Archive for category Feminism
She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.
I’ve just finished reading Hannah Jewell’s 100 Nasty Women of History and that phrase came to mind pretty much on every page. Just as women around the world have turned Senator McConnell’s rebuke to Senator Warren into a rallying cry, so Jewell turns Donald Trump’s insult to Hillary Clinton around, and uses it to celebrate women in history who were ‘brilliant, badass and absolutely fearless’, and in many cases, pretty much unknown.
Some of these nasty women were indeed pretty nasty. None of this is about saying that women are good, or do good (#notallwomen). It’s saying that women can’t, won’t, never did, never will, fit into the restrictive little boxes that centuries of patriarchy have tried to confine them to.
Men keep on warning us. They keep on explaining why we need to leave things to them, to stop being so pushy, so strident. And nevertheless we persist.
We always have. The women that Jewell celebrates all had to deal with men telling them that they couldn’t do things simply because they were women, because their brains weren’t sharp enough, they weren’t rational enough, they were too emotional, too fluffy, because trying to be otherwise would make them poorly, shrivel their ovaries or something, stop them getting a man, or being able to bear children. We’ve been told we’re too pushy or not ambitous enough to succeed, too plain or too pretty to be taken seriously, that our choices are all wrong (have babies/not have babies, go back to work/stay at home).
And nevertheless we persist.
Women throughout the centuries, across the continents. In cultures far more restrictive than our own women have nevertheless become warriors, monarchs, visionaries, writers, leaders, artists, scientists, inventors. And we go on, pushing at the barriers, cracking the glass ceilings. We carry on speaking out when they interrupt or talk over us. We carry on campaigning in the face of internet abuse and threats, or worse.
We’re half the human race. We’re all races and religions, all shapes and sizes, all political persuasions. We have disabilities and we have none, we are healthy and we suffer pain and indignity, we are independent and we need help to get by. We have money to burn and we have nothing at all. We are mothers and we are daughters and sisters, we are friends and wives and lovers. We are beautiful and we are ordinary. We are gay, straight, bi, cis, trans, and every variant or combination of the above. We are feminists, and we are ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ and we are most decidedly not feminists. We believe in our right to choose, and we believe that women’s fertility should be controlled by the state, by the church, by men. We wear pussy hats, and ‘Make America Great Again’ hats.
We don’t agree with each other, we don’t always understand each other. There’s no unifying glorious, supportive and empowering sisterhood – how could there be, when we’re half the human race? But we can choose to support each other, to celebrate achievements that otherwise might be dismissed or forgotten, to amplify voices that might not otherwise be heard, to bring into the light wrongs that otherwise might be hidden.
We’ve come a long way, baby, but not yet far enough, no way. We still lack anything resembling proportionate power, resources, influence. We still face horrific violence, on the streets and in our homes. We still carry disproportionate burdens when it comes to feeding and raising our families.
But we will persist.
PS – Oh, and BTW, International Men’s Day is on 19 November. Just in case anyone was about to ask. Richard Herring is doing a sterling job on Twitter (@Herring1967) for what he calls International “When’s International Men’s Day?” Day, encouraging anyone who asks the question (and each of them seems to think they’re the first person to do so. Bless.) to contribute to Refuge.
‘Finally the tables are starting to turn…’
Listening to Jumoke Fashola singing Tracy Chapman’s ‘Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution’ as I write, and it almost feels like we could be at one of those moments when things do change, when the weight of our fury, unexpressed or suppressed for so long, can bring about real and lasting change.
Ask me in a few months or a year, and I may have to acknowledge that, despite my 60 years, I am still hopelessly naive and idealistic. But today it feels like the tables are starting to turn.
There are of course plenty of voices raised against us. There’s talk of witch hunts. There’s talk of how of course this sort of thing was fine 15 years ago. There’s talk of how this is all down to the collapse of the established moral order (because feminism) in which men and women could mix happily (it’s unclear whether the argument is that such things didn’t happen then, or that women knew their place and didn’t make a fuss about it). The women who speak up are labelled as pushy, ruthlessly ambitious, or as having a political agenda (derailing Brexit, undermining the Party, whatever). Or we’re just belittled as ‘squawking and flapping‘.
Let’s remind ourselves of what a witch hunt was. It was when the powerful in society attempted to pin the blame for bad things on to someone who was isolated, who was weak, often old, and almost always female. Not quite what’s going on here. Some are invoking McCarthyism (always linked to the witch hunt since Arthur Miller’s The Crucible) but again that’s not really what’s happening. In the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities investigations and trials, powerful people were encouraging the denunciation and punishment of those who were rumoured to or indeed actually did have links to left-wing politics.
