This year my New Year’s resolution is the same as it has been for every other year: become perfect. Be true to yourself while ensuring that everyone likes you, lose weight while simultaneously developing a healthy attitude to body shape and food, develop comfort in your own skin while also stopping ageing in its tracks, always be right while maintaining the humility to know you could be wrong, be Yoda-like in your wisdom, bend time and space, become immortal, that sort of thing. The usual.

When it comes to resolutions, I am extreme. What is the point if you’re not going to be? Make your resolution too much of a SMART objective and you might even stick to it, and where would be the fun in that? The whole point of resolutions — and of womanhood, I’m increasingly inclined to believe — is to be a self-flagellating work in progress. You’re rubbish now but tomorrow you might not be (that said, you’re also obliged to live in the moment, so don’t get too carried away).

It often feels to me that New Year’s Resolutions are merely an extension of women’s glossy culture. Or maybe it’s the other way round? Either way, there’s a great deal of similarity to the way in which the likes of Glamour, Marie Claire and Elle tell you that “your best body ever” is just around the corner and the way in which the new year is meant to make self-control and perfection suddenly attainable. You’re meant to spend each month, each year, convinced that this is the very last one in which you’ll be such a total failure. You’re getting better, you are! Nearly there, just one more push … And then it gets too late and you die and the only consolation is that at this point, you genuinely will lose weight.

I know people who don’t read rubbish magazines make resolutions too. I know it’s human nature to always be dissatisfied in oneself and want to change, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The alternative — wandering through life thinking that you are flawless — would be insufferable (that said there will always be an article ordering you to “love yourself” in between all those shiny pages telling you how useless you are). But our expectations of ourselves are beyond ridiculous and the irony is, the more we hate ourselves, the more we end up behaving as though we’re the only people who matter. There’s no time to be kind when you’re busy being cruel to yourself, no space for perspective on world poverty when you’re battling with a self-imposed hunger strike. This is the case even if your resolutions are broken by January 2nd. You now have a huge expanse of time in which you could be looking outwards but instead you turn inwards, asking yourself why you aren’t a better person (the answer is that better people don’t dwell on why they’re not better people but just get on with it. Now there’s another meta-worry for us all).

I did have one year when I stuck to my resolutions. Never again. I was fifteen and filled a whole exercise book with statements of what I would and wouldn’t do for the new year, divided into subsections such as Food, Exercise, Social Life, Charity Work, Cultural Awareness and GCSEs (yes, I know. Even I worried about it at the time). I did not spend the year being a paragon of virtue. I spent it being a miserable sod who did the bare minimum of everything I’d set myself, with no time for anything else (and actually, I broke one of the resolutions anyhow, which was “be much more relaxed about everything”). Perhaps if I’d stopped to think that for once I was actually doing all the things I’d set myself, I’d have been filled with a profound Weltschmerz. Thankfully at least that didn’t happen because I had always had next year’s resolutions to plan.

Obviously I’m never going to resolve not to make resolutions, because that is terminally naff, not to mention difficult, because how can you be sure something isn’t a resolution and just a plan? There’s always going to be something worth doing to make yourself less of a loser. But I do wonder about this endless wallowing in the impossibility of being you and the need to change. Surely there’s a better way? Once I’m perfect I will tell you what it is.

Everybody loves babies, at least in abstract terms. They’re super cute, aren’t they? All babbly and cuddly, with their plump little arms and downy heads. They never start wars or fuck up the economy or make George Osborne Briton of the Year. They just flop around being babies. Bless them. I bloody love babies, I do.

I’ve had two babies myself. They’ve not been cute all the time, what with the incontinence and crying and being totally useless at witty repartee, but it’s pretty hard not to fall for your own. Mine are particularly brilliant now and were perfectly lovely when they were tiny. I was even fond of them when they were foetuses, loving every kick, wriggle and hiccough.

Like most people who pay attention in biology classes, I’ve a good understanding of what pregnancy means. I’ve seen that little heartbeat fluttering on the scan and been filled with complete and utter joy. It’s not just a clump of cells, it’s a human life – a bloody miracle! And how fragile, innocent and precious that tiny life must be. The trouble is, though, I’m also a pro-choicer. What this means is that whenever anyone mentions the word “abortion” I forget all of the above. I just think, “sod it. Baby, schmaby. Isn’t it just some random blob?”

