where conflict between brothers-in-arms is over the little joys in life, such as supporting one’s football team. It wants you to focus on the things that give you pleasure in life and imply that the army is that pleasure writ large. Perhaps, on another level, it may even want you to realise that this is a simplistic and euphemistic message, but even this promotes the idea of fraternity through suggesting a shared secret that you will find out if you join the club. It wants to give you that sense of brotherhood that many men, and some women, only find on a Saturday afternoon in a football stadium.

Yet, to my mind, comparing the realities of war in Iraq to a football game trivialises the sacrifice that the men and women in the armed forces make every day. It is deceitful to recruit people to a warzone without presenting the horrors of armed conflict. Is it really a good idea to hire people who believe that they are going to the equivalent of a football game and then present them with the realities of death, rape, physical mutilation and deprivation on an unimaginable scale? The Iraq War is an ethical nightmare as it is. Does the army really want to exasperate the situation through unethical recruiting?

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Bullying: A Social Ill.

The Fword has an interesting article on how violence against women often begins in schools as a form of bullying, but, because it is seen as bullying, it is not treated as seriously as other forms of violence against women. I think this is a really important point, but I would like to broaden the discussion somewhat.

Just as the violence against women in schools is a reflection of our wider social values and attitudes towards women, so is bullying more generally in schools taught to children by us as adults. About a year ago, there was a poster in Partick underground station that proclaimed ‘Bullying is not a normal part of childhood’. The idea behind the campaign was to challenge the idea that bullying is not just a part of growing up, an experience to be lived through and moved past, but something that should be recognised and addressed. Yet, as soon as I read it, it struck me that bullying is a very normal part of childhood. The average child has almost no control over their lifestyle or life choices.

Take school for example. Children are forced to attend school, whether or not they want to go. When they act out in school, they are punished with writing exercises, the removal of privileges and exclusion. They are forced to wear a school-uniform and conform to a very strict code on suitable hairstyles and jewellery. Attendance at school is never discussed with children. We assume that they are too stupid or have no self-interest and so will make the wrong decisions. As a result, we force them to do things that they don’t understand and don’t have any desire to do, and when they refuse, we punish them. What is this, if not bullying? Multiply this over the course of a child’s life, where they are forced to eat foods they don’t like, wear outfits they don’t want to wear, attend functions they don’t want to attend, and is it any wonder that they learn that punishing people who don’t conform or make you uncomfortable is acceptable.

If we want to stop bullying, we need to stop bullying children. This is not to say that children are allowed free reign. Children are often not mature enough to make the right decision on their own. Instead, we should be talking to our children more. We should explain why something is in their interest and discuss why they feel the way they do. We should teach them that adults are not there to fulfil their every need and demand, but are other human beings who deserve respect and kindness. An argument over refusal to eat dinner would change from the authoritarian adult insisting a child eats something they dislike, to a discussion about why they don’t like it. It should involve a discussion of the feelings of the adult who made that meal and why they would be hurt if a child is just being selfish. It should involve children in the process of making meals so that they have more choice over what they eat, but also learn to respect other people’s choices and that sometimes compromise is necessary.

Similarly, the importance of attending school should be explained to children. The role it played in their parent’s lives should be openly discussed. They should see the benefits and failings of schooling. They should also be made aware that school attendance is compulsory and obeying the law is a necessary part of operating in society. Schools also need to negotiate more with their students. The need for rules and discipline within a school environment should be freely discussed and explained. They should not appear arbitrary. Children should be allowed to feel as they played a part in making the rules that they must adhere to. Schools must also seriously reflect on why they have the rules they do and whether, for example, a strict hairstyle policy has any actual social benefit? They should stop seeing children as things that need to be controlled and as people who should be treated with respect.

I understand that this may be seen as naive, but schools where children voted to bring in school uniforms see a much higher uptake of uniforms and less contention over whether they should be worn. My husband, who is a teacher, allows the children to decide all the rules for behaviour within his class and what the punishments should be. He says that with a little guidance (such as highlighting particular scenarios) they come up with all the rules that he wants and that they often want harsher punishments that he would require. He says that behaviour improves dramatically as a result, and that when children break the rules, as inevitably happens, they take their punishment without complaint. Making children part of the process of discipline helps them set their own boundaries, which is integral to making them independent and responsible adults.

As a society, we have a tendency to view children as dangerous and transgressive. We don’t have strategies for integrating them and, when viewing them as a group, such as hanging around street corners, our first response is to punish them, not engage with them. We create our children. If they bully each other or behave in an anti-social manner, they are simply responding to what they have learned. If we want bullying to stop being a normal part of childhood, the buck stops with us.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Carry-On Doctor.

