Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Miss Universe and accusations of femmephobia

*sits back on rocking chair, puffs on pipe*

“In my day kids, femmephobia was what happened when you went to a gay bar in a dress and the bouncers questioned you about whether you knew what kind of place this was”

Okay, not strictly true, the term ‘femmephobia’ wasn’t invented when that was happening to me, but when I first came across this new word I thought that’s what it meant. 

But no! Turns out that femmephobia is the dislike/hatred/fear of traditionally feminine pursuits, such as pink, glitter, high heels, lipstick and being an angry, axe-wielding paid-up member of SCUM (only kidding on that last one). It’s the devaluing of the traditionally feminine, or deciding that the things that are associated with traditional femininity are a bit shit. To wit:

Long nails. Lace. Pink. Make-up. Dresses. Long hair. High heels.
I’ve noticed a trend in feminism that seeks to place these things as ‘lower’. As ‘less than’

Quoted here

 *sits back on rocking chair, puffs on pipe*

“In my day kids, that’s what we called sexism

Yes! Sexism – remember that? You know, the embodiment of a patriarchal society that positions gender as a hierarchy with men as a class on the top and women as a class on the bottom, all kept in place by violent misogyny? That’s the one! Sexism! 

It was sexism that decided the things associated with women and constructs of femininity were a bit shit – be it fashion and baking and crafts and care; and decided that careers associated with women should be paid less and valued less. Not femmephobia, but sexism. And sexism is the system that positions women as lesser than men, and violently keeps women there.

But apparently talking about sexism and patriarchy is so bo-ring and passé and just a bit *whispers* second wave and the real devaluing of women’s work and pursuits is not sexism, anymore. No, it’s femmephobia! 

And who are the main femmephobics? Feminists! 

Yes, that’s right. Feminists who fight against the ways in which women are forced to conform to restrictive gender roles that cost both time and money; and those same feminists who fight against the ways women are violently punished for not conforming to those roles, these feminists are not fighting sexism, they're femmephobic. According to the femmephobic rhetoric, feminists are attacking women’s right to choose to embrace and profit from those repressive gender roles, rather than tackling the ways in which violent patriarchy represses and devalues women. 

Oh what brave new world is this; that has such people in it. 

Anyway. The reason I’m banging on about femmephobia is because after the Miss Universe mis-crowning debacle this weekend, I witnessed various women trying to defend the beauty pageant while slamming any criticism of it as ‘femmephobic’. To criticise Miss Universe et al as a sexist parade where women are valued by their ability to meet the Patriarchal Fuckability Test (PFT) was not seen as a criticism of our unequal society, but instead a femmephobic attack on women who want to take part in pageants. 

Well, I’m sorry, but that is just such bullshit

It’s not femmephobic to criticise an industry that teaches women that our true value, that the true measure of female success, lies in our ability to match up to beauty norms designed by and policed by men. It’s not femmephobic to criticise an industry that teaches women that we are objects to be judged, and are too often found wanting. It’s not femmephobic to criticise an industry that rewards women for being silent objects to be gawped at, rather than active agents valued for what we say and do. 

The problem with femmephobia is the problem of what happens when you ignore structural oppression and the feminist theory of patriarchy. It’s what happens when you drill everything down to individualism and choice, and blank out the fact we live in an unequal society where women are seen as lesser than men.

Let me elaborate. 

The accusations of femmephobia are based on the idea that any criticism of beauty pageants is a direct criticism of the women engaging in the competition. It’s the idea that if you criticise the industry, you’re saying that the women who take part in the industry are somehow wrong and should be judged. 

And yet, this is simply not true. There is a difference between critiquing an industry, a system of oppression, and mocking or deriding the women who are part of that industry or system of oppression. No one is saying that the women who perform in pageants are anything but lovely. No one is criticising individual women who, like all of us, are doing what they can to survive in an unequal and unfair society. 

We are criticising an industry – a structure – that teaches women that our worth is based on how we look, not how we do. 

Some of the defences of pageants I saw on Twitter yesterday just made me despair at how neo-liberal and blatantly capitalist these accusations of femmephobia can be. For example, one woman stated that we couldn’t critique pageants because they gave the winners money, career opportunities and a flat. 

Well yes, that’s great for the winner. And of course, in our unequal society, women are going to grab at whatever opportunities for survival we can. But how can it be right, how can it be feminist, to have a contest where women are judged to be worthy of these opportunities by a bunch of men who look like potatoes – men who have made a list of what they think a feminine woman should be? How can it be feminist to defend an industry where men get to decide who is and isn’t an acceptable female? 

It’s not femmephobic to say that an industry that treats women this way is simply not okay

It’s not an attack on the individual contestants to criticise an industry that values women as disposable objects with a sell-by date. 

Another argument I saw on Twitter was that to critique Miss Universe was to ignore the intersection of race and class with sexism. 

But again, this simply isn’t true. Miss Universe is pretty damn racist in its enforcement of western ideals of beauty. It’s not a coincidence that despite race and ethnicity most of the winners have more-Caucasian-than-not features. It’s not a coincidence that Donald Trump was in charge of the contest until recently. 

And in terms of class – well again, the problem lies in sexism and patriarchy. It’s patriarchy that means women are on a whole poorer than men. The solution then isn’t to tell women that they can achieve riches by entering a beauty competition. The solution isn’t deciding that women who meet the PFT are to be financially rewarded while their less attractive sisters can remain poor and denied opportunities. 

How is that fair? How is it feminist to say that in order for women to achieve success, they have to look and behave in a male-approved way? How is it okay to defend a structure that says it’s for powerful, fully-clothed men to decide a woman’s success based on how she looks in a bathing suit?

Again, where is the theory of structural oppression? What is this neo-liberalism, bootstrap-pulling nonsense? 

The issues around femmephobia are also echoed in the use of the term ‘whorephobia’ to silence criticism of the sex industry. Just as femmephobia positions feminists as criticising individual women within pageants etc. then whorephobia argues that feminists criticise the individual women engaged in the sex industry. 

But again, this is simply not true. Feminist arguments against the sex industry are not focused on hating the women within it, but are instead focused on damning the inequality that means the industry makes its money through the commercial sexual exploitation of women’s bodies. 

To argue that criticising the pageants industry is ‘femmephobic’ and criticising the sex industry is ‘whorephobic’ is basically the same as saying that anti-Tesco protesters who smashed up my old street are ‘checkout worker-phobic’. 

Of course they’re not. Whether their methods were questionable, they were criticising capitalism, not hating individual shop-workers.  

You have to ask who gains from this new language of femmephobia and whorephobia. Who gains from the replacement of an analysis of structural oppression with individualism? Who gains from ignoring the structures of patriarchy in favour of neo-liberalist choice rhetoric? 

It’s not women, that’s for damn sure. 

While feminists are silenced by accusations of femmephobia, patriarchy can get on with telling women that our value lies in how we look, not what we do. While feminists are silenced by accusations of whorephobia, patriarchy can continue sexually exploiting women’s bodies for profit. 

The issues women face today are not caused by femmephobia and whorephobia. The issues women face are not caused by feminists not liking pink, or apparently hating individual women within the sex industry (we don’t).

