I woke up today to see Julie Burchill’s very angry defence of her friend Suzanne Moore all over my Twitter timeline. I guess, because I sometimes write about rape, I follow, and am followed by, a number of wonderful people who also write about, or care about, rape and women’s issues. Overwhelmingly, people have been greatly offended by that article. And rightly. But, it gives me a big dose of the sads. Because, however wrong much of the sentiment was, it’s so frustrating to see so many powerful, loud women (and men) take the knives out to each other, when the real enemy is the culture we live in which enables us all to be oppressed. The culture which means that of c. 95,000 rapes per year (one every 5 and a half minutes!), only 1,070 rapists are convicted. The culture which means that a site like everydaysexism.com needs to exist to cast a light on the everyday oppression of women. The culture which pays lip service to the idea that women should be paid equally for work, but in which the austerity cuts hurt women most – because they are more likely to be in part time work, to need benefits to supplement their incomes, which are being cut.
Let’s get this out of the way first. Before the internet, and various Twitterstorms (debates, conversations?), I blithely assumed that privilege was something rich people had, primarily rich, white, men. I’m aware now that I have privilege in bucketloads. Sometimes I read an angry polemic by someone and actually feel marginalised because of my privilege. I am (by most people’s standards) rich – I earn a very decent living. I went to university. I am white. Because of this privilege, I often feel silenced. I mustn’t complain because others have it worse. I have to always be aware of when I am speaking if it’s my privilege speaking. Catilin Moran said recently in an interview that rich women don’t get raped because they can afford a taxi home. I took a taxi home, but I was still raped. (I wonder if the rapist would have bothered with the hour+ journey on London transport it would have taken – perhaps penury would have saved me? Or, did he pay?). Nice, white, middle-class girls are apparently believed and have a greater chance of getting the case to go to court, and getting a conviction. The problem with rape justice, is apparently (if you believe so many articles and blogs) a problem for the working class, for minorities, it’s not supposed to be a problem faced by people with privilege like mine. Except it is. My case didn’t go to court. Apart from the fact that financially my life is slightly more comfortable than for others I am not sure what my privilege gives me. And, I’ve been unemployed, I’ve signed on. I know how that feels, how you’re made to feel worthless, how it feels to try to survive on JSA only. One day, when I was unemployed, I found myself in the City, amongst the suits and briefcases. I felt invisible, I felt like I was trespassing where I shouldn’t be.
And that’s the thing. I was about 2 months’ savings away from needing to stay on friends’ sofas. My privilege doesn’t protect me from the economy, it doesn’t protect me from being raped, and it doesn’t guarantee me justice.
Privilege is a red herring. What matters in these discussions and debates is empathy. Empathy, understanding, compassion. Privilege can give someone a different perspective, different life experiences, but it doesn’t preclude the human ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to try to understand their life experiences, their perspectives.
I’m one of those women who never identified as a feminist. Whilst I wear comfortable shoes, and I used to own a pair of dungaree shorts in my early twenties, I’ve never wanted to be identified with the hairy armpits and the mad harrigan stereotype of a feminist. I’ve never wanted to burn my bra, or felt the need to get angry for it being a man’s world. Life was just life, with its associated inequalities – women are sometimes discriminated against, but so are other minorities.
And then I read Caitlin Moran’s ‘How to be a Woman’. She asked, did I have a pussy, and did I care what happened to it. If so, I was a feminist. And, I liked that definition. I’m a woman, and I care what happens to me as a woman, or because I’m a woman, so I can identify with that. But then, came the attacks from the feminists. How dare Caitlin Moran presume to write for all women (the title of the book) when she is white and privileged? How dare she say she doesn’t care that she doesn’t write for black women or other minorities? People are writing about feminism Before Caitlin, and after, and calling women like me who came to feminism through ‘How to be a Woman’ ‘baby feminists’. Well, I ain’t no baby.