Now the anonymous spreadsheet does have a whiff of injustice about it – the inclusion of extramarital affairs suggests a ‘moral’ agenda which is really not relevant to the issue of sexual harassment. This is likely to be more of a distraction than anything else. Its cowardly anonymity is in sharp contrast to the accounts we are hearing daily now, where women are going public about their own experiences, their own hurt and humiliation and damage, and about exactly who did that to them.
These women aren’t plotting with each other to overthrow the patriarchy, or to revenge themselves against men who’ve done them wrong. They’re only linked to each other by that common experience, and they’re only powerful now because they have given each other the courage to speak about that experience, and because there are so many of them that they can’t be silenced or ridiculed into shutting up. Not any more.
And let’s nail this nonsense about how ‘a hand on the knee’ was perfectly fine 15 or 20 years ago. My working life goes back to the late 1970s, and although such behaviour was very much more common then, we weren’t ok with it. Really, we weren’t. If we didn’t say anything it was for the same reason that people don’t speak out now – because we were less powerful than the people who were harassing us. In the mid-’80s people did talk about sexual harassment in the workplace. It was most definitely a thing. From the very early ’90s I was a harassment officer at a University, dealing with complaints of sexual and racial harassment and of bullying, so I’ve heard all the excuses.
‘It’s just banter’. ‘It was a compliment.’ ‘She’s so over-sensitive.’ ‘Yes I said that, but that wasn’t harassment.’ ‘It’s all a fuss about nothing.’ ‘It was all consensual.’
It happened, and we had policies to deal with it, and people to support the complainants, and we ran training sessions for line managers so they were aware of those policies and support structures.
Workplace harassment is about power – always. Whether that power rests in seniority, in majority, in gender, age or ethnicity, the harasser holds power and uses it to get what they want, to silence, and to punish if they don’t get what they want.
As is the case in other types of violence against women, sexual harassment is
inextricably linked with power. Whether the perpetrator is abusing a position
of power by harassing someone they see as less powerful, or whether the
perpetrator feels powerless and is using sexual harassment as a means to
disempower the target of their harassment and thus increase their own
power and status in the workplace. Several studies have found that
perpetrators of sexual harassment tend to be in a position of power over the
target of the harassment. The disempowering impact of sexual harassment
was a recurrent theme in union members’ responses to a TUC survey on
sexual harassment. Shame, humiliation, and a sense of being undermined
professionally were all cited by respondents.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that the stories which are coming out now are for the most part stories of workplace harassment. They are stories about actors auditioning for film roles, writers meeting with TV executives to talk about a script, journalists meeting with politicians. Even if the place where it happened is not a workplace per se (a bar or a restaurant or a hotel room) the context is that of someone doing their job, or trying to get a job.
None of us are really surprised that the women who are finally telling their stories – stories they may never have told anyone before, or only shared with a few close friends – are labelled as pushy. Any woman who speaks out, any woman who disagrees publicly with a man, any woman who challenges a man is pushy, strident, aggressive. I know this. In my almost forty years in the workplace, I’ve often been the only woman on a committee, and I rapidly discovered that if I wanted to be heard, I had to be determined, I had to not be deterred by being interrupted or talked over, I had to raise my voice (increased volume rather than higher pitch – heavens, mustn’t be shrill…). So I’ve been told, over and over, that I’m pushy, strident, aggressive.
If we stand up for ourselves, that’s what we get. If we don’t, we are assumed to be compliant and complicit. In reality we are engaging in a constant process of evaluating and avoiding risk. Looking for escape routes, for allies, for witnesses. Warning each other. Assessing at what point and how loudly we protest or refuse. Wondering what that protest or refusal may cost us.
There’s a clip circulating on Twitter of the magnificent Jo Brand on HIGNFY telling the blokes about how we feel under siege, how the constant, if low-level pattern of harassment wears us down. From the looks on their faces, I’m not sure they really got it.
I suspect very few men do and that’s because their experience of life is likely to be so different to ours, but also because we don’t often tell them what it’s like for us. We don’t tell them because we’re embarrassed, because we fear we may be blamed (what were you wearing? were you drunk? why did you share a taxi with him?), or because ‘our’ man might feel obliged to go and be manly and challenge our harasser to some kind of duel… And it’s no good asking them to imagine it happening to them, unless we make it clear we’re not asking them to fantasise about Lupita N’yongo or Romola Garai stroking their knee without asking permission first – we’re asking them to imagine someone they don’t fancy, someone they’re intimidated by, someone who has power over them – someone like Weinstein, trapping them in a hotel room and pinning them down, using physical as well as social power against them. We’ve been telling each other, for years (watch out for that one, a bit handsy, NSIT, etc) but now we’re telling men. Some of them are listening.
Some of them, of course are worried. Worried because they know damn well that even if they’re not and never have been as monstrous as Weinstein, they have crossed the line in their behaviour towards women, and they are wondering whether and when those women might speak out.
