2011 in feminist rage

Friday, 30 December 2011

After enjoying recapping 2010 in humourless feminism at the end of last year, I thought it would be great to make it an annual thing. 2011 has had more than its fair share of outrage, drama, facepalm moments and frustration. Here's a rundown of some of the issues that have made the most headlines - and why they've been causing so much trouble.

1) The Dominique Strauss-Kahn case

In May, when former IMF head Strauss-Kahn was accused of sexually assaulting a maid at a New York hotel, politicians and commentators in his native France rushed to defend him, painting the alleged incident as mere "philandering" by a "great seducer", insulting his accuser and even claiming that the disgraced politician was the victim of a conspiracy. In time, the maid - Nafissatou Diallo, had other aspects of her life picked over by the media (including one accusation of operating as a "hooker") and in August, the charges against Strauss-Kahn were dropped thanks to a "concerns about the victim's credibility", and a supposed lack of conclusive physical evidence - despite earlier reports that proof against him was "substantial".

In the meantime, another woman had come forward to say that he had assaulted her some years ago. And since, Strauss-Kahn has admitted his behaviour with Diallo was "inappropriate" - although he maintains no force was involved. Whether an attempted rape happened or not, the whole affair raised significant concerns about the treatment of domestic workers and women of colour by privileged white men, and the stigmas associated with being the "wrong" race or class, especially when reporting a crime committed by someone more powerful and influential.

2) Conservative assaults on women's health and reproductive choice continue

Earlier this week Amanda Marcotte dubbed 2011 the year of "The War on Contraception". She goes into more detail about each individual attack on a woman's choice to use birth control in this article for RH Reality Check and it's when you say it laid out like this that you realise just how extreme things have become. Earlier in the year we saw Planned Parenthood and thousands of its supporters fighting back against proposed legislation which would have prevented its centres from providing services to women through federal health programs. With the drama level ramped up to 'verge of government shutdown', the Republicans finally gave up on their plans. But as the Department of Health and Human services announced plans to give women birth control without copays, anti-choice activists went on the attack again. 

2011 has also introduced the nightmare of what constitutes 'personhood', with Mississippi trying and failing to define fertilised eggs as 'persons' and Ohio attempting to ban abortions once an embryo's heart has started beating.

3) Misogynist abuse online hits mainstream media

Bloggers and those who frequent the comment sections of websites have been complaining about it for years, but it's only recently that the global media seems to have woken up to the fact that women actually get treated pretty appallingly online, simply for being women, in a way that men will never experience. Several high profile women, from politicians to journalists, "came out" in the press to talk about the abuse they've received, ranging from being patronised and silenced to being threatened with rape and stalked. In the following days, the issue received coverage like never before in a variety of countries. It was interesting to see so many people - male and female - shocked to see what women are put through all for having opinions, and I know it changed the way a lot of people see online interaction.

Some newspapers asked what could be done to combat the problem, and although I'm not sure how much of an effect any efforts will have (especially with increasingly stalkerish behaviour from men's rights groups happening), it feels like many have woken up to the reality of what women put up with from the internet.

4) Sports Personality of the Year forgets about women At the end of November, the BBC unveiled its shortlist of nominations for Sports Personality of the Year - and we were all dismayed to see that it featured no women. A supposedly "expert" panel of sports editors chose the shortlist, but while men who have had less than spectacular records this year made the grade, women who have been crowned European and world champions missed out.

While no-one wants women to be nominated purely for being women, the incident has highlighted the ridiculous lack of coverage, lack of recognition and dismissive attitudes that women in sport have to put up with. The only "exposure" they seem to get is when they pose in lingerie for men's magazines or "saucy" calendars, which I can guarantee is the only reason some of the GB Olympic team's women have been making headlines this week. The plus side of all this? Various sites and newspapers have been running features on the sportswomen they feel deserve more coverage. Will it force a change in the way the media treats women in sport?

5) What next for the women of the 'Arab Spring'?