The issues all women face today are caused by a violently-enforced patriarchy where gender is a hierarchy that positions women as subordinate to men. 

And that patriarchy is not going to be defeated by a neo-liberalist approach that celebrates individual choice over everything else. It will only be defeated when we name the structures that oppress us, and take them on (preferably while wielding an axe in one hand, and a copy of SCUM Manifesto in the other).

Monday, 21 December 2015

Bristol Woman magazine interviewed me!

I recently did an interview with Bristol Woman magazine to tell them all about my children's book, Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue (shop link).

It was really nice to talk to them about writing and children's books and the writing I'm doing now.

Read the full interview.

You can buy the book from Amazon, and other places.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

For Open Democracy 50 50: The Quipu Project

I went to The Rooms and learnt about the Quipu project, which has recorded testimonials from women in Peru who were forcibly sterilised in the 1990s. I was lucky enough to meet one of the project's organisers and interview her about Quipu and about the impact mass, coercive sterilisation had on Peru's indigenous women. Please check out the article and go to the project website to hear the women for yourselves. It's so important we hear their voices. (that last quote. I *sobbed*)

It's called:

The Quipu Project: testimonies of forced sterilisation in Peru

Friday, 27 November 2015

For Open Democracy 50:50 - review of Ali Smith's Public Library

I reviewed Ali Smith's stunning new short story collection, Public Library, for Open Democracy 50:50.

You can also read this, that I wrote about library closures.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

How do I know rape culture isn't a myth? Because I live in it.

How do I know I live in a rape culture? 

I know, because I am a woman, living in this culture. 

Today is the UN-designated International Day to End Violence Against Women (IDEVAW). So it was a bit galling to see this tweet in my timeline:

Rape culture isn’t a myth.

How do I know this? 

I know it because every year, 85,000 of my sisters will be raped. That’s roughly 11 rapes an hour. In one city, my city, Bristol, there are an estimated 130 rapes every month

I know it because of those 85,000 rapes, only 15% will be reported. And only 6.5% of those reported rapes will lead to a conviction. Not all of those convictions will lead to a jail sentence. 

That’s just the UK. Across the world, 1 in 3 women will experience male violence in our lifetimes. That’s over one billion women.  

I know it because, despite what Ken Clarke says, most rapists serve less than five years. I know it because friends who bravely reported their rapists to the police saw the men who committed this grave violation against them free within two, three years. Those men go back to work. They get on. The women survive with what was done to them. 

I know it because whilst rapists walk within three years, a woman found guilty of sexual assault is locked up for eight years. 

I know it because the severity of being accused of rape is treated as the equivalent of rape. Even though we know most rapists get away with it. I know it because we talk about rape as a one-off thing that happens on one occasion to a woman, and talk about an accusation of rape as ‘ruining men’s lives’.  Even if that accusation is true. Even if that man or those men are found guilty

We don’t talk about the impact of rape on a woman’s life. We don’t talk about her life at all. 

Instead, we show empathy to the rapists. From the judge who gave a suspended sentence to the man who raped his girlfriend ten times, to those phoning into radio shows to back him up. Never mind her PTSD. Never mind her multiple suicide attempts. Never mind that his life isn’t ruined. Never mind that he chose to rape her ten times. 

That’s how I know we live in a rape culture. 

How else do I know? 

I know it because it’s getting dark now and the safety advice posters are going up telling me not to drink too much, not to walk home alone, to restrict myself, to stop myself, to not live my life as freely as a man can live his, in case it makes me ‘vulnerable’. 

I know it because if I don’t follow this advice, and something happens to me, then it is me who will be blamed for the violence. It will be me who will have to justify my behaviour. 

I know it because if I follow the rules, and get a taxi, and the taxi driver commits rape, no one will believe it. In the case in that link, the John Worboys case, it is estimated he raped 100 women as the police refused to believe the women who bravely came forward. 

I know it because men compare me to a wallet, a bike, an open window, or a laptop.  They tell me that if I walk down the street, go for a drink, flirt with a man, talk to a man, if I do any of that then my vagina is unlocked. They tell me that if I have sex with a man once, then I’m already in the ‘sex game’ with him and he therefore has access to my vagina. They tell me not to use the word vagina because it’s offensive. 

How else do I know? 

I know it because violent men watch videos of my sisters being raped and then go on to commit violence against other sisters, and if we mention this we get called ‘prudes’ who hate sex. 

I know it because I’m just supposed to accept the sexualisation of male violence and aggression, and if I object to it then it’s my problem, I’m a prude who hates sex. That I’m attacking ‘free speech’ but then, who cares about women’s free speech? 

I know it because when men threaten to rape me online I’m supposed to ‘get the joke.' I know it because comedians line up on stage to tell jokes at the expense of rape victims. Not at rapists, at rape victims. 

As Stewart Lee says, don’t mock the weak. Mock the strong. 

I know it because I’m a woman living in a world where male violence is at an epidemic level that is killing women every day. I know it because I’m a woman living in a world where male violence is at an epidemic level that is raping my sisters every day.

And I know it because when I talk about this, when women talk about this, we are told rape culture is a myth. We’re told we’re making it up. 

Now. Where have I heard that before? 

Monday, 23 November 2015

Ali Smith, Public Library and what libraries mean to me

I'm lucky enough to be reviewing Ali Smith's new short story collection, Public Library, for Open Democracy 50:50. So watch this space, I'll post the link once it's filed and live.

However, the process of reading and reviewing the book made me think about my own relationship with libraries. And so I thought I would post here something I wrote earlier in the year for Bristol 24/7 because as far as I can tell, they deleted all the articles I wrote for them...

So, here you go:

The Power of Libraries

Growing up, I loved libraries. My brother and I were always a cheap date - if ever my mum was struggling to find something to occupy us she would take us to the library. There, with its towering shelves of books, books and more books, the pair of us would be happy for hours. 

I remember going to our small, local village library. We had a cardboard library ticket each – colour-coded for children’s books. It was our ticket to a world created by Roald Dahls, Enid Blytons and Dick King-Smiths. As we outgrew the small centre down the road, it became time to move on to the big central library in town - a huge-to-us Edwardian building whose children’s section was the same size as the whole village library. Here I discovered books that are still favourites today – the Carbonel series by Barbara Sleigh, Quest for a Maid by Frances Mary-Hendry, some odd book about a girl who looked after lots of cats. There were the Sadler’s Wells books (the YA of our time!) and the soppy, sad books about young teens dying and falling in love. 

Soon even the expanded children’s and teen section wasn’t enough for me. I wanted grown-up books, and my upgraded library ticket gave me access to them. Like all teenagers, my brother and I could be moody and uninterested. But we still looked forward to trips to the library. In those days (much like now really) I would read anything - classics and historical romances; biographies of long-dead film stars (Mae West and Tallulah Bankhead – even though I had never seen their films); and, as I got a little older, second wave feminist texts that raised more questions than answers, but that set me on the road of political activism. I read books that were too old for me that I would return to in later years, a little wiser, a little more experienced. I discovered the world through books, through the library. 

I was 16 years old when I found the library book that would change my life. It was a copy of Paris was a Woman by Andrea Weiss in the ‘women and gender studies’ section of the library.

