Knee Jerk

When Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn appeared to be proposing women-only train carriages this morning, I reacted the same way as many women did: knee jerk. In a bid to end sexual harassment of women in public places, Corbyn had actually said that he was proposing to consult with women’s groups on the right way to raise awareness and tackle the problem. Fair enough. All good with that. Just maybe don’t even mention segregating us as we’re not the ones at fault here.

Just last week I decided to record it on Twitter every time I was harassed in public. On the first day, during a two-hour walk from north-west London to King’s Cross, I was hassled four times, the first occurring eight minutes after leaving my flat. I could see that decent chaps on my Twitter feed were a) horrified and b) surprised by the sheer regularity of it. Why don’t women talk about it, they ask? I say, because we’ve been brought up to keep it quiet. It happens mostly when we’re on our own. We’re told we’re making a fuss or attention-seeking if we mention it, and should accept it all as the most glorious compliment. It’s worth listening to Everyday Sexism‘s Laura Bates on the subject – it’s a near-universal female experience.

I think the only reason we’re talking about it now is the rise of the female voice on social media. For the past few years we’ve slowly begun to record instances of harassment and have other women say, ” that happened to me” back to us. Laura Bates’ project has aggregated that experience into a global phenomenon, with women and men of all ages, going to her website to record the things they’ve witnessed or been subject to.

Predictably the press jumped on the women-only carriage concept as a stick to beat Corbyn with, as he’s a controversial candidate and there are many who want to see him go down. But like many men, he’s principled and is trying to work out what to do about the problem whilst simultaneously not being quite able to believe how enormous it is.

I think it’s laudable to want to work closely with women’s groups on how to tackle these issues, but really, the conversation needs to start with men. They’re the ones doing the harassing, they’re the ones we’re being advised to protect ourselves from, holed up in women-only spaces. As Everyday Sexism on Twitter puts it, “this puts the responsibility to deal with harassment/assault onto the victim instead of the perpetrator where it belongs. It plays into victim-blaming culture of ‘why didn’t she keep herself safe’ rather than ‘why did he harass/assault her’.”

Immediately my mind went to what would happen if we implemented women-only carriages – some men finding it hilarious to get into one and hassling the occupants like a collie with a pen full of frightened sheep. The emergence of Platform Pests as these men realise that they can find a whole bunch of us herding together, waiting for our carriage, and surely one of us will take them up on their advances. And so on.

If you have the conversation with women only, then you’ll learn something about the experience but you’re preaching to the converted. We know what street harassment is like – most of us experience it every day of our post-puberty lives. It’s like a sidebar of commentary that we’ve learned to roll our eyes at, walk away from, look on in bemusement when a guy is gesticulating wildly at us but we are wearing headphones so can’t hear what he’s saying. (That’s actually my favourite, depending on the appropriateness of the soundtrack.)

What compounds the experience is when we’re told we should take it all as a compliment or when men (and some women) think we’re just making a fuss over nothing. They’re only hearing about isolated incidents, but we now know that this is an endemic activity. If we mentioned it every time it happened, you wouldn’t hear about anything else (even I got bored with my Twitter feed last week as I recorded the incidents).

So somewhere along the line, this conversation has to start with boys and men. It’s a conversation about a sense of entitlement to a woman’s body, personal space and attention, and about how that is not the birthright of a male. Part of me thinks there’s no hope of even starting to say anything. It’s too late. I could start to sound like generations of women before me who shrugged or laughed it off and said, “it’s just how things are.”

Or I could continue to say, “this is how things are” in a bid to bring greater awareness to my small corner of the world. To keep mentioning the unmentionable things until the stream of all the mentions becomes too big a thing to ignore or disbelieve.

So, Mr Corbyn, I’m asking that should you become a leader and consult with women on this subject, that you will at least attempt to start the conversation with boys and men. You’ll probably find that this is the biggest challenge you’ll ever face in politics, but I’d respect you for trying.