I haven’t read the feminist doctrines, I haven’t ‘studied’ it as a movement. Many of the discussions I read (via Twitter, blogs, newspapers) use an intellectual language which, despite my education, I don’t understand and isn’t familiar to me. It’s apparently not the patriarchy at fault, it’s a kyriarchy* (which I’m informed is pronounced like biryani, ky-ri-archy, which frankly just makes me smirk a little – and not because biryani is an Indian curry, but because it’s a food stuff) but whilst I now know that’s because there are groups of men who are also oppressed (e.g. gays), and it is apparently a much more ‘helpful’ word, I don’t see it that way. It’s a word which isn’t in common parlance, and therefore isn’t helpful in making ordinary women understand that feminism is about them. (* from Wikipedia: It is an intersectional extension of the idea of patriarchy beyond gender. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, economic injustice, and other forms of dominating hierarchy in which the subordination of one person or group to another is internalised and institutionalised. Yep, even with that definition, it doesn’t make much sense).
I don’t identify with the word CIS to define my gender. Julie Birchall made this point in her contentious, ugly, angry polemic. But this, I did agree with, although certainly not the way she made it. Julie Birchall struck a chord with me when she said the label CIS made her think of “cyph, cyst, cistern; all nasty stuff”. She went into ugly, hurtful, bigoted language when she then said what she did about trans people, but she had a point about CIS. I’m a woman, and so is a woman who was born of the male gender but has transitioned. Your label is not mine. But, I understand that in an intellectual debate, labels can be useful. (For me, it’s like in kink. I don’t really identify as submissive, or even masochist. But, they are useful shorthand to describe the ‘bucket’ of kink that I do identify with. But, as in the kink world, I prefer to just identify as kinky, in the actual world, I prefer to identify as a woman, and not as CIS-gendered).
I liked @londonfeminist's first blog of 2013, a feminism 101. She boiled feminism down to “one very simple ideology: that women and men are equal. Accept that, and whether you accept the label or not, you are a feminist.”
The Big Feminist Issues.
Feminism has many fronts on which to fight. Our decisions to let our lady-parts grow, trim, or wax are not the important ones (which Caitlin Moran seems to spend a lot of time on). Whether we wear heels, or don’t is also rather irrelevant in the scheme of things. We have to fight against a rape culture in which 1% of rapists are convicted, where institutions like the BBC, or the SWP, turn a blind eye, or sweep accusations under the carpet, where men in positions of power are excused because of the other good they do (Assange). We have to fight so that women aren’t marginalised in party politics (local or national), on company boards, or management positions anywhere in the organisation, so that women earn equal pay for equal work, and have the option of gaining access to equal work. We have to fight so that women aren’t forced to stay in violent relationships because the alternative is the street, to prevent the closure of refuges. We have to fight so that women don’t have to skip food just so they can afford to feed their children. When it comes to feminism, the big fights we have to fight are in the basics. If feminism were put into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs* (and forgive the intellectualising here, it’s my privilege rearing it’s ugly head), we would be in the foundation layer of need – safety, security, food and shelter. These arguments about intersectionality, these debates about language, are in the self-actualisation part of the hierarchy, at the top of the pyramid.
Women are our own worst enemy. I once tried to run a kink club for women, a safe space for women to play together without men. We got it wrong with initially excluding MtF transgendered women, but the politics of it was a shitstorm. Let me say it again, we were wrong to exclude MtF women. We were wrong because MtF women are women. We said we were wrong, we apologised for the hurt and upset. But, the gender politics remained a shitstorm. And not because of the trans issue. Because, lesbians didn’t want to go to a place with bi women. And then, we needed to include FtM too because the sisterhood was still supporting those who’d become men. I will never try to run anything that is for women only again (yes, you can quote me).
In 2012 I saw two anti-rape demonstrations quagmire in politics – SlutWalk London for associating with Women Against Rape and their support for Assange (which was wrong, wrong, wrong, but it doesn’t mean you can’t support the underlying point of the march, which is against rape culture); Reclaim the Night for excluding men, and in Glasgow for apparently excluding sex workers too. Rather than focus on the underlying message of the marches – rape is bad, don’t blame the victim, change societal norms – women are all too happy to attack the mistakes that the organisers make, and undermine the message.
