Tag Archives: gender equality

Crocodile tears?

So there is something that’s been bugging me, and I haven’t said anything because it’s all a bit contentious. I can hear the arguments already: about how I’m cold-hearted, or blinkered to the concerns of others, or so biased that I just can’t see the hurt some people are feeling. But do you know what? I’m going to say it anyway.

So here it is: what on earth is going on with all these female MPs being reduced to tears lately?

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It started with Labour leadership challenger Angela Eagle, bemoaning her ‘agonising decision’ to resign by insisting that ‘it’s just not working’. A couple of days later we had Margaret Beckett, again pleading for Jeremy Corbyn to resign by comparing him unfavourably to the eight previous Labour leaders she has felt able to be ‘loyal to’. And then of course there was Ruth Smeeth, who left an antisemitism event in tears after being accused by a supporter of Corbyn of ‘being part of a media conspiracy’.

As a woman, I am embarrassed.

This is an incredibly stressful time for our politicians, I get that. The disastrous EU referendum project brought out the worst in everybody, breeding hatred and animosity that has been felt at every level of our society. My social media timelines have been filled with anger and with grief, and I have no doubt that many tears have been shed behind closed doors over what is happening to our country.

But to do it in public, when what is happening to our country is actually your job, your responsibility? No, that does not sit comfortably with me at all.

I know what it feels like to be pushed to the edge, to be beaten down by the system and by the task that lies before you. As a teacher and a leader in secondary schools I felt that biting pain of tears behind the eyes both in the classroom and in meetings, but I did not let my smile drop until I was alone – or at least alone amongst the most trusted of my colleagues. It takes strength, but keeping those emotions at bay is vital not only to maintain a semblance of professionalism but also to be able to continue to act professionally.

These women who have let down their guard have not been overlooked in some private place: they have let their emotions rise to the surface in front of politicians and journalists. And I do not believe they have done it because they are weak. If I did then I would not be writing this. These are strong, powerful, empowered women – they are choosing to let themselves cry.

The reasons why are to me pretty clear. There is a narrative at work here, a narrative which is placing Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters in role as bullies. There are undoubtedly within the people who have flocked around Momentum (as with any political cause) those that give the whole movement a bad name. But to blame it on the movement itself is laughable. Jeremy Corbyn is a peacemaker, a champion of kindness and equality, a speaker of truth. He is not a bully. He is being bullied, that much is certain, by the PLP and the media. But I have yet to see his emotions show in public beyond a flicker of resentment and a determination to continue with the job he was elected to do.

And this steely resolve is being used against him. Women are crying as they say his name, and he is being aligned with the bullies. And I do not think that is fair.

It is not fair on him, and it is not fair on us.

Just over a year ago, Tim Hunt and Boris Johnson were at the centre of a furore over gender discrimination: Hunt said, and Johnson agreed, that ‘when you criticise [girls], they cry’ – that ‘it is a scientific fact that women cry more readily than men’. They were despicable comments to have made, and revealed a truth about the underlying misogyny in our society that women have to battle against every single day in order to be taken seriously.

I cannot help but feel that, with their tears, Eagle, Beckett and Smeeth have taken us back even further.

 

Writing Bubble

 

On women and writing

My son has not been 100% the past few days, which has meant much more time sitting on the sofa having cuddles than usual. During one of these moments yesterday afternoon, whilst savouring the calmness of the three year old nestled at my chest, I had a bit of a revelation.

I found myself looking at my bookshelves, idly imagining my own published work sitting up there one day, and then it struck me: the overwhelming majority of the books in my life were written by men.

I couldn’t in that moment put my finger on why that was, but I knew it was significant for me – as a woman and as a writer. So today, what with it being International Women’s Day, I decided to do a little investigation.

