Jul 8, 2014

A woman's work is never done

On a recent visit to Stockholm, I was amused to encounter an exhibit in its excellent historical museum titled “The Bäckaskog woman”. This woman’s well preserved remains were excavated in 1943 and were found alongside grave goods such as fish hooks, carving blades and other paraphernalia indicative of a an active life of living off the land through hunting and fishing. The remains were immediately interpreted as those of a man and took pride of place among Sweden’s archaeological exhibits as “The Barum Fisherman”. It was not until 1970 (!) that some enterprising physical anthropologists thought to actually examine the skeleton in detail, whereupon they were staggered to discover that, based on the condition of the skeleton’s pelvis, the Barum ‘man’ had given birth to at least six children in ‘his’ life!
On the face of it, this is a familiar tale of sexist academics and their blinkered view on prehistoric gender roles; in fact I’ve written before about the illogic of most of our assumptions about who made the milestone innovations like the harnessing of fire, plant cultivation, pottery use and so on. But what especially intrigued me about the modern exhibit was that it is now named “The Bäckaskog woman”. Not “The Bäckaskog fisherwoman” or “The Bäckaskog huntress”, just… “Woman”. Even while being restored to her rightful identity, this long dead ancestress of the progressive Swedes is deprofessionalised, her survival activity subsumed and invisibilised within her gender identity. The status of the work this woman had undertaken in order to provide sustenance to herself and her children was lowered from that of a named occupation to the default activity we as a culture have always expected of women, and continue to expect of them today.
Other angles on this phenomenon abound. In The Human Condition Hannah Arendt writes of productive versus reproductive labour: speaking of the attitudes to political and intellectual involvement of citizens in the life of ancient Athens, she describes their division of activity into the private and the public. The private sphere contained the activities that were necessary to the sustenance and reproduction of the body. Food production, textile work and sexual services (as well as the provision of offspring both as heirs and as slaves) were tightly enclosed within that realm. It was only the person who could afford not to worry at all about these necessary activities, who was free to assume that they will be performed for him as his right, who could properly speaking be ‘free’ to engage in the (morally and intellectually superior) public activities of law making, philosophy, political debate and art. I’m sure I don’t need to pain you a picture about just how much choice the people relegated to the necessary drudge work of the private realm had in the matter, nor what gender they (if freeborn) exclusively were.
Before Arendt, the German thinker Thorstein Veblen in his seminal essay Conspicuous Consumption (on a side note, if you haven’t read it, it’s currently in print as part of Penguin’s ‘Great Ideas’ series, and is some of the most eye-opening 100 little pages I've read in a long time) lays out a theory of development of human societies from the earliest (as he sees it) hunter gatherer phase to the modern consumer society. There is much that we would dispute in Veblen’s description of human cultures as existing along a progressive developmental spectrum form the ‘primitive’ to the ‘modern’, but it is of high importance that he describes the gendered division of labour at each stage and provides a useful schema for thinking about how the gradual subjugation of women may have become embedded in human cultures. In particular Veblen distinguishes between what he calls ‘drudgery’ and ‘exploit’: the former, a form of activity or labour that acts on the self, on the bodies of human beings and on the bodies of live organisms with which we coexist in order to support and enable human survival; the latter, a form of activity that acts on the inanimate, inert objects around us in order to extract something – wealth, value, use – which is of no immediate necessity for survival. “[T]he distinction between exploit and drudgery” he writes “is an invidious distinction between employments. Those employments which are to be classed as exploit are worthy, honourable, noble; other employments, which do not contain this element of exploit … are unworthy, debasing, ignoble”.
Debasing, ignoble, secluded and unseen: these are some of the ideas that underpin our collective understanding of what work becomes when women do it. In practice the logic is circular: women do unworthy work because they are unworthy; work primarily down by women is unworthy because it is done by women. Under this condition it seems only fitting that the activities or employments of women remain hidden, unspoken of, unaccounted for.
Literally unaccounted for, in fact. In her January lecture at the LSE, “The Reproduction of People by Means of People”, Professor Nancy Folbre described what she sees as an accounting problem in modern economics: the fact that we have no means of accounting for the labour (which in economic language we would class as ‘transfers’ once it had been converted to a money value) performed within families, predominantly by women, in order to support the economic activities of the other family members. Feminist readers will be immediately put in mind of the bill for ten years of domestic service in marriage that Myra presented to her cheating husband upon their divorce in Marylin French’s classic The Women’s Room; but more prosaically we can think of a woman’s taking maternity leave and forgoing her full wage for (say) a year as a transfer of her lost wages to both the child she is taking care of and the husband who is not losing his wages in order to care for the child during the same period. Form an accounting point of view, and in a manner which is congenial to our economics obsessed intellectual landscape, child bearing and child rearing can be conceptualised as straightforward transfers of cash from women to men – but in fact our current economic models do not count them at all. They are, to us as a society, invisible.
To what is this rambling jaunt through history and economics tending? To the fact that the invisibility of women’s work is a key stumbling block even within feminism itself, let alone outside of it. I was moved and concerned today to read this piece about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and the fact that it is coming under attack these days. Now, any women’s space that is being threatened with annihilation should be of concern to feminists; we have seen, especially in the wake of the financial crisis and subsequent austerity policies, many women’s services, women’s book shops, libraries, mother’s groups, as well as refuges, rape crisis centres and homeless shelters disappear or seriously curtail their activities due to lack of funding. This is a trend that should be a worry to us all: our continued safety and the flourishing of our movement cannot be relied upon in the absence of physical places in which to congregate and share our knowledge, our skills and our vision.