This, at least, is how a number of male columnists seem to think pro-choice women operate. Silly little creatures who come to the debating table having completely forgotten the magnitude of having a life grow inside them. Good job there’s always a bloke on hand to explain it to them.

Take Mehdi Hasan, for instance. Last year he took it upon himself to patiently explain to the pro-choice lobby that “Being pro-life doesn’t make me any less of a lefty”. His piece included the following anecdote, which I’m sure will delight us all:

I sat and watched in quiet awe as my two daughters stretched and slept in their mother’s womb during the 20-week ultrasound scans. I don’t need God or a holy book to tell me what is or isn’t a “person”.

Obviously I’m grateful for that insight. Me, I look back on having 20-week scans and think “bloody hell, what kind of alien parasite was that?” The very idea that one could invest personhood in one’s own offspring and still have a clear-eyed view of the human cost of pregnancy; well, that’s just impossible, isn’t it?

Then we have Marko Attilla Hoare getting out the tissues at Left Foot Forward and telling us that “abortion is a tragic choice no woman should have to make”:

Women who seek abortions are victims of a society that does not respect them or their babies; they should not be stigmatised or treated as criminals. But let us stop pretending that this ongoing bloody tragedy is a manifestation of their emancipation.

I’ve responded to this more fully here. Suffice it to say, I am surprised at Hoare’s pitching of abortion as the choice of the woman who lacks privilege, since without easy access to safe, free abortion, it tends to be only the very wealthy who can avail themselves of what should be universal right. But never mind. Clearly the 68,000 women who die every year due to limitations on legal abortion are emancipated in ways I could never understand.

Now we have Tim Montgomerie of The Times (and supporter of SPUC), telling us that “the ground is shifting in the abortion debate”. Montgomerie writes approvingly of the recent approval for new restrictions on abortion in Spain, and of Michigan’s decision to force women requesting abortion see pictures of foetal development to help them “fully understand what they’re choosing” (because clearly they have no sodding idea). He’s utterly incensed about UK abortions being permitted at later dates on the grounds of foetal abnormality:

Many people are simply too frightened of having to raise a disabled child. Although the UK currently recognises that a 24-week-old foetus deserves the full protection of the law, this protection is not afforded to babies that might be disabled in some inadequately defined way.

Brave, brave Tim, making a stand against all those women who carry a foetus inside them for 24 weeks then think “disability? Yuck! Can’t be arsed!”. If only there were more Tims like him. But wait, there are! Here’s Tim Stanley of The Telegraph ready to back Montgomerie up:

Yeah. Who’d be pro-choice at Christmas? Imagine. Makes you think etc. etc.

The thing is, I’d rather not be pro-choice at Christmas. Who would? It makes you sound like a right Scrooge. “Right to life? Nah, not for them there embryos, Tiny Tim.” If it was all about protecting unborn babies, I’d be waving the anti-choice flag as much as the next person. The trouble is, that’s not what abortion is about. Human beings not yet born are not merely sitting in some waiting room, hoping that the evil pro-choicers won’t come and nab them before their time has come. They’re inside other human beings. These other human beings need ownership of their own flesh and blood. Clearly that’s a right pain in the arse, but there it is.

Being pro-choice is hard because it involves empathising not just with abstract innocents, but with women who are faceless, ordinary and no more perfect than you or I. There’s evidence to suggest that, at least when it comes to their own lives and those of their nearest and dearest, anti-choicers can be somewhat flexible in their understanding of pro-life politics. Being pro-choice involves taking the empathy you have for those closest to you and extending it to all women, whoever they are and whatever they’ve done. In a patriarchal society that isn’t easy but we owe it to womankind to do so. Fussing over the blameless foetus is easy; defending the rights of normal, everyday human beings is far more difficult (but, if we’re going to get religious about it, I’d bet it’s what Jesus would do).

In Backlash Susan Faludi refers to US legal cases in which it was established that parents are not obliged to sacrifice their bodily autonomy for their live, born children. In one such ruling the judge stated that “to compel the defendant to submit to an intrusion of his body would change every concept and principle on which our society is founded. To do so would defeat the sanctity of the individual.” And yet this is precisely what anti-choicers expect pregnant women to do for those not yet born. In England, where consent to organ donation after death is not even assumed by default, we still expect living pregnant women to give and give, regardless of their physical health, social environment and personal needs. This is not right. If we’re prepared to let people die because we won’t automatically harvest the dead, we should not expect the living to serve as hosts for those not yet born regardless of the effect this will have on their lives.