For the previous two years I had been obsessed with Colette. I scoured second hand bookshops for the cream and orange penguin editions of her novels and short stories. I received Judith Thurman’s definitive biography for Christmas 1999, and devoured it – fascinated by both her life and her literature. So to discover a book about my hero in the library – it was a win! 

I sat down next to the shelf and opened up. Inside, I discovered a world of women writers. Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, H.D, Colette of course, Janet Flanner – in the book’s beautifully designed pages I discovered a community of women who were writing, publishing and creating in the heart of the most exciting city in the most exciting decade, Paris of the 1920s. Here was a group of women who had left their conventional lives and headed out to Europe to become the women they wanted to be. Djuna Barnes and her red lips and nails, and her densely poetic prose that no one else has come close to. Janet Flanner with her all-seeing eyes and great observational wit. Gertrude Stein with her male genius and literary cubism, Colette with her Claudine, H.D imagiste - these were the women I wanted to be “when I grew up”. 

I was hooked. Every trip to the library I would check out this book, alongside Ali Smith’s first collection of short stories with its vignettes on watching Louise Brooks and Greta Garbo on the silver screen. 

Fast forward a decade, and I’m now writing my second book inspired by the women of the 1920s Left Bank. And now I’ve arrived, rather circuitously, at the point this article wants to make. 

It’s because of libraries that I wanted to be a writer. It’s because of libraries that I am writing the book I am writing today. It’s because of the books I discovered in the library that I learned how to tell stories, how to use language, and it’s because of libraries that I found the books that would continue to inspire me throughout my life. Libraries gave me knowledge. The Bristol Central Library provided me with tools and understanding that have shaped my present. If my mum had not taken us to the library, if I had not found on those shelves the worlds within books, then my life would be very different. 

It’s also because of libraries that when I was broke, I could still read new books and go on the internet to look for jobs. 

Since the Coalition came into power in 2010 and started to implement their austerity cuts, libraries have become increasingly under threat. They are seen as a ‘nice to have’ rather than a necessary part of any community. 

This has to be challenged. Libraries are vital. They help create and shape the next generation of readers and writers. They give young people and adults access to a world of learning and knowledge which they may not otherwise have. They bring communities together with their reading groups and children’s events. Libraries are not a luxury. They are a right. Knowledge, arts, science, learning - none of these are luxuries. We all deserve access to these things. We all deserve access to books. 

I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today without those after school and weekend visits to the library. I am forever grateful to my mum for taking us there. We cannot allow future generations to be robbed of the sanctuary of libraries. We cannot risk losing the next generation of writers and thinkers, as we carelessly lose our libraries. 

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Sometimes it's hard to be a woman

What’s the hardest thing about being a woman? According to Caitlyn Jenner in today’s Buzzfeed, it’s deciding what to wear in the morning. 

Maybe it was a joke? Maybe she was joking? Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and say she was joking. But I’m not sure who the joke is on. And right now, it feels like the joke is on all women. Because how trivialising it is, to say that the hardest thing we have to deal with is deciding what to wear. How pointless our battles for self-determination, bodily autonomy and liberation all sound, if our biggest worry is what to wear. It feels like if it is a joke, then I’m the butt of it. 

But it got me thinking. What is the hardest thing about being a woman? Where to start! I’ve chosen my ‘Top Ten!’ below. Some of them are true for ALL women ALL of the time. (Edit: by referring to ALL women, I'm including trans women. I want to make it very clear that much of this list is true for all women including trans women.) Some are true for most women, most of the time. And none of them involve me deciding whether the T-shirt I put on this morning was the right length to cover my tummy. 

Here goes…

1. Male violence, part one

There’s going to be a lot of male violence on this list. And I’m starting with low-grade violence. I’m starting with the fact that since I was 14 years old, men have harassed me. I’ve had men yelling obscenities at me. I’ve had men yelling ‘compliments’ at me – ‘compliments’ that turn to insults when I’ve refused to respond. I’ve had men follow me down streets. I’ve had men chase me across station platforms. I’ve had men follow me around clubs. I’ve had men follow me into toilets and then attempt to assault me. I’ve had men assault me on public transport. 

One of the hardest things about being a woman is learning at the age of 14 that my body is seen as fair game. That I am seen as a target for male violence simply because I have a woman’s body. One of the hardest things about being a woman is learning at the age of 14 that I don’t have the same right to public space as men. 

2. Male violence, part two

Sexual violence, in this case. One of the hardest things about being a woman is being told, again from about the age of 14, that I must live with fear. I must learn strategies to ‘keep myself safe’ from rape. I must never walk home alone. I must not drink too much. I must be careful what I wear (ha! It’s hard to decide what to wear!). If I do any of these things, and anything happens to me, then I will be at fault. I will be blamed for provoking the violence. For causing the violence. If I report, then my actions will be used to mitigate the actions of the rapist. 

Never mind that the only cause of rape is a rapist. 

Women learn to live with fear. We restrict our freedoms in order to keep ourselves safe. We drink in the messages that blame us for the violence committed against us – messages spouted by the media and by police safety campaigns. It doesn’t change anything though. 85,000 women are still raped every year in the UK – and most of them will be raped by men that they already know. Out of those 85,000, only 15% will be reported and only 6.5% of those reported will be convicted. Many of the convicted men will be out of jail in fewer than five years. 

Meanwhile, after March 2016, there is no government funding in place for rape crisis centres. 

3. Male violence part 3

Domestic violence, now. Every year, 1.2 million women will experience domestic abuse in the UK. A woman will, on average, endure 35 incidents before calling the police. On average, two women a week will be killed by a partner or ex partner. 

At the same time as this epidemic of male violence, we are seeing legal aid cuts that make it harder for victims of domestic abuse to access the courts. Councils have no statutory requirement to provide domestic abuse or sexual violence support services, so the government cuts have meant vital frontline services are being lost – including our network of refuges. Specialist, feminist, women-led services have been cut in favour of ‘gender neutral’ services. 

Men are beating, raping and killing women, and the services that protect women’s wellbeing and save women’s lives are being destroyed by a male-dominated government. So yes, that’s pretty hard. That’s one of the hard things about being a woman. 

4. Not being seen as fully human

Covers a lot of things, this one. But I’m going to stick with the medical industry for now. From medical gatekeeping that means that women are ignored, disbelieved or fobbed off with the cheapest contraceptive pill, to the fact that medical research treats men’s bodies as default. So, for example, all the warnings about heart attacks tell us to watch out for shooting pains down our left arm. This is a symptom most commonly found in men, not women. You can read more about this in Caroline Criado-Perez’s excellent book

Even the much-flaunted ‘female viagra’ was tested on men. Not seeing women as fully human, and seeing male bodies as default, is seriously bad for our health. 

5. Periods! 

Okay, so maybe periods aren’t so bad in themselves. They’re something that most of us have to learn to put up with and some of us even learn to celebrate. No, it’s not periods themselves that are the problem so much as the fact that tampons and towels are considered a ‘luxury’ item by the taxman. 