What struck me especially about Sara St. Martin Lynne’s essay, though, was the detailed, loving way in which she described the decades of hands-on, feet-wet elbow grease that has gone into sustaining the festival:
[MichFest] is a music festival that has repeatedly forgone corporate sponsors and still manages to provide the nutritious meals that are included in the price of a festival ticket for every single woman who attends. This all-inclusive ticket also entitles every woman on the land to community health care, childcare, emotional support, and workshops. ASL interpreters interpret every set of every single stage at Michfest. Every communal space is wheelchair accessible, made so by women who get on their hands and knees in the blazing sun (or pouring rain) and drive nails into the ground through upside down carpets. Great effort is taken to make sure that every woman on that land knows that she is wanted, that she is welcome and that she is precious among us. It continues to be a place that prioritizes the environment and care for the land that the festival is built on. Every single piece of garbage gets picked up by hand. In the months between festivals there is not a trace of festivity left behind. I almost resisted the urge to contrast this to some of the disgusting messes I have seen in the wake of some of our Dyke Marches and Pride Celebrations, but I will not. We take pride in cleaning up after ourselves. Yes, we have a great time in those woods, but oh how this community has worked and continues to do so. (emphasis mine)
Reading this passage put me in mind of the Occupy camp in Bristol in 2011: women in the kitchen, women laying out furniture, women taking notes, women creating a free coffee corner, women printing flyers. Men? From what I saw, lighting fires and posting YouTube videos of their thoughts, mostly. What thoughts would they have had to post if there had not been women there to make sure that the camp, as a physical thing in the world, was able to exist? And for that, women were raped, ridiculed online and to our faces, sexually harassed, ignored, belittled. Occupy was the Manarchists’ movement – and for that reason, it failed. (Parenthetically, one of the flyer-printing women that year was me, trying to get this very message through their thick skulls)
The theory of intersectionality has brought a lot into feminism in terms of how we conceptualise the lives and oppressions of women who are suffering under more than a single axis of domination. Gender interacts with race, sexuality, health and so on in unpredictable ways, creating specific and individual oppressions for the women positioned at their intersections. What has often been lacking from the intersectional conversation, however, is the issue of class. Clearly poor women experience gender oppression differently than well off women – but apart from the occasional nod in the direction of material poverty, I have rarely seen a strong engagement with the topic of economic class in intersectional writing. Partly this is an issue of the Left: class politics is out, identity politics (in the proper, and by no means pejorative, sense of the word) is in, and mentions of class smack of a Marxist universality that fails to take the relational particularities of colonialism, compulsory heterosexuality, physical ability etc. into account. This is in itself not an always unfair criticism; but it does leave a lacuna where a conversation about work ought by right to be being held.
The feminism of the 1970s and thereabouts is often described as overwhelmingly white and ‘Middle Class’ (almost the only time class comes up in intersectional discourse), its concerns the concerns of affluent women disaffected by being kept out of the most lucrative professions and most senior positions in the corporate hierarchy. As Laurie Penny once said, we talk about maternity leave for professional women, but what about the concerns of their cleaners and nannies? This is of course ahistorical: from the match girls to the Dagenham strikers, gender and labour politics have gone hand in hand throughout the 20th century. It is only now, having rhetorically separated them into non-interlocking realms under the atomising influence of neloliberalism, that we can look back at the seeming failure to explicitly link the two together and criticise it as lacking. In fact, the question would not have computed for your typical 60s radical: labour rights and gender rights were obviously interwoven, starting from Marx and Engels themselves, and onwards through the intellectual tradition of the Left.
If labour in general is invisible on the contemporary Left, then the labour of women is many times more so. As Natalia Cecire writes, “neoliberal exploitation succeeds by ramping up and extending the ways that women have typically been exploited under earlier forms of capitalism”; such is the extent of cooptation of women’s work that it might be harder than ever to see it for what it is - even if it is no longer confined to the inner, hidden spaces in of the home or the nunnery. We don’t have a language in which to praise the sore backs of MichFest volunteers or the long and diligent hours of planning, writing, chairing meeting, washing dishes, baking brownies, painting placards, printing flyers that goes in to the reproduction of the physical thing that is feminist activism. And having no language in which to praise them, we disparage them as frivolous, contemptible, disposable.
In fact the labour of women has always been disposable. In part this is inherent to the nature of reproductive labour, which in the end produces nothing more glamorous than the wastes of the body: mothers are the makers of corpses; farmers are the makers of shit. The hours of painstaking craft invested in a patchwork quilt, a meal, a baby, a music festival, do not ennoble any of these things. Women’s effort is not counted towards the value of women’s productions: the work is of no value in itself. Ignoring or at best denigrating women’s ignoble labour is the economic foundation of patriarchy; and in any case it’s not really work, because we do it as a natural, inescapable outcome of our base natures. Women are ‘caring’. We are ‘multitaskers’. We are ‘better at planning’. We are expected to perform the domestic, social, emotional and bodily labour that enables the current society not as an occupation but as an emanation. Like silkworms excrete silk, women excrete labour; therefore all our work is, literally, crap.
In turning a blind eye to the graft that women put in just to keep the world looking (never mind smelling) tomorrow the same as it does today, we are plugging in to a tradition that goes back millennia; so there is nothing progressive about wantonly destroying the labour of decades in closing down MichFest once and for all. Nothing enlightened in dismissing the diligence and tenacity of women working to safeguard other women form poverty or violence. Without a theory and practice of accounting for, appreciating and foregrounding women’s work, no feminism can be either possible or desirable. We need to start building such a theory, even when talking and thinking about the work of women we disagree with.