The wave of revolutionary demonstrations and actions across the Arab world has provided some of 2011's most explosive news stories. The fight for human rights has been a central feature of the protests but in many countries, the women who took part have struggled for recognition and equal treatment - and there's concern that things will get worse as political systems are rebuilt, despite this year being hailed as the "Year of the Arab Woman". Today's women of the revolution want representation in government and a say in decision-making but worry that anti-Western feeling might create a backlash against women's rights and make things worse for them.

Take Egypt - thousands of women played a part in the revolution there, yet the country's new cabinet has been criticised for including just one woman. And in recent weeks, the news has been full of shocking reports of violence and sexual assault against women by police attempting to clamp down on protesters. This week, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Bachelet of UN Women have spoken out about such incidents and although the Egyptian military has made an apology, Clinton has also been accused of "interfering" in their business. It looks as if 2012 will be a crucial year for the women continuing to fight for their rights.

Honourable mentions:

- The ongoing coverage surrounding the rape charges against Julian Assange
- The global media interest and engaging of a new generation of feminists (with mixed results) achieved by the Slutwalk movement
- Everyone's least favourite MP, Nadine Dorries, (somewhat poorly) attempting to make "pro-life" and "abstinence" the newest buzzwords in UK politics

This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz. Image via The Opinioness of the World.

"As Many Pairs of Shoes as She Likes" - spot on or way off the mark?

Thursday, 15 December 2011

"So long as she works hard and doesn’t throw bricks or ask awkward questions, she can have as many qualifications and abortions and pairs of shoes as she likes."

Jenny Turner's piece for the London Review of Books, entitled As Many Pairs of Shoes as She Likes, has been splitting opinion and giving people headaches for the past couple of weeks. Supposedly a look into the 'confused' state of feminism today, it's had a very mixed reception. It begins with an account of the behaviour of some of the young women during the London riots. Here, Turner tells us, is 'the problem with feminism'. "Young women ‘of good character’ losing their heads and wishing they hadn’t." Confused yet? It's only just beginning.

Stripped back (a lot), this is an essay about wanting more intersectionality in the movement, frustration at 'consumer feminism' or 'feminism TM'. It's about frustration with the narrow scope of what's now publicised as 'the new feminism' - the books, the groups, the personalities. It has its good points - which should have been condensed and laid out more effectively - but there are bad points too.

It's also pretty scathing at times. Activists from Object and UK Feminista are 'genteel' and 'let-them-eat-cakey', with no place for 'humour or even humility'. Their problem, we are told, is 'narcissistic self-absorption'. The knives are out for Andrea Dworkin (but of course), who was an 'egomaniacal victim-magnet', and Betty Friedan, for only appealing to middle-class women with her writings about frustrated housewives (she has a point). Turner seems particularly 'down' on the 'confusion' of 21st century feminism, but in many ways, she fails to delve more deeply into the reasons the movement is perceived in this way - and this lets the piece down.

I would expect, for example, that the majority of us agree with Turner when she says that the public face of feminism deals little with issues such as race, poverty, international women and economics.

"It’s true that women, as a gender, have been systemically disadvantaged through history, but they aren’t the only ones: economic exploitation is also systemic and coercive, and so is race. And feminists need to engage with all of this, with class and race, land enclosure and industrialisation, colonialism and the slave trade, if only out of solidarity with the less privileged sisters."

You can't fail to disagree that this is important, but it is happening. What Turner doesn't do is give space to the groups and the campaigns that actually focus on these things. And they're not hard to find; they're not hidden, because I read their blogs and follow their updates and get involved with their campaigns. Turner actually quotes the UK-based Black Feminism blog at one point, so I assume she has visited and read it. There are plenty of complaints about the groups and people she takes issue with, but no praise for the countless women working on the issues she thinks we should be paying more attention to. No mention of Women Against The Cuts. Or Climate Rush. Or No Women No Peace. Only criticism that feminists 'don't care'.

"...the 16 per cent pay-gap masks a much harsher divide, between the younger professional women – around 13 per cent of the workforce – who have ‘careers’ and earn just as much as men, and the other 87 per cent who just have ‘jobs’, organised often around the needs of their families, and earn an awful lot less," says Turner.

"Feminism overwhelmingly was and is a movement of that 13 per cent – mostly white, mostly middle-class, speaking from, of, to themselves within a reflecting bubble."