Then there’s the fact that periods are still considered an ‘unspeakable’ subject. Starting with the parliamentarians refusing to say ‘tampons’, there’s a line of thinking throughout society that shouts that periods and anything related to women’s bodies should be silenced, not talked about, suppressed. But there is nothing shameful or gross or icky about women’s bodies, or about periods, or vaginas, or clitorises, or wombs, or ovaries, or mooncups, or any of those shushed words that silence our realities. 

Across the global south, girls are unable to go to school when they have their periods because there are no facilities, or because they are deemed ‘unclean’.  This has a huge and frightening impact on women’s safety and opportunities.  

So yes, our bodies being unspeakable and having to pay tax on items women need to get on with shit in the world. That’s a hard thing about being a woman. 

6. Abortion

Contrary to what a lot of people (usually men) believe, abortion is not available on demand in Britain. It certainly isn’t available on demand in the UK – abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland. If a woman wants an abortion in England, Scotland or Wales, she must have two doctors sign to say continuing the pregnancy is detrimental to her health. 

Access to abortion is a fundamental demand of the Women’s Liberation Movement. It is fundamental because it respects a woman’s absolute right to bodily autonomy. Forcing a woman to continue a pregnancy against her will is a gross violation and yet it continues to happen to millions of women across the world – women who have been raped, children, women whose lives are in danger and women who just don’t want to be pregnant. 

The refusal to respect a woman’s right to decide what happens to her body. That’s another hard thing about being a woman. 

7. Reproduction and childcare

Deciding whether to have a baby. Deciding not to have a baby. Your body becoming public property when you are pregnant. Birth trauma. Infertility and the pressures put on women who cannot have children. Childcare and the continuing inequality around parental leave. To breastfeed or not to breastfeed. The shaming of mothers. The idealising of mothers. The mocking of mothers. Stitches. Medicalisation. Denial of choice. Denial of bodily autonomy. 

There are so many reasons why child rearing and reproduction are hard for women. Not least that reproduction is a dangerous business too. Across the world, 800 women die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. 

8. It’s the day after Equal Pay Day! Now, where’s my money?

Yesterday was Equal Pay Day, which is the day when – on average – the pay gap means women stop getting paid. Being penalised by the pay gap, bearing the brunt of the government cuts – all of it means that women are, on average, poorer. 

Then of course there’s sexual harassment in the workplace, the ‘motherhood’ penalty that all women post-25 face even if they choose not to have children, and the continued ‘default male’ setting that persists in so many workplace.

Oh, and after all that, if you don’t negotiate that pay rise because all the research says people will see you as a ‘bitch’, then you’ll be blamed for the pay gap. Thanks guys! 

9. Being a girl

Across the world, girls experience violence, discrimination and reduced opportunity because they are born a girl. They experience oppression based solely on their sex. From male violence to the denial of an education, being born a girl is dangerous in our world. Across the globe, up to 140 million girls in the world have undergone FGM. Here in the UK, it’s estimated 60,000 girls have been cut. Every year, 15 million girls are forced into ‘marriage’ – often with men much older than themselves. Don’t make any mistake – forced marriage is rape. 

A report by ActionAid found that girls routinely endure male violence both en route to, and within school settings. Girls are less likely to be enrolled in school than boys. This might be because they are needed at home, or because they have been forced into marriage, or because it simply isn’t safe. And yet, girls still fight to go to school, despite knowing how dangerous it can be.

As mentioned above, girls routinely miss school or are denied education because of their periods. 

Some girls aren’t born at all, or don’t make it past infancy. Because of female foeticide, male violence, and other causes such as neglect or trafficking, today there are 100 million missing women in the world. 

10. Being oppressed because you are a member of the class ‘woman’.

It’s a cheat this (and believe me, I could have come up with another ten reasons). It’s a cheat because all the above nine reasons fall under this one. 

But being oppressed because we are women – that’s the hardest thing about being a woman. As women, we have a 1 in 3 chance of experiencing male violence. We experience patriarchal oppression because we are women in an unequal world. That’s why, as a feminist, I fight for the liberation of all women from capitalist patriarchy. 

Because all these things that make being a woman so fucking hard? None of it is inevitable. They are deliberate structures put in place by an unequal society that places men above women. Male violence brutally enforces those structures; brutally keeps women in a subordinate place.

But none of this is natural. It’s not normal that women are unequal. Gender-based oppression is not innate. 

And because of that, it can and will be changed.   

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

For Politics.co.uk: The Cosby case shows how hard it is for rape victims to be heard

The lovely team at Politics.co.uk asked me to write for them on celebrity, powerful men and male violence against women and girls.

So I did!

The piece is called:

The Cosby case shows how hard it is for rape victims to be heard

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Petition: Oy! UK Passport Office! Where are the women?

I've never done this before!

But I started a petition on Change.org to try and raise awareness of cultural femicide and how it plays a part in the recent decision to include seven men and only two women in the design for the new UK passports.

Cultural femicide is the process from which women are erased from our cultural landscape. The impact of it is to make women's achievements, creativity, and historical importance invisible. And when women are invisible, that means women role models are lost, women's revolutions and causes are lost, and the fact that women have shaped our society, our past, our present and our future is ignored. 

Cultural femicide therefore has a huge impact on gender equality. 

The UK Passport Office has announced its new design for our new passports. The pages of the passport are dedicated to celebrating great cultural figures and landmarks throughout history. And yet, only two of those figures are women: Elizabeth Scott and Ada Lovelace. Meanwhile, there are seven men. 

What message does this send? That women's achievements are secondary. That history belongs to great men, that we can't celebrate an equal number of women and men on something as simple and yet as fundamental as a passport design. 

Think of all the women who could have featured on the pages of your passport – women who have made significant contributions and who have changed the cultural, medical and political landscape of the UK. Suffragettes such as the Pankhursts, Emily Davidson and Sophia Duleep Singh. The women who changed and shaped history, such as Mary Seacole, Caroline Norton, Mary Wollstonecraft. The women who have had such an impact on culture and politics, Barbara Castle, Nancy Astor, Claudia Jones, Doreen Lawrence, Shami Chakrabati, Beatrice Webb, Millicent Fawcett. Scientific pioneers like Rosalind Franklin and Elizabeth Garret Anderson. 

Then there are the writers and publishers: the Bronte sisters, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, Malorie Blackman, Mary Prince, George Eliot. The artists: Barbara Hepworth, Angelica Kauffmann, Leonora Carrington, Pauline Boty.

The list goes on and on and on. Perhaps you can add your own when you sign the petition.

In response to criticism that there were only two women in the design, Mark Thomson said that people were always going to want their favourite icon or rock star in the design.

But that’s not what we’re asking. We're not asking for a specific, for a special favourite. We’re just asking to be present. We’re just asking for the cultural and historical achievements of women to be recognised. We’re not niche; we’re half the population. Our contributions to history and politics and science and the arts should not be side-lined but celebrated.

The continued erasure of women from our cultural spotlight has a huge impact on gender equality. It sends a message that the achievements of women and the influence we have had don’t matter. Are secondary. Are not as good, not as significant, not as important, as the achievements of men.

This erasure of women’s history has to stop. This is a chance to stop it.

