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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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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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…)

Womanhood: it’s an etiquette minefield. What’s the correct way to respond to a rape threat on twitter? Should one really make a fuss when reproductive rights are under threat? Should the word “feminist” be uttered in polite company? All these questions and more will never, ever be answered. The minute you raise your voice loud enough for them to be heard you’ll get told off for being too shouty.

This is the perennial problem with being female. Embody “feminine” values – be good, keep quiet, don’t push yourself forward – and you’ll be rewarded with sod all. Ask for something more – be dominant, demanding, self-assured – and you’ll get worse than sod all. We’re trying to win at a game where, each time we change tactics, the rules change in response. We can’t possibly win by playing properly. We don’t even have the status of true competitors.

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I’ll always remember the day my first son was born. “It’s a boy,” said the midwife. “Urgh, take it away,” said I. “I’m a feminist. I don’t do boys.” The fact is, like all card-carrying feminists, I’m contractually obliged not to give a shit about the welfare of non-women. As far as they’re concerned, I’m all out for revenge.

Of course, that’s the theory, but in practice things are more difficult. When it’s your own children who’ve failed (as yet) to identify as female you end up making compromises. Truth is, I’ve found that I love my sons very much. It’s just everyone else’s sons who can sod off. It’s not as though a social structure which discriminates against them will have any impact on my kids, or on the genuinely important ones (aka girls). So let’s crack on with creating a world in which everything is weighted in favour of the latter.

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This morning I found myself reading a blog on the Independent about a very ungrateful bride, who mocked a wedding guest for sending her a personal gift rather than money. Or rather, that’s how the blog started off. Following on from that particular tale of selfishness and greed readers were treated to first, a rather weak attempt at observational comedy (“why weddings are crap if you’re a guest” sort of thing) and second, a full-on sexist rant about the sheer horribleness of brides, or bridezillas, to give them their properly sexist name:

The mistake too many brides make is to think that their wedding is a gift to all those invited and therefore they deserve remuneration. Their addled brains think their finely-tuned bonanza of self-indulgence is every bit as meaningful and exciting for her guests as it is for herself. She forgets that most of those attending are only there because it would be rude not to turn up; that if they had the choice they would be in the pub or at home watching TV with a pizza; that the only real draw to the reception is the free food and booze and the chance to see old mates.

Oh, just sod off, Andy West, and take your difficult transitions from the third person plural to the third person singular with you. Yes, weddings can be a pain, but guess what? Brides are not wholly responsible for all of the materialistic, trivial-yet-high-pressure expectations that surround them. Bride-bashing might seem like a bit of fun but in a pink-blue world where little girls are still encouraged to hold out for taffeta and handsome princes it’s not fair to then castigate them for vanity and self-indulgence. They’re trying to do what’s expected, even though they’re damned either way. (more…)

Poor old Daddy Pig! As usual, he’s in trouble. This time, however, he’s not broken his lawnmower / dyed his football strip a girly shade of pink / chosen a Christmas tree that’s too big to fit in the car / mistaken a field of potatoes for Potato City. He’s been found guilty of being a bad role model. Ho ho!

According to a Netmums survey, 93% of parents “claim children’s shows don’t represent real-life dads this Father’s Day” (and, one presumes, at any other time):

Almost half of parents polled (46%) slammed books, adverts and children’s TV shows like Peppa Pig, The Simpsons and even the Flintstones which show dads as lazy or stupid. Almost a third of parents (28%) claim it is “a very subtle form of discrimination against dads” while a further 18% were more strident, saying it makes children believe dads are “useless” from an early age and there would be an “outcry” if it was done against mums.

Misandry a-go-go! Or possibly not. This is, after all, Netmums, not exactly known for enlightened views on gender equality. I don’t trust them on feminism (or feMEnism, as they like to call it), so I’m hardly going to take their word for it as far as Daddy Pig’s concerned. (more…)

I am the mother of two boys. I know I’m not perfect but I do try to be a good parent. Unfortunately it appears that for the past five years I have been remiss. I have failed to “channel” my sons’ boisterousness.