Apr 3, 2014

Patriarchy cannot be Breached: Normalising nudity in a pornified world

China Mievile's The City and The City is a novel whose plot happens in two cities that occupy the same physical space. Interleaved and interwoven - in some places completely separate, in others "cross hatched" so closely that adjacent inch-wide stripes of a street or a park bench belong in two different cultures, economies, nationalities and states - the two enemy city states of Beszel and Ul Quoma jostle for autonomous existence in a double-occupancy street-scape. These two conjoint twins, however, refuse to allow any recognition of their points of intersection. While passing buildings, cars and people from the other city on the street, citizens of both are strictly indoctrinated from birth to Unsee their counterparts, to refuse by force of intellectual will and disciplined inattention to enter into the Other's presence. To do so, even in a moment of fleeting recognition, let alone an open movement, would be to Breach - to commit the worst and most heavily punished crime in either city.

Towards the unravelling of the thick whodunit plot, we are introduced to the possibility of Breaching without moving from the spot. A certain path in a park that is shared by both cities (under different names and for different uses) co-exists equally in both. It is not cross-hatched, but fully shared; while in it, Breach is a matter of nothing but a shift in consciousness; one can illegally cross a heavily militarised border simply by moving one's awareness from Beszel to Ul Quoma or vice versa.

When I look at, and read about, the #normalisingnudity hashtag on Twitter (warning: some very, very nasty trolls have invaded the tag and are spamming it with extremely disturbing imagery. Use caution when investigating), I think of Breach, the possibility of moving between two world simply by willing the transition.

The idea of #normalisenudity is not much different from mid-20th century Naturism: to reassert the unclothed human body as a thing that transcends sexualisation, shame and desire, but is rather an everyday thing, a vessel, tool or object that everyone possesses and has equal rights to the enjoyment and use of. This is not in itself controversial, except inasmuch as religious doctrines that fear and hide the body under mantles of modesty and godliness would probably object to the view of naked human bodies in principle.

What's more controversial about the idea of #normalisenudity in the current climate is not the nudity it seeks to increase, but whose nudity it tries to reassert the normality of. Nudity as such is something we are, if anything, awash in: one cannot enter a newsagent or watch a movie without being flooded by more images of nudity than in a shower room with floor to ceiling mirrors. But the nude bodies we are almost battered with are very particular kinds of bodies: predominantly female, overwhelmingly young, almost universally hairless, thin, healthy and unblemished, as well as, of course, mostly white. To reclaim the right of other, not-patriarchy approved bodies of being seen int he public sphere would be nice work, if you could get it.

But you can't. It is not possible in our world to Breach into a reality in which a naked nipple means anything other than sexual object for (straight) male gratification. The semiotics of breasts, vulvas and penises in a culture quite as belligerently pornified as ours is too rigidly fixed to be tampered with; no amount of posting photos on Twitter can shift the meaning now. The Signified of the body, and especially the female body, is policed with at least as much vehemence in our world as the Unseeing of Beszel and Ul Quoma is policed in their own. It would take a thoroughgoing political, cultural and economic revolution to women's nakedness from male desire - trying to achieve that revolution by insisting that people See our bodies as we want them seen is a recipe for frustration.

We cannot expect the pedestrians of Porn Boulevard to see our Empowerment Street road markings. The worlds - that of patriarchy and that of feminism - are too rigidly separated, too violently border-patrolled, too deeply ingrained in people. Posting a naked selfie on the internet can have only one meaning in the semiotics of patriarchy, and that meaning is exhibitionism. I applaud the efforts of some women and men to get out from under that language, but they can't. And sadly, their attempts will bring the likes of hateful 4Chan trolls down on their heads.

Empowerment cannot lead to revolution; without revolution empowerment is illusory. True empowerment of the female authentic material reality is the end goal of, and not a tool towards, feminist liberation.

