Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Train Tales, Part 2.

So, same journey as last post, but on a different train. Two men, aged 23 an 25, were sitting behind me. They were strangers to each other, but making small talk about their lives and why they were on the train. The 23 yr old had left school at 16 with no qualifications and tried various jobs, before becoming a carpet-fitter to a man who was close to retirement and would let him take over the business in the near future. The 25 yr old was a university educated, newly qualified music teacher, who until recently had been a 'freelance musician'. He was going to visit his girlfriend who worked in a very specialist occupation that requires you to live in certain places in the UK [in the interests of anonymity I won't say what it is, because it actually is that specialist- there are 24 sites in the UK where such a person could work]. They had been dating since high school and had frequently lived separately- for example during university and now. They discussed how this was hard, but 25 yr old, commented that if you made it work, it could work. At which point, 23 yr old asked why doesn't SHE get get a job near you. 25 yr old got a bit flustered and explained that well, she had trained for years at university to do this job. 23 yr old interrupted and said, yeah, but she could work at X [Similar site slightly further south- which was actually laughable as like in academia, I wouldn't imagine these jobs are that common or easily got]; 25 yr old even more flustered tried to explain it was a newish job and maybe in the future... He then changed the subject. At no point, did either man suggest or discuss the fact that as ex-freelance musician was a teacher, HE might find it easier to move near HER.

I thought this conversation was interesting for a number of reasons. First, because I think 25 yr old genuinely respected his girlfriend's career choices and had no expectation that her life would resolve around him, but that he also was unable to articulate that to another man. In fact, he became flustered, slightly defensive, and eventually changed the subject. There was no assertion that the choice they made as a couple was valid. There was also no discussion whatsoever that a man might move for a woman, despite the fact his occupation might point to this as a more obvious choice. 23 yr old to my mind was slightly immature and I don't think he was being intentionally sexist, rather I think he just couldn't envision the alternative options available to this couple. He afterwards commented that he was meeting his 18 yr old sister that night and she was bringing her friends, which was said in such a way as if to suggest she was bringing him a large box of chocolates. And, 25 yr old did the uncomfortable, aren't you lucky laugh, which showed he didn't really agree, but didn't want to offend his conversant- but which subleties the 23 yr old totally missed- as demonstrated by his elaboration of this topic. In some ways, I think this was about two different types of masculinity meeting and not really knowing how to connect- both assuming that the other shared their worldview, and then getting confused when the other wasn't interpreting the conversation in the correct way. But, it also demonstrated the different ways that female autonomy is dealt with by different men. Make of that what you will.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Dear Finnish Female Flatmate

Dear Finnish Female Flatmate,

Yesterday, I was on a train when a group of loud, male Londoners, discussed you. Your male flatmate confessed he had the hots for you, but didn't think you were interested. His louder and more agressive friend assured him that any girl who moves to London to live with three men was just 'looking for a good pole-ing' and he should 'go for it'. Said friend reiterated that Scandanavian girls (brief interlude while they discussed whether Finland was indeed Scandanavia, agreed it was, and continued) were all hot and up for it (unlike English girls), had less sexual hang-ups than 'stereotypically' [I think they were using this term wrongly] English girls, and that all you were looking for was a 'good pole-ing' [he did have a fondness for this term]. Your flatmate plaintively noted that you were here to study, but he was shot down by his mates, as your ethnicity and choice to live with a group of men apparently indicated your real desire was -yes again- to have a 'good pole-ing'.

Just thought you should be warned in case any poles come in your direction.

Best wishes,
Feminist Avatar.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Gude Cause

Yesterday saw the Gude Cause March 2009, a re-enactment of a march for woman's suffrage held in Edinburgh in 1909. It's aim was to commemorate the women who fought for our right to vote, to celebrate woman's achievements over the last century, and to 'draw attention to what still needs to be done'. In fact, there was a brilliant turnout from a wide range of woman's groups, including a huge showing from the various regional branches of Scottish Women's Aid, the STUC with their 50/50 banners- calling for equal representation women at all political levels-, engender with their call to recognise poverty as a woman's issue, Women's History Scotland with their banner reminding us that women's historical contribution is still under-researched and under-represented, and numerous other women's organisation who are fighting to make a change to women's position TODAY. And, it was a fabulous day and great event.