Mark Thomson – please reconsider. Please re-consult on this design. This is your chance to make a stand for women’s representation. Please include more women in the design for the new passport. Let’s celebrate the contributions of women at the same time as we celebrate the contributions of men.

As the founder and director of the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival, this issue has special significance to me. But it is an issue for all women – an issue to say enough to cultural femicide, and to celebrate women’s lives. 

Friday, 30 October 2015

What can we do about online abuse? In which I get personal...

On Sunday I was lucky enough to go to the fabulous Feminism in London conference. It was such an inspiring day – I was attending as I was shortlisted for the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize. Sitting on the stage during the closing speeches with my sister nominees, grinning from ear to ear, was an unforgettable moment and I am so happy I got to be part of it. 

I’m not here to write about FIL at large though. I wanted to write a little bit about one of the workshops I attended, on online misogyny and specifically the discussions on what we can do, as feminists and sisters, to combat it. 

The event, chaired by Alison Boydell from End Online Misogyny invited Claire Heuchan, Connie St Louis and Dr Emily Grossman to discuss their experiences of online abuse and also to offer thoughts and suggestions on how we best combat it. This was great – what could have been a depressing and upsetting talk about the horrors men send to women online (which is a necessary conversation but can leave you feeling a bit beaten), instead became a positive and dynamic discussion on what we do to stop it. 

Dr Grossman discussed how when the misogyny started pouring in after a Sky News “debate” with Milo, family and friends advised her to turn off her phone, turn off Twitter, go under. This advice was offered to me, when I had my own particularly nasty experience of online abuse. The idea if I went away, it would go away. If I stopped talking, stopped speaking, shut myself up, then it would go away.  

But, of course, this is what they want. When men send abuse on the internet, they’re doing it because they want to force women out of public space. They are angry that women are claiming space, taking up space, refusing to remain quiet, refusing to make ourselves small. And so they threaten us with rape, with physical and sexual violence, to try and shut down our voices. They call us ugly, they say no man would want us, to prove that in being outspoken, to prove that in taking up space, we are unacceptable women. They speculate on your sex life and your sexuality – again, desperately trying to prove that there’s something unnatural and wrong about you. Desperately trying to shut you up, to silence your voice. 

Online abuse is designed to silence women. I wasn’t going to accept being silenced. I wasn’t going to give them what they wanted. I wasn’t going to let their abuse shut me up. So I kept tweeting, I kept blogging, and I kept campaigning in public. However, I did make some choices. I did modify my behaviour online. There are subjects I no longer raise. Discussions I don’t involve myself in. Times when I very consciously self-censor. After all, self-care matters too, and I never want to wake up again to another rape threat. 

It never really goes away, the fear, the sense of threat. When you see a comment has been left on your blog, and your heart starts pounding, as you click to read it. 

One of the things I found hardest during my particularly intense time of online abuse, and which links in to the ‘just turn it off’ narrative, is how I was made to feel that it was my fault. This started because the local paper – whose editors had stirred up and enflamed abuse against me – printed the story that I had gone to the police, complete with a picture of my face. Their comments board flooded with men telling me that it was my own fault, that I had attracted the abuse and then had run like a coward to the police. They crowed that if I couldn’t take the heat (the heat? Of men threatening to share my details online? Of men threatening my safety?) then I should stay in the kitchen (ha ha! Get me a sandwich, b**ch!)

Their comments left me feeling that I had brought this upset and pain on myself, because I had stood up and spoken out. Because I had used my voice. It left me feeling that it was my fault – if I had just shut up and kept quiet, then I wouldn’t be in this mess. If I had behaved differently, then I wouldn't have brought all this upset on to me and to those around me. 

I don’t think I’ve ever written that down before. Just how much comments like those made me feel, deep inside, that I had to take some responsibility for the way I was treated. 

The friendlier, well-meaning exhortations to get offline and lower my profile left me with a similar feeling. No one meant to blame me, with those comments. But it’s a similar thing. It’s saying:

this happened because YOU did X. If YOU don’t do X, then it won’t happen. So just stop doing it! It's easier that way!

Whose agency, whose presence, is erased in that sentence? 

I did nothing wrong. I spoke out on an issue I cared about. Men chose to send me abuse, to send me threats. It didn’t even matter what I was saying, it was the fact I was saying it. 

Anyway, that’s enough about me. 

I was triggered to write this post not just by Sunday’s discussion, but by seeing this tweet by Jess Phillips MP. 

I responded with a message of solidarity (as you can see). 

Because to me, that is something we can all do when we see online abuse happening around us. We can send solidarity. We can send a message of kindness, of sisterhood. We can make sure that when someone’s mentions are being flooded with rape threats and vile, sexually violent imagery, there are also messages of care. 

When it happened to me, that was what made the difference. I had hundreds – HUNDREDS – of messages from people I had never met, offering support. At a time when I felt really fucked up, with people victim blaming and threatening, I was also overwhelmed and over-awed by the love and care of people who wanted to check I was okay. Who wanted to know what they could do. Who wanted to let me know that they had my back. 

It doesn’t take much. It’s a tweet, a comment on a blog, on Facebook. It might feel like you’re intruding or being a bit cheesy. But you’re not. It was the main thing I remember, now, from that time. That sense that I wasn’t alone. That people cared. 

Sometimes I think I was ‘lucky’. The abuse I’ve had sent my way in the years I’ve been blogging and campaigning is no where near as frightening and threatening and relentless as that received by other women – by women I count as friends and by women I don't know but see online. But there’s no ‘lucky’ here. I’m not ‘lucky’ that my experience of online abuse is not as bad as it could have been. Because we shouldn’t believe we are ‘lucky’. Not being abused, that should just be normal. Basic. 

Because, no woman should have to endure male violence, on or offline. 
No woman should be told she attracted male violence, on or offline. 
And we all have a role to play to support our sisters when we witness male violence, on or offline. 

So. Next time you see a woman going through online abuse. Don’t tell her to turn it off. Don’t tell her to go offline. Tell her you’ve got her back. Tell her you care. Show her some solidarity. 

Ouf. That ended up being a lot more soul-bearing and personal than I expected when I started writing it. Still, good to express how if felt. How I was made to feel

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. 

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

For Open Democracy 50:50 - Fierce Attachments review

When I read Vivian Gornick's fiercely feminist and fiercely angry Fierce Attachments earlier this year, I was gripped by its intense and claustrophobic exploration of the mother/daughter relationship.

So when I heard Daunt Books were reissuing it, I reviewed it for Open Democracy 50:50.

You can read the review here.

Fierce Attachments: feminist memoir and female relationships 

Monday, 19 October 2015

For The Guardian: How many more women must die at the hands of men before the authorities act?

I wrote something for the Guardian, about femicide and how last week the 100th woman will have been killed by a man this year. 

It's called:

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Boys on the Bus has been published in a book!

I'm so so proud to announce that my short story, Boys on the Bus, has been published in the Everyday Victim Blaming anthology: What I remember.

Sales of the book will support the charity's vital work challenging and exposing victim blaming culture, delivering training to combat victim blaming and rape myths, and generally working towards a world where male violence against women is a thing of the past.

You can buy the book in paperback or on the kindle.

So please do! Amazing stories, one by me, and supporting a brilliant organisation. Wins all round.