According to James Delingpole – now the Ross Kemp of posh rightwing journalism – “we seem to have forgotten that boys will be boys”.  I for one am guilty of this. I look at my boys and think “they’re boys”. But rarely do I go on to conclude “and thus they will be boys”. This might sound like a minor omission but it’s not.  What it actually means – and this is a serious fact, because the Telegraph says so – is that they’ll grow up to beat the shit out of other boys. And possibly also girls. And maybe even household pets. Basically, because my boys have not been allowed to “be boys” (as defined by the Victor Book for Boys circa 1964) they will grow up to be violent hooligans as opposed to men of courage – the kind of men who win wars, slaughter beasts and present Top Gear.
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I wrote this post in a fit of rage-fuelled inspiration. Only kidding. I am, after all, a mere woman. What I actually did was take hours, nay, days to plod diligently through several drafts, listening to the creaks and groans of the slow-moving cogs that drive the female brain. Hopefully it’s therefore an okay piece. I mean, I’ve tried my best. What more can we women do, given that pure unadulterated genius – or failing that, just the ability to think quickly – is way beyond our reach?

I am a well-educated person – possibly over-educated, given that a) I’m a woman and b) I have kids. I have lots of qualifications, partly due to my class background, partly due to luck – but mostly, it could be argued, due to fortunate timing. After all, I took my GCSEs in 1991, only shortly after the introduction of the exam. As we all know, GCSEs favour girls. Had I been born a few years earlier I’d have had to take O-levels and we all know that boys, being innately clever as opposed to innately arsed to do coursework, consistently outperformed girls when it came to these. We all know that, and yet it’s actually total bollocks.
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Until this week I had no idea that Hugo Chávez formally recognised the economic value of traditional “women’s work” . To be honest, I didn’t know much about Chávez. The one Venezuelan I know didn’t like him, but then none of us like our political leaders, do we? The most I’d assumed was that Chávez didn’t like women overly much, given the state of abortion law in Venezuela. Seems I was wrong, at least where a certain type of woman is concerned. It appears Chávez acknowledged that women who, to use the terminology of the average pay gap apologist, “don’t work because they’re raising children”, were bloody essential to a country’s welfare. Even if things were a bit more complex than that, as a basic principle that seems brilliant. Globally, we pay lip service to the devotion of mothers, yet so often stop short of saying you could actually put a price tag on it.

With Mother’s Day coming two days after International Women’s Day, I can’t help wishing it was more about that – genuine, heartfelt recognition – and less about a bunch of flowers, a pat on the head and yet another year of being horrendously undervalued. Don’t get me wrong, on a very personal level I love it. The card my five-year-old has written for me (“Thank you for all the love yoof givan me”) is just marvellous and I’ll treasure it forever. But as a cultural event, I wish Mother’s Day kicked a bit more arse. The commercial focus of it these days all feels rather KFC “Mum’s Night Off” in how it values what mothers do, bigging up inequality as a noble sacrifice in return for which you get, if not a bucket of chicken, then the only marginally better box of Thornton’s Continentals. It celebrates a particular type of motherhood – twee, self-effacing, repressed, waiting for that one day of the year when it can truly let rip with a half-bottle of rosé wine and a Lush bath bomb. It has got, let’s be honest, fuck all to do in appreciating what a wide range of mothers, all of different backgrounds and with different needs, do for their own children and society at large. If it did have, it would at least offer some form of meaningful response to all the things which piss us off.  (more…)

When Google’s Sergey Brin suggested that using a smartphone was “kind of emasculating”, he no doubt didn’t mean it to sound as ridiculously sexist as it did. He probably just meant “it’s a bit silly” or “it makes you look a bit of a prat” (still not a great thing for a Google boss to say, but an improvement at the very least). Unfortunately, I and countless others can’t help reading his actual words and hearing them translated into the language of almost every boy we remember from primary school: “Urgh! Smartphones are for girls! Girls are rubbish and smartphones are too!” (to be fair, smartphones didn’t exist when I was at primary school, nor even your basic mobile. But they said this kind of thing about skipping ropes, so it’s plausible that they’d have said it about potentially outdated technology, too).
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Top tip for partners: If you and your partner have children together and there’s one bit of parenting you don’t usually do – let’s say it’s getting everyone ready for the school and nursery run – and it just so happens that one day you get to do it – let’s say you’re setting off for work a bit later – and it turns out it’s really, really difficult, do you:

  1. think “crikey, this is stressful” and make a note that while your partner may not have to start work as early as you do, that doesn’t mean life’s necessarily much easier?
  2. stomp about wondering why no one has got a better routine established, intermittently asking the kids pointed questions that start with “but don’t you usually …” or “doesn’t Mummy get you to …”?

