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Monday, 29 August 2011

Remember me?

So, where did I leave off?  That’s right, talking about myself, wondering if I were vain and realising that, in itself, is a form of vanity.

I suppose that realisation might be partly responsible for the radio silence, since, gosh, March. I started to wonder what I was doing on here and what purpose it served, other than validating my own opinions. At the same time, lots of people kept talking to me about the blog, about feminism, even apologising for doing ‘non feminist’ things and I realised the blog seemed to be losing its way. I wanted to explore all those grey areas of feminism, to explore how my generation of women were negotiating their place in the world. The idea was not to regurgitate the old debates or spout a hard line about the way women should be, but that’s how some people took it. ‘Feminism’ is a judgement-laden term it seems.

 But I thought it might be time to try again. Which, unavoidably, means talking about myself some more.

So what’s been happening since March?

1.     I got seriously unhappy. I felt I was drifting and didn’t really know what I wanted and seriously didn’t know how to get what I wanted.
2.     I snapped out of that and got my self a nice new job. Exciting school; more responsibility. Gulp.
3.     I formed a new 5 year plan. It involves spending a lot of money on holidays, at the same time trying to save up for a proper house and maybe, at some point, making a baby. Gulp.
4.     I got happy and full of the joys of life again.
5.     I’ve vowed to be more creative and so am working my way through the Guardian’s poetry workshop. The results are mixed.  My mum likes them though. She’s not exactly my harshest critic.
I am woman, hear me roar. Sometimes. Maybe. 

Let’s see if I can spin some comment out of that little lot.

Anxiety lies at the heart of it. Anxiety about whether I’m doing the right thing, whether I’m making the right decisions, whether I’m heading in the right direction, whether I’m making the most of my life. I do worry I’m letting myself down. Have I settled for being a teacher? Could I have a brilliant play or novel in me, if I just tried a bit harder? What is it that actually makes me LOVE being married so much? Should I have rejected that urge like so many of my friends seem to be doing? Will having a baby push me further into being a conventional woman when that's the last thing that really feels right for me? How can I stop that from happening? Shouldn’t I just get over myself and realise I’m not actually anything special?

How much of that is just a human experience do you think? How much of it is particular to women? Do more women than men feel the tug of seemingly opposing desires and priorities? Has this changed over the generations? Were our mothers and grandmothers just as anxious?

That’s a lot of questions. Does anybody have any answers?

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Fraudulent Feminist no. 3: You're So Vain

Of all the dreadful things you could accuse me of, I never imagined that vanity would feature very highly on the list. To be vain flies in the face of the narrative I’ve weaved for myself.  At an early age I was cast as the funny, interesting but less attractive friend to some properly fit girl and that persona kinda stuck, if not always in reality then at least in my internal world. Of course I would always like to think of myself as above vanity; that I lived my life in a way that focused on more worthwhile concerns. And the not so worthy, like being able to down a pint faster than my husband.

But actually, recently, I wonder if I haven’t grown increasingly vain as I've lurched toward my thirties. My wedding started these musings, because, as I’ve said before, planning a wedding is a huge vanity project. This is something I struggled to keep under control in the twelve months that wedding bells dominated my life.  With a dose of red-faced self-examination, I began to assess the place of vanity in my life.

So here’s my litany of vain indulgences:
  • I hardly ever leave the house without make up. Even on long walks trampling through country mud there’ll be a lick of mascara.
  • I spend a lot of money on keeping my curly, frizzy, unruly hair under control
  • I pay £17 a pop to have some nice ladies at Selfridges pull tiny hairs from my eyebrows.
  • I always think about what to wear each day. It’s hardly ever left to chance.
  • I’ve become obsessed with my nails -  I now pay to get them shaped and painted. I’ve been late to parties because I was sorting my nails out.
  • I check my reflection in windows, just in case my make up has melted or my hair has gone big (it can go very big indeed.)
Here I am, a (marginally) successful, intelligent, confident independent woman and somehow along the way, I’ve fallen victim to the vanity of excessive female preening.  And the truth is, I know I won’t change because I can’t bear the thought of going about life less attractive than I could be.

It’s a total rejection of some of the founding principles of the feminist movement, where women were called upon to reject the pressures to shave, wax, thread and paint ourselves so that we conformed to conventional ideals of beauty.

But is all this plucking and preening really letting the side down? Does trying hard to conform to (male constructed) ideals of female attractiveness really detract from the more powerful choices I make in life? Would women really be in a stronger position if I went around looking a little less pretty? Well, of course not. But I’d like to feel a little more comfortable in my own skin, without effort, from time to time.

So, what image to include with this post? Let me introduce unwashed, unkempt Kate, having fun at a festival and not caring about the look.

Gosh, that was a lot of talking about myself, which is probably a vanity itself. Less of that next time. 