When it comes to foetal abnormality, I’ve made my personal position clear before. And I feel bad, if not ashamed, about it. I don’t want to care for a severely disabled child because I’m already in a position of having to care for a disabled adult in later years and I know what it involves. And having grown up with this adult, I know what it’s like to have this pressure around you when you’re young and I don’t want that for my children, too. It’s not easy. It’s miserable. The thing that Montgomerie et al miss is that we are not simply talking about babies (who are in any case dependant). We can be talking about whole human lifespans, and witnessing slow, agonising declines. One thing I know for sure is that not wishing the pressure I face to be upon my children is in no way similar to wishing the person I have to care for out of existence. I love him, but I am realistic about my limits, and those of people around me (and of the society I live in). It’s a horrible thing to admit to but it is, I think, more truthful than glibly stating that people are “too frightened to raise a disabled child”.

And that, perhaps, is the most difficult thing about being pro-choice. You feel it strongly and vehemently because you respect the bodies of other women, but you also know it’s not as neat as you’d like. You know it’s difficult. Some things are morally messy, but it’s no reason to trample over the bodily autonomy of half the human race.

It would be brilliant if pro-choicers were simply deluded. If “look, it’s actually a baby!” was the only answer we needed. That’s not how it is. “Look, we’re all human beings, we all make difficult choices, we all have to own our bodies and lives” is the less satisfactory answer. It is, nonetheless, the most honest and humane one we can give.

Lynx. The perfect Secret Santa gift for the male colleague you don’t know and/or don’t particularly like. The heterosexual male equivalent of one of those Baylis & Harding “looks vaguely like Molton Brown but totally isn’t” bath sets. The year before last, I received the latter, my partner got the former. What this says about us as colleagues is something I’d rather not consider.  

Having had some Lynx in our household within the recent past, I can say at least this with certainty: the Lynx Effect doesn’t work. One whiff of Africa, Cool Metal, Excite or Fever does not provoke unstoppable horniness. It provokes, first, amusement because it smells so fucking awful, second, vague memories of some really creepy lads in Year 10, and, finally, a migraine. Only the first of these is even remotely fun.

Back in the 1980s there was, sort of, a female equivalent to the Lynx Effect, when Impulse used the “men just can’t help acting on it” tagline.

 

That’s right, ladies, when a man you’ve never met before gives you flowers, you’ll know he’s acting on Impulse (which obviously makes it totally reassuring and not at all stalkerish, or so my 11-year-old self used to think). As ever, the expectations placed on men in response to female body spray were considerably lower than those placed on women in response to Lynx. Women detect a little Lynx Apollo and they’re whipping their bras off to reveal ample, if somewhat artificial looking, tits. Men get a noseful of Impulse Chic and the most they’re expected to do is proffer some limp Gladioli (tip: most women would rather have booze. Or even a book token, to be honest). To make matters worse the ball is then back in the woman’s court (he’s bought you some flowers, you say? Time to whip your bra off to reveal ample …). It’s not great, is it? And all this is before we get into the deeply disturbing overtones of a tagline which suggests men can’t really control themselves anyhow.

It’s bad enough that the ads play on the idea of male pursuer, female pursued (always in a deeply heteronormative context). These days Lynx are taking it one step further. Consider this delightful ad:

Lynx

The Lynx Effect. Encouraging Involuntary Seduction, that is, making someone who doesn’t actively want to have sex with you become more “amenable”. A bit like too much alcohol, or Rohypnol, only cheaper. “Involuntary” because, let’s face it, choice always gets in the way. Clearly Lynx understands what a young man wants: not any form of sexual interaction, but someone, anyone, into whom to stick his cock. Sod giving them flowers (that’s so 1980s). Let’s drug them (or let’s at least kid ourselves that a lungful of Lynx Rise will do anything other than repulse).

Sometimes it’s really difficult to explain the concept of rape culture to the unconvinced. Some people still believe there is rape – which bad people commit – and a surrounding environment which does nothing to condone it. If they do nothing else, Lynx adverts, with their jaunty sexism and teenage bedroom fantasies, make it that little bit easier to show how distorted concepts of seduction feed into a belief that consent doesn’t really matter. The word “involuntary” should never be used in adverts aimed at young men at a stage when they need to learn what enthusiastic consent really means. If sex involves anything that is not voluntary, it needs to stop.

