A difficult time to be a woman? Or just a difficult time for us all?

The weekend papers made for interesting, if confusing, reading. Prompted by the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, my French sisters are being applauded for finally speaking out and confronting the ingrained sexism in French society. At the same time, my UK sisters are being criticized for their ‘phony outrage’ at the Justice Secretary’s comments on rape. So what’s the conclusion? That we should speak out and challenge behaviour and language that upsets us… except when we shouldn’t.

Meanwhile, as the blogosphere is still debating the merits of the Slutwalk movement, Edinburgh Council have attempted to ban the more established Reclaim The Night march to ‘keep women safe’.

My wee brain is somewhat boggled by it all. Apologies if that means this is a somewhat disjointed post. I’m hoping those of you who have more coherent viewpoints will share those in the comments.

I have something of a troubled history with ‘women’s campaigns’. As a student politician, I argued against the introduction of liberation campaigns at Edinburgh University, believing then, as I do now, that many of the issues that would end up in the inbox of the Womens Officer would actually benefit from the perspective and campaign energy of all students, regardless of gender.

That said, when you read the perspectives of individuals at either end of the spectrum – say, for example, this courageous and very personal post from Kate Harris and this pretty offensive post from MEP Roger Helmer – it is clear that there is still a very large gap to be bridged, and perhaps women’s campaigns have a part to play.

I understand the need for what in student politics is called the provision of ‘safe spaces’ – areas where women and minority groups could discuss their concerns and plan their campaigns without fear of judgement or abuse.

The problem for me comes when campaigns attempt to exclude male contributions entirely. Partly because I believe that whatever your beliefs and motivations are, to surround yourself only with those that agree with you is deeply unhealthy. And partly because I believe that the exclusion of male perspectives and spokespeople is detrimental to the cause. One of the most informed and interesting debates I’ve read about feminism recently was prompted by a post on Bright Green Scotland by Adam Ramsay, and I found it sad that someone as well-informed and effective a campaigner as Adam felt the need to essentially ask permission to blog on gender issues.

There is plenty to be angry about, as a woman, right now. This article from the Guardian gives a good overview of the negative ways in which coalition policies are affecting women. But if women are being affected, then so too are husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. Let’s not exclude those men from the debate, or from the activism. With dinosaurs like Roger Helmer still spouting nonsense, we need all the help we can get.

6 responses

  1. I agree with you that women shouldn’t treat issues as an ‘us and them’ stance, but include men in the debate.
    Undoubtedly some issues affect us and us alone. But we’re all part of one society and it doesn’t sit with me when we start campaigning like men are the enemy.
    There are (hopefully) informed and intelligent men out there who wouldn’t seek to objectify women or exploit them. I hope my sons will grow up to be among them.

    • Thanks for the comment Donna. Your last point is an interesting one that I’d like to see explored more – is there anything we can specifically be doing to bring up our sons with a healthy attitude towards women?

  2. I have to confess that I’ve been quite uneasy about the debate in the wake of the Ken Clarke remarks in particular.
    I agreed with Clarke in one particlar respect, which was his disquiet about including willing sexual encounters between teenagers of similar ages within the category of rape.
    I also subscribe to the notion of judicial discretion – that a judge a jury should try each individual case on its specific facts. The idea that a judge’s hands should be tied when passing sentence is antithetical to the notion of justice. The left never wears such a suggestion when the crime is theft or drug dealing and nor should it for sex crimes.
    There is often a problem with sentencing and with judicial attitudes towards rape but is fixing tarriffs for rape the answer? I see the problem as one of educating not just judges but society (especially, though not exclusively, men – and judges of course are disproportionately male, older and possibly rather conservative) and changing attitudes.
    This leads me to my wider discomfort about the debate – which was that it wasn’t because of the way that people instantly closed it down in the very personal way they attacked Ken Clarke.
    I didn’t agree with his analysis but Clarke is an intelligent man and a lawyer. He engages in debate and is open to reason. Yelling at someone until they’re cowed into an apology will simply make them run away from the issues and that would be a disaster. The political hue and cry also felt rather opportunistic.
    Reading Kate Harris’s piece also left me struggling to see where one could take the issue from there. Her anger is completely valid. She has clearly suffered years of abuse. However it’s very difficult to engage with that anger other than to acknowledge it and validate it and leave her to find other people who have been through similar experiences, who feel the same way. It doesn’t leave much room for those who haven’t shared those experiences and feelings to participate. If one has been charged with possession of a Y chromasome there’s not much to do other than go quietly.
    On the other end of the spectrum, the debate can get very bogged down in the language of sociology and women’s studies and I wrote about that in response to the debate following Adam’s post.
    I don’t feel I have any good answers, but I am frustrated that it’s so hard to talk about for so many reasons not least the fear of being shot down because oof what people think someone else means regardless of whather that is what they mean or not. What to do?