Mar 6, 2014

I know how I feel about catcalls, thanks: a response to Paris Lees

Dear Paris,

Let me tell you a little bit about what street harassment – or “catcalling” as you term it – has meant in my life. Perhaps it will help you understand why some women have found your VICE piece so disquieting, and if it doesn’t, well, all I’ve done is laid bare my vulnerable past and upset my mother, so NBD (sorry mom).

When I was about 11, a boy in my neighbourhood was in love with me and wanted to “go steady”. He was a very attractive boy and I was very flattered, until one afternoon he insisted on exposing himself to me. He just wanted me to “look at it”. I said no – I was scared and embarrassed and I didn’t want to look. I ran away. This boy and his best friend then turned sharply from admirers to haters: they started yelling abuse at me if they saw me on the street, sometimes chucking stones, and once they actually grabbed me, but that’s a story about sexual assault and not catcalls so never mind it for the moment

At about the same time, two other boys (why do they always work in pairs?) were also paying me and a (different) friend attention. At first we were flattered, they were older boys and I actually had a crush on one of them anyway. But then, during swimming sessions, they started to get intimidating. They would dive and come up between our legs. They’d playfully threaten to undo our bathing costumes. They’d corral us in the deep end and leeringly ask us personal questions. Long story short, I can’t swim to this day, and one of those boys, who lived on my street, also ended up yelling things and chucking stones at me. Stone chucking, it turns out, is a surprisingly common experience among pubescent girls. Leviticus was onto something.

These were probably my earliest introductions to catcalling and the interface between it and actual violence. They are only two among many more, but they stick int he mind.

You’re probably getting ready to say that my experiences are not “true” catcalls, that this is not what you were talking about at all, that the examples you gave are somehow qualitatively different from my experiences. I’d like to ask you – how? If there is a clear difference between what those boys were doing when they were menacing me at close quarters and what they and other boys and men were doing when they were shouting at me from a distance, what is it? Can you describe it, other than telling me that in some of the cases I was right to be afraid, and in others I was wrong, and should have been flattered?

But wait, that’s not the end of my story, so before we get into further judgements about how I should just relax and learn to like street harassment, let me just tell you that I grew up to love it. I reveled in catcalls; they were daily (and believe me, they were daily) reminders that I’m desirable, that I am seen, that I am noticed. In a world where boys at school would start hissing if I tried to speak in class, where my father and other men in authority explicitly told me I had no right to speak, being seen was at least better than being ignored completely. It was something. An indication, however small, that I am making a connection with people in the world. I treasured it. Some days, smiling back at a catcaller was the most genuine emotion I was empowered to express to a man. Not because I’m a timid shrinking violent, but because they were not listening. They only gave a fuck about what they wanted to, well, fuck.

What changed my mind, I bet you’re wondering? Was I eventually raped in some sufficiently filmic way that my attitudes experienced a redemptive turnaround? Did I get old and fat and stop being attractive to men, subsequently becoming embittered? 

Well, not exactly. I did get older, of course, everyone does, but male attention mysteriously failed to disappear. I’d turned against the casual street Romeo a lot earlier than you’d think, though. It started when, aged 22, my then-boyfriend playfully ordered me to get up and take a twirl for a friend of his at a party. I was wearing a very short dress and looked, if I say so myself, fucking unbelievable, and he wanted to show me off. I did not know the friend, and felt shy. Without analysing my feelings, I said no. He went on badgering me. I said no again. He wouldn’t stop. It went on and on and on, without resolution. He was ‘nice’ about it, smiling and complimentary. Nobody told him to knock it off. The evening just trailed off like that - I don’t have a neat little parable of how we had a huge row and then broke up over it; we didn’t. It hadn’t been an avalanche, but the fluttering of a few snowflakes.

That was probably the first time in my life I consciously declined male attention. A man wanted to admire me and I said no. This was, to my surprise, not the winning answer. The second and more dramatic time was while I was working as an archaeologist in a small town up north. Archaeologists are not known for their glamorous work attire, but we – a visible minority of outsiders – were often remarked on and called at on the street. One night we were walking back from the pub and a car full of young men drove past and shouted something obscene at us. I don’t even remember what. I just remember I was tipsily flourished a middle finger at the car’s retreating lights by means of a mild protest.

The car screeched to a halt and went into reverse. It slam-stopped alongside us and the driver leaned out of the window and started threatening me: I’m going to rip your face off, I’m going to fuck your mother, you fucking ugly bitch; the usual. My colleagues quickly pushed me to the back of the group, not to protect me, but so that they could apologise to the obviously violent thug in front of them to make him calm down and go away. I was strongly given the impression I should shut up and not make any more trouble, before everyone gets the shit kicked out of them.

It was a scary and educational experience, a bit like the stone throwing; but even after that I didn’t start rejecting all catcalls. Sometimes they made me smile. Sometimes they were mildly annoying but no big deal. Sometimes, like a few years ago on New Year’s Eve, they quickly degenerated into open attempts at sexual assault in a public but dark and secluded space. But one thing is absolutely constant: if I reacted negatively, it escalates. Straight away. No exceptions.