It’s not that Lynx actually works. Of course it doesn’t. Everyone, even those using it, knows it doesn’t. But spreading the notion that it is reasonable to get people to whom you’re attracted to do things they don’t really want to do – that can have an effect. This is not selling seduction; it’s legitimising fantasies of assault.

Yesterday the Spanish government backed a proposal to toughen the country’s abortion laws. The BBC website reports Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon stating that “we can’t allow the life of the unborn baby to depend exclusively on the decision of the mother”. I beg to differ. Since the life of the fetus depends exclusively on the body of the mother, at significant expense to her, I can’t see who else’s decision it should be. Mi bombo es mío, as the twitter hashtag of pro-choice fightback puts it. Wherever a woman lives, whatever the beliefs of those around her, she should retain sovereignty over her own body, and that includes the management of her own reproductive life.

That said, I’m neither Spanish nor Catholic. Perhaps I don’t really understand the issues? Perhaps, like BPAS when they took out an advert in the Irish press stating “we’ll care for your women until your government does,” I could be accused of a form of cultural imperialism? That is, after all, the kind of crap that over-sensitive, cowardly feminists like me are meant to worry about. Sod the women of Ireland and Spain; what if I look like I’m judging their betters? Surely the liberation of women has to come second to whether or not I look bad? (more…)

“I love that moment when you first come downstairs and you can tell the turkey’s already in the oven.” So says the placard outside my local Sainsbury’s, complete with the picture of a traditional Christmas roast. This quotation has started to irritate me every time I leave the house. “That moment”? Is this something with which I’m meant to be familiar? Is it meant to be pleasant? Because to me it sounds frankly disconcerting.

For many of us, wouldn’t our first thought on sniffing the turkey-scented air be “hang on, am I in the right house?” Turkeys don’t just put themselves in the oven, or at least you’d hope not (and if that’s the sort of poultry Sainsbury’s are now selling, I’m steering well clear).

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Over the past couple of days I have been half-following the #sharedgirlhood hashtag on twitter and the surrounding controversy over cissexism and exclusion. I don’t wish to comment on that directly, not least because it feels like being asked to choose which women have the most authentic lived experience (and all women get quite enough of these arbitrary judgments already).*

One thing that has interested me, however, has been seeing the suggestion that the idea of “shared experience” has no value anyhow. I’ve seen several feminists suggest that because women’s experiences are so disparate and dependent on other inequalities, the idea of a shared experience (whether or not we call it shared girlhood) is at best pointless, at worst a sop for the privileged. I don’t think this has to be true. If women’s oppression is not understood collectively – if sex discrimination is regarded as something that has no internal coherence in and of itself – how can feminism have meaning as a project for women’s liberation?

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A few days ago I used a neologism which caused a lot of disagreement. I knew exactly what I meant and I was also clear about what I didn’t mean. However, difficulties do arise if for other people, for whatever reason, it comes to mean something else, particularly if that causes hurt. I’m genuinely sorry for that and hence I’m not going to use it here, but I do want to write about what lies behind it. To me it refers to something important (and whatever it ends up being, I still think we need a word to describe it).

Funnily enough, I don’t have a position on whether one should be openly discussing sex or having lots of sexual partners or none at all. I don’t see why I – or, in an ideal world, anyone else – should. I do, on the other hand, have strong opinions about objectification and about how we weigh up the cost of broadcasting particular messages within an unequal, patriarchal society. It’s a cost that isn’t necessarily offset by the free choice of individuals to participate in the creation of these messages, at least if these messages risk having a far broader impact on the freedom  and safety of others. I think this should be fairly obvious (regardless of the final judgment one reaches) and yet when it comes to campaigns such as No More Page Three, Lose The Lad Mags and banning rape porn, somehow it isn’t.

So today I had a bit of a meltdown on twitter. Oops, is all I can say. It’s been brewing for a while. I’ve become increasingly annoyed at some of the behaviour I’ve seen and while it’s possible to ignore it, there comes a point at which it feels irresponsible to do so.