...and one more thing. If this all seems a bit familiar, it may be because I had an essay published in their non-fiction anthology earlier this year. You can buy that book too!

Monday, 5 October 2015

Get her to an asylum! On Downton Abbey and unmarried mothers.

One of the many things that have happened since I moved back into my childhood home is that I’ve been watching TV programmes I had never really engaged with before. Some of it is great (Great British Bake Off! Where had you been my whole life?); some of it less so (why does Nicholas Lyndhurst talk posh in New Tricks?) and some of it is Downton Abbey. 

Now, I did watch the first series of Downton Abbey on Netflix, mainly because I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. And because of Lady Sybil. I got bored halfway through the second series, however, and increasingly frustrated at the total lack of engagement with class politics by the writers. Downton, I decided, was not for me. 

However, I ended up half-watching an episode the other night which featured Lady Edith losing her child at the country fair and then finding her again. 

What is this? I asked my mum. Where did this kid come from? 

It turns out that Lady Edith had an illegitimate child and then the family gave the baby girl to a local family to look after. However, Lady Edith missed her daughter so much that the family agreed to give her back and now the Downton Abbey family are raising it. 

I sat in silence for a moment. I looked at Lady Edith’s frantic expression; the paternalistic glow in Hugh Bonneville’s face as he reunites daughter and granddaughter. 

‘They would have put her in an asylum,’ I responded. 

I have a talent for ruining people’s favourite TV shows (and films, and plays, and albums). 

It made me really angry, however. Because the truth of it is, she probably would have been put in an asylum. That’s what our society did to women who had children out of wedlock, as recently as the 1920s and for quite a while afterwards too. 

I first became aware of this issue as a teenager, reading Michelle Magorian’s excellent A Little Love Song (the title does not do justice to the book). Then, as an adult, I read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O’Farrell. Both of these books tell the story of upper or upper-middle class women who have children out of wedlock and are then locked up by their families in asylums where they are abandoned and forgotten about. 

The reason why these books could be written is because that is what we did to women, and we did it to women for decades. We told unmarried women who had babies that they were mad and bad, and that they needed to be locked up. We allowed men to confine women in asylums where they were treated with disdain and violence, and their children were taken away and never told where they had come from. 

It didn’t matter what had happened to these women before their incarceration. It didn’t matter if the child was the result of a loving but unmarried relationship, or the result of rape. The women were sent away just the same. The babies were taken away just the same. 

Even as recently as the 1960s, unmarried mothers were treated in appalling conditions. Although the practise of locking women up in asylums was pretty much over (although many women were still in the asylums where they had been for decades), women were instead sent to ‘mother and baby homes’, often run by religious communities. Once in the homes, the women were treated like scum. In her book, The Baby Laundry for Unmarried Mothers, Angela Patrick describes her own experiences – the disdain and cruelty of the staff, the chores she had to do daily, the rules that left the women feeling like wayward children who needed to be punished. And then, of course, the babies were taken away. 

It hurts my heart when I think of what we did to unmarried women who had babies in the last century. It hurts my heart to think of the women locked up in asylums, treated as criminals, denied their very basic right to freedom and bodily autonomy. It hurts my heart to know that hundreds, even thousands, of women were punished and degraded and harmed by a patriarchal system that saw women as men’s property to do with as they liked. 

And when that heart-hurt is over, I feel furious. Because when are we, as a society, going to acknowledge the crime that we committed against women? When are we going to own up to the women locked up in asylums, to the women punished and treated poorly in the baby laundries? When are we going to admit what we did to women, and did to women on a frighteningly huge scale? 

Not today, clearly. Not whilst Downton Abbey is selling a lie about society’s treatment of women. 

The situation for women in Ireland was far worse, and the imprisonment and punishment of women was happening on a much larger scale, than in the UK. The infamous Magdalene Laundries locked up women for their whole lives – women who had been raped, who had gotten pregnant, or who were just considered ‘wayward’. These laundries basically profited from women’s unpaid labour, treating the women as a subclass who deserved to be punished and hidden away. The horror of this system is frighteningly portrayed in the film The Magdalene Sisters which I urge you to watch. 

In 2013, the Irish government apologised for the Magdalene Laundries and to the survivors (the laundries only closing in 1996), which is some progress. However, the Catholic Church still refuses to apologise. Meanwhile, as the terrible moral crimes committed by this system continue to come to light, a culture of denial and diminishment – a blaming on ‘old time thinking’ – persists. 

However, I think we have a tendency in the UK to look at what happened in Ireland and think it has nothing to do with us. I think we are all too willing to pretend that it was a problem happening ‘over there’ and ignore how our system perpetuated its own crimes against women. It’s not good enough. Just because our system wasn’t as bad as the Magdalene laundries does not mean we can continue to ignore it. We can’t keep sweeping it under the carpet. We can’t keep making TV shows that sell the lie that unmarried mothers were protected by their families, rather than abandoned by them. 

We need to acknowledge what our society routinely did to women. We need to recognise that this cruelty existed, and that the state system colluded to lock up women who had committed no crime, who had suffered no mental illness, who had simply had a baby without being married. We need to recognise we locked up rape victims. We need to acknowledge what society did to women. 

I feel the same way about witch burnings, but that’s a subject for another day. 

When Downton Abbey tells a lie about how women like Lady Edith were treated, our culture continues to hide away the truth about what we did to women. We have to stop this lie. We can’t pretend it didn’t happen. After all, for decades we pretended it didn’t happen. We just locked women up and pretended they no longer existed. 

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

For the Guardian: There’s no way to defend the Jack the Ripper museum while women are still being murdered by men

After a brief argument with the PR man for the Jack the Ripper museum, I wrote something for the Guardian website on why this museum remains pretty indefensible.

It has the long headline:

There’s no way to defend the Jack the Ripper museum while women are still being murdered by men

And look! LOOK! I'm on the Guardian homepage:

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Women of the Left bank Series Part 6: Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap

What do you think about, if you think about it at all, when you think about the Little Review? Most people think of James Joyce, or of Ezra Pound, the man who Gertrude Stein described as a:

village explainer. Good when you’re in a village, not when you’re not.

The person people don’t often think of is the review’s founder. And who was the Little Review’s founder? Only Margaret Anderson – one of the most impressive, fabulous and don’t-take-no-shit women of her era. 

(Stein wasn’t a huge fan of Margaret either, but she was fond of Jane Heap, more of whom later)

Writing about Margaret Anderson in my series on Women of the Left Bank is a bit of a cheat, as Margaret started her illustrious career on the other side of the pond. But she did spend a fair bit of time on the Left Bank, and she’s included in Benstock’s Women of the Left Bank, so I’m claiming her.  

Anderson was born in Indiana which – fact fans – is also where Janet Flanner was born. She was a talented pianist, and moved to Chicago in 1908 to pursue music, as well as writing books reviews for the Dial, and Chicago Evening Post.

Writing for other people wasn’t enough for Margaret though. She wanted to set up her own review, and so in 1914 Little Review was born. It really was a labour of love – when the money ran out the whole outfit decamped to a cabin on the edge of Lake Michigan. 