But, it is being reported as a historical re-enactment and nothing more. The BBC reports:

Suffragette march marks centenary

The parade re-enacted the march in Edinburgh 100 years ago. About 2,500 people have taken part in a parade in Edinburgh marking a key suffragette demonstration which took place 100 years ago. Participants carried banners and dressed in historic costumes in Saturday's re-enactment of the original march in the capital in 1909. The movement was a fight for women's rights which lasted almost 60 years. At the time hundreds of people took banners and flags to join a rally along Princes Street on 10 October 1909. Women were finally awarded the vote in 1928, but on Saturday their fight was remembered as people took part in a re-enactment of that day. It is the culmination of a summer of activities that has seen traditional protest banners and quilts being made, and a major exhibition about the movement at Edinburgh museum. Tram works mean the procession could not follow the original route along Princes Street but it started at Brunsfield Links and finished at the top of Calton Hill. The suffrage movement spanned almost six decades. Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop, who joined the procession, said: "Without the suffragists and suffragettes we would still be stuck in an age when women couldn't own property, they couldn't hold public positions and they couldn't vote. "The suffrage movement made a lasting contribution to Scottish democracy and society. They led the way for women to have their voice heard and towards an end to discrimination and prejudice." Ms Hyslop said some of the biggest suffragette demonstrations were in Edinburgh. "The city saw the first suffragette to be force-fed in a Scottish prison, Ethel Moorhead, imprisoned in Calton Jail," she added. "I think she would have found it hard believe that one day the offices of the Scottish government would stand on that very spot, a government not only elected by women voters, but including women ministers." Anne McGuire, Labour MP for Stirling, said: "I wouldn't be allowed to be a politician today without the struggle of the suffragettes. "These women changed political life forever in the UK, allowing women to enter what was at one stage a male-only arena."

There is no mention that this was a call for future change. The march itself was divided into three sections- past, present and future, with people in the past section dressed as suffragettes, and the rest of the crowd dressed in other costumes or the suffrage colours of white, green and violet. The present was the largest section of the crowd by far and there were several children's organisations (and children!) in the future section, which was fantastic. But the only photographs being shown on the BBC are of women dressed as Edwardian suffragettes. The speeches by the female politicians reported here all included calls for concrete changes that needed to happen to make society more equal, but, there is no mention of this. Their words are restricted to their comments celebrating their forebearers. The radical edge of this movement is quashed and an invigorating and exciting demand for social change is turned into a historical anachronism.

There is a flickr site for people to upload their photos to- I forgot my camera, but I'll try and steal some good one's when they posted.

ETA: Actually, STV is slightly better, it includes this statement: The organisers say the aim of the event is to remember the 1909 march, whilst also drawing attention to the problems women still face around the world, such as domestic violence, forced marriage and human trafficking.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Rehabilitating Maggie T.*

Margaret Thatcher was the first, and only to date, female prime minister of Great Britain between 1979-1990. Her economic policies transformed the British economy, causing great heartache, detroying Socialist Britain, and leaving a political legacy where the only acceptable 'left-wing' political party was New Labour (who brought pseudo-socialism for people who uncomfortable with the harshness of unrestricted capitalism). Her destruction of any true socialist movement in Britain, as well as her economic legacy amongst the lower-classes (mass unemployment, blame Maggie), has meant that the left has done its utmost to denegrate and belittle her. And, I am not unsympathetic towards this approach, but I think that perhaps this needs some feminist analysis.