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

A Class Act

Every family has central values that help shape its identity. In my family those founding principles are Catholicism followed closely by Socialism. I once made a joke about joining the young Conservatives. It didn’t go down well.

So I grew up with a class consciousness and let me be plain, I hold no sway with any suggestion that today we live in a classless society.  I make no apology that this post will talk about the middle classes and working classes in a way that can feel uncomfortable in modern Britain because we would like to think these were antiquated ideas.

Indulging my liking for 1930s graphic design
 The more I look at the women’s movement, the more I notice a bias towards the middle classes.  There is an intellectual focus that encourages a certain discourse, which, I fear, works to exclude anyone who hasn’t been to university.  A quick look round the big players offers further evidence that the working classes are squeezed from the centre of the movement.  Take a look at the board of trustees of the Fawcett Society and you’ll see what I mean.

Of course, it is natural that the middle classes, who are more able to take advantage of education and other opportunities that come their way, will rise to positions of power and influence.  However,  if I were struggling to make ends meet, perhaps working more than one poorly paid job, feeling the threat of being made redundant, facing class prejudice, I wouldn’t recognise myself in these faces and would perhaps assume that their work didn’t apply to me.

It’s easy to romanticise the working classes, especially when you come from a socially mobile, socialist family, proud of their (very) working class roots.  It might be easy to imagine that  poor women are DH Lawrence-esque matriarchs: hard working, tough, getting the better of the useless men around them. It’s easy to perpetuate the myth that poor women historically had more freedoms, that necessity drove them out of the home and into the workplace to experience an independence it took their middle class counterparts years to achieve. There is nothing empowering or romantic about poverty - this is as true today as it was in the 19th century.

It is also true that many women’s issues are universal. Rape, domestic violence, prejudice in the workplace, sexual objectification do not recognise class boundaries.  All women need to be concerned about political, social and economic rights.

You might argue that these mighty middle class women are capable of acting on behalf of their working class sisters, who have less of a voice.  Object is a decent case study on this point. It’s work focuses on the objectification of women, from advertising images to the opening of lap dancing clubs. Important stuff, I have no doubt. But is porn and prostitution really the main concern for most ordinary women? Especially working class women, who face all sorts of more immediate, more pressing prejudices.

As every good activist knows, real change comes from real empowerment; from grass-roots activity.  Disenfranchisement from the movement and its campaigning will only lead to disenfranchisement from their rights for working class women.

Rather uselessly (yet again) I offer no solutions. What I’d really like to see is a more conscious effort from mainstream feminist organisations to get working class women involved in the debate and involved in activism.

United we stand and all that.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Michael Winner, Breasts and Women's double standards

I found a curious tale of the English eccentric falling foul of the dangers of Twitter in this week’s Observer.  Victoria Coren has come to blows with the infinitely eccentric Michael Winner.  And it’s all over breasts.

 Perhaps when Michael Winner started drooling over the fullness and pertness of Ms Coren’s assets he genuinely thought that it was a harmless, private joke and when his followers  joined in, he thought it was just banter amongst friends.

Obviously, Victoria isn’t so happy about the situation.
 I felt embarrassed and sad. I can bluster my way through a comedy feud, but I'm not a stripper who confidently offers her assets for appraisal. I'm a writer, with an imperfect, private body. It was embarrassing to have a thousand people sharing public opinions about my chest.

There’s no arguing with that, is there? As Victoria points out herself, she doesn’t put her body on show for comment. Although she’s well known and obviously courts publicity, the wares she is selling are her writing and her wit and it is these things that she should be judged on.

So far, so feminist. But the whole premise of this blog is to explore the grey areas and face uncomfortable truths about modern women and modern feminism.

Dare I say it? (Of course I dare!) Many women often enjoy the objectification of their sexuality by men.  I need to be careful here, in so many ways, I’m treading on uneven ground and could easily fall flat on my face.

I’ll give you an example. A couple of weeks ago I was party to a conversation in which one woman related a comment she had heard about her friend’s bum, you know the usual crass, clichéd, slightly dirty remark. Were these women outraged? Made to feel uncomfortable?  Not at all. “I’m quite pleased with that -  I hardly ever get comments on my bum these days.” “I thought you would be -  that’s why I told you.”

Now, that sort of remark rarely pleases me: I just can’t get over feeling uncomfortable and yes, outraged. However, I also can’t help feeling a warm glow if I’m called pretty or, even on occasion, beautiful and it’s always better if it’s from a man.  

Should we be blamed for such reactions.? We live in a world where beauty, attractiveness and sexiness are key female attributes. Of course women feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction when they are complimented because they have just been validated on the terms society judges them by.  I’d be equally happy to hear comments about how clever I am (why, thank you, I do try…) but this hardly ever happens.

