Perspectives on egalitarian relationships: Bekah Legg

Monday, 26 March 2012

Some weeks ago, and after lengthy discussions online about it, I asked my fellow bloggers to write guest posts for me on the subject of egalitarian relationships. The reason? Many of us felt that it's hard to find books or other resources about it. Resources that don't even present an egalitarian relationship as an option, or resources that focus heavily on gender stereotypes and set 'roles'. I asked people to write about their own experiences, to explain what relationships look like for them, as a way of unpacking some of the confusion and attempting to answer the questions that always arise.

"But when push comes to shove, who makes the final decision? What if someone needs to have the final say?"
"But what are you teaching your children about gender roles?"
"So are you trying to say that men and women are the same?"

So each week I'm going to be featuring one of these posts. If you'd like to write one, or have already committed to writing one but haven't yet got round to it, feel free to send it to me, because I hope this will be an ongoing project.

This week's post comes from Bekah Legg. Bekah is editor of Liberti magazine and programme director of Liberti Life, a local schools work project that seeks to empower and equip young people through workshops and mentoring. She is kept on her toes at home by six fabulous children and a husband who occasionally dices with death by singing "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow" when she's feeling overwhelmed.

"Me and my egalitarian marriage." 

It sounds quite grand when you say it like that, but the truth is I fell into it by accident. I have friends who practically had a manifesto set up before they went on the hunt for the man of their life which detailed exactly what was and wasn’t acceptable, detailed how they would or would not change their name, what their wedding vows would look like and they had an outline schedule prepared for sharing childcare when the time came.

I really didn’t think that much. I probably should have – I’d already been married once, to someone who turned out to be not just determined to be my head but to push submission on me in ways I had never imagined. I had had my spirit broken and my heart torn apart by a, once upon a time charming, man who, when I challenged him that he treated me like the home help, pointed out that I was less than that as at least he didn’t have to pay me.

In the aftermath of that, I didn’t formulate the kind of equality I would desire in the future. I just knew that if I were ever to give myself to anyone again – it would be because they made me feel safe. Not in the big man who can fight someone for me way, I’d learned that wasn’t such a great thing. But that I would feel safe to be me with them, that I knew they would never abuse me or manipulate me or control me, that they would listen to and value my opinion not belittle me and tell me what to do.

It’s only since I’ve been married to someone who does all those things that I have gradually appreciated the sheer gift it is to be valued as an equal on every level. I am still delighted to discover that my husband is proud of my brains – that he isn’t intimidated by them, that he’s happy to put me forward for things when he knows I’m better at them than him or that it would be good for me to have a go. I love that he’ll stay home and look after the kids, cook the tea and clean the bathrooms when I’m given an opportunity to go and speak.

When we disagree over how to do something he doesn’t get angry or insist on his way but we sit and chat it through and sometimes he shifts and agrees with me and sometimes I move and agree with him – not because I have to, not because it’s my place to submit, but because he convinced me with his reasoning.

I am slowly coming to appreciate the sheer freedom there is in a relationship like this where I feel able to utterly respect my husband because I know he totally respects me. I think it’s Ephesians 5:21 in action – mutual submission. This passage goes on to unpack verse 21 and people conveniently forget that the whole section on relationships is rooted in submitting to one another. Paul goes on to explain mutual submission in terms women and then men will understand but he starts by saying submit to each other.

The thing that I think is most notable here is that in his next breath, he talks to kids and parents and slaves and masters and here, kids and slaves are told obey. Wives aren’t – they are told to submit just as their husband has been told to mutually submit. Obeying is about being the weaker part in an uneven power relationship; submission is a voluntary surrendering of your will to another. I frequently do that – I get out of bed when I don’t want to and make coffee for my husband, I make him breakfast and iron his shirts, I cook him dinner when I’m tired sometimes and I help him on the computer when he’s having a technophobe moment. But every other day he pulls himself out of bed bleary eyes to make me tea and porridge, he does the laundry and cooks supper.

We’re a team. We take it in turns: we love, we honour, we respect. We fall out sometimes and enjoy making up. It’s marriage, it’s hard work but it’s equal. In every sense of the word.

Womanhood: what does it mean?

