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.
This has become clear to me more than ever looking at recent twitter responses to Caroline Criado-Perez’s successful campaign to ensure we keep one – just one – female face (yes, other than the bloody Queen) on banknotes. I wasn’t even sure this mattered so much. I had it down as the kind of thing the Bank of England might as well do since Jane Austen on a tenner is hardly going to annoy anyone, is it? It’s not exactly equal representation of female achievement across the board. It’s not as though it changes all that much. I underestimated how shocking just one grassroots victory could be.
To some men, one woman on one banknote is clearly a step too far. Or perhaps it’s the fact that one woman got something done by persistence, and it worked. The broken record technique be used again, and again, and again. It’s not necessarily so easy for everyone else to use it – particularly where discriminations are multiplied – but it is a model that gets away from all those social rules we’re meant to follow, which only end up reinforcing our supposed “difference”. Ignore the rules and just keep at it, as Criado-Perez did.
Usually when women want change we’re given a stark choice between using our feminine wiles or emulating the “tried and trusted” methods of men. The former slots in nicely with neurosexist narratives about “essential difference” and “erotic capital”, narratives which reinforce the idea that what we experience is just ”how things are”. The latter comes to the fore in recent recommendations that girls need to be more “disruptive” in school; they’re later failing in their careers not because the criteria by which they’re assessed favour men, but because they’re being too girly (ignoring the evidence that women who behave more like men are judged more harshly not only than men, but than women who are more submissive).
Sod all that. Women, there’s nothing wrong with you. The fact is, the minute you open your mouth you’re losing because your words are not the words of a person; they’re the words of a woman, and it doesn’t matter how you play it, that’s what people will hear. Those who hate you won’t start to love you when you’re quiet and reasonable. They just won’t yet know you exist. Then once they do they still won’t believe you’re a human being. You can’t expect generosity or empathy. If empathy worked – if the fact that women are people was enough – we wouldn’t still be where we are now. What we think of as a precondition for equal representation – being seen as equally human – might only come afterwards.
The invisibility of women in public life isn’t even fully acknowledged. I want those raging over banknotes to switch on Prime Minister’s Question Time and see a House packed with braying, boorish female MPs, laughing and jeering as a lone man stands to speak, silencing him before going on to make ill thought-out decisions which change the lives of all other men. I don’t want that to happen in real life but I want them to know how it feels, or rather, I want them to feel it. Because I, and I imagine most other women, don’t feel it at all. To me a mass of men governing just looks normal. I don’t feel anger, just resignation. I have to actively remind myself this isn’t how it should be, and that it could be different.
Whether it’s to do gender or other forms of discrimination, it’s senseless that when we ask for a change of rules we’re told “yes, of course, but providing you stick to the old ones”. It is never going to work. We should just ignore them.
And hence, to the MRAs who are likely to swoop yet again on this post, just as you’ve been doing on the last few: I don’t have to approve your comments. I don’t owe you a voice. I don’t owe you my thoughts. This isn’t your game and I’m not letting you join in.