Charles Moore is worried for a different reason. He acknowledges that this is all about power. And he sees this as a moment when power has shifted.
This scandal shows that women are now on top. I pray they share power with men, not crush us
I think he’s being over optimistic (or pessimistic, depending on your point of view). I don’t think the patriarchy is history. It’s pretty resilient, and I think it will survive, overall. But I do think something has shifted. Some men are questioning their own behaviour, and some are questioning their own failure to challenge the behaviour of others.
What we’re asking for, really, isn’t so very radical or scary. It’s that men treat us as if – just imagine! – we are real people, as real as them, whose wishes and intentions, whose fears and hopes, are as real as theirs, and who can make choices, even choices that don’t suit those men. If over half of the world’s people are being subjected to varying degrees of harassment, abuse and assault because of their gender, isn’t that something about which we all ought to care? And if all this is happening in the context of equality legislation and harassment policies and so on, one can guarantee things will be so so much tougher for women in countries where there are fewer protections and a culture that reinforces prejudices against them.
The thing about speaking out, when you’ve spent so long not doing it, is that it can be exhilarating, liberating, intoxicating. We’re not going to be shutting up any time soon. And that has to mean that we – the privileged, who have access to power and the means of communication – speak out for the many girls and women who can’t.
Cause finally the tables are starting to turn
Talkin’ bout a revolution
It would be difficult to find a girl or a woman who couldn’t say, yes, me too. As someone said on Twitter, those of us who are referring only to harassment rather than to assault or rape are the fortunate ones – often we barely even recognise what we’ve experienced as being what it is, it’s just the way things are, it’s just what being a girl or a woman means.
Of course, it happens to boys and men too and some are using the #MeToo hashtag to share their experiences. I know that we find it easier to tell each other about the things that happen to us than men do. We may make a bit of a joke of it, or frame it as a warning about a colleague who’s all hands after a few drinks or whatever, and we may not be able to talk to anyone ever at all. But one burden that men carry that we don’t is the need to be strong, and to be seen to be strong.
Nonetheless, primarily I am talking about girls and women. About the fact that we learn to expect a degree of harassment, verbal or physical. And the fact that whatever our age, size, however we dress, wherever we go, we must learn to always be aware that there are predators – predators in dark alleys, predators in smart suits, predators in our homes and workplaces. There are men who think that what they want they can have, and that what they want is all that matters. There are men who will punish with violence or in subtler ways someone who say no.
I’ve got no heartrending stories to tell. My experiences of sexual harassment have been so very ordinary, which is a story in itself, I guess. The guy on the bus, the group of lads in town, the pushy sales rep with his sleazy comments, all normal, all ordinary. I have been made to feel afraid. I have, when cornered on a train by leery groups of lads drinking Special Brew, been thinking furiously about how to get away, whether there’s anyone else around who might be an ally, whether I should be friendly and risk them thinking I’m up for it, or cold and risk triggering overt hostility.
But that’s all normal and ordinary, and a long time ago. Something happened a few weeks back, though, which reminded me of some of those earlier ordinary, normal incidents. Sitting having a drink with my friend, catching up, enjoying each others company, when two very drunk middle-aged blokes come in and try to engage people in conversation. We avoid eye contact but to no avail. One of the blokes comes over and asks if he can join us. We say no, very politely and with smiles because we’re nice people, but we say no. He carries on talking to us, we continue to (politely) assert that we are fine as we are, and that we don’t want him to join us. And quite suddenly he makes some remark about our size. That’s our punishment for saying no. It reminded me of the man at a party (decades ago) who when I turned him down (despite his incredibly seductive promise to ‘destroy’ me) gave me unsolicited feedback on my weight. They felt entitled – whether to sex or just to attention – and when that entitlement is denied, they hit back, physically or verbally.
What can we do? We can stop blaming ourselves for someone else’s vileness. We – women and men – can stop implying that someone asked for it, or was stupid or naive to find themselves in that situation, or was cowardly to not speak out sooner. We can challenge the entitled mindset whenever we encounter it, we can not join in with the comments or laugh at the jokes, we can stand with someone in a difficult situation and back up their account when they’re being called a liar.
Remember that every time a man commits a violent act it only takes one or two steps to figure out how it’s a woman’s fault, and that these dance steps are widely known and practiced and quite a bit of fun. There are things men do that are the fault of women who are too sexy, and other things men do that are the fault of women who are not sexy enough, but women only come in those two flavors: not enough, too much, and it is the fate of heterosexual men to endure this affliction.
And what’s happening to me as I write this is that incidents I had forgotten – not suppressed because they were traumatic, just forgotten because they were ordinary and normal – are coming back to me. I hadn’t realised that there were so many.