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

What does being a woman mean? What makes a woman a woman? C. Jane asked me this a few weeks back after she'd watched Miss Representation and was mulling over a lot of thoughts about how what she'd seen. The makers of this documentary want it to be a call to action to women and girls, encouraging them to challenge the limiting way they're portrayed by the media and in public life, so they can realise their full potential and women who have a great deal to offer society, rather than women whose worth is dependent on their looks and sexuality, or fulfilling certain stereotypes.

I think most of us can identify with this. We talk about it - the expectations society has of us, the way it pits us against each other and the way it denigrates women who don't measure up. Someone replied to Courtney to say that for them, becoming a mother was the ultimate expression of womanhood. Not everyone agreed - where does that leave women who can't have children, or don't want to, or would like to but don't have any yet? This is the problem with trying to define it with particular life experiences and characteristics - inevitably, someone will feel left out or hurt.

I'm someone who struggles to articulate what "being a woman" and "femininity" mean to me. I'm not even sure if I know. And I wondered if other women feel the same - so I asked them. Here follow the thoughts of some of the women who follow me on Twitter.

One thing that was immediately obvious was the negative feeling associated with the idea of "femininity".

"Womanhood is a state of being a woman. Femininity is a 1950s advertising stereotype that some try to impose on women. I've been accused of being unfeminine by another woman because I liked beer and football and I was outspoken. I don't want her version of femininity, it's bobbins." 

"I feel like womanhood embraces all it means to be a woman, whatever that looks like. Almost a rallying call rather than a label. For me femininity has a lot more baggage. It's a standard used to judge women by. Too feminine, not feminine enough..."

"I feel like 'femininity' is so often a by-line for stifling stereotypes."

"Womanhood is the cultural destiny ascribed to biology. Femininity is when I play along with it. Feminism is when I spit in its eye."

"Femininity is a state that I feel other women achieve and I've never quite managed. It's only a concept to me, not reality. I've always been quite 'unfeminine' (short hair, tomboy etc) and didn't want to be stereotyped by it, but felt like I was failing by not being able to do those feminine things even though I didn't want them. Very confusing."

"Womanhood means the biology bits. Femininity, the way I signal it through clothing, appearance and manners. Being a woman feels unavoidable. Being feminine is something I work at."

"I've always felt excluded by the terms feminine/femininity because it is something I have never felt/wanted to be."

I very much identify with these statements. As a teenager and a woman on the cusp of adulthood, femininity was something I didn't have much of. I wasn't bothered about grooming and adornment. I didn't have "curves". Boys made fun of the way I looked and girls sneered at my clothes (teen bullying, eh?). The accepted line of thinking was that I looked "like a man". I remember sitting in my room in my first year at university, overhearing someone who lived on my corridor discussing this fact just outside the door. People giggled in response. Femininity was something I didn't have, and that made me a failure.

Eventually that phase of my life was over, but I had something new to worry about: "Biblical femininity" (whatever the hell that was supposed to be). I gathered from various sources that I wasn't joyful and outgoing enough. I was too outspoken and opinionated. I had no interest in other people's children and certainly didn't have the "gift of hospitality" - I liked to be left alone. That made me a failure. That phase of my life is over as well, but it just goes to show how much that word, and that concept are used to put us into little boxes, and beat us about the head when we don't fit into them.

In the same was that "femininity" is seen as something limiting, "womanhood" seems, for some, to be something unattainable and far-off, something for "grown-ups" that's dependent on having the job, the car, the house and the partner. How much of that is down to women's magazines and the like, or what society - and our families - expect we should be doing by the time we've reached a certain age?

"Womanhood is something I associate with grand dames, matrons and majestic older ladies. Manhood seems just a sexual euphemism to me. Womanhood is a combination of experience, power and knowledge."

"There seems to be a transition period for all
faab people between 'girl' & 'woman' - an interim period, where there's a too-grown-up for girl, not 'grown-up' enough for woman (maybe not ALL female people, but many). Seems like there is an unattainable aspect i.e. a woman can raise a child, have a job, love a partner and DIY a doily..."

"It feels sometimes that I have spent my life trying to be a woman that I think I am meant to be, rather than the person I really am who just happens to be a woman."