Catcalls are a bit like make up (or any other synecdoche for femininity) in that respect: they are totes a choice, until you try to choose not to. Once a woman pushes back against catcalls, the underlying violence, the resentment and hatred simmering just beneath the surface, quickly becomes apparent. If you think that’s far-fetched, do a little experiment: next time you get “eye-fucked on the way to work”, tell the guy to stop staring at you. See what he says, or whether he continues to look at you with admiration. I’ve got a strong hunch that the response you’ll get will be a tad less than empowering.

If you don’t have the trauma of my pre-teens to teach you to be afraid of male attention, then I can only be glad for you. It’s not something I would wish on anyone. But it would make me challenge even more strongly your assertion that feminists who say that street harassment is harassment, and is not acceptable, are “teaching women to be constantly afraid”. Who are you to tell me what made me afraid? Of course different women will feel differently about this uninvited public attention, and that’s fine. I’m not trying to police women’s reactions to harassment. What I do insist on is that it is never a compliment, always a power play. Oh, you can “make a choice”, as one of your interviewees did, to be “empowered” by it (empowered to do what?). But you can not choose to avoid it. If you so much as question a man’s right to impinge upon your privacy in public, you’re in for abuse. That doesn’t sound like much of a choice, does it?

No one had to teach me to be afraid, really. No tales of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf were necessary to instill timidity and caution in me. I didn’t read the Everyday Sexism blog 30 years ago and think “oh wow, all these hundreds of women really hate it when men yell at them on the street or stare at them on the underground, so I’d better get upset about the heavy breather rubbing himself against me on the bus yesterday!”. If anything, the problem was that the people around me refused to take my fear seriously, like you are refusing to take women’s fears seriously in your piece today, implying that your personal enjoyment of catcalls should erase or negate the deep-seated and perfectly reasonable fears of others.

Boys showed me that I had better be afraid, not feminists. Boys and men taught me that there is a direct link between violent speech and violent action. They taught me that if I reject their advances, I will be punished. They taught me that verbal violence does shade into physical violence, because it did. These were lessons I learned young, and I learned them well. That you choose to simply reject that view without offering evidence to the contrary is not going to change my mind. That’s my lived experience. It is just as valid as yours, and it is shared by many women. Please don’t tell us that to be afraid because bad things happened to us is “infantilising”. To be afraid of what is clearly an imminent danger is a mature emotional response that millions of women are entitled to have - without being snidely written off as insufficiently “sexual” by those who refuse to acknowledge our experiences.

Feb 17, 2014

What gender is and what gender isn’t


Gender is not the straightforward assertion that some people play with dolls while others play with trucks; it is the assertion that playing with dolls is an inferior pastime to playing with trucks. It is the additional assertion that doll-playing people who play with trucks are deviant, and vice versa, and that this deviance must be punished with social sanction. In this way it creates a hierarchy between doll playing people and truck playing people.

Gender is not the straightforward assertion that some people have stronger libidos than other people; it is the assertion that the people with low libidos owe people with high libidos satisfaction of their desires. It is furthermore an assertion that low-libido people who display high libido are deviant and that this deviance must be punished with social sanction and also violence. In this way it creates a hierarchy between low-libido people and high-libido people, and a power imbalance that allows high-libido people to use violence in their relations with low-libido people.

Gender is not a straightforward assertion that some people are always the doctor and other people are always the nurse; it also asserts that nurses are less valuable than doctors. It furthermore asserts that nurse-people who want to be doctors should nevertheless be economically under-compensated compared to doctor-people doctors, and that doctor-people who want to be nurses are economically over-compensated compared to nurse-people nurses. In this way it creates a hierarchy of economic injustice and maintains it through the non-arbitrary distribution of financial rewards.

Doll-playing people with high libidos who train to be doctors are highly likely to be considered deviant, to have been subject to violence, and to be on the losing end of a non-arbitrarily unjust distribution of financial rewards.

I will give you a minute to think about what we tend to call to these libidinous doll-playing doctors.


You may have noticed that I said “gender” and not “gender oppression”. Gender creates hierarchies with unjust power differentials; it is oppression. People are not oppressed “on the basis of gender”, they are oppressed by  gender. Gender, like class, has two relative positions, whatever Mark Zuckerberg tells you: up and down. Powerful and exploited. Fully human and non-person.

You will notice that at no point in this little disquisition have I referred to the genitalia of the truck-player-libido-doctor class. Or to anybody’s genitalia, for that matter.

That’s because genitalia have nothing to do with it. The phenomenon whereby people are sorted into groups, characteristics are said to apply to those groups, and then people to whom those characteristics do not apply are laid in a Procrustean bed of social sanction is in no way, shape, form or meaning biologically embedded. It is arbitrary.

Let me give you a different example[1].  It’s a pretty good example because it shows how a system of domination went from arbitrary to non-arbitrary, and the benefits to the dominators that could be had from that.

