Who knitted Jeremy Corbyn’s jumper?

My first full-time job was for a company that organised arms trade fairs. I didn’t know this when I applied to work for them. My own job was in a completely different division, editing school books. I only found out about the arms trade part when some protestors came round the office distributing flyers. Obviously I resigned on the spot (only kidding. I stayed, paying my rent with tainted money, finally leaving two years before the company stopped hosting the fairs due to pressure from shareholders and staff).

I was reminded of this earlier today, when I tweeted an article about female Labour MPs calling on Jeremy Corbyn to tackle what they describe as “an extremely worrying trend of escalating abuse and hostility.” Shortly afterwards I received this response:

Can we all remember that @RuthSmeeth used to work for @Nestle. The company that killed African babies in the 80s.

Smeeth is one of the letter’s signatories. Presumably we are supposed to think “why, we cannot possibly take it seriously when such an impure, immoral person is calling out pure, righteous Jeremy Corbyn!” Never mind that Smeeth is one of 44 women expressing fear and asking for support. Never mind that one female Labour MP was assassinated just over a month ago. Never mind all that. Smeeth’s a baddie, Jeremy’s a goodie. She is tainted, Jeremy is pure.

Perhaps Corbyn’s more thuggish supporters would be fully committed to tackling misogyny if only those complaining about it were a bit more trustworthy. It’s always the way, isn’t it? You never know when a woman’s got ulterior motives. What if Smeeth only signed the letter because she knows Corbyn’s opposed to killing African babies and she wants to get her revenge? What if all these bloody unreasonable women simply want to make Jezza look bad because he’s nice and they’re mean? Honestly, I wouldn’t trust them if I were you. Which is, of course, somewhat convenient. The left never, ever has to tackle misogyny because it’s something that only ever happens to women and women are, as we all know, less pure than men (menstrual blood, original sin and all that). Continue reading

New Statesman: In super-rich divorce cases, I find myself cheering for the Gold Digger

Being female is an expensive business. It’s not just that the lipstick and high heels don’t come for free. Financially you are hobbled from the day you are born.

There’s no way of putting an exact figure on how much being a woman costs. There are various ways in which people have tried, estimating gender pay gaps, comparing pensions and savings, even checking how much more parents spend on presents for sons than for daughters. But so much of this is unquantifiable. What’s the cost of your time, your emotional labour, all those things you do or don’t do because the world belongs to men and you are not one of them? How does the impact of your sex intersect with your class, your race and your location? It’s impossible to get a precise figure for how much each of us is really owed. Still, since no one’s offering us any actual compensation, I suppose we don’t have to anyway.

At primary school in the 1980s we used to sing a song called Supermum. Vastly inferior to Billy Connolly’s Supergran, it was a study in patriarchal passive aggression:

Supermum, you’re wonderful, but very underpaid.
Supermum, you’re cook and cleaner, handyman and maid.
If you put in a bill, for all the work you do,
There’d be an awful lot of wages due.

Ha! How better to indoctrinate little girls into the ways of the patriarchy than by piling on the insincere praise? It’s not as though “Supermum” ever would ask for payment for her labours; indeed, that she doesn’t is the whole point. While we might occasionally see articles which fancifully estimate what the yearly salary of a stay-at-home wife and mother should be (£159,137, apparently), these are meant to be all the reward a woman needs. You don’t need the actual money, just someone to tell you (ideally via the medium of song) that your labour could be considered economically valuable. It could be, but it isn’t. Soz about that.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman: What does it mean when major football tournaments increase incidents of domestic violence?

On Monday evening my sons went to bed in tears. While my seven year old had been taking the fall of the pound surprisingly well, and eight year old had responded calmly to growing anxieties over the UK’s leadership vacuum, the England football team’s defeat by Iceland finally sent them over the edge.

Obviously I tried to tell them it wasn’t all bad. If anything, the sheer ridiculousness of this defeat added a degree of comedy to the national crisis and besides, if incompetence was to be our new speciality, couldn’t it be argued that actually, we were the real winners here? They were not buying this. “Football,” they told me, “isn’t just a matter of life and death. It’s more important than that.” (Okay, so they didn’t. But they did cry, a lot.)