I’m sick of the way in which a minority of largely white, cis feminists and their white, cis male friends have appropriated the concept of intersectionality for self-promotion and bullying. It’s anti-feminist and it’s anti-intersectional. It’s not good enough to pretend you are giving a voice to those who are marginalised when in fact the only voice anyone can hear is you, yelling about Caitlin Moran and Vagenda and why all white feminists should shut the hell up (apart from you, of course).

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By now plenty of people will have heard about the quite-possibly-imaginary Elan Gale vs Diane “plane note row”. Depending on where you stand, it’s either hilarious or really fucking frightening. Me, I’m veering towards the latter. Elan Gale, I hope I’m never on the number 12 bus, let alone on a plane with you.

The plane note row (if it actually took place and wasn’t just some misogynist’s wildest fantasy) was live tweeted by Gale last Thursday. It (allegedly) reached its height with Gale sending a note which included the line “eat my dick” to female passenger, having smugly tweeted out said note to all his followers. To put this in context, the woman – “Diane” – had been rude to flight attendants (a crime for which, as far as I am aware, the recommended punishment is not sexual harassment within a confined space). During the exchange that ensued, Gale pressured flight attendants to become complicit in his abuse by transferring the notes between him and “Diane” – who, he happened to tweet, was “in her late 40s or early 50s” and was wearing “mom jeans” (hence not only rude but not even shaggable!).

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In life there are always difficult truths which, however much we’d like to avoid them, we each have to accept. Such as: we’re all going to die. The ageing process is grim. David Cameron is a total knob. Such things cannot be altered. We just have to make the best of what we’ve got.

But if that wasn’t hard enough, there are other things — things which, if true, would make our lives a whole lot easier — which can’t ever be proven. Such as: everything will work out fine in the end. Everyone gets what he or she deserves. Women are mentally, physically and morally inferior to men. It’d be wonderful if these things could be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt. Inequalities would seem to make sense. The world would feel a much fairer place. There would be no need to confront injustice because you’d know that, deep down, everything was as it should be. Alas, this isn’t the world we have, which leaves us with the choice of either pretending all is well or attempting to make things better.

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After taking part in a debate on feminism, the Great British Bake Off’s Ruby Tandoh has found herself accused of elitism. According to the Daily Mail, Tandoh “has admitted she thinks The Great British Bake Off is ‘crap TV’ and that the women who watch it are ‘silly’”. Of course, that isn’t anything like the message she was trying to convey while taking part in the Elle debate on whether feminism needs a rebrand. While I’m still not sure I agree with her point, I think this distinction is important. Feminists should be able to state their beliefs without everything being sent through the anti-feminist distortion machine, in which certain key words (in this case “crap TV” and “silly”) are matched to the most appropriate off-the-peg parody of feminist belief and then thrown back in the speaker’s face. (more…)

To My Sons

Today is International Men’s Day, a day upon which to celebrate all things manly. Being a mere woman / failed role model I’m not sure what all these things are (Top Gear? rewiring plugs?), so I’ve had to visit the International Men’s Day website in order to check.

There are, apparently, six pillars to International Men’s Day (how phallic is that?). These include promoting positive male role models, celebrating men’s positive contributions to society and improving gender relations.  All pretty woolly stuff which, if you squint a bit, actually sounds quite feminist (which is weird given the absence of women over the age of six in all the IMD stock photos). There’s also focussing on men’s health and well being (nice) and creating a better, safer world (which sounds ace, if not terribly male-specific). Finally there’s highlighting discrimination against men (that’s probably the most important one. Don’t ask me why. I just know it is). It’s quite a lot to cover in one day, isn’t it?

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I’ve given this post a really crap title. It’s a title so crap that if, say, Mumsnet were to arrange a debate on it as part of their annual Blogfest, you’d take one look at the programme and think “what a perfectly ridiculous question!” Then you’d swig a bit more free gin and giggle at the famous people but all the while you’d be working yourself up into a state of ever more righteous indignation. Mummy blogger! Feminist! Pah!

Finally the time for the debate would come and you’d be ready, primed to respond to any trigger words the panel (i.e. anyone on stage who wasn’t Alison Perry) threw at you. And then it would begin! They’d say words like “jam”! And “shoes”! And then, horror of horrors, Sarah Ditum would even utter the word “university”! All hell would break loose. There’d be shouting, hissing and fury. See? You just knew that debate would be shit. It was all in the title.