 We all want to be attractive, it’s natural. But surely, so do men? I asked a male friend if he ever gets  complimented and he said hardly ever; sometimes someone might say they like his tie. But people aren’t going around talking about how witty and clever he is either. I don’t really know what to make of this.

The main difference between the sexes on this issue seems to be an absence of sexual judgment in the everyday experience of men. I’d bet that nearly every woman has had some sort of unwelcome and unsolicited comment about her looks, and more specifically, about her sexuality. And it’s not just compliments. I’ve been told ‘not to bother – it’s not working’ whilst jogging past a gang of boozing men and have been told I’m a ‘stupid ugly cow’ for riding a bike. Both comments made me angry, and perhaps, to my shame, a little sad, because they chipped away at my sense of attractiveness.

I certainly have the right to go about my life without such abuse but perhaps until we can learn to treat the two imposters just the same, and stop revelling in the favorable comments, we’re giving licence to certain types of men to offer their opinions on our breasts and our bums and anything else they care to dissect for their approval or their judgment.

Because, as Victoria Coren says, it’s not always harmless banter.
How does Michael Winner treat a nervous 23-year-old waitress when he's showing off in the Ivy? What does he say about the daughters of his friends? And these critical men who rush to defend the principle of dirty personal remarks; how do they behave around girls who are more timid, less articulate, less battle-weary than I am?


Monday, 14 February 2011

The Chore Bore

  Chores are the single biggest bugbear of my life and my relationship. I love order and want one of those homes that is always clean and calm but I just can’t be bothered to devote the time needed to keep on top of it. My husband, whilst basically very clean indeed, is not as enamoured of order and tidiness. Cue an argument that I fear may last a lifetime. Literally.

Meg, over at reclaiming wife, does a good job of summarising the tensions as well as offering some practical ways forward.

I had intended to offer the link and leave it there, but I’ve never been one for letting the chance to air an opinion pass me by.

Meg doesn’t want to make it all about gender and to a certain point she’s right: male or female there are a hundred more interesting things to do than vacuum. There is, however, plenty of research to suggest that housework is generally not divided equally between men and women when the genders cohabit.

This research echoes my own experience. My husband claims not to notice the dust gathering, or the stains on the hob, or the crumbs on the kitchen side. I don’t believe this is because he’s trying to shirk out of his responsibilities or because he expects his good little wife to sort it all out for him; I suspect it’s because he spent the first 25 years of his life having his mother sort it all out for him and there’s a whole host of gender conditioning at work there.

Does it matter? It matters personally for me and I’ll continue to scream and shout and huff and puff until my husbands DOES notice those crumbs and it does feel like we’re sharing the chores equally. But I’m not sure that the tensions in my private relationship should be a cause for public concern. At the end of the day, I don’t feel oppressed by his reluctance to clean the bathroom.

 But then the whole premise of the movement had its roots in freeing women from the chains of the domestic sphere, enabling them to play a more fulfilling role in the public domain. I fear that the lack of balance in household chores betrays a still deeply held sentiment that women’s natural place is presiding over the home. We are allowed to go out and play at the career we choose, as long as we still have a handle on the washing up.

In which case, my giving in and cleaning the bathroom when it’s his turn takes on a whole new, political, significance.  And that’s what I’ll console myself with next time we let the limescale take over. 

Monday, 7 February 2011

Word on the Street

When I was at school I was always told by my English teachers that I should write about what I know. Well, what I knew at fifteen was a deep despair that had no grounding in reality; the cruel stab of unrequited love (and ok, the cheap thrill of being loved but not loving in return) and the endless bore of small town Derbyshire.  Writing what I knew churned out introspective, self-pitying drivel. Sorry for putting you through that Mrs Hannon.

Hopefully, I’ve avoided the same pitfall on my little blog. This week I’ve been struck down with a cold and I’m seeking easy inspiration. Writing about what I know right now would constitute the television (Baking Made Easy is on in the background) and burly, surly teenagers. My last post was about the telly, so teenagers it is.

One of the great things abut working in a secondary school is dealing with people on the cusp of adulthood, trying to figure out how they’re going to make it all ok for themselves.  Slang plays a huge role in carving out their emerging identities. There are some really interesting examples of teenagers appropriating the language of previous generations. I’m thinking specifically about the rather quaint ‘oh my days’ (although it doesn’t seem quite so quaint when directed at you by a 12 year old rascal.) This phrase reconnects with an identity that could easily be lost. There are, however, plenty examples of slang that, at least to an outsider like me, feels less positive; language that seems to firmly have its origins in misogyny.

Much of this misogyny has its roots in sex (because we all know that female sexuality is a dangerous thing, to be derided and belittled.) There can be no better example than the word ‘beat’, which for those of you who don’t hang-out regularly with south London teenagers, means to have sex.  I have no doubt that to refer to sex through the use of a word that conjures violence, dominance and pain reveals a deeply misogynistic culture. I’ve challenged some of my students on this point (because if I don’t as their English teacher, who will?) and of course they defend themselves by claiming they are not using it with the same associations that I place upon the word. Probe a little deeper and they reveal that they wouldn’t say beat to refer to a long-term girlfriend: even on their own terms there is an acknowledgement of a lack of respect in the word and in the act.