In the ancient past, (and in some places at present) any person could become a slave. Greeks enslaved Greeks, Romans enslaved both fellow Romans and Gauls, Germans, Britons and Egyptians (to name a few); the Barbary Corsairs raided European shores for slaves and exported some millions of Europeans for slavery in Africa and the Middle East. British plantation owners bought their fellow countrymen who had been sold into slavery by their government after being convicted of a crime.

But at some point during the economic development of what would later become the Southern United States, this changed. For the first time in history, enslavedness ran along colour-coded lines. People with (certain kinds of) dark skin were seen as automatically slaves. This create the paradoxical situation that did for Solomon Northrup: that he was legally a free man in one state but, based on nothing but the colour of his skin, legally a slave in the other. It had nothing to do with him as such; it was arbitrary as regards the individual, but non-arbitrary as regards the group, or class. Slavery became encoded in the racial identities attached to people from African descent and stopped being an emergent factor contingent on war or economic upheaval.

A common hypothesis for why slavery turned from being random to being racially based is class warfare. White and black people resisted the economic and political oppression they suffered together, as in Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. The policy of placing one arbitrarily in a superior position to the other split their resistance and refocused solidarity along ethnic instead of economic lines. Landowning capitalists: 1, poor revolutionaries of all colours: 0, black people: oy vey.

There is nothing, nor was there ever anything, nor could anything ever have been hypothesised to exist, that makes people with black skin more slave-like or slave-prone or slave-worthy than white people. It was and remains one of the profoundest injustices ever committed by man against fellow man[2] for the sake of protecting entrenched economic interests.

Nevertheless, the colour of people’s skin (as well as other associated physical characteristics of course) was the ostensible basis on which the dichotomous nature of free vs. slave was imposed. Nothing, I repeat, nothing whatsoever inherent to the blackness of black people could possibly have caused white slave owners to so oppress them; nevertheless, it was the colour of their skin that served as the pretext for dehumanising and exploiting them.


In a similar vein, nothing whatsoever about women’s bodies can justify the historic and ongoing economic, sexual, epistemological, religious and political exploitation, oppression and injustice inflicted on us as a class.

And yet it is nevertheless the case that our biology – our bodies, arbitrary features of our physiology that could in no way be said to be relevant to our political, sexual, intellectual, religious or economic ambitions and activities – that were and continue to be used as the ostensible pretext for so oppressing us.

To say that biological sex is at the root of women’s oppression is to state an easily verifiable historical fact. Go back as far as Aristotle or the Jewish Bible, and women are described as inferior, fallible, unclean or subhuman based on nothing other than our ability to gestate and lactate. The connections are clear, unambiguous and unashamed, and they have by no means retreated into a distant and irrelevant past; they underlie and underpin the continued segregation of women as a class into a gender – a genre, or type, in the original French – that plays with dolls, has a lower libido, and is better suited for a low paid nurse.

To say that the physical reality of women or of black individuals offers no humanly imaginable justification for their oppression is to make a clear and ethically cogent statement of fact. The true roots of women’s oppression is located in a pursuit of power by small elites through the division of humanity into classes with opposed interests, one of which is constructed as inferior to the other. However, to take a further step into saying that this disconnect between the real and the purported cause of our oppression means that the fact that served as the purported cause does not exist, or is not meaningfully consistent, or is “a social construct” and therefore somehow “not really real”, is the most craven of attempts to smuggle good old fashioned misogyny by the back door of linguistically obtuse progressive theorising.

Even those intellectually dishonest racists who claim to “not see colour” don’t go as far as insisting that therefore differences in colour don’t exist. Race, nationality, religion, and other social constructs such as class and education, all profoundly shape gradients of power, domination and exploitation. So far, the only ‘social construct’ that is being theorised  out of existence by the Left rather than the Right is the oldest and largest (in terms of population size) of them all.

Sex exists[3]. Gender – a hierarchy of the fully human and the merely animalistic, the properly intellectual and the merely emotional, the realised individual and the objectified Other – instrumentalises it. It does not depend on it. It is not directly – ontologically or otherwise – driven by it. But it is an inescapable fact of gender that its organising principle, its plausible cause of oppression, its fig leaf of necessity, is sex.

To theorise sex out of existence is to deny that sexism can exist. It is to refuse to accept that a class of human beings exist who have been economically exploited, raped, murdered, forcibly impregnated, exchanged as chattel, denied a history, a language and a right to their bodies since (literally) time immemorial. If we deny these people an identity based on the root of their oppression we are saying they, as a class, do not exist. Have no shared history. No conceivable political mission. No right to recourse. No community. No grievance. No hope.

A more obscene act of woman hatred than to simply refuse to admit that women exist is hard to imagine. Tidier and cheaper than wholesale extermination, more economically self serving than foregoing the reproductive labour extracted from, the profound hatred of women qua women such an argument betrays is breath-taking. That it is an attitude espoused sometimes women themselves is no counter-argument, but a - relatively minor - entry in the ledger of the brutalising effects of patriarchal oppression.