Elsewhere in England, fans big and small were absorbing the news that their team had been vanquished by a nation with no professional football league. There will have been disappointment and there will have been anger, not just at players and coaches, but also at fellow supporters and loved ones. It has long been suspected, and more recently been proven, that incidents of domestic violence increase during major football tournaments. According to one chief constable, “many people drink, there is the emotional stress of the game, and there is a whole issue around competitiveness and testosterone levels. Most people will watch the game and will never do anything violent but a small minority will become deeply aggressive.”

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman: Ellie Butler murder: Are the female partners of abusive men responsible for their crimes?

On Tuesday Ben Butler was sentenced to a minimum of 23 years in prison for the murder of his six-year-old daughter Ellie. It’s a death that is particularly tragic because not only was it predictable, but it was predicted, again and again.

Ben Butler was a violent man, with prior convictions for assaulting an ex-girlfriend and two strangers. He was jailed for attacking Ellie when she was six weeks’ old, but this conviction was later quashed. He and Ellie’s mother, Jennie Gray, won back custody of Ellie in 2012, despite Gray’s father protesting that this would lead to the little girl’s death. It took just eleven months for this prediction to come true.

Gray was not present when her daughter died, but she later helped Butler in his attempt to make the death appear to have been an accident. She has been sentenced to 42 months’ imprisonment for child cruelty. The Daily Mail describes her as “the twisted mother who sooner saw [Ellie] die than turn against the savage thug who beat her to death,” while according to the Mirror she is “evil” and “scheming”. But Gray was also a victim of Ben Butler. Despite her own protestations to the contrary, the physical suffering and mental torment endured by Gray – who wrote secret “letters of prayer” begging for Butler to “stop being angry, hateful and violent” – should not be in any doubt.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman: Why we should let all boys wear skirts to school

As Paris Lees once wisely observed, “sexism didn’t disappear when women started wearing trousers.” This is sad but true. Trousers, while a practical item of clothing, have not yet brought an end to sexual violence, reproductive coercion or the male appropriation of female labour and resources. Depressing though this is, there is one glimmer of hope. What if, argues Lees, men were allowed to “adopt feminine styles”? Perhaps that’s what’s been missing all along. It’s not that men benefit from male supremacy; they just haven’t discovered the joys of a nice tea dress or a fetching pair of kitten heels.

I am all for clothing equality. Being 5’1” with an ample chest, I never shop in menswear sections myself, but have always felt the strict divisions in terms of styles – in particular, the prohibition on men wearing skirts or dresses – to be arbitrary and wrong. It is a means of reinforcing the belief that the social and psychological differences between men and women are far greater than those between women and other women and men and other men. While women, having fought for their trouser-wearing rights, are now permitted (in most countries, at least) to emulate the dress sense of the dominant class, for most men, “women’s clothing” remains off-limits. Even the comedian Eddie Izzard, who once said of his wardrobe “they’re not women’s clothes, they’re my clothes, I bought them,” has since backtracked, now describing himself as “somewhat boyish and somewhat girlish” (despite being 54).

When it comes to children’s clothing, the differences are even more stark and ridiculous. Apart from the obvious, the bodies of pre-pubescent boys and girls are not significantly different, so it is not as though shape and size can even be said to be a factor. But enter any children’s clothing department, and you will find the flowery pink-for-girls, rough-and-tumble blue-for-boys stereotyping impossible to avoid.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman: Does the outrage over the Stanford rape case do anything to help victims?

In her 1989 polemic Misogynies, Joan Smith notes that “three or four times a year, we in Britain go through a ritual known as Outcry Over Judge’s Remarks In Rape Case”:

What usually happens is that, faced with an offender who has terrified or beaten some poor woman into having sex against her will, a judge imposes a ludicrously light penalty with the observation that the victim’s ordeal wasn’t really so bad – or, indeed, that she should have known better than to get herself into the situation in the first place. Women’s groups and MPs protest; in the very worst cases, the Lord Chancellor may even issue a rebuke. Then the whole business dies down – until it happens again.