The correct answer is of course (1). The second one does NOT accurately describe the way my partner behaved this morning, but it just felt that way. Because I’m stressed and tired and so is he. We’re really, really tired and even though our children are lovely, they don’t half whine about irrelevant crap. (more…)

I tend to blame my lack of experience with diversity on the fact that I come from Cumbria. For the uninitiated, it’s that weird bit of England that’s north of Manchester and west of Newcastle and not really identifiable as anything. We have the Lake District, which is pleasant, and Sellafield, which is less so. And then there’s livestock farming, which is intermittently interrupted by disease. What we lack is cool, edgy, urban diversity. Almost everyone I encountered while growing up was white and identified, publicly at least, as straight. Perhaps it’s changed (I left in 1993, to go to Oxford University, clearly in search of a posher version of home in terms of cultural mix).

Unlike all the cool chicks from Manchester, London and New York, I have never had a trendy, über-camp yet strangely sexless gay best friend to advise me on fashion and blow jobs. Nor have I (knowingly) had a bisexual boyfriend, which, according to the March issue of Glamour, is the new Big Thing.* Apparently “more and more women” are dating bi guys (“are they naïve – or enlightened? And would you go there?”). There then follows a personal story from a female writer who’s married to a bisexual man, plus – in case it still all feels a bit icky – a nice feature on “Celebrity bi guys” (which sounds like a game show to me, although I’ve not yet worked out the rules). (more…)

I am ill. My partner, however, is more ill. For me, this is almost as annoying as my being ill in the first place.  

I don’t mean to be unsympathetic but I feel that as a feminist, I am put in a difficult position. I don’t like gender stereotyping yet man-flu is itself a horrible pseudo-misandrist stereotype – one of those fake weaknesses, like being crap at washing up, which mean men get to laze around watching telly while women do all the work, at least in TV adverts. I don’t want to be in a TV advert. I don’t want to find myself playing the role of one of those Boots or Anadin women – the passive-aggressive little troupers who “just get on with it”, taking on all domestic work while caring for their poor, sick menfolk and ostentatiously ignoring their own needs (no, no, I’ll just take this pill. I’m fine honest. I’ll just take this pill and stomp around metaphorically juggling all my responsibilities while my piss-poor family watches and does sod all, the bastards). I find all of this rather offensive. Hence even though my partner cannot make it out of bed, I am resentful. Why should I have to do everything? Why can’t I get man-flu, too? (more…)

According to a piece in today’s Guardian, “the girl power generation are confused”. I’m not surprised. I’m confused, too, not least because I’d always assumed was part of said generation. Alas, it turns out I’m too old. Already 21 when Wannabe was released, I can’t be one of the “twentysomething women” who can claim to be “the most liberated and educated women ever”. So liberated, in fact, that they get to be defined by a 1990s girl band (the lack of a corresponding Boyzone generation can be taken as clear evidence that the pendulum has swung too far).

But wait! Said twentysomethings might be liberated and educated, but as you’ve already guessed, they’re still not happy! And not just because previous generations were awarded enigmatic letters such as X and Y whereas they got the sodding Spice Girls. Today’s young women are unhappy because too many people have written too many books telling them what to do. From The Rules to He’s Just Not That Into You, books have bombarded women with “contradictory messages” which leave them “in a bind, and without much help in figuring out what they actually want” (see, that’s what happens when you make the ladies literate): (more…)

Come Christmas Day, my three-year-old will be getting the pink doll’s house he’s been asking for for weeks. Or rather, he’s been asking me for it for weeks. I’ve only recently discovered that his whims seem to change depending on who’s around.