 

 

Proper Little Madam

Does anyone else remember that Clarks shoe advert from the 1970s, where a little girl exclaims, “My mum says I’m going to grow up to be a proper little madam!”? I’ve been searching for it online but the only upload of it has been deleted.

I remembered laughing with my family about it as a child. Perhaps the little girl in the advert dared to be a little bit choosy about her footwear and insisted on a particular style. Not surprising that the 1970s billed that as ‘upstart’ behaviour from a girl. I was reminded of it this morning when watching Sheryl Sandberg’s 2010 Ted Talk about the lack of female leaders in the workplace, and the follow-up in 2013 after the publication of her book, Lean In.

In the second talk Sandberg brings up the subject of women who take the lead being called ‘bossy’ and how that starts at a young age. I’m sure I won’t be the only woman who remembers the word being applied to herself in school, and the words ‘proper little madam’ have stuck in my head as a by-phrase for the way women of any age are viewed for having an opinion on things.

This is something I’ve been musing on recently, as I’ve had some really unexpected ‘micro-attacks’ on having an opinion, all from other women. I expected these to come from men, especially as my very first blog post attracted the following passive-aggressive response from ‘Geraint’:

My favourite phrase (referring to the proliferation of blogs/social media) is “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should!”

As much as I admire your new adventures it’s a big like those who write blogs about being pregnant/unemployed/married etc – it’s tricky but nothing new/unique and therefore should be confined to a personal diary.

Otherwise it’s just attention seeking.

Sorry 🙂 x

I particularly loved the smiley at the end. I read this and thought, “Here we go…” preparing for the onslaught of trolls waiting to silence women like me who dared to express thoughts and opinions online. But thankfully that didn’t happen. Lovely Geraint (a fellow Welshie!) seems to have been a one-off.

No – what’s actually happened a year on is that I’ve pretty much been told to either shut up or ‘tone it down a bit’ by mainly women. I’ve been told my blog appears ‘spiky’, ‘judgemental’, ‘aggressive’, ‘bitter’, arrogant’, ‘opinionated’, ‘angry’, ‘difficult’ and ‘challenging’ by people who seem to have had nerves touched by what I’ve written. They’ve even warned me that it might put men off. (It’s actually quite a good asshole filter, truth be told). 

I’ve been told that they don’t agree with everything I write, even though I’d never expect them to, yet they never comment or respond to anything I say publicly, only one-to-one. Maybe I should be grateful for that.

All of this response seems to have been exacerbated since I wrote Awareness Is All back in May, about my take on feminism. Women, it seems, have a problem with me being feminist and would prefer it if I piped down a bit and got on with being a woman quietly, like everyone else. (Good job the suffragettes didn’t do that, eh?) I’m challenging the world they’ve bought into, perhaps even compromised themselves for, and they don’t like it. 

I have received my Women’s Equality Party Founding Member card this week with pride. It is the first time I have felt strongly about anything political and I’m determined to be part of the movement to redress the ridiculous levels of economic, political and social inequality that exist. And they do exist, whether everyone acknowledges them or not. And as the party line states, ‘equality is better for everyone’, not just women.

The upshot of this micro-barrage is simply that I am even more determined to have an opinion and express it publicly. Every time I get ‘shushed’ I want to shout even louder. I’m starting to think that the very best thing a woman can be called is ‘opinionated’ and ‘attention-seeking’.

If blogging isn’t an attention-seeking act, then what is? Everything about this is in the choice. I can seek your attention with my views but you don’t have to give it to me. If my followers happen to agree with my opinion then great, if they don’t, fine. Either tell me in a comment or not. It’s up to you. It’s just my not-so-humble opinion.

As I write, there is a Twitter conversation going on about whether or not book bloggers should be ‘critical’ of the books they review. I am aghast that this is even a question. If we can’t give an honest opinion about something in a reasoned, intelligent way, then what on earth are we doing this for? Just to be nice?

I’d rather be a Proper Little Madam any day of the week.

Go With The Flow

I’m going to talk about periods. If you’re rolling your eyes right now then maybe click or look away before I go any further.