Here we must admit that this is true among the 'big name' groups and campaigns - and of course this isn't helped when political discussions about helping women in the workplace result in a 'solution' of networking events for high profile London businesswomen and talk of getting women into boardrooms, which is so far removed from the working lives of most women that it's laughable.

Turner's feelings about the issues Object et al work on also seem confusing. These groups - and the women who represent them to the press - are predictable targets for those who don't share their views on porn or sex work. It's never long before words such as 'prim' and 'prudish' and 'snobbery' start being used. Comments about the way members speak when interviewed, making assumptions about their backgrounds. Articles about their work are always met with comments asking why these feminists aren't campaiging on issues that actually matter - that classic withering putdown used by men and women alike.

Turner says she agrees with Object's views on porn, but goes on to say that this is all 'beside the point' in a free-market economy - it's always going to exist and there's nothing that can be done about that. The same, in her opinion, goes for the commercialisation of childhood and that current area of panic, 'sexualisation'. She accuses anti-porn activists of not looking at the world around them and ignoring other issues. Yet several paragraphs later she's bemoaning the way (as most of us do) that modern, media-friendly feminism has become too compatible with the free market and neoliberalism, with its focus on 'choice', 'economic capacity' and whatever women's magazines have decided that 'empowerment' currently means. So if it's pointless and laughable to fight neoliberalism, yet distasteful to support it, what's a feminist to do?

And at the end of the day, is there really anything wrong with groups of activists choosing to have a particular focus? Many other groups and organisations do it; it's not 'wrong'. I tend to focus on particular issues in my blogging and my activism, but that has no bearing on how I feel about a wider range of problems. Furthermore, I already know of two feminist conferences taking place in the UK in 2012 that will have a particular focus on intersectionality. Both have come out a desire from some quarters to see a focus on wide-ranging issues and activism, increasing the profile of those issues and those women so often marginalised by the public face of the movement.

Let's go back to the idea that the movement has become too unpleasantly bound up with neoliberalism, capitalism and all those other unmentionable things (abandoning any Marxist roots) - glossy magazines, the rich, celebrities, "sleek high-end infotainment', as Turner puts it. Nothing new or challenging, just worship of materialism. Like the supposed invisibility of activists who care about intersectionality, the problem here is more often media coverage, media narratives and the way these influence people. It is a major cause for concern - and one that is discussed frequently - that the press chooses to focus only on aspects of the movement which will titillate, cause drama and look provocative. It's also nothing new, as proved by coverage of feminism in decades gone by.

And so this year we saw plenty of coverage of Slutwalk, articles on the protest against the Playboy Club, lots of discussion on this month's 'Muff March' protesting against the rise of labioplasty. Conferences about porn inspired a couple of pieces in the Guardian. For the tabloids, anything about 'having it all' or gender roles within marriage is a guaranteed story. And in magazines, the concept of feminism as 'on-trend' has arisen in the last couple of years, guaranteed to be focused around Sex and the City, Lady Gaga, makeup and boyfriends - much to the chagrin of almost every feminist I know, with its rhetoric of 'empowerment' and 'choice' linked to buying handbags or owning a sex toy.

I believe this coverage influences activism and helps create a vicious circle of narrowed aims and interests. Much of what the media has focused on in the last five years has been a 'resurgence' of young women. When you combine the issues of most interest to the majority of the young women profiled (white, university-educated) with the focus on buzzwords such as 'objectification' and 'sexualisation' and coverage of  just a handful of issues, I think this inspires other women to start up activism of their own, which is obviously not a bad thing. This can be seen by the growing numbers of groups based in cities and regions all over the UK. But it tends to replicate the activism seen in the news and done by other groups. Same backgrounds, same concerns, same areas of focus - with less space given to issues which might not directly affect peoples' lives or their current situations.

Turner wants to know what has happened to the old feminist concerns about raising children, shared parenting, nurseries. That's something that seems odd to me - yes, in mainstream consciousness it may seem buried under chicklit and pressure to be the perfect mother, but again, look past media coverage of activism related to all things titillating, and the discussion is there, in many forms. She accuses the revitalised movement of relying on the 'books-as-bombs' model, with said books 'missing out the interesting bits' (politics, economics) in a bid to appeal to young readers. She criticises last year's three-part documentary series on feminist activism, Women, for its lack of diversity - and let's face it, who didn't criticise it? It's all too easy and too lazy - and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth because at times it just reads like smirking nastiness.

The piece runs out of steam before the end, and it feels like it took a very long time to request more of a focus on intersectionality, all the time being unreasonably critical of a movement where you don't have to look too far to find women who do care about a wide range of issues and are just as tired of tedious media coverage as Turner is. You can't disagree with her assessment of certain problems, but I can't say I could identify with her stance on others.

Image via natashalcd's Flickr.

Things you should be reading this week

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

"We cannot afford to wait for permission to make change; women themselves must be the change."

Today I bring you links to a fabulous trio of posts from my North American sisters. Because they got there before me (I've just started a new job), because they're important and thought-provoking, and because they really spoke to me.

Dianna Anderson has written a post in response to, and to add to the thoughts of Preston Yancey, who has blogged here and here about a new page gaining thousands of 'likes' on Facebook, which is entitled "I'd rather have a Proverbs 31 woman than a Victoria's Secret model". Preston has written a response to this "Live 31 movement" based on women of the Bible (which is very good and essential reading), then followed it up with a more detailed explanation of his thoughts.

Be The Change - Pretty In Pink

"But what makes the campaign connect with people is also that which gives it the most problems. Regardless of which category you fall into – let’s lift the veil and call it what it is: The Virgin or the Whore – it is still something inspired by how one is perceived by the other gender. This is something I see reflected in the Christian singles culture over and over. The focus of the campaign especially is on Proverbs 31:30: “Charm is deceitful and beauty soon fades but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” 

Praised by whom? Why, men, of course! And this is the fundamental problem: Regardless of whether or not you’re living as the virgin or the whore, if you’re doing it because you think it will be more attractive to the opposite sex, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons."

For me the whole thing has a lot of weird parallels with all those "Men love real women who have curves!"/"I'd rather have a real woman than a bag of bones!" statements and Facebook pages, which similarly seem to gain tens of thousands of 'likes'. Replacing one ideal with another and framing it around desirability as judged by men. But Dianna is spot on and addresses a part of the discussion that had up until now been missed.

Both Sarah Styles Bessey and Rachel Held Evans have blogged their thoughts on a "big question" that seems to have arisen this month, with discussion centering on a certain post by Tim Challies, in which he explains why he does not condone women reading aloud from the Bible in church. A lot of posts have been floating around but I chose to highlight these two because they say everything that needs to be said so well.

Emerging Mummy - In which I am done fighting for a seat at the table

"This is one more gift that the emerging church gave me more than a decade ago: when you don't find it, you simply create it. You emerge from what currently is into what will be, as pioneers, rule-breakers. Stop waiting for permission and get on with the work that God has called you to, stop waiting for permission and be brave, be courageous, be boldly full of Love and gentleness but step out into the space to create. 

So I am no longer standing beside your table, asking for a seat, working and serving and hoping to be noticed and then offered a seat or arguing for my right to a seat. I don't care to sit here any more. I have no desire to be indoors, in your neat boxes."

Rachel Held Evans - "...your daughters will prophesy"

"Meanwhile, churches are spending years debating whether a female missionary should be allowed to speak on a Sunday morning, whether students older than ten should have female Sunday school teachers, whether women should be allowed to read from Scripture in a church service, whether girls should be encouraged to attend seminary, whether women should be permitted to collect the offering or write the church newsletter or make an announcement. 

Those of us who are perhaps most equipped to speak and act prophetically in response to the violence, poverty, and inequality that plagues our sisters around the world are being silenced ourselves. 

Folks who see the leadership of women like Huldah and Junia as special exceptions for times of great need are oblivious to the world in which we live. Those who think the urgency of Pentecost has passed are deluding themsleves. They “have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear.” "

Where are all the women? In Life & Style, apparently.

Monday, 5 December 2011

"In a typical month,78% of newspaper articles are written by men, 72% of Question Time contributors are men and 84% of reporters and guests on Radio 4's Today show are men. Where are all the women?"

Kira Cochrane's article on the under-representation of women in public life, published online yesterday and in G2 today, gives us the statistics that prove what women have been discussing for some time. Indeed, I remember the topic generating much discussion and strong feeling when she mentioned it as part of a panel discussion at UK Feminista's 2010 Summer School.

In June, Cochrane tells us, she began counting bylines, analysing presenters and guests on news programmes, on current affairs shows such as Question Time and news-based comedy shows like Have I Got News For You. She details the results in her article - and as you'd expect, they're depressing and predictable. She also mentions the number of women MPs - 22% - and notes that when the results of her analysis of women's representation in television and newspapers are averaged, at 22.6% the figure is almost the same.

It's really great that someone has finally laid out the facts and challenged people to improve the situation in the national press. But there's just one problem - a problem that perhaps sums up the entire issue. Cochrane's article appears not in the main news section of the Guardian, not in Media or Politics as would also be appropriate, but in Life & Style.

I know I've mentioned this in my posts a number of times and that many other women have too - the consistent sidelining of news involving anything deemed to be a "woman's issue" to the section of the newspaper with the features about clothes, about food, about children. That's not to say that there is anything wrong with writing about these particular subjects; it's more the insinuation that certain topics are a woman's domain - and that even if these news stories have something to do with politics, or international development, or law, they're to be filed under "women's interest".

Take a look at the headings in the Life & Style section (all other newspapers are just as guilty; I'm only picking on the Guardian because of Cochrane's article). You'll see that Life & Style encompasses the Christmas gift guide, fashion, food, health, homes, gardens, craft, family, relationships, women and dating. As someone said to me this morning: "One of these things is not like the others". You'll see this even more clearly if you click on "Women" and discover the subheadings within - feminism, gender issues, equality and women in politics. Today, under "Women", you can find stories on maternal health, women in the Congo and Afghanistan, the controversy over women in sport and the Sportsperson of the Year award, "honour" crimes, and birth control in sub-Saharan Africa.

Something is going badly wrong when it comes to the representation of women in the media and in politics. You want a television show with more than a token woman on a panel? You're limited to Loose Women and the fact that it represents everything truly awful about stereotypes of women. On the radio? You've got Women's Hour, which I have no problem with, but it is only an hour. You write about peacemaking in Afghanistan or maternal health for a national newspaper? It gets filed under "Life & Style" with the Christmas gift guide.

Newspapers like the Guardian should be doing better than this and according more visibility to issues that affect over half the world's population. Maybe it's time for the women on their staff to demand change not just for the women they don't see on television or in parliament, but also to put more pressure on those in charge in the media to practice what they preach about equality. In fact, I know this already happens, so maybe it's time for those in charge to listen.

Sweeping it under the carpet

Saturday, 3 December 2011

I haven't written a post on here for the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence because last month, Anna at Goannatree asked me if I would write a guest post for her 16 Days series.

My experience of talking about violence against women and the activism aiming to tackle it is that there are a lot of uncomfortable silences. People give you odd looks; they try to change the subject. They turn it into a big joke – “When’s International Men’s Day, then?” – or they regale you with a “statistic” they’ve heard somewhere (or possibly made up on the spot) – “Did you know that most violence is now committed by women against men?” (yes, this was actually a colleague’s response when I told him what a Reclaim the Night march was).

When you say the words “rape”, or “domestic violence” people look even more uncomfortable. They’re not nice things to think about, for a start. Yes, of course it’s awful, but we don’t need to discuss it, do we? Injustices happening a long way from home are easy to talk about. They’re also easy to accept, to sit back and do nothing about, because people feel they can’t help. No matter how bad the situation is, it’s down to a matter of different cultures, different religions, different worldviews. And so violence against women used as a weapon in conflict – that’s awful. Women killed as a result of so-called “honour” crime – that’s awful. Trafficking? Also awful.

Read on and comment here...

Blog Design by Nudge Media Design | Powered by Blogger