As I am so often wont to do, I turned my gaze inwards first: tried to work out what it was about me that had led to such a literary gender imbalance. These books I have around me chart my reading history back to my teens. I have never got around to organising them in any particular way, and the resulting cacophony of titles is not easy to analyse, but however many times I went back again to look the facts remained the same: I have, over the past twenty years of my life as an avid adult reader, amassed a library which is almost entirely male-generated.

McEwan, Banks, Rushdie, Murakami, Self: all literary idols of my teens and twenties, all fantastic authors in their own right, but peculiar role models for a young woman trying to find her way in the world.

I didn’t think so at the time of course. I remember having a strong desire to be taken seriously as a reader and as an intellectual in my very male-dominated social and family circle. I remember arrogantly dismissing Austen – the only female author I remember studying at school – for what I saw as her obsession with vacuous romance. I remember being switched off by chick-lit as frivolous and a waste of reading energy (though I never looked beyond the covers to find out if that was actually true).

Of course as time went on I read – and loved – books by female authors too. Just not enough.

As my mind shifted to the context of all this I began to wonder whether it was merely a phenomenon isolated to my own book collection. I suspected probably not – certainly my sense of the world of the professionally respected writer is of one that is very male dominated. But I had already established that my lifetime’s research in this field was somewhat skewed, so I figured it was worth investigating.

Turns out it wasn’t just me. A quick google search threw up a woman whose novel proved eight times more attractive to agents when submitted under a male pseudonym; a study which revealed that 75% of the books reviewed in the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement were written by men. I’m sure further research would have given me plenty more reassurance, but I’m pretty confident that it’s not just my bookshelves that are biased.

The reason why is somewhat more elusive. Are there actually less female authors than male ones – or good ones anyway? This question was explored at length in a fascinating essay written by Francine Prose in 1998, resurfacing when V.S.Naipaul expressed a similar disparagement towards Jane Austen as my teenage self in comments he made in 2011. The answer is of course complex and multilayered, with a multitude of reasons why women write, or don’t, and why people want to read what women write, or don’t (or at least what the publishers think in this regard).

A hypothesis that has recurred over the years is that is has something to do with motherhood: that ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’. Or if you are going to succumb to kids, just make sure you only have the one.

For me, the opposite is true. Or at least I thought it was. I found becoming a mother extremely motivating – liberating, even – and the birth of my son will always be intrinsically linked with my reasons for finally putting virtual pen to paper and writing my first novel. However as time goes on it has all started to feel a little self-indulgent, a waste of my ‘potential’, of my ‘education’  – both the desire to plunge myself headfirst into parenthood, and the equally strong desire to use all my spare moments to write. The voices from my past are surfacing and telling me that just writing and looking after a kid are hardly valuable uses of my time. So those precious minutes are being eaten away because I feel like I should be earning money (though I am lucky enough at the moment not to strictly need to) and because I feel that I should be doing something ‘worthwhile’ (though I have already dedicated ten years of my life to teaching).

I am wondering now, as I work all this through, whether I shouldn’t be seriously rethinking my priorities. But that would mean a commitment to this role of Writer, an assertion to myself and to others that I am good enough, and it is worthwhile.

I’m not sure that I’m there yet. Though coming across another article about how what separates unsuccessful female writers from successful male ones is the very reticence that I recognise wholeheartedly in myself has given me even more pause for thought.

And I am glad to say that my explorations did not throw up only negatives. I found this article about ten women authors who published after age forty particularly encouraging – there is still time, and hopefully plenty of it.

Also encouraging is the fact that one of these authors is currently sitting on top of my reading pile: a reading pile which for perhaps the first time ever is made up of books entirely written by women.

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None of this is by design. I never consciously set out to not read books by women, or indeed to seek them out as I grew older. But the shift in my literary gender balance is not entirely accidental either. I think it speaks to where I am right now with myself, as a woman and as a writer.

I’m still figuring out exactly where that is, but once I do? You’d better watch out, world.