Here’s a controversial thought. Feminists are wasting their time (and anger) attacking the symptoms of inequality. Whilst women are paid less than men for the same job, whilst the cuts hurt women most, whilst 99% of rapists go free and 1 in 3 women suffers from domestic violence in their lifetime, feminists seem to waste a hell of a lot of time worrying about pink toys for girls in shop windows. Pink toys for girls are there because people buy them – it’s called a free market. Pink toys for girls don’t cause discrimination against women. Most men don’t cause discrimination against women. I think ALL of the men I know would agree that women deserve equal pay and that rape & violence against women is wrong. I don’t know what the answer is, but it isn’t to be found in campaigning against pink toys, and it isn’t to be found in attacking the women who try to raise awareness of the bigger issues through demonstrations & marches, but might get their ‘inclusivity’ agenda wrong.
Somewhere, hidden beneath the bigoted language in Julie Birchall’s defence of Suzanne Moore, and in Suzanne Moore’s original two articles, is a plea to not get caught up in arguments about language. When Suzanne Moore says “So to be told that I hate transgender people feels a little ... irrelevant”, she is not saying that transgender issues are irrelevant to the debate. I believe she is saying that there are bigger wars to be fought – we have to fight the system that marginalises us all, not by focusing on our genitals, but by focusing on the causes of the things that oppress us.
I loved reading Jane Fae’s balanced, bile-free, response to the whole thing this morning. A piece written from a place of great personal hurt, but without recrimination or hate. We do, as people, not just as feminists, have to be aware of “the insensitivity to how an audience may feel about an argument and the language used, the idea that it’s all about content and nothing to do with feelings” and yet we also need “to ask everyone spewing forth anger and bile in this context to stop and think about what, exactly you are doing”. Jane quotes Bidisha* who “observed a couple of years back that she did her best to avoid this sort of argument with other feminists, because women as a whole had far greater issues to deal with and didn’t need to be wasting time and energy fighting with one another.” And we do. There are a bunch of status-quo misogynistic men rubbing their hands with glee at this latest example of in-fighting, knowing that they are safe, their institutions, their culture, is safe, whilst we demonstrate that we don’t have solidarity, that we aren’t united against them.
The loud feminists have a bigger responsibility than the rest of us. They have a platform. Newspapers and magazines give them a voice. Their voices are influential. They do need to be more circumspect in what they are saying, not exclude the already excluded, not marginalise the already marginalised. They have a privilege which they shouldn’t abuse, which is dangerous when they do abuse. We’ve seen it with Moran (victim blaming), and now we see it with Burchill too. What the ‘loud feminists’ need to do is apologise, admit their fallibilities, learn from criticism (even when that criticism feels like cyber-bullying) and turn the anger towards the patriarchy (kyriarchy?) and not against the smaller voices trying to be heard. We need to demonstrate that we are united, not fragmented. Because when we are united, when our anger is directed outwards towards the cultures & institutions which oppress us, then we will be invincible and we will make great changes. Whilst our anger is directed inwards, whilst we are fragmented and divided, we are not changing anything.
Links to Articles.
Suzanne Moore’s defence of her original mis-placed remark about Brazilian Transsexuals. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/09/dont-care-if-born-woman
Julie Birchall’s defence of Suzanne Moore (which should have a trigger warning for pure hate). http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/13/julie-burchill-suzanne-moore-transsexuals
Jane Fae’s personal view of the events. http://janefae.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/this-is-personal/
LondonFeminist’s Feminism 101. http://londonfeminist.com/site/what-is-a-feminist-anyway/
My plea to Caitlin Moran, who fell off her pedestal with her victim blaming comments late last year: http://musingsofemilyrose.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/dear-caitlin.html?zx=e2406f7186fbf3db (yes, another plug, still so saddened that she hasn’t acknowledged it, even if by blocking me…).
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs