2013 wasn’t a vintage year for women. If we stand any chance of improving women’s lives here and abroad, we must stop talking in class and learn to apply ourselves
Words: Lucy Foster
This is how I go home from work: I get off the train and start the seven-minute walk to my house (I always have flat shoes on at this point; better for running). After I’ve crossed over the main road and walked past the row of kebab shops, nail bars and barbers, it turns residential and gets quieter and darker. Immediately I turn down my music and take out one earphone (so I can hear footsteps). I walk briskly and confidently, keeping my head up with one hand on my bag. Every 10 seconds or so, I turn my head to the side, just to see behind me without it appearing like I’m deliberately looking around (I don’t want to seem vulnerable). I keep to the main roads, avoiding shortcuts unless it’s still light. I’ll always have my keys in my hand 10 metres before I reach my front door.
Now I’m not timid and I’m not very easily spooked and I don’t have an overactive imagination. But I am a woman. And crap things happen to women on streets.
I know this because, aged 16, while walking down a quiet road, I was attacked and dragged into an alley by a stranger while my friend, petrified, screamed bloody murder. Thank God she did; he let me go. Aged 27, I got off the bus to start my two-minute walk to my front door. A teenager followed me and after telling him for the fifth time I wasn’t interested, he threw me against a wall and shoved his hand up my skirt (many women and girls in the country know that unwanted compliments can turn to sexual violence in the space of 30 seconds). Aged 32, I was walking past a group of lads in cricket whites on Putney Heath when one of them patted me on the bum. Naturally, I told him where to go. I would have touched him inappropriately back but alas, I didn’t think that would send the right message to an over-sexed moron who’s desperate to impress his friends with his unassailable machismo. And, no doubt, his excellent bowling skills.
I’m a woman and it happens; whether it’s light or dark, I’m in jeans or a summer dress, if I’m decades older or younger than those who choose to assault me. It just happens. And it makes me incandescent with rage; the absolute injustice of being regarded as a walking vessel for male sexual gratification above being seen as a human being.
same as ever
The funny thing is that during my 34 years on this earth, so much has changed in regard to gender relations on a surface level, but what I’m coming to understand is that fundamentally it’s all stayed the same. Women are still second-class citizens; still more likely to suffer from the vagaries of the economy; still more likely to be victims of violence; still grossly underrepresented in all forms of government.
And now, in 2014, the rallying calls of fourth-wave feminism are swelling in the broadsheet supplements, zinging between Twitter feeds, and quite possibly, it would seem, funding a new strand of non-fiction publishing. Feminist, the term that during my school days described that lofty academic breed – Germaine Greer, Susie Orbach, Andrea Dworkin, Naomi Wolf – whose fearsome intellects and grasp of gender politics cemented their place on university curriculums and in the annals of history, has suddenly come back into common parlance and we’re all being challenged as to what that word means to us. Are you a feminist? And if not, why not?
Personally, I do consider myself to be a feminist. Because what I understand by feminism is that women should have equality with men. And until men get off the night bus and scuttle home, breathing a sigh of relief when they make it behind a locked door, or until they’re no longer looked over for a promotion because they have a uterus (thank you Nigel Farage), or until they no longer shoulder the burden of unpaid care or the far-from-extinct double shift, or until they no longer labour under a 15.7% pay gap, or until they know they are properly represented in parliament by women who themselves have undergone similar trials and shared similar experiences, then we are by no means equal.
And in certain corners, it could be seen that some societies’ attitudes to women are getting worse. Let’s take last year, for example. We learned that the standard response for women prepared to talk publicly about issues such as immigration (as Mary Beard did on Question Time) or the simple demand for women (50% of the population, let’s not forget) to be represented on banknotes, was the constant and explicit threat of sexual violence via Twitter. We learned that if you had the misfortune of getting on the wrong bus in India, the consequence could quite possibly be being gang-raped to death. That rape in war zones – from Congo to Syria – is systematic and largely, it would seem, condoned as one of the spoils of war.
