Defending “the worst”: why no women is a just target for sexism

UK’s vilest women to move to the same town.” This is how the Sunday People announces the news that Maxine Carr, Karen Matthews and Tracy Connelly – “three of Britain’s most notorious female criminals” – are apparently “enjoying life” in the same “seaside resort”. I see a headline like this and I’m not sure how to respond. I have no wish to defend these women’s crimes (even though it appears that our ability to distinguish between them and the crimes committed by the men in their lives has vanished). Nonetheless it seems to me that the headline is sexist in a burn the witches! way.  So we now have a chart for the “UK’s vilest women”? Who else is on it? Since there are, arguably, worse crimes committed by women in the UK, what are the real criteria being used here? Is the Daily Mail’s take on it – Monsters By The Sea – really in line with how the paper would describe men who had not been convicted of any violent crime themselves? And when the Mirror discusses “warped mum Karen Matthews” and speculates on each woman’s weight, is this not gendered in any way?

Perhaps I shouldn’t even go here. When women who are beyond the pale are subjected to sexism, the most sensible thing for any feminist to do is back away. We have a hard enough PR job on our hands without running the risk of seeming to sympathise with criminals “just because they’re women”. The same applies when we’re dealing with right-wing politicians. You can predict in advance what the response will be: if you’re so bothered about someone like Margaret Thatcher or Julia Gillard being a victim of misogyny, you can’t be all that concerned about the victims of her policies. It’s not a logical argument (you condemn both the misogyny and the policies) but the assumption will be that if you are capable of seeing any shred of humanity in such women – without which they would not be capable of experiencing dehumanisation – then you can’t possibly believe they’re all that bad.

As if that wasn’t frustrating enough, you’ll also be clobbered with lots of neoliberal waffle regarding agency. What, you don’t believe women can be as bad as men? You don’t believe they deserve the most extreme condemnation? How patronising! How dismissive of women’s own choices! The aim is to shame you out of mentioning sexism since it undermines the choices a woman has made to put herself in the firing line in the first place. But this is to ignore two things: first, that misogyny can never justifiably form a part of the condemnation of another human being’s actions, and second, that anything that is seen to legitimise misogyny has an impact on all women, good or bad. It affects us all because ultimately it says “you will always be a lesser human being, although I will agree not to mention it unless you fail in other ways.” We might not be the ones facing disproportionate censure; we will nevertheless know that this is only a reprieve, and one that could be withdrawn at any time.

For instance, the sheer joy certain “righteous” men take in hurling vicious, misogyny-laden online abuse at women who have transgressed in other ways is frightening, even if you know that in their eyes you are still “approved of”. It tells you what you could become. One wrong word and you, too, will be stinking, worthless scum to them. It is a means of social control. I might know that I’m not going to wake up tomorrow and become the next Myra Hindley but I also know that, since the rules of engagement allow for misogyny when it suits, I need to watch myself. After all, I’m already a “vile TERF” – an imaginary murderer which, in the view of SJW twitter and the NUS, is pretty much the same as a real one. We see misogyny as payback for women and there is no equivalent for men, who do the greatest harm in terms of starting wars, killing women, raping children, stealing resources etc. They get standard condemnation; for women it’s the bonus personal hate-laden package, even when all we’ve done is had “impermissible” thoughts about our own relationship with gender.

This matters not just in terms of how we understand misogyny, but in terms of how we describe patriarchy and structural oppression. So saying “men do the most harm” is a generalisation? Feminism needs generalisations – ways of describing the overall picture – otherwise it’s just “being annoyed about stuff”. The fact that we find it incredibly easy to demonise “evil” women and portray their wrongness in a highly gendered way should worry us because we don’t do the same with men. Female evil is female – something inextricably linked to female socialisation gone wrong. Male evil, meanwhile, is just “evil,” the default evil that surrounds us, nothing we can challenge, something that just is. I don’t wish to stress the prevalence of male violence as a way of saying “therefore individual instances of female violence aren’t as bad”; of course they are. Nor am I suggesting that women are innately sweetness and light. But the gendering of violence has to work both ways and if we genuinely allowed it to do so everyone would be asking (as feminists have for decades) “what is it that is so particularly wrong with male socialisation and what can we do to change it?”

Instead of this we’re happy to hurl more misogyny at women whom no one would ever want to defend, knowing that anyone who does so will be tainted by default. And yet you don’t have to sympathise with “the UK’s vilest women” to know that this isn’t helping anyone.