Almost thirty years later, it’s fair to say things have changed. Thanks to 24-hour news streaming and social media, we are far less parochial when it comes to Getting Outraged About Rape. We still follow the same routine – the outcry, the anger, the hope that this time, this particular survivor will change the way sexual assault is understood – only now we’ve gone global. Unlike, say, drinking tea or playing cricket, making ludicrous excuses for rape and then watching the backlash unfold is a well-known ritual the entire world over.

Right now the full force of a global backlash is focussed on the appalling case of Brock Allen Turner, the former Stanford University swimmer who was sentenced to just six months in jail for assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. The case has attracted attention not just because of the shockingly low sentence, but because of the brilliant, brave letter Turner’s victim read aloud in court to her attacker..

Read the full post at the New Statesman

The Pool: Instagram “fit moms” aren’t the problem – policing pregnant bodies is

Performing motherhood, you soon discover, involves positioning yourself at extremes. If you can’t be perfect, you must excel at ineptitude. Just bumbling along in the middle, being “good enough,” simply will not do.

Take our approach to health and beauty. At the time of writing this I am rocking a “full-on slummy mummy” vibe. I have one breast significantly larger than the other, thanks to my baby son’s insistence on feeding from one side only, and I’m housing a family of nits, kindly donated by my shaggy-haired seven-year old. I can’t remember the last time I exercised, beyond the odd, panicked pelvic floor clench. Some might call this slovenliness; I call it “taking an organic approach.”

At the other end of the spectrum we find the women currently being hailed as the “fit moms.” Like their predecessors, the MILFs, they don’t see making a real, live human being with one’s own body as any excuse to let oneself go. On the contrary, women such as Sia Cooper, owner of the Instagram account @diaryofafitmommyofficial, are to be found working out on the very day they give birth (apparently giving birth itself doesn’t count as a workout, at least if you’re not doing it in the downward facing dog).

Read the full post at The Pool

Re-reading Wide Sargasso Sea

I first read Wide Sargasso Sea because I had to. It was a set text for my English A-level. I loved it then, even though I’d fallen out of love with reading (I loved the idea of reading, of being seen as a person who read, but not the reading itself. The activity had been ruined, alongside many others, by the obsessive compulsions which had by that point taken over my teenage life).

I couldn’t have told you why I loved it. I felt sorry for the first Mrs Rochester, as one is supposed to, and angry for her, too. I liked the heat and colours of the book, the intensity, the feeling of remaining in a very small space however far you travelled. I found the rhythms of Antoinette’s voice, set against the drab entitlement of Rochester’s, perfect in their disorder. She got inside my head. Such a sad book and it felt like a sanctuary.

Our A-level teacher was a feminist. She used the title Ms and the boys would linger over it – Mzzzzzzzz, like the buzz of a bee – in an attempt to undermine her. A whole bunch of them, 18, white, middle-class and male, and already disturbed to meet a woman who wouldn’t define herself according to which man, husband or father, presumed to own her. We’d sit around the table, drawing spidergrams based on each character (poor Annette, poor Antoinette, surrounded by serious men with surnames – Cosway, Mason, Rochester – who would not listen). Then some boy would raise a hand to ask a question – was the treatment of women really so awful? – and he’d never, ever forget to slip in that little, buzzing reminder of misplaced pride at his male heritage. We’ll use the name you ask for, Mzzzzzz, but what we call you is not what we’re thinking. Always remember that. Continue reading

New Statesman: Birth wars: The politics of childbirth

Birth is divisive. It divides women from men, and women from women. It requires of the body an opening up, at times a cutting, or a tearing apart. “But to let the baby out,” writes Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts, “you have to be willing to go to pieces.”

So going to pieces is precisely what women do.

To be of woman born is a universal experience, yet women themselves remain a diffuse, fractured group. “What is a woman, anyway?” is still considered a deep, meaningful question to ask. The polite answer is, of course, “whatever anyone wants it to be”. More than that would close off the vessel, seal the hole, glue back together the broken shell. There’s a sense in which women are simply not meant to be whole. We need to be in pieces so that men can survive intact.