  3. An interesting post. I liked’s Adam’s post a lot, and I wish more men were engaging in the issues. It is a shame that a lot of men feel out of place with feminist issues, but I’m often surprised to see that called the responsibility of feminist women. I often spend a lot of time talking to people of all genders about these issues, and the response I often get from some men is “that doesn’t affect me”, or “why aren’t feminists care about paternity leave and other issues that affect me and are unfair on men?” I wish more men did feel these issues were their problem too, and while rubbish paternity leave is a perfectly reasonable complaint, I’m not sure why male feminists can’t join in the campaign for it (and yes, I do care about paternity leave). In other words, despite my trying to encourage men to feel welcome in feminist circles, and it doesn’t seem to me that the problem is men having to ask women’s permission to participate in feminism, but rather men having to decide it’s their problem too and they need to roll up their sleeves and get involved.

    In a sense, many men are having to ask their *own* permission to get involved, not anyone else’s, and that’s to do with the gendered way in which people are brought up. Many men are socialised to think that if they care about “women’s issues”, they are “pussywipped”, etc. Of course that is sad, but I’m not sure it’s the fault of feminists. Of course it is a feminist concern, however, and it’s all the more reason for peiople of all genders to work together on feminist issues. It might also be a good reason for feminist campaigns that are specifically focused on men, like the White Ribbon Campaign and Men Can Stop Rape.

    Re the NUS-style liberation campaigns: I do oppose women-only feminist groups, because I’ve never seen that be an advantage, and it excludes trans people in major ways. Having said that, there may need to be different practices sometimes for LGBTQIA groups, where not everyone is necessarily out or ready to be out. But in general, I think there can be advantages to certain types of “safe space” policies, to make sure people feel comfortable and safe while they are campaigning and nobody gets bullied, and anybody who isn’t genuinely interested in the issues (eg, who is just there to take the mick) can be asked to leave, but still encoruaging participation from people who don’t self identify as a woman, etc. That’s the route many universities have taken — having specific campaigns for women, ethnic minority students, queer students, etc, with “safe space” policies, but not requiring self-identification.

    Jonathan: I think part of the point of Kate’s post was that acknoweldging that anger, and its validity, is a major part of being able to campaign effectively. The point isn’t to try to exclude men or try to make men feel guilty for their chromosomes, but rather that everyone, whatever their gender, ought to do a little bit of listening before they spout patronising nonsense about sexual violence, and how women should stay indoors, or how rape doesn’t really matter. In other words, real solidarity has to come from a genuine attempt at empathy and understanding. It doesn’t mean that empathy replaces action — far from it. Maybe you found it hard to engage with it because you’re already past the point where you need that kind of consciousness-raising, and you don’t need to be reminded that rape is A Serious Deal.


  4. Thanks for linking up to the Love Politics Blogs. This is just the kind of post to get people talking. I do think it is possible to do more harm than good in some instances when some ‘feminist’ voices attempt to speak for all of us but articulate quite a onesided point of view. I also think when we express outrage at something like Ken Clarke’s comments (which were obviously a very poor choice of words but we all knew what he was actually trying to say) we devalue the outrage that is rightly expressed at more serious issues because people stop listening when they just assume everything is an overreaction.

    • I think you’re exactly right Cat – although I suppose that’s true of any ‘ism’. Having anyone declare themselves as some kind of spokesperson means the public perception is of a unified movement, even though in almost every case that’s not true.

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