 

Writing Bubble

Why it’s time for all of us to insist on gender equality

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The notion of women or men being inherently better at some things rather than others purely because of their gender is not something that’s ever sat comfortably with me. The idea that men are more powerful, or women more nurturing; that men are better leaders whilst women are more compliant; that a man should be out earning money whilst a woman should focus on bringing up the babies.

When I was growing up, I was surrounded by boys most of the time. I have three (very different) brothers who were my constant childhood playmates, and during my teenage years I often found myself feeling intimidated by female company – the vast majority of my friends were male.

As I got older I became increasingly aware of the stereotypes concerning gender, both latent and overt, but I could never take them seriously because I knew too many people who didn’t fit them. I didn’t feel that there was anything I could not do just because I was a girl, and whilst I was aware of the history of the fight for women’s rights for me it had already achieved what it needed to. I heard the voices of feminists, but I did not understand why they were still complaining: surely women had the choice, now, of what they wanted to do with their lives? And besides, in every feminist argument I heard a message that I just could not tally with the reality of my life and the people in it: that it was men that were in fact inferior, and that it was only by hating them that women could promote their cause.

Fast-forward more than a decade later and I know I was wrong. Not just about the message underpinning feminism, but about how far from gender equality we as a society are.

The stereotypes I rejected in my youth are more pervasive than ever, with campaigns like Let Toys Be Toys highlighting the part the toy industry is playing in limiting children’s aspirations with products and marketing now that is more gender specific than it was in the 1970s.  I’ve watched as this gender bias has invaded my classroom: teenage girls playing down their intellect to fit the ideal of being beautiful and submissive or attacking each other in fits of bitchiness as they struggled to reconcile the roles they felt they were destined for with their ambitions; teenage boys playing the joker to avoid being seen to show an interest in studying or exploding in aggression because they couldn’t see any other avenue open to them to express their feelings. And these anecdotes of course barely scratch the surface of the injustices faced by women in our world today – and the damage that outdated and inaccurate notions of masculinity do to men.

Now that I have a child the challenges facing us in our quest for gender equality have become even more clear. I have watched friends, old and new, battling with the expectations society puts on them as parents – and the gulf that still exists in the expectations we have of women and men. Of course on one level the reason for this gulf is obvious: the physical impact that motherhood has on women, from pregnancy to childbirth to breastfeeding cannot be underestimated. But women do not become weaker when they bring a new life into the world: if anything they become more powerful, more capable. So why is it that their value diminishes? Is it because we put so little importance on growing our future generations that we still champion a model of work and careers that refuses to make significant concessions to the vital role parents play?

I have, on the surface at least, fallen into this trap myself. Unable to see a way of being the mother I want to be whilst remaining in teaching, I have left the career I dedicated myself to for over ten years to bring up my child. With every spare second that I have, I am attempting to forge a new career, something that will allow me to work more flexibly, to acknowledge my role as a parent rather than handing it over to someone else. I know that I’m in the minority in that I have a myriad of options: an education and career path to fall back on, the financial security to be able to take time out to try something new, a husband who wants to take an active role in parenting our son whenever he can.

But like many, many other women in the world – and men too, though they are less visible and less vocal – I can’t imagine a much more important job than raising a human being, than helping to build the next generation. One of the most vital aspects of this for me is to nurture a child who believes in equality, who does not feel constrained by his gender – nor expect undue privilege merely for the fact that he is a boy.

I only hope that he can grow up in a world where this might begin to be true. And this is why I believe the HeForShe movement is so important: why feminism needs to be embraced by everybody, not just the women who have historically fought its corner, and why we need to accept that men are held back by the myths and stereotypes that will continue to be perpetuated if we do not all insist on gender equality.

Emma Watson put this far better than me in her speech to the United Nations this weekend. She has inspired me to finally shake off any residual antagonism I might have felt towards the feminist movement, and to encourage the men I am lucky to count amongst my family and friends to stand up and do the same.

 

Linking up with Sara at Mum Turned Mom for The Prompt: Are women better parents than men? 

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