Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Week 1: I write about feminism

I’m still embedded in a years-long strop with Caitlin Moran, the flames of my one-sided rage fanned constantly by the fact that she is so plainly better at Being Alive than I am, so for several weeks I resisted purchasing her latest book, How To Be A Woman. I finally conceded defeat when the number of women who recommended I buy it hit half a century; I read it on Monday.

There were bits I didn’t like and I vehemently disagree with her about burlesque, but it would be someone far more dense than I who’d begin a new weekly blog by criticising the doyenne of Twitter. So there’s also this: much of the book was quite good and it made me laugh several times. And – unlike so many of the tomes piling up in WH Smith’s – it definitely deserves to exist. Feminism may feel obvious to a lot of us, but nonexistent god knows we still have a way to go.

I recently had the good fortune to be lying poolside in Italy, wings of tanned backfat hanging gently towards the hinge of the conifer-green plastic lounger. Alongside me were several others, all expressing strong opinions about gender equality. Our choir tours are a laugh a minute, I tell you. Rob the tenor made the point that female emancipation in the UK is so good in comparison to many other countries that we should be thanking our lucky stars rather than complaining about our sky-high glass ceiling, like telling someone who’s being violently sick having eaten a dodgy prawn at a cheap Soho takeaway that they can’t complain because there are people in Iran who’ve never even been to Soho.

Context is important, yes. I could be being stoned by an angry mob because I’ve had sex outside marriage. Like millions of women the world over, I could be told to cover my hair with a scarf, or it could be illegal for me to get into a car with any man who’s not family. All these scenarios would seriously impinge on my concept of freedom, and if someone marched in here now and said I had to abide by those rules, I’d laugh in their face and then, if they turned out to be telling the truth, I would cry and then protest, and then possibly go to prison or be executed, which would be a real shame as I’m very excited about my holiday at the end of August. So YES Rob the tenor, OBVIOUSLY it could be worse.

But problems persist. The biggest is awareness: many people don't even know how much unfairness still knocks about. While a lot of us are pretty clear on current inequalities, there's a sizeable gaggle out there that doesn’t seem to be aware of how deeply mismatched things remain. I’m employed by a global corporation where there is not a single woman on the Management Board. In the building where I work, there are no male secretaries. Doesn’t sound like we’re equal to me – but I don’t see any of my colleagues complaining.

Being clear that things are far from equal is only the start, though - the next challenge is knowing how to change things. Like a huge, bemammaried posse of Martin Luther Kings, many of us have powerful dreams of parity, but we know that on a practical level, they’re not going to happen any time soon, and that inflicting Shard-high standards on our nearest and dearest is an easy way to guarantee spinsterhood and a lifetime of being pitied for being a principled bore. So it’s become a case of loudly proclaiming, ‘The status quo sucks: THIS is what should be happening,’ while quietly putting up with the inequalities we face every day, because being a pain in the ass about it would be social suicide.

Most of us know it sucks the way that women are seen as sexual objects. Half-naked females advertise shower gel, cars, coffee tables. Plenty of strippers say they enjoy giving lap dances, that it’s liberating, that they’re empowered by making money from men’s weaknesses. There are enough females out there who act very happy to be unequal – so if you wear normal clothes and have normal skin and normal body hair, if you’d rather your boyfriend didn’t need to watch internet footage of two impossibly thin, tanned, hairless women working themselves into a frenzy in order to get turned on, if you consider anal sex a bit much for a first date, if you’re prudish about anything at all, you’re often perceived as boring, or a lesbian, or – unrecoverable – a boring lesbian.

Most of us want to feel like our bodies are good enough without spending hundreds of pounds on maintenance. But the men we date grew up expecting a certain level of female grooming and learning about sex and women’s bodies from porn. So how can it be THEIR fault when they lose their erection because you’ve got stubbly calves? (Yes, that actually happened to me. They weren't that bad, I swear. But I’ve since spent several hundred pounds on laser hair removal, so who's the dickhead?) We’re left eating from Morton’s fork: either we refuse to tick the boxes that pretty much all men have come to demand, safe in the knowledge that there’s no shortage of girls out there who will. Or we clamber aboard the bandwagon, muttering our complaints, and hope that things will change, in time.

Many of us think it’s absurd that society expects us to change our name when we get married. Why should we be the only ones to alter our identity? Why should our prefix change from Miss to Mrs, while his doesn’t shift? Why should we be tagged with an engagement ring to show that we’re off the market, while our boyfriend wears no visible sign of commitment? But we’ve grown up in a marriage-obsessed society, and many of us still want to be part of a family that has a brand name. The obvious solution: both partners change their names to something new and cool, both partners wear engagement rings. Great in theory – but if you’re planning on waiting ’til you find a Mr Right who’ll agree to those rules, you’ll be twiddling your thumbs for a long time. So we get new passports, grudgingly accept that our children will bear his surname, and we hope things will change, in time.

Most of us know that – in the vast majority of jobs – gender should not affect employability. Given equal work experience, women are every bit as worthy of the top jobs as men and deserve to be paid the same as a man to do them (not an average of 30% less, as is the case at present). But we know that – as things stand – having children changes everything, that the time we take off to bring up our kids means we’re not able to compete in the same ballpark, that time and again the CVs of broody-likely women will be overlooked by employers. We know that, until men take as much leave as women following the birth of a child, until they’re just as likely to ask to go part time, to have to leave at 4pm to do the school run, we won’t be seen as equals in the workplace. We want men to feel free to take just as much paternity leave as women take maternity. We want our partners to feel as though, if they want to spend six months on statutory pay at home with their newborn, they can – that their colleagues do it too, that their bosses understand that it’s a unique opportunity to bond with their tiny child, that society would provably be better for all of us if more new dads got stuck in. We want it to be standard practice. Yet in reality, we fear this is surely decades away, that many millions of dads don’t want to share the load 50/50, that their career is too important to their self-esteem, that we’d have to be certifiable to force our partners to jeopardise their jobs by pressurising them to take the same amount of time off as we do. And more often than not, by the time a kid comes along, we’re already doing jobs that are way less lucrative than our male partner’s, and so to insist they risked that chunk of income would be shooting ourselves in the financial foot. We're trapped. So we have our babies, and we do the lion’s share of the parenting, and hope that things will change, in time.

Like my dad getting out of his armchair, progress with an issue this big is rarely smooth or speedy. I’m confident that things are improving, though. My request? That we all complain loudly and regularly about the many inequalities that continue to infect our society. That we accept neither the status quo nor Status Quo. And that we moan big, moan often, and hire male secretaries.

Don’t worry, I won’t always be this serious.


  1. "I need to find a catchy new word for feminism, right? Like Bootylicious" - Beyonce

    For every ten sensible women who want to make a positive change, there is one famous tit undermining them all.

  2. great post! sez she, like a spammer.

    you've articulated a lot of the things i failed to when i tried to explain to varios Rob-the-tenors why they should read How to be a Woman.

  3. Thanks to both of you - and special props to Thom for being the first ever person to comment on POTW - one day you will be lauded as a trend-setter and demigod. Not for a while though, obv.