I have given birth three times and each experience has a different colour. For the first, I lay in the bedroom of our terraced house, staring at the brown wardrobe opposite, trying to think my way beyond pain. With each contraction I pictured a hill (“some women like to imagine themselves ascending and descending a mountain peak,” said the birthing guide) but it was grey, dull and unimpressive. Then just as the pain peaked, I’d see a figure emerging over the crest, a grey-faced man in a top hat and black overcoat. Jack the Ripper, eviscerator of wombs, an involuntary visualisation.

Read the full piece at the New Statesman

New Statesman: As pilots fight to pump breast milk at work, why is society so ashamed of lactating women?

People do not like to be reminded of the fact that human beings are mammals, members of the class in which females secrete milk for their young. It all sounds so primitive, placing us on a level with the beasts of the field. We’ve risen above it, haven’t we? All of us, that is, apart from those who still lactate.

Take the four female pilots who recently filed claims aimed at forcing their airline, Frontier, to make it easier for new mothers to pump breast milk at work. 12-hour workdays and five-hour flights are not, it turns out, convenient for the average lactator. One of the women had already received a written reprimand for pumping in an airplane toilet. Apparently this “raised safety issues” – but why wasn’t it thought of before?

Because nobody likes to think about the practicalities of breastfeeding, that’s why. We may live in a world in which every new mother is put under an inordinate amount of pressure to do it, but to consider the logistic and economic problems this raises? Hell, that would mean looking at actual business structures, and that’s difficult. Shaming women, on the other hand, is easy.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

Thoughts of a person, with breasts

Breasts are curious things. They sprout on you, unbidden, transforming you from child – generic, self-contained, human – to woman, that cartoonish parody of a person.

The way in which they develop will influence the way in which the world receives you. Small-breasted women are bookish, intellectual, perhaps slightly repressed; large-breasted women are cheap, available, maybe a little dumb. Either way, growing breasts makes you fresh meat. It puts you on the market, regardless of whether that’s where you want to be.

I am a small-breasted virgin in the body of a large-breasted whore. A flat-chested non-binary in the body of a matronly ciswife. I have never quite been able to get the right personality in place to match my tits. God knows, I’ve tried.

For almost ten years I starved myself into almost-flatness, rolling back the first-girl-at-school-to-get-breasts humiliations of my final year at junior school. Then when I lost it – and lost it badly, so many cup sizes, almost running out of alphabet – I attempted to occupy my own space, sleeping around, taking sexist jokes on the chin, taking time to realise that one’s space is not a thing a woman gets to define for herself. Then there were the almost-breast reductions, two operation appointments turned down. I wasn’t sure what parts of me to keep, which to reject. I’m still not sure years later, stretched and tired by a third round of breastfeeding. My baby son sometimes moulds and plays with the flesh while he drinks, as though he’s handling plasticine. That’s what my breasts feel like to me: insensitive, roughly formed, shoved onto me while I wasn’t looking. A bad joke, a “kick me” sign pinned to my back. Continue reading

New Statesman: It harms women more than men when dads doing parenting are seen as “babysitters”

“Dads don’t babysit (it’s called ‘parenting’).” So says the T-shirt created by Al Ferguson of The Dad Network, in response to the assumption that a father seen caring for his own offspring is simply playing the role of temporary childminder.

The t-shirt has prompted a great deal of debate, not to mention marketing opportunities (you can already buy a “my dad doesn’t babysit” onesie for your little one). It seems more and more fathers want to be recognised as equal carers, and who can blame them?

From a feminist perspective, it’s easy to see why describing fathers as “babysitting” their own children is a bad idea. It lowers the expectations placed on fathers, putting them on a level with people who have no emotional ties to their children and are merely providing a service.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

Announcement

<deep breath>

Hi! Most of you know me as a woman but today I’m coming out – as a human being.

I know this might be confusing to some folks but I’ve felt this way for a long time. It’s something I’ve found myself suppressing due to fear of violence, isolation, being told I’m an uppity bitch who deserves to die in a fire etc. But I can’t keep living a lie.