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I realise I’m late to the party when it comes to discussing Lily Allen’s new video, or even discussing how I’m not going to discuss it. Therefore I’m going to discuss it a bit, then discuss people discussing it, and then not discuss it any more. I reckon overall that should do.

Like many people, I liked the balloon bit in Allen’s video but thought the rest was rather like punching someone in the face while telling them you were only offering an ironic commentary on face-punching. I’d like to think it’s possible to encourage people to be critical of sexist, racist culture without simply re-creating it in order to say “LOOK! LOOK HOW BAD THIS IS!” (more…)

Not all choices are feminist choices. It’s a good thing too — what kind of pressure would women be under if, every hour of every day, every single thing they did had to be weighed up on the basis of whether or not it was passed feminist muster? It wouldn’t be fair. It would hold us back, hence we each just have get on and do what we need to.

Some decisions help improve the lot of other women. Some decisions, while beneficial to us, inadvertently send out messages which are used against others. Some decisions do neither. I’d say one objective of feminism should be to help women’s decisions become less loaded. It’s oppressive to have to represent a whole sex in everything you do. I don’t want to do it — would you?

I ask this because, following yesterday’s ‘Can you be a feminist and a mummy blogger?’ debate, I get the impression that some women feel this is precisely what they have to do. It’s not enough to make a choice that’s right for you, or to make the best of a limited range of options. You have to gain external validation for your choices otherwise you’re a bad person. If others fail to see your choice as the only one for women to take, you interpret this as them actively questioning your decisions and indeed your life.

That’s the only way I can explain anyone taking offence at a woman having the temerity to suggest her personal decision to support her family through education is a valid one. It’s the only way I can explain any woman thinking that it is judgmental for another to say having children is not a “full stop” in her life. It’s the only way I can explain a woman believing it is fair, reasonable and right to shout from a balcony that each mother’s breasts have a purpose and that this defines motherhood (sod you, adoptive mothers, mothers who’ve had mastectomies, mothers who for any reason cannot or do not wish to breastfeed — apparently you don’t count). It’s the only way I explain perfectly intelligent women so misunderstanding the difference between making jam not being a feminist act (honestly, it’s not, it’s just jam!) and it being an anti-feminist one that they’ll fire off whole blog posts on the topic, defending a right to make preserves that was never, ever under threat.

I think there was a lot of potential in the question ‘Can you be a feminist and a mummy blogger?’ (contrary to those who would rather rudely use arch-feminist Joss Whedon to refute such a position). I think there is clearly an argument to be made that some elements of mummy blogging form an extension of the 2nd wave feminist attempt to give domestic life the same status as so-called “public” life. Caring for children is not an alternative to living, it’s an essential part of it. We need to challenge the view that only those who earn and those who do things outside of caring should have a public voice. We all know that mummy bloggers (whatever one wishes to call them) have the capacity to lead this challenge. I had hoped — naively, perhaps — we could have moved the debate on to ask which forms of mummy blogging support this enterprise most effectively. Instead one panel member was castigated for failing to boost the egos of those who want constant approval for their choices simply because they’re choices (choice as a principle might be feminist but fawning over the “empowering” choices of each and every woman isn’t. It’s just patronising).

I think Sarah Ditum is a fantastic writer and thinker and I don’t believe she said anything which cast judgement on others. I don’t necessarily agree with everything Charlotte Raven says, but I respect her enormously (especially as she showed a tolerance and receptiveness to other viewpoints sadly lacking elsewhere). As a mother who’s always been in full-time paid work, I don’t take particular offence at those who suggest I’ve not done the right thing. I know what options I had and the sacrifices I had to make. That’s personal to me and while I have regrets, they’re mine, not yours. It takes a particular type of entitlement to fail to recognise that everyone’s life is shaped by different restrictions. I don’t go to the office as some great “fuck you” to stay-at-home mothers. I’m sorry, but you don’t even figure in this decision-making process, just as I’m sure I don’t figure in yours.

Until women have the confidence to take a joke about jam, to permit others to decide when the “full stop” comes in the narrative of their own life and to allow others to make their own judgements about what their tits are for, then I say we need feminism more than ever. It disappoints me to think the egos of mothers are so fragile. You should be angry. You should be shouting. But if you value choice at all, think wisely about who you choose to put in your firing line.