Yes, me too.
What “me too” does is bring it back into the home, the school, the shop, the street, the office where women have been harassed. It makes it small screen not big screen. It makes it ordinary and everyday and seen. … Many have waited a long time for this. Don’t let it go now. Keep saying “me too” because we are fighting not one guy here, but a system that can only be challenged by collective rage, not individual shame. Suzanne Moore, The Guardian
Master: Is the future going to be all girl?
Doctor: We can only hope.
With hindsight it was obvious this regeneration was going to be the one. The one that brought us a woman Doctor.
We’d seen it established that Time Lord regenerations can involve a change of gender as well as of height, hair colour, apparent age and so on. We’d engaged with the Master/Missy conundrum.
DOCTOR: She was my first friend, always so brilliant, from the first day at the Academy. So fast, so funny. She was my man crush.
BILL: I’m sorry?
DOCTOR: Yeah, I think she was a man back then. I’m fairly sure that I was, too. It was a long time ago, though.
BILL: So, the Time Lords, bit flexible on the whole man-woman thing, then, yeah?
DOCTOR: We’re the most civilised civilisation in the universe. We’re billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.
BILL: But you still call yourselves Time Lords?
DOCTOR: Yeah. Shut up.
With lines like the above, we were being set up to welcome (or not) a woman to the role. Still, at some level, at least until a couple of days before the announcement, I really thought they might row back from that and say no, not yet, not this time. I really wasn’t sure they had the bottle to do this.
There’s been a lot of rather predictable frothing at the mouth, harrumphing and incipient apoplexy, with claims that this is the BBC surrendering to some mysterious all-powerful Political Correctness lobby (‘Murdered a part of our culture for feminazi political correctness ideology!’ ‘Doctor Who … didn’t die nobly as you might expect. He was murdered by Political Correctness’). That’s best ignored, by and large. I fear that Jodie Whitaker will have to contend with worse than that, and with personalised unpleasantness, but I’m sure she’s well aware and will be ready for the haters.
Not everyone who dislikes the change is of this breed, of course. There has to be a core of Doctorness with each regeneration, and some feel that maleness is a part of that. I disagree, but I suspect that many of those people, if they genuinely love the programme, will continue to watch and will be won over. Another response was that whilst of course boys have far more heroic role models in popular culture to emulate and be inspired by than girls do, the Doctor is different, and valuable because of the ways in which he is different. I do see the need for boys to have role models who aren’t all about action and fighting (even fighting for Good against Evil), but part of what makes the Doctor different, for me, is that gender roles and stereotypes simply aren’t (or shouldn’t be) relevant.
A plethora of girls and women have regarded the Doctor as a role model, and identified with him, over Doctor Who’s 50 year span, whilst he’s regenerated, repeatedly, as a man. The Doctor is still, no doubt, going to be the Doctor as portrayed by Jodie Whittaker – alien, two hearts, both of gold, funny, witty, snarky, capricious, kind, adventurous. (Juniper Fish, Doctor Who Forum)
The Doctor can and should be a role model for both boys and girls, in a way that Captain America or Batman can’t quite be – and probably Wonder Woman and Buffy can’t quite be role models for boys either. So, the Doctor can continue to inspire boys whilst giving girls and women a whole new image of how to be wise, and brave, how to save the world, to do what’s right, to be kind. Girls need to develop the confidence to take the lead roles, not to assume that a hero/a protector is by default male.
Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand, is where I fall. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help, a little. Why not, just at the end, just be kind?
Funnily enough, whilst the Outraged/Betrayed/Will Never Watch Again lobby were as loud and silly as one might have expected, overall what I found on Twitter was a mix of sheer delight, excited anticipation – and a different kind of silliness. See the #TardisFullOfBras hashtag, for example – someone took a hostile Daily Mail comment and turned it around, so that it’s full of fan art and daft jokes (and bras). That’s the way to go, I think.
There’s little point in trying to engage with someone who throws ‘feminazi’ into the conversation simply because someone gives a job to a woman that has been previously held by a man. There’s little point in trying to unpack the hotchpotch of false analogies and fake news and mythology that is evoked whenever the term ‘political correctness’ is used. And if someone believes that ‘social justice warrior’ is an insult, we don’t really have a lot to talk about.
What matters here, to me, is the delight that this news has brought to so many of us. It’s only a story, but stories are the most powerful things in the world.
Stories can make us fly.
We need stories, and we need heroes. And if we can’t immediately see around us the heroes we need, we build them. It seems that we are having a real moment here.