There was also a definite third category of responses - and these are the statements I most identify with at this point in my life. To me, being a woman doesn't make me feel special. It doesn't make me feel more spiritual or more blessed. It just happened. I don't feel I have to act a certain way to be a woman. I want to embrace who I am and celebrate womanhood, but I don't think womanhood has to look like anything in particular, and I think that when we attempt to make it so, things start to go wrong.

"I am passionate about teaching and enabling young women, but other than that, being female is almost incidental."

"Womanhood is something I am, femininity is something I wear. Femininity is not inherent to me, not an essential identity."

"I find defining myself problematic as humans are contradictions & far too complicated to label. However in terms of my passion to see women realise and released to fullfill their potential, I am passionate about women. I celebrate my being a woman in that I have managed to do grow and achieve and find value and security, but ironically that security has led me not really be bothered about my womanhood."

That third statement sums it up perfectly for me. Finding value and security in my identity meant I stopped bothering about womanhood and "femininity" as a concept and realised that it doesn't mean a set of achievements, rules and behaviours, clothes or hair or what men think of me. For me this seems like the right conclusion to arrive at. When womanhood does signify those sort of things, it will always leave someone feeling inadequate.

When I look at the women of the Bible, they fulfilled many different roles and displayed many different characteristics. That's why it leaves me baffled when my religion tells me that being a woman is about ticking certain boxes. It's why I feel baffled when people get so very distressed at the idea of men and women being "equal" because they think that means "the same" - because that would never do. It shocks and appalls. Because when you take away the "differences" that aren't really "differences", the "differences" that are more assumptions and stereotypes, what are you left with? The way I see it, the answer is "not as much as most people think". Although we are told in scripture that there is a distinction, it reveals little about any personality traits we must supposedly have as a result. I'll always remember reading an extract from a book, which claimed that Genesis 1 gives us a portrait of  "a woman's inherent softness". Just in case I'd been missing anything, I double checked. The creation narrative seemed to be oddly lacking in any mention of, or allusion to, "softness". This is what happens when ascribing stereotypes goes a touch too far.

So how can we focus on a positive concept of womanhood? How do we make sure that all women feel included in this - that there are no accusations flying around of either trying to box us in, or hating on "traditional" femininity - which is of course embraced by many? And what implications does it have for the way we raise future generations?

I plan that this will be the first of a number of posts exploring this subject.

Defending the tweeting sisterhood

Monday, 5 March 2012

Do women support one another on Twitter?

So asks Laura Davis in the Independent today. She refers to the "Twitter 100", a list of supposedly influential people on Twitter published by the same newspaper a couple of weeks ago, to conclude that no, we don't. And that this is the reason why we're not getting more entries on these lists.

"It’s a question of why women aren’t more influential on the site," she says.

One fifth of the "Twitter 100" were women. I don't think that says as much about the influence of women on the site as much as the odd way in which the list was compiled. It may have been calculated by looking at numbers of followers and how active people are, but what the Independent ended up with, certainly as far as the Top 20 was concerned, was a list of celebrities, which in my opinion (and I know that plenty of other people feel the same way) misses the point of Twitter entirely. So when Davis claims that what women are saying on Twitter "isn't resonating", I think she's got it wrong. She says that when it comes to helping out other women:

"One place to start would be on Twitter, where we can encourage other’s work, quietly inferring that another opinion is worth hearing."

All day I've spotted women I follow talking about this article and wondering how Davis has managed to get it so wrong. It's an odd pronouncement considering that we've basically had completely the opposite experience on the site. Fair enough, most of us identify as feminists so we'd probably like to think we're incorporating at least a bit of sisterhood into our social networking. But since I joined Twitter in 2009, I've found it to be an incredibly useful tool for women in encouraging each other, promoting each other and networking. Offering as it does the chance to talk to other people with similar interests and passions, I know it's invaluable to many people seeking community with others. When I started tweeting, I was reasonably new to activism, new to blogging, and had no local network of individuals with shared interests to talk to about certain topics. Almost instantly, I was able to find community there.

Three years later, I can say that the women I follow on Twitter have promoted my blog. They've invited me to write guest posts for their own blogs, and for various websites. They've given me career advice and messaged me links to jobs they've spotted and thought I might be interested in, invited me to conferences and events, linked me up with other people they've thought I might get on with, met up with me in person and not lived to regret it, talked to me about matters of faith and shared in my pregnancy experiences. If that's not supportive, I'm not sure what it is. This Saturday, I'm off to London to meet up with a group of women I chat to regularly. We're going to be discussing how we can work together on a particular issue and support each other in what we do. I know all of these women because of Twitter.