When only one in five MPs are women and 85% of Cabinet ministers are male it’s easy to worry that women’s needs will be ignored. After all, if our policy makers inhabit a world in which the vast majority of people are men, isn’t that likely to colour their view of the people they represent? While it’s clear that women do not all share the same concerns, wouldn’t an environment in which being a woman is not in and of itself anomalous offer a good starting point from which to consider the diversity of all women’s views? I think it would; it bothers me that we remain so far from achieving this.

Of course, it could be that I worry too much. After all, it’s not as though the average MP has no contact whatsoever with womankind. Male MPs might, by and large, have been raised in creepy, ultra-posh all-male environments, but it’s not as though they never come face to face with real, live women in the here and now. They have wives! PAs! Nannies! Cleaners! Some of them even have daughters! What’s that if not an emotional investment in the future of the female population?

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Last night I happened to read an utterly unconvincing argument in favour of maintaining a ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. It is written by a man, Ahmed Abdel-Raheem, who wants to let Saudi women speak for themselves – providing, one assumes, it is via his good self. And as the self-appointed male spokesperson for Saudi women, Abdel-Raheem has this to say on their behalf:

People in Saudi Arabia have their own moral views and needs. What works in other societies may not fit in Saudi, and the reverse. In short, instead of launching campaigns to change the driving laws in the kingdom, the west should first ask Saudi women if they really want this or not, and western countries should accept the result, even if it’s not to their liking.

I don’t know if it’s just me but I think there’s a very basic philosophical problem here. Surely the moment you start asking a person who’s been banned from doing something whether or not they’d like the ban lifted you’ve already ceased to respect the terms of the ban. If Saudi women get to choose whether or not they’re forbidden from driving then they’re not really forbidden. They’re just choosing not to drive. You might not notice any difference on the roads but you’ve already changed the status of all non-driving women, simply by deigning to ask for their views. It seems to me Abdel-Raheem has already conceded the point he seeks to challenge. (more…)

Imagine you’re taking part in a football match. It’s the most important game of the season and you’re ready to give it your all. You know you’re good; your teammates know you’re good, yet for some reason they won’t pass the ball to you. You’re not sure why. You’ve found the perfect spaces yet as far as they’re concerned, you might as well be playing for the other side.

This continues for the first half of the match and most of the second. There are rare moments when you gain possession but then it’s impossible to pass; no one wants to receive from you. Your teammates act as though you are not there or, even worse, they laugh when the opposite side comes in to tackle. Eventually the manager takes you to one side and asks if you want the chance to play properly.

“Of course,” you say.

“Fine,” he says, “I’ll get the boys to treat you as a full team member, only you’ll have to have your shoelaces tied together. Those are the rules.”

Tired of being unable to compete according to the current, unspoken regulations, you agree to this amendment and waddle back onto the pitch, undignified and trying not to fall. Perhaps this time, even though you’re more obviously disadvantaged, you’ll benefit your team through having the chance to play at all. You might as well give it a go.

As soon as they have the opportunity, one of your teammates passes you the ball. You hobble forward to kick but can’t do it with your feet so close together. You try again by half-jumping but end up falling to the ground. An opposing player takes possession while one of your teammates helps you to your feet.

“See?” he says. “That’s why we never pass to you. You can’t play this game. We always knew you’d fall over.”

***

All-women shortlists are a con. Our political establishment remains sexist – desperately, boorishly, brayingly sexist. The majority of those sitting in the House of Commons remain unable to listen to and debate with women on equal terms. Voters believe female involvement in politics started and ended with Margaret Thatcher. Today’s female politicians are mocked by the press, served up as packs of “babes” and “cuties”. If they are silent, they are ineffectual and boring; if they speak up, they are hysterical. Report after report describes a hostile workplace, in which discrimination is rife.

If it’s that hard once you’ve become an insider, how hard must it be to get there in the first place? What level of support will you get? Whose protégé will you be? And yet if you get there at all, you already know that humiliation awaits.

We shouldn’t be at all surprised that women find it hard to enter and progress in politics. The fact that all-women shortlists are proposed as a solution suggests, however, that we are. It’s not as though we’ve actually tried anything else, beyond shouting from the sidelines that the ladies really need to buck up. Sure, the rules aren’t quite the same for them, sure, they’ll be considered outsiders, not quite part of the boys’ club, but they want to play, don’t they? And it’s not as though the club itself can change. It’s not as though politicians themselves can work to change the experience of politics and the perceptions of voters. God forbid, we can’t have that.