[1] I know. You find it “incredibly problematic” that I would use racism as an example because the “overwhelming majority” of radical feminists are “white and middle class”. The fact that that’s how you read people who don’t trumpet their racial or class identity for you to see, because they oppose identity politics, is in no way an indication of your own internalised biases about the sorts of people who go in for radical analysis, but a totes factual reflection of the demographic of a group you disapprove of. This makes complete sense. Have a nice day.

[2] Notwithstanding the women slaveowners of the South, I use the term advisedly.

[3] Oh yeah, there's a paragraph missing, right? The one where I assure the reader that I bear trans women no ill will and am fully committed to their legal emancipation and bodily security? Well, if you think you’ve a right to demand such a paragraph, I have one thing to say to you: fuck you. If you think that simply admitting that women exist is, absent some explanatory waffle, a form of hate speech by omission, please go away and never darken my blog again. You are too stupid and mean-spirited to be allowed access to the English alphabet.

Jan 22, 2014

Men: Stop telling us how to do feminism

Feminism is one of those things everybody has an opinion about. Women, because it affects them; men, because they think it doesn’t affect them. The belief that we all know how to do feminism, however, is rooted in deep and probably completely unacknowledged and unwelcome misogyny: it must be simple, it’s only something that women do. “How complicated can it be? I’ve read a few CiF columns and even maybe a book or two on the subject, of course I totally get it. Plus some of my best friends are women”. Applied to any other area of life, such an approach would be absurd. Can you imagine a senior Guardian columnist barging into a football supporters’ forum & haranguing them about the offside rule? Or a journalist marching into a mechanic’s workshop & lecturing him at length about how it’s the clutch he should be looking at because obviously tires are of only minor importance in the grand scheme of things? (Disclosure: I know next to nothing about either football or cars. Not because I’m a woman, but because they’re both pretty boring subjects. Then again, the men who lecture feminists about doing feminism know close to nothing about feminism, so I reckon we’re even).

When women attack feminism, they tend to go for the how (this is one of those enormous rhetorical generalisations to which there are many exceptions that I haven’t got the energy to fight with you about below the line, dear reader: just work with me here): you need to do more of this, less of that, you need to listen more to marginalised voices, you need to be more inclusive. These criticisms can be intemperate, even hurtful, and they can side-track the conversation for a while, but they accept the basic premise of “doing feminism right now is quite an important thing”.

Men on the other hand have a tendency to concentrate on the what: don’t campaign for inclusion, campaign against rape. Don’t you know there are women who have no access to education? Haven’t you heard of FGM? And did you hear the government are instituting cuts that mostly hurt women?! (Nah, I haven’t heard; do tell me about it, oh wise man, because being but a weak and feeble woman, I don’t actually read the news or know how it affects me. It’s this crazy thing we little ladies do).

The difference between the two approaches, which is obvious when you look at them side by side like this, is that the first approach is designed to make feminism better; the second is designed to make feminism impossible. We can’t not-campaign for anything because we are currently not campaigning for everything. The enormity of the systemic discrimination and oppression of women makes it a priori impossible to tackle it all in one big go; we have to break it down into smaller chunks and deal with each of those at a time – not just as individual campaigners, but also as a movement overall. Hence waves, in case you wondered. Mind you, I don’t really think the men telling us to go and campaign about FGM when we’re talking about sexual harassment in the workplace actually care about FGM (I’d like to see their campaign on it, for a start): it’s just become a kind of Godwin’s Law of feminist-bashing, a shortcut to the moral high ground for people who are more interested in shutting you up, because you’re making them feel uncomfortable, than in mutilated vulvas.

This feminism related Dunning-Kruger effect serves not only to embarrass otherwise intelligent men by temporarily reducing them to the level of analysis & insight of Daily Mail commenters; it’s also pretty damn draining on the limited and already embattled resources of the still-too-small cadre of brave women tackling systemic discrimination, male sexual violence, economic injustice and cultural femicide head-on. We know pretty damn well what we’re fighting for and why, and, actually, much as it might astonish the Dan Hodgeses & Michael Whites of this world, we have a pretty solid understanding of what’s important to us and how it fits into the big picture of ending sexism. We, unlike you, get it. Now be a love and let the big girls get on with it while you sit quietly on the side-lines and maybe learn a thing or two.

Jan 15, 2014

My Tragic Tale (Not Really LOL)

Welp, abortion is making headlines again. Imaginary abortion, as it happens - since nobody has ever managed to produce an actual real live sex selective abortion in this country anyway. It's all hearsay and supposition, but it won't stop anti-choice, anti-woman organisations from using this scare tactic to try and roll back the clock on women's right to their own body. That's how these things work: there is no good argument in favour of denying women human rights, so antis have to rely on lies and allusions.

Personally, I think we don't talk about abortion enough in this country. Well, in any country really. We have a lot of (mostly) men talking about what abortion is and isn't and what women should and shouldn't be allowed to do with their own hooches, but actual women talking about actual abortion? Not so much. And this silence contributes to the antis' efforts to portray abortion as something shameful and secret, when in fact for most women it's a medical necessity no worse than a root canal.