For the first time in the history of the medical profession, the number of women entering medicine has surpassed men. Women in medical schools now outnumber men by three to two, after years of quotas which restricted the numbers of women to 30%. But is this something to be celebrated? No says male doctor Colin McKinstry. In fact, it is a worrying statistic that means the healthcare in Britain is doomed. Ok, he didn’t quite say that, but what he did say sounds very similar. In the future, when all the male doctors retire, this younger generation of women will not be able to replace them because their childcare responsibilities mean that they will all want to work part-time. Very magnanimously, Dr McKinstry acknowledges that this is societies fault:

The main thing we need is a revolution in the attitude of society towards childcare and who has the responsibility for childcare.
I couldn’t agree more. But is Dr McKinstry joining the feminist moving and campaigning for a fundamental shift in the way we view childcare. No. He is recommending that we ensure that 50% of medical students are men. This is to make sure that when the women go off to have babies (as is of course inevitable), the men can take up the slack. Did Dr McKinstry talk to the new generation of women to check that babies and part-time work were definitely in their future? Did he reflect that most women with professional careers, if they work part-time at all, tend to only do so for a short period in their life? Did he consider that perhaps a society where people are expected to work so many hours that the only way having children becomes feasible is to work part-time is unhealthy for everyone? Did he reflect that perhaps men may want to take up the opportunity to be the main carer? In fact, this study suggests that 80% of female and 50% of male doctors anticipate taking a career break at some point. This is not an exclusively female desire.

Dr McKinstry thinks that training more male doctors would also reflect ‘society generally’. The fact that since medicine was professionalised women had to use male doctors, who made up the entire body or vast majority of doctors, and nobody gave a damn about what they wanted makes me very unsympathetic to this argument. Why is it that when men are in a majority nobody minds that women are under-represented, but when this is reversed it’s a humanitarian crisis? When women have dominated the medical profession for three-hundred years come back and talk to me (and let’s face it, women are still under-represented in positions of authority and in, high-status specialisms, such as surgery- this is not a revolution).

Dr McKinstry highlights that female GPs only do 60% of the extra activities involved in work, such as training, teaching, research and committee work- you know the prestigious stuff-, of their male counterparts. It is this ‘fact’ that makes women so problematic to the profession. What I wonder is who is taking up the slack treating the patients when the men are off doing their extra activities? There are only so many hours in the working week and GPs are famously over-worked. I know that the family planning associations are almost exclusively staffed by female GPs who run these clinics outside of their normal working hours. Does this not count as extra activities? Second, while women make up large numbers of students in medical schools, this is a very recent phenomenon. There are still more male doctors in Britain than female doctors. In my area, there are no doctor’s surgeries with more than one female GP, compared to 3 or 4 men. Seeing as training, teaching, research and committee work are performed by people whose careers are well-established, it makes sense that women are under-represented. They are under-represented amongst that age group of doctors.

Furthermore, male doctors are more likely to cost the NHS in relation to poor performance, litigation, re-education and rehabilitation than women. One might ask whether it might be better to have doctors who are able to do their jobs well, than people who are over-worked and exhausted through extra activities. Perhaps, a work-life balance is better for everyone.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Blog Against Sexual Violence.

Today is blog against sexual violence day. It is part of ‘Sexual Assault Awareness Month’, which aims to highlight and condemn the place of sexual assault within society. The theme this year is sexual violence in the work place. I am not going to blog to theme, but instead address a related issue that has been highlighted in the blogosphere. So for Blog Against Sexual Violence, I give you:

Why Rape is Not Biology.

Ken over at Girlistic wrote a moving blog about the social consequences of rape and discussion in comments highlighted a common misconception: that rape is about biology. Rape is not about biology. The ‘need’ to reproduce is equally common, but not universal, amongst men and women. But it is not an over-whelming drive that overcomes rational thought or action. If it was, rape would be more common as single men and women everywhere tried to address their urges. In fact, there are societies where rape and the concept of rape are unknown, such as highlighted by the research of the anthropologist Christine Helliwell. If rape was biology, we would expect to find rape everywhere.

The idea of the sexually insatiable man is also a relatively recent invention. Early modern Europe understood women to be the insatiable sex who grew ill without regular intake of semen, while men could choose to abstain from sex with no noticeable harm or consequences. If rape was about biology, then men would always have been understood to be sexually insatiable.

Rape is not biology. Rape is an extreme manifestation of normal social behaviour. Within patriarchal societies, men believe they have the right to control women and especially women’s bodies. Power within patriarchal society is underpinned with the threat of violence. Legal systems enforce law through the threat of imprisonment; parents ensure obedience through the threat of spanking. Gender in patriarchal societies (at least in the West) is underpinned by biological sex and a belief that the male sex is strong and violent, while the female sex is vulnerable and weak. Sexual intercourse is underpinned by attitudes to gender so that sex becomes an act where the ‘strong, violent’ man enacts sex on the ‘passive, weak’ women. ‘Normal, consensual’ sex is symbolically understood as an act of man’s ownership and possession of woman. A woman's consent does not remove this discourse, it simply shows her acceptance of this dynamic. Rape, therefore, is not that hard to understand. When men rape women, their behaviour mirrors normal social values, but in a manner that is socially unacceptable.

Furthermore, it is this dynamic that makes rape so traumatic for the victims. The Fword has reported that a BNP candidate has blogged that rape cannot be that traumatic as women enjoy sex and compared rape to being forced to eat one’s favourite dessert. (Finallyfeminism101 has a great response to this scenario.) The threat of male violence is embedded into conceptions of gender. It does not have to be spoken or advertised because it is part of what it means to be a man. Similarly, women are understood to be passive and that passivity shapes their understanding of themselves. Women rely on men’s good will to not abuse them, as they are not allowed the agency to defend themselves. Violence becomes more socially significant and threatening for women as they cannot conceive of themselves as violent, but only relate violence to hurt and pain. The threat of violence looms larger in their minds than in those of men, who see it in themselves. Sexual violence is particularly traumatic as it is through the act of sex that women are most vulnerable, enacting their role as the passive receptacle to man’s active body. As it requires more vulnerability from women, it requires more trust, and the breaking of that trust is the more traumatic. In a non-patriarchal world, rape would still be distressing, like any physical assault, because there is a mental trauma response to physical pain to help ensure that a situation is not repeated. Furthermore, the removal of patriarchy would not eliminate a person’s sense of self and the desire for that self not to be violated. But, it would not be as traumatic because the social meaning of sex, which relies of on a gender system based on violence, would be removed. We are not there yet.

Rape is not biology. It is a reflection of our culture’s values and values can change. Long live the revolution.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Boys Will Be Boys.

Sage at Persephone’s Box highlights an article that advises women that to get men to do housework, they should train them like dogs, using social conditioning/ behaviour modification similar to that explored by Pavlov. This concept was also explored in a BBC reality show ‘Bring your Husband to the Heel’. Sage rightly questions whether an equitable partnership should be based on manipulation and dominance.

For me, this discussion brings to mind the phrase ‘boys will be boys’. Modern conceptions of masculinity seemed to have rid men of their responsibility. In the early modern period, the expectation upon men to be responsible was immense. They were expected to conform to a wide range of roles including upstanding member of the community, breadwinner, and patriarch of the household. As patriarchs, they were held responsible by the law and by the community for the behaviour of all members of their household, including their wives, servants and children. The role of patriarch brought them great power as it brought the prestige and the ownership of everyone in the household, but it was to some extent balanced by the responsibility of managing everything and everyone they owned. In contemporary society, the nature of the household has changed and the patriarch, while not a distant memory, does not have the same connotations. With this change came great freedom for men from the responsibilities of ownership, while women increased their right to be recognised as human beings, rather than possessions.

Contemporary society has embraced the idea that men should be free from the responsibilities of being a patriarch, while not letting go of the power. This has led to a society where men are given more and more leeway in their behaviour and not held responsible for their actions. Men who are unfaithful, who refuse to participate in the running of the household, who put hobbies before family, and, even in some cases, sexually assault or rape women, are not held to account. Instead, society buys into the idea that ‘boys will be boys’. Despite the fact that men pride themselves on their rationality, society promotes the idea that reasoning with men or asking them to fulfil their responsibilities is pointless. Instead, women should resort to pseudo-scientific techniques that are time-consuming and degrading for both parties, instead of simply asking them to step up and take responsibility. The fact is men do not want to be asked to take responsibility as it restricts their power and freedom. Complicated game-playing, which is more demanding of the ‘trainer’ than the ‘trained’ allows women to feel like they are in command, while occupying their time and energy for only minimal social gain.

The move from household patriarchy has often been seen as liberating for women, but it was equally liberating for men who kept their power and lost the responsibilities that came with it. Real change to power dynamics within the home requires a revolution.

Tomorrow is Blog Against Sexual Violence Day. For more info, click here.