Maggie T effectively created the current political agenda as well as the terms in which our economy functions. Despite a lot of anti-Tory rhetoric, no major political party has demanded a return to the nationalisation of industry, has given more rights to the Trade Union movement, or questioned whether a strategy of mass unemployment is a natural by-product of the capitalist system. Most major political parties, however, HAVE jumped on Maggie's bandwagon of describing those dependant on benefits as scroungers, scum, chavs and generally not worthy of consideration. They have all actively pursued reduced benefits and distanced themselves from taxation. No major political party represents the working-class anymore. 'Labour' now means middle-class; if you are not middle-class or striving towards it then you aren't worth representation. Now, for the left, this is not a legacy to be proud of, but in the last 30 years, no person has done more to transform the terms in which we do politics. Furthermore, it is the legacy of our only female PM.

What about our relationship with America? Yes, this has a long-history, but it was Maggie who actively distanced Britain's relationship with Europe and situated us alongside America. Where are our pro-European parties now? Oh, sorry don't exist. Blame a woman.

Yet, this legacy is not discussed or critiqued, which is hugely problematic. Our refusal to attribute our current political context to Maggie for the left is about denying a much-derided woman her political legacy, which is one of the only ways we can punish her for creating this situation (so it is understandable). But, because that political legacy is not attributed, it leads to a situation where we think the way the economy operates is natural, normal, inevitable. We think that politics has to take place under the terms Maggie set up, because we don't understand their history. And, the irony is, this makes her victory all the more complete.

So, how do we deal with Maggie? Maggie Thatcher, milk-snatcher; The Iron Lady; 'more balls than Brown'; 'more balls than the whole Nulab cabinet'; 'She is, on the contrary, a patriarch'; 'Mrs Thatcher disguised herself as a man'.

Whether she is being appraised from the left or right, Maggie Thatcher's legacy is that she was more than manly enough to have been prime minister. She had more balls than men of her generation or that following. She took milk away from small children (how unwomanly was that?). She presented herself in manly ways and convinced the nation she was more than a woman. And perhaps, it is true that Maggie did not conform to stereotypically feminine behaviour.

But, what does that legacy say to our daughters? I was a child when Maggie ruled Britain and I remember being told in school what an achievement it was to have a female PM, and I remember thinking that one day I too could be PM if I chose. Yet, by turning Maggie into a man, we remove the political legacy that Britain did have a female Prime Minister, and we can have one again. We create a culture where we say that politics is a man's game and woman have no place, and we remove the legacy of women on the way our society currently operates- so once more the responsibility for making our country what it is, is seen to have come from men. The significant role that a woman played in making Britain what it is today is being erased from popular memory. And that is bad for feminism, bad for women and bad for society.

*Before I begin, I am not politically conservative and do not support Margaret Thatcher's political ideology or the manner in which she transformed the British Economy and the political agenda up to the present day.

** Image H/Tip to Historiann, from this shop.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Patriarchy 101

It occurs to me when reading feminist blogs and comments to blog posts, that there is a lack of understanding about what patriarchy is and means. This is especially obvious in discussions of men's role in feminism, in society and in a feminist society. Many feminists start out with the caveat that they 'like men' or 'don't think all men are oppressors', but few feminist theorists would bother making that point, as 'men are all evil' is not actually what is meant when they refer to patriarchy.

Patriarchy is a social system which includes men and women (as well as people who don't easily define as either). The philosopher Bourdieu argues that power can be direct- such as when you force someone to do something through coercion, or physical violence- or indirect, exercised through culture, social values and institutions, and language. The exercise of power becomes a social system when power moves from being direct to indirect. Patriarchy is not exercised directly by men over women, but indirectly through our involvement in social structures- the way we talk to each other, what we mean when we think 'woman' or 'man' in our heads, our legal system and governance, social customs, traditions and formal institutions like education and religion. Patriarchy is a social system which is built on the concept of gender difference and that gender difference should determine how we think about each other, what our role is in society, and what people get to exercise power. While feminists are usually concerned with patriarchy's impact on gender relationships, it also incorporates other power structures seen in race, class, disability and sexuality politics (and more)- as these power structures all combine and inform each other.