Then there’s moist. It has it’s roots in sex too, a sort reference to the ever ready woman. Yup. That gross. And it’s usage? I’ve not had a decent explanation from a student but the general consensus is you don’t want to find yourself being called moist – you’d be branded a bit of an idiot.  So again, women and their sexuality are placed in the position of weakness and disdain.

You could say that these examples are merely words but if you did I’d give you a whole lecture on the social and cultural significance of language, what it reveals about our identities and biases, and you’d regret you’d said anything. And besides, the misogyny behind this language manifests itself in all sorts of ways.  Many boys are quick to interpret the female characters they encounter in the English classroom  as slags and if she’s not  a slag then she’s frigid, obviously.

I worry that this sort of language betrays a society that almost celebrates a violent and scornful outlook towards women. I worry what kind of partners and fathers these men will make, growing up in such a culture.

And so I’ll continue to question their interpretations and I’ll continue to challenge their use of misogynistic language, even if it feels like smacking my head against a very thick brick wall.


Friday, 4 February 2011

My Big Fat Guilty Pleasure

It’s been a helluva week at work , the kind where you have no room to breathe or think because you must squeeze as much productivity as possible out of each and every second of your day. I won’t bore you with the details but to suffice to say there’s been extra stresses on top of all the usual mass of human insecurities that is working in a large comprehensive.

So I’ve tended to come home completely spent with nothing more to give, which explains the lack of blog activity.  The post-work stupor has meant that I’ve watched more telly than usual this week. Usually I try to only turn it on if there is something I actually, really and specifically want to watch. It’s all very consciously bourgeois.

So my observations  this week are as follows: Kevin McCloud looks much more attractive as an older man than he does in the re-runs of Grand Designs from the late 90s.  And, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings is an intriguing little show.

Who knew some men could look better with less hair?
It’s voyeuristic television at its worse, and as a consequence, is voyeuristic television at its best.  There’s no pretense of being invited into the heart of a community, as with the best of such documentaries. Rather we’re standing at the edge of a big goldfish bowl, staring in and very firmly laughing at the poor misguided creatures swimming around inside.

It’s a show that’s attracted a fair amount of interest on the old social networks, mainly larks and banter about fake tans and big dresses. And why not? That castle cake on this week’s show was pretty funny.

But beyond the 16-stone dresses , the diamante and the frills, there are darker revelations about the travelling community.

Now I’m a good liberal girl and I know that I should believe in cultural relativism.  This week’s programme ended with the assertion that we could learn from the way the travellers live their life – strict moral codes about sexuality that help young girls to avoid exploitation; defined roles resulting in happy and satisfied individuals.

I remain unconvinced.  Traveller girls are encouraged to leave school at 13, many of them unable to read or write (this also seems to be the case for many of the boys). This lack of education seriously limits the choices  and aspirations of these girls. They are expected to take care of the family home until they are married, sometimes impossibly young, when they are then expected to take care of their husbands.

When questioned on the fairness of this set up, they were insistent that ‘It’s a man’s world. It’s how it should be.’  Proper education is a powerful thing. It helps you to develop a questioning and enquiring mind. Pulling young girls out of education helps to maintain the status quo: they are not given the tools to query  their lot and the ways of the world around them. 

And then there’s the practice of ‘grabbing’. Young traveller girls aren’t allowed to be seen out with boys: that would put their reputation and honour in question. However, they are permitted to be physically carried off and isolated by burly boys who  then slap them around, asking for a kiss. It’s makes for uncomfortable viewing.  And what is the result of sanctioning violence at the very beginning of relations between the genders? Data is difficult to gather about such an enclosed community but one paper estimates that  between 61% and 81% of married Gypsy and Traveller women have experienced direct abuse from a partner.

I’m not suggesting that we go and seek out the travelling community with pitchforks and torches, demanding better treatment of women. I wouldn’t want to fuel further prejudice against this already disadvantaged group. But I’m  not comfortable with tittering at the big dresses and then turning my back on some of the more questionable cultural norms.  There is inherent criticism of these practices in the show, but no suggestion of how to deal with it. We are encouraged to laugh at their funny gypsy ways, are encouraged to harshly judge their traditional culture, but  we are offered no positive way forward or solutions to these difficult and important issues.

The rights of women are granted to all women, not just those in a position to ensure they can access their rights for themselves. It’s a huge problem for both the movement and government to ensure women on the fringes of society have access to their rights. I can offer no answer here and in any case it needs to happen from within the community . I fear the best I can do is feel a stab of guilt next week when I scoff at the see-through mesh wedding dress and the flimsy horse-drawn carriage.