A few days ago, a blogger shared her personal experience of abortion, very bravely I think in the prevailing climate of shaming and judgement (sadly the post has since been removed for reasons unknown - restored & linked to! MS). I really admired her, but ummed and ahhed about doing the same, mostly because of What Mom Will Think. But I'm over than now, so below is the story I shared with Education For Choice, who are running a workshop about abortion next weekend and needed testimonials. 

Dec 5, 2013

Extra, Extra! Scientists misunderstand own research!

Look below the line on any newspaper article dealing with women’s equality, and you’re guaranteed to come across at least a couple of comments condescendingly reminding you that there are differences between men and women. Sometimes it’s accompanied by the wink-wink-nudge-nudge “apart from the obvious, haha!”, sometimes it’s a sort of exasperated superiority at the author’s sheer silliness. Often, it will appeal to scientific authority along the lines of “research has repeatedly have shown”, or my personal favourite, “it’s proven by science”.

And frankly, you can’t really blame people, can you? Quite apart from the success of books (and the myths they engender) like “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” and “TheEssential Difference”, which one could say simply capitalize on a pre-existing thirst to have gender stereotypes bolstered by the borrowed authenticity of science, when actual new research does come out, it’s invariably reported in the press in ways that hysterically emphasize the parts of the findings that fit with prevailing notions about the difference between men and women, and usually utterly ignore the rest.

The reason this week’s neurobabble scoop is worthy of notice though is not that the newspapers trumpeted it as the final proof that men are better at reading maps (and should therefore presumably continue to dominate the higher echelons of politics and business, not that I’ve ever seen the connection, personally), but that in doing so they did not misrepresent the researchers’ own conclusions.

Which is quite remarkable, considering that the work actually didn’t turn up the results the scientists say it turned up.

Two excellent pieces written by people who have the patience to trawl though the newsprint babble point out two key ways in which this research did no, in fact, demonstrate that behavioural differences between men and women are explained by difference in the brain.

This piece, by Cordelia Fine, brings to light the interesting fact that the data set these researchers used doesn't show any measurable behavioural differences:

To give a sense of the huge overlap in behaviour between males and females, of the twenty-six possible comparisons, eleven sex differences were either non-existent, or so small that if you were to select a boy and girl at random and compare their scores on a task, the “right” sex would be superior less than 53% of the time.
 Even the much-vaunted female advantage in social cognition, and male advantage in spatial processing, was so modest that a randomly chosen boy would outscore a randomly chosen girl on social cognition – and the girl would outscore the boy on spatial processing – over 40% of the time.
 As for map-reading and remembering conversations, these weren’t measured at all.

And this one, by my friend Paul Harper-Scott, winkles out the hidden detail that they didn’t find any structural brain differences in children, either:

Male and female brains showed few differences in connectivity up to the age of 13, but became more differentiated in 14- to 17-year-olds. That really is very interesting, to anyone willing to pause for thought. Let us allow that the observed differences in adult brains are significant, and that brain science is capable of communicating details of value (though there is considerable scientific scepticism on this point). Those differences are not manifested until the age of 14–17. It follows that the assumption that girls and boys below that age are ‘essentially’ different, ‘because their brains are wired differently’ is unsupported by the evidence. It is wrong to suggest that boys and girls have a ‘natural’ difference, which can be traced to brain design, because the study does not support such a claim. On the contrary, if we think that gendered difference is explicable only by brain design, we ought to conclude from this study that there should be no difference, at least no difference occasioned by brain design, between boys and girls.

In other words, this new and exciting research, reported to “finally prove” why men and women behave differently because of their different brains, didn’t prove either that 

a) men and women behave differently, 
b) they have innately different brains, 
c) that there’s even a connection between the two.

And yet not only the gullible science journalists and credulous public, but even the people looking at the data themselves, interpreted these non-findings in a way that reinforces the dominant stereotypes about men and women in a post-industrial liberal democracy.

It’s hard not to feel like the world has gone just a little bit delusional; like we’re arguing with someone about the colour of the sky, pointing to it and going “but look, look at it, it’s right there!” only to have them give us a pitying glance and say “yes, it is indeed yellow, like we told you. Your problem?”

It’s not up to science to prove or disprove the stereotypes about the sexes and gendered patterns of behaviour, in other words, because as long ago as the 90's, people like Stephen Jay Gould wrote about the persistent under-reporting of brain research studies whose findings showed little or no structural or operational difference between the sexes (over 90% of all such studies, if I recall the quotation correctly). This stuff is not new, and we can't leave it to the assumed objectivity of scientists to debunk decades (centuries!) of bunk. It’s up to feminists to get it through these people’s thick lab coats that there are no differences worth speaking of, and make them get down to the more interesting work of trying to explain why we so persistently believe there are. Because ingrained attitudes manufacture their own brand of "evidence", in spite of and in the face of everything that we can justifiably advance as fact.