For those of you who don’t know, gender is a social hierarchy that positions people with vaginas as less human than people with penises. We get so used to this we rarely question the fact that some of the vagina-d people have an inner sense of “being human”. Certainly this feeling of human-ness is something that’s been with me regardless of the number of times I’ve been ordered to shut up, dress nicely, be a good little object for the patriarchy’s pleasure.

I realise a common response to women saying “we’re human” is disbelief. People think we’re making it up. It threatens the safe boundaries they’ve created, whereby there’s a nice, reliable class of people who’ll do the majority of the world’s unpaid work, suck it up and won’t complain. The violence of not being seen as fully human is painful (albeit not as painful as the violence of being hit in the face because you didn’t cook tea properly or being pushed up against a wall and groped for the crime of being a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time). Ever since Mary Wollstonecraft first “came out” as human, other women have been doing the same, but there’s still a long road ahead of us before we’re fully accepted as complete people, with our own thoughts, feelings and inner lives.

Still, from now on I’d like you all to at least try to treat me like a human being – in terms of address, work, pay, respect, sexual and emotional expectations. Don’t worry if you slip up now and then – thanks to decades of female socialisation, I won’t hold it against you!

No party for non-men

In 1980’s The Sceptical Feminist Janet Radcliffe Richards makes the simple but important point that “it is quite misleading to think of masculinity and femininity as similar sorts of things; equal degrees of adaptation to different situations”:

In fact masculinity has traditionally been no different from general success in whatever is valued by society, and virtually the only way any reference to women comes into the concept of masculinity is in the demand that no man should be subordinate or inferior to a woman.

The problem for the feminist – and for women in general – is not with femininity per se. It is not that taken individually, so-called “masculine” characteristics are in any way better or more useful than “feminine” ones. It is that femininity functions within a system that places women and men under very different social pressures, the primary aim of which is “to ensure that women should be in the power and service of men”.

This is basic feminism. It makes no judgment on what individual men and women are “really” like, rather it points out that the idea of inherent differences between men and women has been used to facilitate male people’s oppression of female people. As Richards puts it, “much of what is believed about women stems from what is wanted of women” (submission, chastity, unpaid reproductive, emotional and domestic work).

Fast-forward 36 years and it seems we’ve forgotten the basics.  It’s not that we no longer use gender to extract resources and labour from one class of people for the benefit of another. Men still own the vast majority of the world’s material resources. Women still struggle for safety, visibility, education, reproductive autonomy, freedom from abuse. But for some reason we’ve stopped bothering to analyse gender as a social hierarchy. Perhaps it got too hard, or maybe it just got boring. Either way, these days it’s every woman – or non-man – for her/theirself. Continue reading

The right way for women to disappear

I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that once you have anorexia, you never quite recover from it. It sounds too fatalistic, too hopeless and yet at the same time too self-indulgent.

I am 40 years old. It is nearly three decades since I was first diagnosed and I have been what is considered a healthy weight for most of the past two of them. While my eating habits are not necessarily normal, I would not describe myself as still suffering from anorexia itself. If anything, what I suffer from is not being anorexic any more.

I am not at home in the body I have. I’ve never got over the desire to tell people, the first time I meet them, that this isn’t the real me. The real me is thin, breastless, narrow-hipped. This version of me is a poor compromise, a pathetic accommodation. I look like a woman but actually I identify as a human being.

In Hunger Strike, Susie Orbach describes the way in which refeeding programmes imposed on anorexia sufferers betray a desire to “normalise” women not just physically, but socially: “The general consensus is that the patient has recovered when the normal weight is reached and appropriate sex role functioning is achieved.” Yet, she goes on to point out, “if the body protest statement could but be read – be it one of fatness or thinness – it would be seen to be one of the few ways that women can articulate their internal experience.” I look back on the force-feeding to which I was subjected and see in it a type of conversion therapy. Womanhood, I had decided, was not for me. I sought to roll back puberty and remain stuck in time. The medical profession said no, you must go forward. And so I did, but it hurt because the world I went into remained one in which femaleness and personhood are not always permitted to co-exist. Continue reading

New Statesman: One year on, has shared parental leave made any difference?

So it’s happened just the way we expected it to. One year on from the introduction of Shared Parental Leave, a study by the firm My Family Care has found that uptake amongst new fathers has been minimal. Of 200 employers interviewed, 40% reported that not one single male employee had taken up the right to shared leave. Many will see this as depressing news, indicating that differences in male and female roles and expectations are far too entrenched to resolve.

I started out an SPL sceptic, not least because the whole process was so complicated I ended up assuming my partner and I wouldn’t even be eligible. It turns out I was wrong and I’m now back in the office while my partner’s at home with our seven-month-old son. Being one of life’s moaners, I’d love to tell you it’s been a nightmare, but I’ll be honest: so far, it’s been brilliant.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

Does Eddie Izzard like bananas? The Wibbly Pig guide to gender

My children have a book called Wibbly Pig Likes Bananas. In it, a little pig called Wibbly reveals his likes and dislikes and invites children to think about theirs, too. Do you, like Wibbly, like bananas, or do you prefer apples? Would you, like Wibbly, play with the ball, or would you rather cuddle the bear?

The message, as you might have guessed, is that we’re all different and that’s perfectly fine. I like this message. It’s a message with which I can get on board. However, I’ve started to wonder about the identity politics of it. If Wibbly likes bananas and hats and balls, is he even a pig at all? Continue reading

New Statesman: Cristiano Ronaldo’s approach to fatherhood is a victory for male supremacy

So, is he or isn’t he? Cristiano Ronaldo, 31, chose to keep mum while training for Real Madrid last week. The Portuguese heart-throb has been coy about rumours abounding ever since he was spotted flaunting a football-sized bump in a recent match against Celta Vigo. The unlucky-in-love national captain has been brazen about his desire to embrace single parenthood for a second time. Is he set to exchange 4-4-2 to become a 2-by-2? Will the broody forward, who’s spoken of his desire to have five or six little Cristianos, become international football’s answer to Natasha Hamilton and Ulrika Jonsson? Watch this space!

Wrote no one, ever (apart from me, just now).

We don’t write about one half of the population having babies in the same way we write about the other half. This is because babies are gestated by people who have wombs, not people who have penises. An obvious point to make, perhaps, but an increasingly necessary one. No matter how much the world changes, the fact remains that not everyone has the innate potential to carry a child to term. A person with a womb probably does; a person with a penis definitely doesn’t. This matters.

Read the full post in the New Statesman

New Statesman: Period positivity and treating women’s bodies as the norm

According to the writer Jay Griffiths, “the much maligned paramenstrum (defined as the two days before a period and the first two days of it) floods you with insight, with surges of instinctual thoughts, with demanding intensity, with burning innerness, thinking at full feeling”. This may be something you recognise. Alternatively, like me, you may find it a time for donning your ropiest pair of pants, stuffing your face on Wispa Duos and curling up in bed, nursing a hot water bottle and a sense of grievance that set in when you were 11 and has never gone away.

Just how the modern woman should approach menstruation has yet to be defined. Should it be something we celebrate, boldly, in defiance of age-old taboos that have held the female body in check? Or should we all just admit that periods are pretty rubbish, really, and bond over a monthly misery shared? Either way, the one good thing is we can be open about their existence. It wasn’t always like this.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman: Trousers for all: Why are girls still being required to wear skirts for school?

Who wears the trousers in your relationship? In my case, it’s definitely my partner. I’ve always been a skirt and dress person. Unnecessary cloth-based leg separation just isn’t my thing.

Nonetheless, while I question both the practical and stylistic merits of trousers and shorts, I will defend to the death the right of other women to make their own sartorial choices. For this reason I am broadly in favour of Trousers for All, a UK-wide group campaigning to give girls the option of wearing trousers as part of their school uniform.

While most schools already permit this, there remain a number who do not. This week, as part of The University of Manchester’s social justice festival JustFest, academics Dr Katia Chornik and Professor Claire Hale will argue that this is in breach of the Department of Education’s School Uniform document and The Equality Act 2010. “Both documents,” says Chornik, “emphasise the need to avoid uniforms which are expensive and which treat one sex less favourably than the other. In our view the practice of banning trousers for girls is gender discrimination and prejudice against females.” But is it really?

Read the full post at the New Statesman