Both men and women live within this system and it is the act of living in it that both creates patriarchy and reinforces it. Men gain from patriarchy, but not exclusively. Some men gain more than others; some women also gain. Furthermore, by the time power is a social system, everybody who is operating within it is participating in its continuation- even if you don't want to be. In this way, women are as responsible for the perpetuation of patriarchy as men. And, while men gain more from patriarchy, and so may be more reluctant to give it up, they are just as much 'victims' of patriarchy as women. They can no more choose to remove themselves from a patriarchal world than women.

When power is direct, it is easier (but not necessarily easy!) to address- you can fight back, you can remove yourself from the realm the individual exercises power in, you can resist. When power is a system, fighting back is a lot more overwhelming. First you have to decide what your goals are, but this means changing the way you understand the world. If you have been brought up your entire life to believe that women are lesser human beings than men, taking the conceptual leap to equality is actually a major breakthrough. Yet, we made that leap and we made tangible goals to make change- increased education, votes for women, access to the professions, equal pay, reproductive rights, rights to exercise our sexuality; rights to our own body. Some of those goals have been met; some we are working towards.

However, we are not complete in our dismantling of patriarchy, because we have not yet been able to conceptualise what a world looks like where gender means something different. We talk about getting rid of gender, but we do not know what to replace it with. We talk about rehabilitating gender (different but equal), but we can't get away from the fact that 'different' is used to deny people rights and opportunities. This problem is because patriarchy is not just about individual action- it is a state of mind. It is a state of mind that we all share and as such we are not encountering new ideas or ways of thinking that might allow us to change our state of mind. We don't even have the terms to start this conversation, as our basic descriptors are 'he' and 'she'. The exercise of power is written into the very structures of our language-the language that we use to think with.

This should not make people despair- the fact is we have made huge conceptual leaps in the past which have allowed us to shake the foundations of patriarchy. But, we have not yet dismantled it. And, this is why language, and how we use it, is important- because it shapes our world. It is also why feminism is not about women hating men; it is about challenging the very way we view the world and asking women and men to join us in that.

Illustrated by example: Last week, I pointed out the rather large discrepancy in sentencing between men and women who killed their children. So, how does this happen? Did the judge (male or female) just hate women and want to punish them? This is unlikely. In fact, s/he probably thought s/he was responding to the crime appropriately. But subconsicously, when confronted with a woman who killed her child s/he probably had a thought that went: women = mother> mothers protect, nurture children> this woman killed children =heinous. The judge sentencing the men thought: men + violence = normal masculinity > men killed children = within the boundaries of normal masculinity= standard sentencing. The gender of the criminal had a differential impact on how the same crime was viewed, resulting in different sentencing.

Thus, gender matters, patriarchy exists, women suffer, men suffer= time for change.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

More tokenism.

Women have been practising law in Britain since the 1870s and called to the Bar since the 1920s, but despite several generation of women lawyers in Britain, we could only find one qualified enough to sit on the brand-spanking new Supreme Court. SIGH.

But, actually, the content of this post is a complaint about
the website. In the UK, there are three equal and distinct legal systems, operating in England and Wales, in Scotland and in Northern Ireland. The Supreme Court is to be the final court of appeals for all three systems, so the judges are meant to reflect all three systems. There are eight lawyers representing the English system, two for Scotland and two for Northern Ireland, which given population differentials is not hugely unfair. However, if we read the website, two of the judges practised law in Scotland, two in Northern Ireland, and eight just practised 'law' or were called to regional bars, with no mention that they represent the English and Welsh system.

The effect of this is to imply that the English/Welsh system is the default/the norm, and Scotland and Northern Ireland are exeptional. This denies the equality of the three legal systems and as such devalues the Scottish and Irish systems, making their representation tokenism. Let's hope the practice of law in the Supreme Court does not reflect this.