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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.