*gives it a few seconds*

Periods are big news at the moment – firstly we had the woman who posted a picture of herself on Instagram in which you could clearly see a patch of blood. Instagram took the picture down and she reposted it. They took it down again, but later apologised for their ‘mistake’ and reinstated it. As Jessica Valenti pointed out, Instagram are only too happy to showcase bikini selfies but have banned breastfeeding shots. Similarly, women can be nearly naked, but if they dare to have body hair, they have to go.

Then just last week we had Donald Trump criticising Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly, saying on CNN, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes … Blood coming out of her wherever.” It’s not new to have a man accuse a confident, vocal woman of being subject to ‘that time of the month’, especially if she’s questioning his motives, but it’s not something you usually hear from a man running for the US presidency. That comment probably lost him the race.

And yesterday we had the news that Kiran Gandhi ran the London Marathon in April while she had her period, but decided to run tampon-free in support of women in countries who have no access to sanitary protection. Interestingly, the incident wasn’t reported by anyone there at the time – maybe they thought she’d simply had a ‘mishap’.

And oh, the fear of that mishap. The leak. I remember the very real fear that it would happen at school. I started my periods while still at primary school and in the beginning, had to wear things (we called them ‘things’ in our house because the words ‘sanitary towels’ were just to awful to say out loud) that resembled single-sized duvets between my legs all day.

I remember my mother describing the onset of my periods as ‘something that happens to all women, even the Virgin Mary’. It wasn’t exactly a biology lesson but I was only nine and I was in a Catholic school. I remember my sister reaching her arm out of her bed to shake my hand: “Welcome to the club,” she said.

From being dropped off at school in the morning to going home at night I worried about leaking. If I sat down too long during lessons the worry would mean I couldn’t concentrate. All I could think about was how I could subtly spin my skirt around when I finally stood up just to check the back. At secondary school, my friends and I had a silent agreement that we’d check each other during those times. “Am I ok at the back?” I’d whisper through unmoving lips. They’d nod. I never leaked there, but I did in ballet class once, whilst wearing a light-blue leotard. I nearly died of shame when I realised later.

Managing this situation takes up a lot of time in women’s lives. If you’re a man, you won’t notice it because we are so practised at hiding it. If we think we might be in ‘danger’, we engineer a trip to the toilet; we stuff tampons up our sleeves or even down our boots if we have to, because the very worst thing we could do is let someone know that we have our period, even other women.

We manage the pain with timely painkillers and work out if we can manage an exercise class without worry. Don’t get me started on PE lessons at school and the showers. The opportunities for shame there are legion.

The worry lessens as we get older as we get more adept at managing periods and knowing what our bodies will do, or can handle, especially as our monthly cycles tend to become more regular. But those early days are fraught with unexpected or phantom start days, sudden rushes of ‘flow’ and not being near any facilities or painkillers for hours.

We even get up during the night to change our protection as eight hours is way too long to wait. We regularly ruin underwear if we don’t, which is why we have special ‘period pants’ that we don’t mind losing.

And then there are holidays. The all-important timing issue. Periods can be so erratic that you can change your holiday dates and still have to contend with the discomfort and inconvenience while you’re away. To a certain extent you can be that girl on a yacht in a Bodyform advert, but the reality is, her smile belies her ‘When will we reach a proper toilet so I can check my situation? Will this tampon last for a whole round-island trip? Did I make a mistake wearing white shorts?’ questions.

And finally, sex. There is nothing more frustrating than being ‘out of action’. Yes, there are some men who don’t mind, but there are even fewer women who think the same way (although maybe I’m wrong). Yes, there are other things you can do for entertainment, but it does rather take the shine off.

It is rather astonishing that something that affects all biological women is so gloriously taboo. The lengths we all go to avoid saying the actual word or admit that it’s happening are incredible. I’m still embarrassed buying tampons in Boots for god’s sake.

So I’m pleased that periods are finally in the news. It’s about time. At least this is blood spilt without harming anyone.

Much.

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Great piece on the Trump moment: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/aug/10/menstruation-revolution-donald-trump-periods-stigma