During my son’s nursery Christmas Party last week Father Christmas asked each of the childen what he or she would like to receive. Much to my surprise I discovered that “a pink doll’s house” becomes “a lorry” when other children are around. Well, to be honest, it wasn’t all that surprising. He’s at the age at which one starts to learn what it means to be a girl or a boy within a highly gendered culture. He’s starting to realise he’s not really “allowed” to like pink things, at least not in public. From now on his beloved Suzy Sheep socks are for bedtime only. (more…)

I like to watch the clouds roll by,
And think of cherubs in the sky;
But when I think of cherubim,
I don’t know if they’re her or him.

The Cherub, Ogden Nash

I haven’t studied theology and I’m not a great reader of the Bible. Thus when it comes to the nature of angels in a Christian context, I’d say I’m pretty ignorant. I think there’s some debate about whether they are male, female, intersex or none of the above, but I’m worried this is just me confusing Christian representations of the divine with the above Ogden Nash poem. I’m pretty sure one was called Peter Gabriel and that Satan used to be an angel before the Emperor turned him to the Dark Side or something like that. But that’s about it. If you want a definition of angels (and you don’t mean the Robbie Williams song or the 1970s hospital drama) please don’t ask me. And yet, despite my professed ignorance, here’s one thing I don’t think angels are: simpering girlies in pretty white dresses, all trying desperately hard to look like Beyoncé while swishing their hips in a saucy manner. (more…)

Has anyone else noticed that when cis, fertile men get sentimental about pregnancy, it’s most likely to be when they’re suggesting pregnant women shouldn’t be allowed to have abortions? This is the moment when the most rational amongst them can turn to mush; witness Mehdi Hasan in his now-infamous New Statesman piece on being an anti-abortion lefty:

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”.

Aw, isn’t that sweet? (Providing you squint a bit and ignore the part that reduces a living human being to a mere “mother’s womb”.) It’s always nice to find men who are in touch with the cute side of pregnancy, even if it’s only in order to tell the unhappily pregnant that they just don’t “get” it.

When we’re discussing a normal pregnancy – that is, one in which a woman is appropriately receptive to her “with child” state – it’s a different matter. Sure, men write about it, but it tends to be in sarky, distancing (dare I say paranoid?) tones. There’s a real fear of engaging too closely with the subject; you might have been able to impregnate your bird (“he shoots, he scores!” as a million fatherhood manuals quip), but actually showing an interest in the implications of this would undermine the manliness and virility which you’ve only just demonstrated. In a wonderful (and unusual) article on becoming a new father, Sarfraz Manzoor notes that the books he found on the subject “tended to be written by men who deludedly believed they were funny. The blokiness was deeply dull”. God forbid that men should be expected to take pregnancy and birth seriously. It’s way too girly for that. (more…)

Picture the scene: a greasy spoon café on a dark winter’s evening, crowded with people wrapped up against the cold. On a table for four a man sits alone, cradling a cold cup of coffee. He’s wearing a pink wig, an oversized pink dress and a slick of garish pink lipstick. No one around him seems to notice he’s there. The whole thing looks like a photograph straight out of a weekend colour supplement, part of an series of shots depicting the British being  “eccentric” and/or “tolerant”. I say as much to the man at the table. He tells me I should take the photo, then. But I can’t because one of our children has started climbing all over his lap and the moment for pictures has gone.

My partner does not usually wear dresses or make-up. He hasn’t worn them for years. This evening when he put them on it made him feel old and wistful: (more…)

Imagine there’s an issue you really, really care about. It’s a serious one, one which causes harm to billions of people the world over. In some cases it leads to death. You attend conferences about it, write articles on it, try desperately hard to raise awareness. And then someone asks you what this issue really is – what are its causes, how does it operate – and you tell them “personally, I don’t really care”. Wouldn’t you find that just a little bit odd?

This is the problem I’m having with Ally Fogg’s Guardian piece on International Men’s Day. As the mother of two boys – and, on a far more basic level, as a human being who at least tries not to be a total tosser – I have no objection to engaging with problems that are more likely to be faced by men than women. I don’t want to have rights that my sons couldn’t also enjoy nor for them to feel afraid of expressing views that hold no stigma when they are voiced by women and girls. All the same, I tend to think that in order to challenge what Fogg describes as the “spider’s web” of “specific social injustices that specifically or disproportionately affect men and boys”, the most obvious port of call would be feminist analyses of gender injustice. If something is happening to men and not to women, it says something about what we think of women as well as men.
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