When I wrote about Wonder Woman, only a week or so ago, I did not know – though I hoped – that the 13th Doctor would be a woman. They’re quite different of course, but what is so glorious is that now, right now, there are two more in the pantheon of women who can, women who can stand up, will stand up. We have a woman (OK, a demi-god) who uses superhuman physical strength, courage and a fierce sense of what is right, in the service of humanity, and another (OK, a Gallifreyan Time Lord) who uses the wisdom of centuries and galaxies, wit and invention and intellect, courage and a fierce sense of what is right, in the service of humanity.
without hope, without reward, without witness
I felt when I was watching Wonder Woman like punching the air and having a bit of a cry at the same time, and when I think about the Doctor’s next regeneration, I feel much the same. Of course it is vital that the stories are well written, that the wit and humour is there, as well as the thrills and chills. Of course it is vital that the gender thing is dealt with intelligently, that stereotypes are undermined or dismissed with humour and that the Doctor is and remains Doctorly, demonstrating both difference and continuity as each new incumbent has done over the last 50 years.
It is perhaps even more vital that the stories are strong because there are those who (even though they may have vowed never to watch it again) will be waiting for it to fail, wanting to say that they told us so, that it could never work, that the Doctor can’t be a woman. If Jodie kicks it out of the park, as we hope and believe she will, then each regen that follows can be whoever seems right at the time and whoever takes it on will be critiqued for their ability and not for their gender.
Meantime, we’re loving this moment. Loving it for ourselves and for our daughters, nieces, granddaughters, all the young women who can now enjoy Doctor Who in a different way, who can take on the lead role in playground games. Not just companions or assistants but The Doctor.
My love for Doctor Who is, I realise, a bit ridiculous but I don’t bloody care because we all need escapism sometimes and, as my often tested loyalty to lost causes show, my love is nothing if not tenacious. At primary school I distinctly remember the humiliation of a school assembly where some of us were asked to share our pictures of what we wanted to be when we grew up. A Timelord was not an appropriate aspiration for a girl apparently and the piss was duly ripped. Not the first, worst or only time youngling (or indeed “grown-up” me) encountered sexism and ridiculous gender stereotypes but, because as a troubled kid my fantasy life was a refuge and a solace, one of the hardest stings. Anyway, fuck that nonsense because anything can happen with a Tardis and hooray for progress and little girls being allowed imaginations. And no, that does not come at the expense of little boys at all, and yes, I am really sorry Capaldi and Bill are gone because when they got the scripts they were brilliant and that, actually, is the heart of what I want. Good writing, please, please, please (and obviously for me to get a ride in there somewhere with them, because what is the Doctor if not an intergalactic anarcho-flaneuse who needs a bit more glitter?) (Morag Rose)
Doctor Who is a different sort of hero. The Doctor solves problems not by being the strongest, the fastest or the one with the biggest army, but by outthinking everyone else in the room. Far too many female characters are two-dimensional. I’m ready for one that can travel in four. I’m ready to watch a woman save the world again and again by being very, very clever and very, very moral, without having to have a man sort anything out or come and save her. I’m ready for a woman hero who’s older than recorded history and weirder than a three-day bender in the BBC props cupboard. I’m ready for a female super nerd. And so is the rest of the world. (Laurie Penny, The New Statesman)
MASTER: Is the future going to be all girl?
DOCTOR: We can only hope.
Steve: “This war is a great big mess, and there’s not a whole lot you and I can do about that. I mean, we can get back to London and try to get to the men who can.”
Diana: “I am the man who can.”
NB What follows contains some spoilers… Caveat lector.
It mattered a great deal that Wonder Woman was, well, wonderful. I can cope with Batman v Superman being a bit meh, or the odd entry in the Avengers cycle being less than stellar. But she needed to kick it out of the damn park.
And she did.
It’s not that she’s the first or the only. She herself has been around since 1941, and there have, of course, been other women superheroes (and supervillains) in the comics and on TV and in the movies. But it’s very rare for the one who carries the whole movie, the centre and focus, the one on whom everything depends, to be a woman.
And as much as I love the current Marvel series, a lot of the time they are really quite blokey. The blokes are great – funny and noble (mostly) and gorgeous, so I’m not complaining, not really. But there’s not enough of Black Widow and Scarlet Witch to balance things out. There’s a fine tradition of women heroes – think Ripley, Sarah Connor, Katniss Everdene – human, but with outstanding courage and strength. And there’s always and forever Buffy.
Wonder Woman is different. First off, she’s a half-god. Not an alien, or an inhuman, not technically enhanced, but a straight-up, bona fide, god-almighty daughter of a god. Second, her upbringing on Themyscira sets her in a context where women are powerful, strong, brave, not exceptionally but as a norm.
The opening sequences of Amazonian women training, and then fighting on the beach made me want to weep and cheer at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a bit of a pacifist on the whole, but the simple fact that this small army was comprised of glorious women was somehow very moving.