Anderson’s early life and the beginnings of Little Review are recorded, with wit and verve, in her sparkling memoir Thirty Years War

Unfortunately the book is now out of print, but I am lucky enough to have my very own copy – and a first edition no less. It really does need to be reprinted – it’s a vital history of one of the most important literary and arts moments of the 20th Century, and by one of its most interesting and influential women. The memoir is packed with stories and anecdotes about some of the most exciting women of the teens and twenties of the last century, including Emma Goldman and the Dadaist and character Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who some say was the real artist behind THAT urinal.  

In 1916, Anderson met Jane Heap, and persuaded her to become the co-editor of Little Review. Heap’s brilliant intellect and excellent writing ability helped shape Little Review into the force it became, as it attracted all the new and exciting writing that was happening during the birth of modernism. 

Anderson and Heap fell in love, and if you want to see how in love just take Margaret’s gorgeous description of Jane in her memoir:

I felt in 1916 and feel to-day that Jane Heap is the world’s best talker.

It isn’t a question of words, facility, style. It isn’t a question of erudition. It isn’t even a question of truth. (Who knows whether what she says is true?) It is entirely a question of ideas. No one can find such interesting things to say on any subject. I have often I should my life over to talk-racing, with my money on Jane. No one else would ever win – you can win against magic.

Moving from the cabin in Lake Michigan to a ranch in Muir Woods and then Greenwich Village in New York, the pair published Little Review and, along with their London editor Ezra Pound, transformed it into the leading review of the time Hart Crane, Gertrude Stein, TS Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, Jean Cocteau, Hemingway – the list of authors and artists who contributed is pretty much a roll call of the most revolutionary and extraordinary people of the period. 

But it is perhaps for Ulysses that Little Review is most famous – and another example of how the women who helped bring Ulysses to print have been ignored by history (see Sylvia Beach). 

In 1918, Little Review began to serialise Ulysses, and they continued to serialise it until 1921 when the US Post Office seized copies of the magazine and refused to distribute it, citing its “obscene” content. 

Both Heap and Anderson were hauled up into the courts, charged with obscenity. They famously lost the case – having to pay a fine of $100 and Ulysses was banned in the US until 1934. During the trial, Heap defended their decision to publish Joyce’s most famous work. She said:

It was poet, the artist, who discovered love and created the lover, made sex everything that it is beyond a function. It is the Mr Sumners who have made it an obscenity.”

I love this quote. You can see what Anderson means, can’t you, about how Jane Heap talks? 

After the trial, the pair decamped to Paris (making them officially women of the Left Bank) and continued to publish Little Review there. Famously, they didn’t pay their contributors, proving that it’s not just today that writers have to work for free…

I’m tempted to say that our cultural forgetfulness of Anderson and Heap, without whom one of the most influential modernist publications would simply not have existed, is down to sexism. After all, the other great taste-makers of the age are remembered, although I am willing to concede that this could be contributed to the fact that they also produced their own novels and poetry (Anderson and Heap did too, although it’s not well circulated). I do think there is a whiff of sexism in particular about the forgetting of the three women who made such a difference to Joyce’s publishing history – especially as Joyce so spectacularly betrayed Sylvia Beach. 

There were a huge number of women publishing and distributing work in the modernist era, and most of their names are forgotten now. And yet, without women like Heap and Anderson, journals like Little Review would not have been the first publishers of some of the century’s most famous and revered writers and artists. We should celebrate these women; we should remember their names. They helped shape literary and cultural history. They were loved and respected by their peers and contemporaries. Let’s not allow them to be forgotten. 

Read the rest of the series

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The Good Old Days, or the dangers of Nostalgia

When I was a child, I had this book set in the Victorian era, about a family living in a nice house with servants. I can’t remember what it was about now, but there was an ice-house and a black servant boy who brought the rich children hot chocolate. The gorgeous illustrations, the excitement of the ice-house – all this gave me a very rose-coloured view of Victorian life, and the life of Victorian servants. I wanted to be one of the maids in this book, mainly for the frilly apron, and the friendship she had with the rich kids. 

I was seven, I was a bit weird, so cut me some slack! 

As I romanticised the idea of Victorian maids, I remember my mum telling me how her nana – my great nana – was ‘in service’ in Wales as a teenager. I remember my mum saying that her nana never spoke about what happened to her during that time. 

I was reminded of my great-nana – who would have been ‘in service’ around the teens or twenties of the last century – when reading this startling article about a couple who have dedicated their lives to living like ‘the Victorians’. I thought about how her mother, so my great-great nana, would likely have been in service during the Victorian era, the period this couple are so happy to fetishize. And I thought about how their idea of Victoriana would not be at all recognisable to my family, or to the thousands of families who grew up without rights, without money, without healthcare, without sanitation – women like my great nana and great-great nana who grew up scrubbing rich people’s toilets. 

To be fair to this couple, there are some laudable statements about their desire to live in the Victorian age. They talk about sustainability, about being more connected to where the things we use come from, to combating the disposability culture that we live in today. That’s all well and good. They seem remarkably willing to forget that the Victorian age was the height of the industrial revolution, a time of great mechanical innovation that paved the way for the modern machinery we have today. It’s actually quite insulting to look at the huge scientific leaps of discovery, the artistic revolutions and the brilliant novels of the 19th Century and think of it was a ‘simpler time’. But to be honest, that is the least of my worries. 

To pretend that living in a ‘simpler time’ is something that can be achieved by eschewing all modernity in favour of living a fantasy of Victorian life is a nonsense. 

What the couple seem to ignore in their idealisation of the Victorian era is that the vast majority of Victorian married couples were not upper-middle class. They did not spend their time riding penny-farthings and completing embroidery projects. They were poor. They were child labourers – boys choking to death up chimneys, girls losing hands on cotton looms. They were children dying of diphtheria and cholera in slums because there was no sanitation. They were women dying in childbirth, men dying down coal mines. 

Many Victorians were servants like my ancestors, forced to work long hours with no legal rights, and in some cases at the mercy of violent masters. The Victorian age wasn’t genteel and noble. It was just as corrupt and unequal as any other era. 

And that’s just England. What else do we know about the Victorian era? It was an age of Empire – of rapacious and bloody wars designed to repress and destroy the cultures of the countries we invaded. It was decades of white supremacy, building on the history of the previous centuries that treated other countries and other cultures as a resource for us to plunder. The experience of a Victorian living in India or Zimbabwe is miles apart from the romanticised gentility imagined in this article. There was nothing polite about Empire. It was bloody and brutal and nations are still living with the legacy of that brutality today. 

Let alone the fact that this couple are American – whose ‘Victorian’ era included slavery, the Civil War and the origins of the Ku Klux Klan. I’ll say it again: the Victorian experience was not limited to white, middle upper class families. 

Anyone who knows me knows about my love of vintage clothes. I have a gorgeous collection of 1920s, 1930s and 1940s frocks that I wear out and about to parties, revelling in the beautiful cut and delicious fabrics. But that love of a vintage aesthetic has never fooled me into thinking that ‘things were better when…’ (7 year-old book reading me aside). No woman should look back on the Victorian era and think of it as a better, more ideal time. We should never idealise a past where women were the legal property of their husbands, where we were forced to give up our rights as soon as we said ‘I Do.’ 

