“The LinkedIn barrister wasn't a victim of misogyny - she's belittling the feminist cause”

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Harriet Hall
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Ask A Feminist is Stylist.co.uk's weekly column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st Century context. This week, writer Harriet Hall tackles one of the most divisive topics of the moment - the case of LinkedIn barrister Charlotte Proudman hitting back against a comment made about her appearance - and explains why she disagrees with Proudman's naming and shaming of the incident as misogynist: 

Feminist Harriet Hall says:

The law is reason free from passion.

Well, Aristotle thought so, and it seems that barrister Charlotte Proudman agrees - after she called a man sexist and misogynist following a message he sent her on Linkedin, in which he called her ‘stunning.’

Let’s get one thing straight. Carter-Silk’s actions were not sexist and calling them so only serves to belittle the feminist cause.

There is a predilection in society to ‘call-out’ everything. People bandy around words like ‘misogynist’, ‘sexist’ and even ‘racist’ in situations where they simply don’t apply. This is offensive to people who have suffered genuine racism or misogyny. The word misogyny derives from the Greek misein - to hate + gyne – woman. Its literal meaning is a hatred of women.

I do not see an ounce of hatred in Carter-Silk’s message. In fact, quite the opposite. It was polite, he acknowledged that perhaps it wasn’t the “politically correct” thing to say, but he did so harmlessly and, apparently, without ulterior motive.

Sure, perhaps it wasn’t the best idea for a married professional to use Linkedin as a means to express his views on the appearance of fellow barristers – it was cringy and inappropriate – but that’s not the argument here.

As Carter-Silk unwittingly predicted, it all comes down to political correctness. And it’s gone mad. That’s saying something, coming from someone who fully adheres to politically correct semantics.

I fully support the calling-out of sexism and the naming and shaming of those who make sexist comments. I applaud the brilliant Laura Bates and her Everyday Sexism Project that does exactly that. 

But we need to learn where to make the distinction between sexism - the discrimination of women on the basis of gender - and a misfired but ultimately harmless comment. 

Was Carter-Silk’s message steeped with hatred? Was it discriminatory?

It was neither. In fact, it was Proudman who acted in an offensive manner, when she publically exposed both Carter-Silk’s name, photograph and message. She could have posted the messages anonymously, or at the very least waited for Carter-Silk to respond first.

This kind of overreaction has given rise to a ridiculous term bandied about this week: ‘feminazi’.

To compare a woman seeking gender equality to the Third Reich is absurd, but we are at risk of taking things too far.  

I understand where Proudman is coming from. She’s working in a world, and specifically a profession, where she sees the effects of sexism at the most grotesque level – specialising in violence against women and working with victims of FGM.

It also remains difficult for women to succeed within the male-dominated legal profession. ONS figures for 2014 show men at the Bar and on the Bench have mean annual earnings of 77% more than women.

On top of this, women in the legal profession often report incidences of genuine sexism they endure on a daily basis. So it’s not completely surprising that Proudman reached boiling point. She wanted to make a professional contact and ended up with a flirtatious comment on her appearance.

It’s certainly true that so-called ‘harmless’ sexist jokes are a gateway to deeper issues, and I agree with Proudman’s comments that “there is a continuum between receiving a sexist message on LinkedIn and being discriminated against in the workplace.” Many men still don't understand the difference between a compliment and sexual harassment, but when we call things out that simply do not fall into these categories, we risk devaluing the issues that really do.  

We become feminists crying wolf.

It is the aftermath of what The Spectator’s Brendan O’Neill has dubbed ‘Complimentgate’ that has revealed the real sexism at play. Senior partners at law firms have suggested Proudman be blacklisted (and adopted the gross hashtag #nomorebriefs4u), she has been subjected to Twitter abuse and a slew of genuinely misogynistic articles have followed. The attention by these people has been brought back to Proudman’s looks, which some have charmingly said aren’t ‘stunning’ at all, despite her apparent ‘clear efforts’. Others have called Proudman ‘dear’ and accused her of using this as a means to progress her career.

Furthermore, reports today have delved into the irrelevant Facebook accounts of both parties, going over them with a fine tooth comb for any instance which could be labelled sexist. 

This is the unfortunate state of our society, which clearly has a long way to go before it grasps the meaning of gender equality.

It seems Proudman’s primary issue with Carter-Silk’s message was the site on which it was sent. “This isn’t Tinder,” she said.

Would it have been different if Carter-Silk added Proudman on Facebook and sent the message from there? 

Carter-Silk’s comment was entirely inoffensive. A little inappropriate, sure, but not sexist.

We need to learn to make that distinction. 

What do you think? Let us know your thoughts and opinions on the topic in the comments section below

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Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall is a former Stylist contributor.