Of course all these women are beautiful. But they’re beautiful athletes, not beautiful models. They’re magnificent in the way that Serena and Venus Williams are magnificent. Their bodies are toned and lean and powerful and they are in control of them.
Gal Gadot herself is mesmerisingly gorgeous. That Chris Pine spends much of the movie just gazing at her in awe is perfectly understandable – when she is on screen one would need a damn good reason to look elsewhere. (Of course, the men in the movie also spend a lot of time saying variants of ‘just wait here’, ‘leave it to us’ and so on, and Diana doesn’t bother to argue, she just gives them a bit of a look and then does what she has to do. The phrase ‘nevertheless she persisted‘ came inevitably to mind.)
She’s presented, in some ways, as naive. That’s justified by what we know of her origins – what she’s been told, and not told, about the world beyond Themyscira. That doesn’t diminish her – she is rocked by the realisation that things are not as straightforwardly binary as she’d believed, but she recovers from that, regroups her forces and fights on.
“I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then, I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. And I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. A choice each must make for themselves. Something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know, that only love can truly save the world. So I stay, I fight, and I give, for the world I know can be.”
I wrote a while ago about the Marvel universe and why I love it so:
It’s the flawed and fragile beauty of humanity that the Avengers fight for:
“Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. … A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.”
Echoes of the Doctor there, I think. Amongst all of the forces that see the weakness of human beings and want to destroy, some stand with us. The Doctor said that in 900 years of space and time he’d never met anyone who wasn’t important. He tells us again and again that we are in our very ordinariness extraordinary, in our bloody-minded going where angels fear to tread, our curiosity and our moments of courage.
Diana Prince, like the Doctor, like Captain America and all the other heroes, does what’s right because it’s right.
without hope, without reward, without witness
What we see in the movie is her first encounter with the world beyond Themyscira. It baffles her (to comic effect as she struggles to comprehend why a woman should tolerate clothing that hobbles and constrains her), and it troubles her as she begins to realise that the people she encounters cannot be divided simply into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. She is not yet weary as Buffy is, so often, saving the world yet again. She has not yet lost battles, has not got centuries, aeons, of attempting to protect humanity from the forces that would destroy it. But nonetheless she would understand the Doctor.
Winning? Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because, because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun and God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. I do what I do, because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point in any of this at all, but it’s the best I can do, so I’m going to do it. And I will stand here doing it till it kills me. You’re going to die too, some day. How will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand, is where I fall. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help, a little. Why not, just at the end, just be kind?
I was surprised at first at the choice to set Diana’s first encounter with the messy, murky world of humans in the first, rather than the second World War. But I think actually that’s right. The second is too simply a confrontation with evil, with the absolute worst that human beings could be. The first portrays more effectively the messiness and murkiness of it all – the moral questions about who started it and why, who joined in when and why are complex and still generate heated debate today (as was seen in the recent centenaries of the start of that war and of the Battle of the Somme). So the great evil that Diana confronts is not the Kaiser’s forces but war itself. Steve refers to ‘the war to end all wars’ but that description acquires layers of ambiguity, as it becomes clear that it is potentially also the war that never ends.
Interestingly, whilst the humans who represent that evil – chemical weapons scientist Isabel Maru (aka Doctor Poison), and General Ludendorff – are on the German side, the God of War himself is introduced to us as Sir Patrick Morgan, a British politician who is, it appears, attempting to negotiate an armistice. Murky, messy, or what…
We need Diana’s fierce kindness, her innocent clarity, to cut through all of this. We can’t aspire to her physical perfection, her power and strength. But we can be inspired by her moral strength. That kind of integrity is easy to dismiss as naive or po-faced – Captain America is its embodiment in the Avengers, and of course he is mocked by Iron Man, who himself embodies a more complex and troubled morality (Rick Blaine to Cap’s Victor Laszlo?).
But the simple fact that it is a woman who represents all of this – physical power, moral integrity, compassion – takes us to different places. That those men looking both for direction and guidance and for the power to follow through look to a woman still rocks our world a little bit. We’ve come a long way, baby, but not far enough, not so far that we can see the Amazons fighting on Themyscira, and Diana taking on the patriarchy and the God of War without a thrill, a shiver down the spine, a lump in the throat.
And whilst we cannot aspire to Amazonian strength, we can still draw strength from the Amazons. From Diana, Buffy, Katniss, Ripley, and all of the women who stand up when it’s right to stand up.
From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer will be a slayer. Every girl who could have the power will have the power … can stand up, will stand up. … Are you ready to be strong?