Oh, people say, but things are so much better than they were. And yes – you know what – they are. Granted, most women can now vote and work and own property, and get mortgages and credit cards, and live on their own and choose not to have children but instead have 20 cats without being called a witch and dunked in the local pond. Yes, these are all GOOD THINGS. Well done modernity. Pat yourself on the back. But things are still skewed unfairly. And in our generation, we have ourselves, in a small way, to blame. I’ll tell you why. I think – and I stand by this – the ‘ladette’ culture of the Nineties was one of the most damaging things that has ever happened to the female cause in this country. Yes, we could drink beer, and go out all night, and have sex indiscriminately, and eat kebabs with loads of chilli sauce (but lots of yoghurt too so your mouth didn’t burn off), and run with the boys without being called a ‘slag’. And it was supposed to be freeing. And in a way it was.
But it also meant we could take our clothes off if we wanted. We could be sexually aggressive. And slowly, pictures of barely dressed women looking sexually available were no longer confined to Page 3 and the top shelf. Because nearly every famous woman was taking her clothes off. But that’s OK because she can do what she wants, right? It’s her choice to present herself to the world in PVC underwear and stockings. On all fours. While panting.
While panting. Hell, even clever girls who had worked their arses off getting into top TV jobs were doing it. And whatever regrets they might have now about rolling around a studio floor for the photographers, the wider consequences were far worse. They were complicit in a societal shift that told all young girls that presenting yourself as a sexual object was the way to gain adoration and recognition, and told all young boys that women – no matter how gifted, smart or ambitious – were there simply to be sexually consumed.
I had my first inkling that ladetteism had gone awry on a hot summer’s day in 2002. During my lunch break, I began to take off my denim jacket, only for a random man to say, matter-offactly, “Nice tits” as he walked past. I put my jacket back on and retreated, shellshocked (and pretty hot by this point), back to my office. I wasn’t quite sure why he felt he could talk to me like that – I was wearing other clothes after all. Later, when I moved to London and began working with former lads’ mag journos, I learned about the hordes of young girls who spent their scant earnings on buying coach tickets to London just for the dubious honour of taking their clothes off for the magazines’
‘Real Girl’ pages. Being chosen would make them superstars in their hometowns for perhaps one glorious summer. And this did – and still does – make me very, very sad. That being seen as f*ckable by Britain’s hormone-addled youth could be the pinnacle of a young woman’s existence. And that’s why we have a duty to make this fourth wave count. We have to reclaim the word feminism so that it stands for something solid and good so that girls growing up in this unholy fusion of internet porn and designer vaginas and sexting and trolls, will understand there is another way, and that they have something to support them and protect them. So that everyone, even Beyoncé, is prepared to fight, united, behind the term. And we have to make it inclusive and think beyond our personal experience.
stand up and be counted
Let me explain: not so long ago, I was sitting in a cafe with a friend of Indian descent. I was banging on about the pay gap, probably pointing my finger in that aggressive northern way, probably making myself obnoxious to the next door table. When I’d finally stopped, she smiled a wry smile and said quietly, “The thing is Luce, you moan about sexism. Try being brown and a woman.”
And that shut me up.
Feminism is such a behemoth of a thing; what women such as Caitlin Moran are fighting against here in the UK could be viewed as a mere trifle to what women are fighting for in Central America. And what I might spit and boil at in my day-to-day life is viewed through a white, middle class, heterosexual – and quite frankly privileged – prism. I have to recognise that. We all have to recognise the layers of oppression that permeate our society – class, race, sexual orientation; the differences in cultures. We have to look after all of us; and that means listening to and engaging with female struggle across the board, not just what happens in our own parameters of existence or inside what the media decides is the ‘norm’. And we have to do more than just casually voice our outrage in 140 characters while we’re sat in front of the TV. We need to transform the landscape in which we live and work. We need women carving policy, women in science labs, women at the forefront of medicine, women managing global finance, women designing buildings, women being fairly represented in the media – we need the female experience to be threaded through all power mechanisms.
And we need the courage to stand up, despite the Twitter opprobrium and demand change, because it’s essentially a critical mass thing. The more we speak up – and I’m talking to men here too who are just as aggrieved with how the world works – the more powerful we become. Staying silent and angry never helped anyone, not least those women who have had the balls to fight for what they believe is right. Likewise, let’s throw out for good this idea of what a feminist should be. We’re all going to think differently on a range of issues. We are going to make mistakes. We are going to think more liberally on some areas than others. But that doesn’t mean we can’t all be members of the same club; if we’re to learn from each other, we’ve got to keep these communication channels open and understand that, essentially, we’re all fighting for the same thing. Equality. The first-ever female US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, once said: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
And I don’t know about you, but I’m on her side