Oh, and bring attention to it on t’interweb. 

Friday, 28 January 2011

Mrs Keys lets the side down

I had made the conscious decision not to wade into the Andy Gray/Richard Keys debate. I’d hate to end up waffling into the ether, only regurgitating clichés and hackneyed ideas. I thought other people were doing a pretty decent job of responding and I might as well leave them to it.

And then today Mrs Keys decides to add her twopenn’orth.  You can see her in a number of quality tabloids, tray of teacups in hand, hurrying towards the hacks camped outside her home. With a big smile she chirrups:

"As a man, there are bits of you that never grow up."

I was pleased to see that The Sun, not known for its considered and subtle approach to gender issues (see its website feature ‘hottest girls of the week’), recognised that she “risked being a little guilty of sexist stereotyping herself” in dismissing her husband’s remarks as “boys’ banter”.

Gender stereotypes work both ways and I have no doubt that the projection of such ideas as the macho, brave and muscle‑bound man, or indeed the silly, useless, hopeless male, are every bit as unhelpful and unwanted as the traditional stereotypes of the ideal woman.

However, I fear the remarks of Mrs Keys have more disturbing consequences for gender relations. Stereotyping sexist remarks as male ‘boisterous behaviour’ grants men the permission to be sexist. Because, you know, those silly boys, they can’t help it, can they?

This sort of glib comment undermines any opportunity for women to claim an equal footing with men. It reinforces the idea of a gender divide; that we are simply different from each other and must accept things as so; that there’s nothing we can do about any adverse effects arising out of such differences.

I believe that if we gave Mrs Keys the right to reply she might suggest a sort of female empowerment in her remarks, that she is acknowledging an inherent, more mature female strength. In doing so she perpetuates the idea that boys will be boys and there’s nothing we can do about the injustices they inflict on women. Indeed, these boys in men’s bodies need all sorts of looking after: they’ll be useless in the home, they won’t be able to cook or clean or sort the kids out so we women better make sure we are in charge of that. And you know, if they let their tempers get the better of them, well, they’re only testosterone fuelled men, what we can we expect? At what point does such a justification become absurd?

Never mind winning the hearts and minds of men. There’s no hope if we can’t even change women’s own perspective.

 (By the by, some of my year 11 boys questioned whether Gray’s and Keys’ remarks were sexist at all, challenging me to explain the offside rule, which I duly did with aplomb. Score!)

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Dominic Raab's raw deal

It must be tough for Dominic Raab, facing all that discrimination as a white, middle-class man.

Photo from Evening Standard website. Note the low angle shot. Makes him look all big and powerful, like a real man.

He’s the Conservative MP for Esher and Walton and apparently he believes that men get a ‘raw deal’ in our society because of ‘out of touch lefties’ fighting for women’s rights.

Oh, and apparently we should be grateful that the pay gap is now only 10%  as opposed to  17% when pay equality legislation was introduced in the 1970s. Thank you kind sir for your little scraps of kindness.

It’s the old complaint that efforts to redress gender inequality is, in fact, discriminatory towards men.  But as a teacher, I am acutely aware that equality is not about treating everybody the same, it’s about equity of outcomes. The equality and diversity agenda, that Raab seems to be have set himself against, is an attempt to ensure that disadvantaged groups have the chance to equal outcomes and life chances.

So, dear Mr Raab, please don’t feel so threatened by women’s effort to right the wrongs of a deeply patriarchal culture. It’s really not about undermining or limiting your choices in any way, merely asserting our own.

(Click onto that Evening Standard link and marvel at the ignorance of some commenters. Particularly 'conspiracy factualist'. Brace yourselves, he's something special.)

Friday, 21 January 2011

Fraudulent Feminist no. 2: A weighty issue

I was nearly persuaded to become a cavewoman last week. 

Oh, I was seduced. There she was, a slender, toned, gleaming specimen of flesh. She looked up at me, back arched, and drew me in. It might have been the streak of blonde in her hair, or the deep and earnest glance. It was almost certainly the sheen of her skin and the contours of her body. In any case I was won over.

The steps to emulating such perfection were easy. Eat like a cavewoman and that body was mine. Only consume food that could be picked from the ground. Ok, I’m cool with that. Don’t eat any sugary, fatty, mouth-wateringly divine treats. Ok, par for the course. Don’t eat any pulses or grains. Erm, hang on, that means giving up bread. And oats.  And rice. What WOULD I eat?  I saw through its contradictions (don’t oats and wheat and rice grow on the ground?) and its skewed view of the world and got on with my life and my fairly healthy diet. But I had been shaken all the same, knowing that I should do more.