20th century women – three generations in my family exploring what it means to be a woman. My mum, who believed that it was for men to lead and inspire, but who led and inspired, nonetheless, despite herself. I grew up wondering why I was so crap at being a girl (the endless Christmas and birthday gifts of cookery books and embroidery sets and dolls, all rebuking me for my ineptitude and lack of interest), but finding a way to be the kind of woman I wanted to be without the trappings that irritated and puzzled me. My daughter managing to be so good at being a girl (all that pink, the Barbies and Bratz, the make-up and handbags) and being a fierce and clever and brave woman at the same time.
I thought of us all whilst watching the film 20th Century Women. Annette Bening’s Dorothea was my age in the film, but Mum’s generation. Dorothea died in 1999, five years after my Mum. Their lives and experiences were so very different but there was something about her – the fact that she gathered around her people who needed shelter, nurture, companionship, the way she invited anyone she encountered to come to dinner, her desire and real effort to understand what mattered to her son and the younger women who were part of her life.
I managed not to weep, until the very end. When Jamie says that he can’t explain his mother to his son, that’s when it got me. Because I would have loved to see my Mum, watching my children grow up, and to see them turning to her for the love and pride and support that would have always been theirs. And all I can do is to tell them about her.
If the women in 20th Century Women are all white, straight and comfortably situated, the young women in Girlhood (Bande de filles) certainly are not. They inhabit the banlieue, their home lives are chaotic, their choices limited (by economics, by expectations). The opening sequence is possibly the most powerful cinematic expression of the challenges so many young women face that I can recall – a girls’ American football team on the pitch, physically powerful and fearless, jubilant in victory, they pour out of the stadium a babble of raised voices, laughter, solidarity and shared experience. And then they approach the apartment blocks, with the young men almost seeming to be on guard there, in ones and twos, and their voices are quietened. One by one they slip away from the group and into their own lives. But whilst the film gives us no cosy reassurances about what they face, it gives us along the way other moments of joyous girlhood – for example as they dance and pose and mime (in shoplifted frocks) in a hotel room to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’:
So shine bright tonight,
You and I
We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky
Eye to eye,
We’re beautiful like diamonds in the skyShine bright like a diamond
Shine bright like a diamond
Shining bright like a diamond
We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky
And they do shine, they are so alive, they are beautiful.
We’re half the world. We’re all races and religions, all shapes and sizes, all political persuasions. We have disabilities and we have none, we are healthy and we suffer pain and indignity, we are independent and we need help to get by. We have money to burn and nothing at all. We are mothers and we are daughters and sisters, we are friends and wives and lovers. We are gay, straight, bi, trans, and every variant or combination of the above. We are feminists, and we are ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ and we are most decidedly not feminists. We believe in our right to choose, and we believe that women’s fertility should be controlled by the state, by the church, by men. We wear pussy hats, and ‘Make America Great Again’ hats.
I can’t speak for Women. I’m middle aged (at least…), straight, cis-gendered, without disabilities, white, university educated, comfortably off. I am as baffled and dismayed by what many other women believe and fight for as I am about what many men believe and fight for. I can’t claim to have experienced direct discrimination, I’ve never experienced sexual violence or domestic violence. Everyday sexism, yes, of course, over the years I’ve clocked up a fair number of examples of that, in the workplace, on public transport, on the streets. But the fact that, say, FGM doesn’t affect me or mine doesn’t mean I don’t give a damn about it, or that I shouldn’t campaign about it. The fact that my career has encountered no overt obstacles due to my gender, that I live in a society with laws to protect my rights to equal pay and equal treatment, doesn’t mean I have nothing to say about the women around the world for whom this is not true. I can’t speak for Women, but I can and do and will speak about the experiences, the threats, the challenges, the obstacles that so many women share (even if I haven’t and don’t).
I check my privilege, I acknowledge it, but it doesn’t have to limit what or who I care about. And I know that in most countries, most of the time, women have to face a whole lot of extra crap that men don’t – they share the burdens of poverty, persecution and oppression, natural and man-made hazards and disasters but with the additional burdens that arise from the way they are viewed in too many societies, by too many men. That their choices are deemed irrelevant, their aspirations ridiculous, their personal integrity always violable. Whether these oppressions are enforced by law or merely by convention, they do oppress, and it takes immense courage to challenge them.
To all those who do, thank you.
And to my Mum, who would never have called herself a feminist, but who inspired me in that aspect of my life, as in so many others, thank you.
The truly great women of history are not celebrated as they should be. Look at the furore when a number of women campaigned to get one – one! – of our bank notes to commemorate Jane Austen, a writer universally acknowledged (pretty much) to be one of the giants of English literature. Whilst statues and street names grant immortality to men whose deeds have been pretty much forgotten and would hardly be celebrated today – ‘heroes’ of war and empire for the most part – very few women make the grade.