In the UK, women fought hard for our rights during the 19th century. They fought to change the divorce laws that said women had to prove adultery and cruelty against their husbands, whilst men only needed to prove adultery. They fought to change the laws so after divorce, they could maintain custody of their children. Women stood with the Chartists under the mistaken belief that an extension of suffrage to men would lead to suffrage for women. Women went to prison to secure the right to vote. Women worked together to improve education for girls, labour rights for men and women – they fought and fought and fought to have the rights we take for granted today. 

Think of Eleanor Marx, think of Caroline Norton…

They fought for rights that even a romanticised view of the good old days can’t take away. Rights that anyone who fetishizes the past are still grateful to have when the chips are down. 

There’s a reason why so much changed for working people in the first half of the 20th Century – why the early decades saw an end to workhouses, education bills, a trade union movement, labour rights, contraception, the suffragettes. They looked to the past and thought, right, enough. Children need education. Workers need protections. Women should have the vote. People should stop dying of cholera. 

Of course, things are not perfect now. We are far from an equal society and there’s an argument to be made that our unequal society, the continuation of entrenched inequality, and our deifying of capital, is a hangover from the Victorian era. 

But it was a start. As this Government slides us back towards that past, with its restrictions on striking and its dismantling of social security and the NHS, we should be grateful everyday to those women and men who fought for our rights back then. We should stand strong and ensure their legacy is not destroyed a century on.  

I’ll leave the last word to historical fiction writer, Phillippa Gregory, who was once asked which of the periods she wrote about she would most like to live in. She responded that no woman should ever be nostalgic for the past. She said that everyday she is grateful to live in a time and a country where we have modern medical care, and where women are at least entitled to basic rights – such as education, financial independence and bodily autonomy (even if we don’t always have access to them).  

I look at this couple, and I think about what it would mean for me to live as a Victorian. 

It would not be their vision of the era. 

I think of my great nana and her mother before, and why they never spoke about what they knew. 

Thursday, 3 September 2015

For Open Democracy: Friendship and violence The genius of Elena Ferrante

Like most people I know, I've been voraciously reading the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante, and Open Democracy kindly asked me to review them.

You can read my review here.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Women-only train carriages are on a railroad to no-where

Nearly eleven years ago, when I was 20, a man sat next to me on the train from Berwick-upon-Tweed to London King’s Cross. He started talking to me – despite the fact that being the bookish chick I am I was clearly reading a novel. This is always a difficult conundrum for women in public space. On the one hand, we’re warned against strange men. We’re told never to speak to strangers. On the other, we’re told to always be nice, to be accommodating. Smile. Don’t complain. Don’t be a stuck up bitch. 

The latter lesson, as it so often does when someone is insistently talking to you, won out. I was nice. I was accommodating. I wasn’t a stuck up bitch. 

I later had to leg it across King’s Cross and jump on to the nearest bus, as this man chased after me, shouting my name. 

Don’t lead a man on, Sian. What did you expect him to think, with you being so nice, so accommodating, not being a stuck up bitch? What else had you led him to expect?  

It was this story, and a dreary litany of similar stories involving being harassed, groped, assaulted (but not wanked on, thank God, although I know women who have endured this) on public transport (in general, not always on trains) that meant my gut response to Jeremy Corbyn’s reported proposal of women-only train carriages was:

Wouldn’t it be nice. Wouldn’t it be a relief. To not have to worry. To not have to feel anxious. To not panic that the man sat there might turn into the man who chased me, who groped me, who harassed me, who tried to assault me.

And it would be nice. It would be a relief. But it wouldn’t be a solution. 

I should point out now that despite some media misrepresentation, Jeremy Corbyn was not announcing a policy of women-only train carriages, but wants instead to consult women about the best ways to tackle the daily harassment we put up with. This is a really good thing that, if he’s elected, will hopefully build on the work of Labour women such as Vera Baird and Yvette Cooper who have been raising this issue for years

Anyway, hope that clears that up. Now back to trains. 

So yes, women-only train carriages may be nice for all the reasons I mention above. But they won’t be a solution. 

Because all they do is move the issue away from the perpetrator’s behaviour, and instead put all the focus onto the victim’s behaviour. 

Women-only train carriages tell us that in order to avoid male violence, we need to move out the way. There’s nothing in this message that challenges abusive men. There’s nothing here that challenges male entitlement to women’s time and bodies. Instead, it’s a ‘solution’ that shrugs at male violence, treats it as something inevitable, and tells women that we must take steps to avoid it. We must sit in the women-only carriage. 

Anything that treats male violence as an inevitable part of women’s lives will never succeed in ending violent male entitlement. 

So-called solutions like women-only train carriages make women the problem – they treat harassment as a problem for women that we have to take actions to fix. It doesn’t tell the man who chased me that he needs to stop feeling entitled to my time and body. It doesn’t tell the man who wanked on my friend that he’s a criminal. It doesn’t tell the man who groped me that I have a right to my bodily autonomy that he had no right to violate. 

It tells those men that they can carry on as normal, because women will now keep out of their way. It tells men that we women will clean up the mess, and remove ourselves. It tells men that they get all the rights to public space, and we’ll squeeze ourselves into the back of the train. It refuses to admit that if violent men are assaulting women on trains, then those men are the problem. 

I had a conversation on Twitter yesterday about whether women-only train carriages would in fact work as a short-term solution to counter male violence on public transport. And sure, there is an argument here. The evidence suggests that levels of sexual harassment are reduced in women-only spaces (duh!) because men are not present. I know that sounds like it’s stating the obvious but it’s worth making the point. 

However, my counter argument would be that even as a short-term solution, we know that telling women to modify their behaviour is destined to failure. And we know this because it has been our response to male violence since the year dot. We already put a ridiculous amount of restrictions on women’s freedom in public space. The warnings about how best to “protect” ourselves from predatory men are engraved in our minds. We tell women not to drink too much, in case they get raped. We tell women not to dress in certain ways, in case they get raped. We tell women not to walk home alone, in case they get raped. We tell women to get taxis, in case they get raped. 

Every year in the UK, around 80,000 women and girls are raped. There are around 500,000 sexual assaults in the UK every year. 

Clearly, telling women to change our behaviour isn't working. Clearly putting the onus on women to 'prevent' rape isn't working, when so many men continue to rape and assault women with impunity. 

Because telling women to change their behaviour achieves nothing. It does nothing to stop rapes from happening. And it achieves nothing due to one very simple reason: male violence isn’t caused by women’s behaviour, it is caused by violent men. 

Women-only train carriages are on a railroad to nowhere. If we continue to tell women that they are the ones who need to change to avoid male violence, then male violence will continue unabated. Male entitlement to women’s space, to women’s time and to women’s bodies will remain unchallenged. The underlying attitudes that allow and excuse male violence will carry on as normal, as women once again are expected to remove ourselves from public space that we should all have equal access to. 

So, as tempting as it is to never have to feel that twitch of anxiety on a train again, I’m going to demand bigger change. I’m going to demand women’s liberation from male violence. 

Because it’s the attitudes and behaviours of men that need to change. Not where I choose to sit on the train.