It’s hard to avoid in January, this tyranny of weight loss. And it speaks to the very heart of darkness in women.  I’m not happy with my figure. I don’t know anyone who is. I know I’m not fat, but you know, I’m not thin, not really.

Three months ago, on my wedding day I was 9st 6lb (and ok, at 5ft 8in, that’s quite thin) and today I sit at my desk a slightly portlier 9st 12lb. Exposing my size in this way is excruciating for me. I find the extra weight disturbing and hateful. I’m uncomfortable with the weight gain; it signals a failure for me. There’s a deep seated drive and desire within me to be thinner. I  feel the need to move more and eat less and if I spend the weekend drinking beer and eating chips (because that what makes a good weekend) come Monday I feel disgusted with myself.

Uncomfortable reading, no?  I would do anything to be sixteen again, when I really didn’t care about the puppy fat I’d developed and I enjoyed food with relish.  It was a slow descent into my current love/hate relationship with food but by my early twenties the pattern had been firmly established. Where does this come from?

Well, the cliché to turn to is the fashion world and the general bombardment of images of stick-thin women in the media. But I don’t read those kinds of mags and genuinely have no desire to be thinner than a size 8 – those models look scrawny to me. I’m not so convinced by that argument.

No, it’s darker, deeper, something that lies in the great abyss of the psyche. People with real eating disorders are often said to be using food as a way of gaining control over their lives. I wonder if that is also part of the wider relationship of women and food. Are we trying to gain control of our own lives in a world that is set up to exert control over us?  I’m not absolutely convinced by that idea either. It sometimes feels that to be thin is to be successful. It suggests a certain self-control. It suggests a keen sense of knowing what’s attractive and how to keep yourself that way. Are thin women sending out signals that they are ‘good’ little women? We’ll keep ourselves nice for you,  we can be controlled, we won’t cause you any trouble.  I really hope that isn’t the case.  

Whatever the reasons, whatever cultural influences are bearing down on me, I’m disturbed by the link I seem to have established between my weight, the food I eat and self-loathing.  This is in no way a positive phenomenon.

Of course, beauty ‘ideals’ are mere fashions. I’m quite aware that I would have made a HOT Victorian: delicate fair skin, dark curly hair, slim but curvy where it matters. I just missed my time.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Lady Mags

Obviously, at some point I'll be taking a more serious glance at the world of magazines but to whet your appetite here's some very funny commentary on the nonsense that the print world think women want to read.

How many casual misogynies can YOU spot?

Monday, 17 January 2011

Hearts and Minds

I wasn’t going to post today. I’ve spent twelve hours in a lightless, airless institution and frankly the will to live, let alone to write, seemed to evaporate little by little with the passing of every hour. But then I came home and my husband had laid out, very neatly,  the magazines from the Sunday papers for me. So I smiled, and read and smiled some more and the cogs started turning.

The Sunday Times magazine has a regular feature called ‘Relative Values’ in which two family members talk about their differing perspectives on the relationship. This week it is a mother and daughter. 76 year old Elizabeth tells us about “ambition, maternal guilt, missed sports days and atrocious cooking.” It struck a chord with many of the issues that have cropped up on my baby blog in the first week of its life.

“I’d have gone mad if I’d stayed at home, and I think that would have been worse than not being there.”

Yes! I firmly believe that happy women make good mothers. One of my greatest fears is that becoming a parent will create a seething resentment towards my children and towards my husband because the role of motherhood will push me into a corner I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready to occupy. (I reiterate that I speak from an absolutely personal perspective and by no means think that the choice to be a stay at home mum is the wrong choice.)

My husband thinks this is a load of old tosh. He can’t conceive that I might one day wake up and realise I've accidentally become a suburban housewife.* He can't conceive that I'll ever live my life in a way that isn't essentially ruled by my own desires and needs. But isn’t that what we all think? That we’re somehow special? That it won’t happen to us? That we’ll forge a new way?  That we won't get bogged down by the weight of responsibility.

The fact is, in order for that all important ‘choice’ to be meaningful, women need men on board.  Dare I say it, that even our 21st Century society is deeply patriarchal and we do, indeed, still need men to ‘grant’ us our rights and freedoms, because they are still holding the cards. We need men who will be willing to share the household chores, to share the child caring roles, and men who won’t feel a petty emasculation in doing so. We need men who are also willing to fight our cause. We need men who are brave enough to call themselves feminists. We need men who are brave enough to recognise that they are nurturers too.

Today the coalition government announced their intention to carry out the Labour pledge of flexible maternity leave. For the first time, women will be able to transfer a proportion of their maternity leave to their partner (up to six months.) This is significant legislation and a step in the right direction. But a leap in mere law is not enough. I do wonder how much a change in the details of maternity leave will actually result in a change in the details of women’s lives.