Josephine Butler certainly has been consigned to the shadows for far too long. She was once described as ‘the most distinguished Englishwoman of the nineteenth century’ (by Millicent Fawcett). There have been a number of books about her, and the Church of England commemorates her, appropriately enough, in prayer on a dedicated day in the church calendar. The University of Durham has named a College after her, and there’s a Josephine Butler Primary Campus also in Northumberland, her birthplace. But still, we should know more, we should celebrate this truly remarkable woman.
As her latest biographer, Helen Mathers, says, ‘her achievements had lasting impact. Her name deserves to be remembered by all who value women’s struggles to improve their lives’. Helen’s book both justifies that claim, and explains why she is so much less well-known than her contemporary, Florence Nightingale, for example.
Because Josephine Butler, whilst epitomising many of the virtues expected of Victorian womanhood (piety, purity, motherhood and devotion to her husband), also broke all the rules. She went into places where respectable women should never venture, precisely because that was where she found the women she spent her life defending and supporting. Not only that but she spoke in public about their plight, about the abuses of the system which forced internal examinations – ‘steel rape’ – on suspected prostitutes in order to protect their male clients from disease, and the inequalities which trapped so many women in situations where prostitution might seem their only option. A contemporary journalist described her as ‘an indecent maenad, a shrieking sister, frenzied, unsexed, and utterly without shame’. She minded that, terribly.
Josephine was driven by her convictions to go on, despite the cost to her family, to her health, to her reputation, because she believed utterly in her crusade. She saw not only the immediate injustices but the underlying systemic ones that allowed these abuses to continue – the separate spheres for men and women which kept so many women ignorant and denied them a voice, the lack of educational opportunities, of voting rights, of rights for married women. And she was part of all of those campaigns – all of the movements which laid the foundations for the legislative and cultural changes which swept through the twentieth century.
But her support for the most despised of women was at the heart of her life’s work. She ‘made no distinction between “respectable” and “fallen” women’, identifying with those whose bodies were subject to abuse by men, the men who had forced them on to the streets in the first place and/or abused them whilst they were there, and the doctors who enforced surgical treatments to control them.
Helen Mathers vividly describes how Josephine’s own desolate sense of loss after the death of one of her children drove her to ‘find some pain keener than my own’. She wasn’t some pious do-gooder, despising the very people she set out to help – from the start she risked her reputation, her dignity, her health and her personal safety by going into the workhouse, sitting on the floor of the oakum shed with the women and girls who worked there (prisoners, or workhouse inmates) and talking to them, alone with them.
Her faith was integral to her campaign, and her marriage was essential to it. In many ways, George Butler was as remarkable as Josephine. He must have been dismayed, surely, by her campaigning, by the effects of her work on their sons, by the cost to her health, and the damage to his own career of having such a notorious wife. But he stood by her, supported her unshakably and she could not have done what she did without him.
If she were with us now, what would she be doing? She would be in Rotherham, and Rochdale, where vulnerable young girls have been abused on an unthinkable scale and ‘the authorities’ have turned blind eyes. She would be working with refugee organisations to help protect young women who arrive here after terrible trauma and find themselves destitute, or threatened with removal to the country where they were subjected to violence. She would be campaigning against trafficking and sex tourism. Wherever the struggle is, she would be there.
I wondered what Josephine herself might have wished for as a memorial to her achievements. A University College would certainly please her, and a day of Anglican prayer. She would be happy that the Josephine Butler Society continues to campaign on the issues closest to her heart. Would she want to be commemorated on a bank-note? Would she want a statue? Perhaps not, who knows. But for us, who have inherited the world that she fought for, but who see around us daily the evidence that her victories were not absolute, and that the fight must continue, it would be good to see reminders of her in Liverpool, perhaps, where her work really began. And if that prompted people to ask, who was Josephine Butler, and what did she do, then this book will provide the answers.
It’s a profoundly moving story, astonishing and inspiring. We can despair that the evils Josephine Butler poured all of her energies into fighting are still with us, or we can hope that there are and always will be people who will take up those battles on behalf of the most vulnerable, the excluded, the despised. As a humanist, I believe passionately that this is so, that knowing that this life is all we have makes what we do with it matter more, not less, that it can make us kinder, and braver. Josephine Butler was no humanist, believing that both the struggle and her strength to pursue it came from God, and in her honour I will, just this once, conclude with a prayer:
God of compassion and love,
by whose grace your servant Josephine Butler
followed in the way of your Son
in caring for those in need:
help us like her to work with strength
for the restoration of all to the dignity
and freedom of those created in your image;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Patron Saint of Prostitutes: Josephine Butler and a Victorian Scandal by Helen Mathers was published by The History Press on 11 August, 2014. ISBN: 9780752492094 It is currently available from all UK booksellers and will be published in the USA in November.
A Kindle edition is available from Amazon. Order a Kindle edition
Signed copies are available from the author at:
£11.50 + postage. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.