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.
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.
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.
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.