This legislation will be rendered meaningless if the partners of women are not willing to give up work to stay at home with the baby.  This is a role men are told they can’t perform as well as women. A role they are told they shouldn’t perform if they truly value their masculinity. A role they fear they will be ridiculed for fulfilling. Parental leave is not just a matter of the statute book, it's a matter of culture.

I suspect the bigger battle still lies in winning the hearts and minds of men.

* To be absolutely fair to my husband, and I think I must, he has offered, when the time should come, to give up work to share the child rearing duties, either full or part time, depending on what we agree together. In intention at least, he really is a goodun.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Power, determination and guilt

Interesting Guardian article on the first female G8 finance minister

"You draw up priorities, and you accept a lot of guilt."

But I don't WANT to accept a lot of guilt.

(Throws toys out of pram. Calms down with Saturday morning coffee.)

Friday, 14 January 2011

Staying home

I herby ban the use of the phrase ‘Just a stay at home mum.’

My reasons are threefold.

1)      It’s judgmental. Lord knows, enough of that thing goes on already. And that judgment creates pressure on women (and enough of that goes on too.)  It’s also divisive. I am not necessarily a better feminist because I haul my ass out of bed at 6.30 every morning to go to work. If personal and political choice and freedom for women is ever going to be meaningful, we need to rid the discourse of this kind of prejudice.

2)      Because ‘staying at home’ doesn’t mean retreating from life. Want some proof? Check out Babybandito.

3)      And maybe, if we stopped bandying about this phrase, I wouldn’t be so petrified of what having kids might do to my self esteem.

(My mum, who’s a wise old bird, despite my last reference to her, always says she was better informed staying at home with her children than she was stuck at work listening to the inane twitter of office banter. She puts it all down to Radio 4. Yeah, even The Archers. )

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Fraudulent Feminist no. 1: Birthday Boy

This is not my baking. This is from last year. The big 3.0. That's Michelin starred chocolate icing you're seeing there.
Today my husband turns 31. I’m not sure how he feels about this because I haven’t seen him. You see, the news never stops and he is unlucky enough to cover the graveyard shift. This means our working patterns fall at exactly the opposite times of day. Ships that pass in the night doesn’t even cover it.

He doesn’t appear to care much about the lack of celebration. I, however, feel really bad; like I’m cruelly sending him out to forage in the cold dark night on his birthday while I stay at the homestead luxuriously enjoying the fruits of his labours.

I felt I had to make up for it. So yesterday, after a busy shift at my own particular coal face, I rushed home with two bags full of shopping ready to cook and bake my way into perfect wifedom. If I can’t be there to celebrate with him, then I can leave some yummy treats in my place.

Now, I was pretty happy doing this. I like cooking. I think it’s because you see instant results: the food itself, the greedy gobbling of the people you are cooking for. I like the gratitude it brings too. When you’re a teacher, you don’t get many people being grateful for your efforts.  But, you know, it does seem a bit Stepford. Not very radical. Not very feminist.

I wonder if  he would do the same? I don’t mean to say that he wouldn’t think of some sort of small gesture on my birthday, because of course he would, he’s a pretty nice guy. But I doubt he’d cook for me. He’d buy me something like… flowers?  Chocolate?  Or maybe a book.  But that’s as imaginative as it gets.

What worries is how easily we slip into gender stereotypes. I really wanted to find a way of doing something cute and what I came up with was slaving in the kitchen (and I even did the washing up – yuk!) Oh, my mum tries to claim that it’s all ok as long as you have the choice. But choice as a concept is problematic. If I’m so conditioned to react in a gendered way to problems then my choices seem limited indeed.  But I can’t be sure that it isn’t just a personality quirk and nothing to do with my gender.  And if I am drawn to cooking because I’ve been socially programmed that way, I don’t really know how to unpick the hard wiring. Or even if I should let it worry me.

You know mum, come to think of it, there is a possibility I wasn’t really choosing all that pink as a little girl either…

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

What's in a name?

Well, while I’m working here on this blog the dishes certainly aren’t getting done. Shut the door and ignore it.

The idea has its root in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ by Virgina Woolf.
  “Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed." 
She summed up centuries of the problem. Women’s historical domestic place in the economy has always prevented us from fulfilling our true potential – poet or otherwise.

80 years later and not many of us are still at home washing the dishes. I have an army of talented and intelligent friends who have embraced the opportunities given us, who have freed themselves from the shackles of the kitchen sink.

Looking at us, you’d imagine that the war has been won.  Our new economic power has given us the independence and freedom to rule our own lives in ways generations before us could only imagine. And yet there are deep rooted anxieties amongst all of us. About our looks, about security, about raising children, about relationships, about our place in the world.

Beyond our little lives there is plenty of evidence that women do not have equal footing with men. Think of the way the female image is presented in the media, the pay gap, the glass ceiling, the imbalance in political representation. I could, and at some point will, go on.