So instead women wait and eventually, every once in a while, the all-women shortlist is proposed. We all know what it means. It sounds patronising because it is. Equality bestowed on women by men, reinforcing the fact that they’re not considered equals at all. It is a form of humiliation. Oh, but it’s practical, see? We give you a foot in the door. A foot in the door, perhaps, but when so much of politics is image, projection and reputation, the successful all-women shortlist candidate risks being tripped up before she’s taken her first step over the threshold. The slightest stumble will be equated with her falling flat on her face, whereafter we can go back to agreeing that the old sexism, the silent exclusion, wasn’t so bad after all.

We should feel furious at this state of affairs, furious that our political system has let women down so badly that it comes to this. The all-women shortlist is not even benevolent sexism. It’s a form of bullying from a male elite that refuses to change (despite the fact that it will be them, and not the women, who cry “sexism” the loudest). We should not accept such a dearth of options. We should not have to choose between being patronised and not being accommodated at all. Until politics and politicians cease to be hostile towards women, all-women shortlists are a joke.

According to Edwina Currie, all-women shortlists are bad because “people who have suffered discrimination shouldn’t practice it”

And in practice, women who’ve come through this route have skipped several steps so their skills may be deficient. Often they’re women who’ve come through various women’s organisations, and they’re a bit…well, limp. It may help to explain why so few of Blair’s Babes made any mark in the House of Commons.

Deficient in skills? Or just not respected? Surely it’s frighteningly easy not to make a mark when you’ve merely gained entry into an organisation that still doesn’t want you around? Currie has made her own impression, sure, but I think of her and I think of eggs, salmonella, Strictly and the shagging of John Major. This is what the media tells us but is this really the measure of her as a politician? Shouldn’t she be fighting this rather than dismissing others as “limp”?

Every time we look at a male politician we should ask ourselves whether he’d be where he is today were it not for his maleness. We should worry that perhaps he’s not up to the job. After all, if someone’s had the extra leg-up you get from matched stereotyping and gender preference, perhaps he’s not all that skilled at all. We should ask ourselves this, and we should ask it frequently. As long as the default setting of our political system supports unofficial all-male shortlists, we must necessarily mistrust the talents of men. They should feel the positive discrimination millstone around their necks. They should be handicapped by accusations that they’ve had too easy a ride. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not; after all, how can we know whether it is or it isn’t as long as the debating chamber demands little more that frat boy mockery from those fortunate enough to be male?

Of course, it’s not fair to do this, but then no one is playing fair. Until we have the will to solve it – until we actually want to change the nature of political exchange – then women shouldn’t have to be the only ones competing with their shoelaces tied together. We don’t want extra help. We just want to play the game and to play it well.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve read the same article on young women, alcohol and rape over and over again. This isn’t, I hasten to add, because it’s a particularly good article. It’s more to do with the fact that each time, it appears to have been written by a different woman, even though the ideas, tone and prejudices remain the same.

It started with Emily Yoffe’s Slate piece College Women: Stop Getting Drunk, in which Yoffe rehashes old-as-the-hills advice on drinking less to avoid rape: (more…)

Gender stereotyping has a tendency to feel like a poor relation to full-on, in-your-face misogyny. While it’s not ideal that Kinder Surprise eggs now come in pink and blue versions, or that girls now get their own, super-girlified versions of Jenga and Lego, just how much of a worry should this be? Aren’t there more serious issues to think about? And anyhow, is it really sexism or just habit, laziness or a bit of harmless fun? It’s annoying, yes, but is it all that bad?

Today I received the 2013 Oxfam Unwrapped catalogue and discovered that it, too, had fallen prey to crass gender stereotypes. You’d think that the gift of a working well or a fuel-efficient stove was pretty gender neutral, but apparently not. Such things can, with a little imagination, be split into “Gifts for the girls” and “Gifts for the guys”. While it’s harder for Oxfam than it is for most other companies (for whom men’s gifts = crap gadgets, women’s gifts = over-packaged toiletry sets), the company has nevertheless pulled it off. I’m irritated, yes, but I’m also slightly impressed. (more…)

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