And are women like us outraged by these inequalities? Are we active in tackling them? We are not. Feminism hardly ever rears its head in our self-obsessed lives.

I have often wondered if we’ve let the side down (more of that later too.) Could we, and should we be doing more? Are we happy just accepting what we’ve got without pushing progress further?

And that’s what this blog is about. It’s not militant or overly political. It’s about the ordinary experience of a woman who wants to be feminist, who also embraces femininity; who is at once traditional and radical (sometimes, a bit); who’s trying to make amends for taking too much for granted but who sometimes finds it hard to break free from the weight of convention and conditioning.

And a woman who’s always arguing with her other half about washing the dishes.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Coming to terms with getting married

Just over a year ago I found myself in a smart bar on Bermondsey High Street having a final drink at the end of my 29th birthday and I wasn’t all that happy.  In the midst of the celebrations my boyfriend got a text from a close friend – he had just got engaged and this news hit a sore point.

 I had been with my boy for nearly eight years and although we had talked about marriage, he was downright refusing to allow the conversation to go any further than that. No timescale. No assurances. And hence I found myself starting my thirtieth year on this earth navel gazing into a gin and tonic about my lack of sparkling diamond. Ridiculous of course, especially in light of the subsequent proposal just four weeks later.  And shameful in light of the intelligent, independent and wait for it, feminist young woman I had always claimed to be.

Over the course of the following year, my desperation to get married was just one of the many home truths I would have to face as a self confessed feminist who was also planning a wedding. 

So, why didn’t I just put myself out of my own misery and ask him? “Oh, that’s easy” I would tell myself, “I’m handing the control over to my boyfriend because proposing is important to him, it’s the sort of thing people in healthy relationships do." Who was I kidding? In truth, I really didn’t want to be the girl who had to propose to her man.  Strike two.

So why does someone like me want to get married? I just had a gut instinct that marriage was right for me and right for us. Many friends and colleagues challenged this gut instinct; my arguments were weak and vague. I would mumble something about not always having to intellectualise human relationships and hope the conversation would naturally dwindle. Actually being engaged meant I had to face up to the criticisms.

 It was clear that I was never going to promise to obey (who does nowadays?) but what about all the other symbols that equally have their roots very firmly planted in a patriarchal history? My father walking me up the aisle and handing me over to my husband? The veil? The very institution of marriage itself?

So much of being a bride to be I deplored. I had no dreams of being a princess but very few bridal shops seemed willing to accept this. They were convinced that I somehow didn’t have the confidence to embrace the princess vision. I did, however,  cave into the pressure to strive for perfection.  I dieted; I spent over £400 on make up; my hair took two trips to the stylist. I never felt entirely comfortable with this vanity project and yet never won the battle with my image issues. I still feel a bit uneasy about how I looked.

 It wasn’t just the ‘wedding industry’ that raised my heckles. The very discourse around ‘the big day’ seemed odd to me. People no longer asked me about my job  or what I was reading or my opinions on politics, current affairs, life in general.  No, it was all about the wedding. As an engaged woman, all other aspects of my identity were sidelined.

There are some saving graces to be found in blogworld. I found A Practical Wedding useful and sane and intelligent. East Side Bride is pithy and witty and a good antidote to the endless pursuit for perfection.

Once asked, I found myself lured into playing the part of the self-obsessed bride to be. In my defence, it’s a pretty big project and it was on my mind a lot. Especially after our reception venue burnt to the ground!

Having been through the process and come out the other end a newly married woman, I now feel much more able to reply to my critics.

 There is something incredibly powerful about bringing together your community and making vows to each other in front of the people who matter most in your lives. After 8 and a half years, getting married was the affirmation of our relationship and a chance to celebrate something good in life.  In all sorts of ways that day was about making public the very private: not just the vows but the second reading I trawled my favourite books for; the party playlists of all our favourite music we’d spent months compiling; my husband’s funny, slightly bumbling but heartfelt speech.

These acts have succeeded in bringing us even closer together. But I’m glad I’ve kept my own name: it adds continuity to my identity before and after marriage. Changing felt too much like a statement of ‘ownership’ attached to my new status.

However, in the midst of all this I made some major feminist transgressions. My dad gave me away because he’s been waiting 30 years to walk me up the aisle. Making a political point didn’t seem worth disappointing my father for. I wore a veil (but not over my face) because it meant  my low back dress felt more comfortable in church (and, well yeah,  it looked cool.) I did these things knowingly, having thought about them carefully and intelligently, determined not to passively accept tradition, safe in the knowledge that whatever decision I made I would have the absolute support of my husband because he has no patriarchal axe to grind. I hope there might be at least some feminist triumph somewhere amongst all that.

Was my wedding day the happiest day of my life? I wouldn’t want to write off ever being that happy again at merely 30. But it was the most significant day of my life, so far. And I sure am glad it’s over.