The majority of women I interact with on Twitter are eager to look out for each other - giving advice, sharing knowledge, linking up with others. The groups, blogs, forums and real-life friendships I've seen spring up as a result show that this "infuriating" atmosphere of "competition" doesn't always have to exist, and isn't the default mode for many women. Thanks to Twitter, when we see yet another men-only "top bloggers" list or poll, we don't just think "where are the women?". We know where they are and we get their names out there and promote their work. Here's Cath's response to such a poll - a post that still gets this blog hits. When the same sort of thing happened with a list of "top Christian bloggers" last year, I wrote about it, as did several other people. The result? Women connecting with each other for the first time, and yes, being supportive. Much of this took place on Twitter.

Susan Shapiro Barash, author of a book called “Tripping the Prom Queen: The Truth About Women and Rivalry”, is quoted by Davis as saying: “It’s a dirty little secret among women that we don’t support one another”.

It might be a stereotype beloved of magazines, tabloids and well, people who love to stereotype, but what I've found on Twitter is a lot of women who hate all that nonsense and genuinely want to be an encouragement to each other. We let out a collective sigh when some newspaper runs yet another feature on "bitchy female bosses". We get irritable when some blog article tries to create a new dimension to the "mummy wars". We want to see mainstream media change the record, and that's why it's disappointing when articles like Davis's piece appear.

Before someone points out that this one time, they saw some women having an argument on Twitter, I'll say that of course that's bound to happen. It would be bizarre if it didn't, because sisterhood isn't about never disagreeing. It's not about acting like you're everyone's biggest fan just because you share a gender. And naturally, some people just aren't that nice - so let's not expect unicorns and rainbows 24/7. My point is that it's ridiculous to stereotype a social network and women in general off the back of one list, which, let's face it, doesn't really say much about Twitter in the first place.

Cosmo's new feminist focus

Sunday, 4 March 2012

What happens when the ultimate men-and-diets magazine does equality?

One of my pet subjects to analyse, keep track of and, yes, rant about is the way women's magazines approach the subject of feminism. It used to be that they wouldn't touch it with a bargepole; feminism was something cringeworthy and outdated that seemed so out of place until the middle of the Noughties. Then gender issues got cool again. Okay, this happened at least five years ago but it's only in the last couple of years that mainstream women's magazines have wised up to the fact women actually care about gender equality and have started covering it again.

They've got a host of new books and new protests to reference. And a host of women - always referred to as "the new feminists" - to profile. But what really gets me, to the extent that I wrote about it at length last year, is the limited and clichéd way in which they approach the multifaceted awesomeness that is feminism. We're talking repeated references to Sex and the City, Katie Price and high heels. Reducing gender equality to a set of rules: "Can you wear makeup and be a feminist?" - "Can you have a boyfriend and be a feminist?". They'll interview activists doing amazing work and shoehorn in stuff about lipstick and fashion.

It's really irritating and really patronising. Irritating because it attempts to cause division about what makes an acceptable feminist. Don't worry, girls, you can believe in equality and still get a Brazilian! Patronising, because it seems to ignore the fact that women are capable of thinking about serious issues without having to see references to vajazzling painfully woven in. We know women are entitled to be into clothes and celebrities. But they do have other concerns.

To be fair, some magazines have been doing some good work of their own by promoting awareness of issues like domestic violence and workplace discrimination. And with International Women's Day coming up, I've been wondering what coverage gender issues would be receiving this month. Enter Cosmopolitan magazine, celebrating its 40th birthday and running a new campaign all about using "the F word".

The premise is, of course, that lots of women today don't like using the word, or might not even know what it's all about. So Cosmo's hoping to change that - running a campaign to close the gender pay gap, getting celebrities to talk about why they use "the F word", and taking part in the Women of the World festival in London next week. The thing I'm left wondering though, is how does this all fit with the magazine's steady stream of "Get a man! Keep that man! Get a better body! Lose weight!"? Its focus on men, dating and sex "tips" is legendary and much-parodied.

So when Cosmo editor Louise Court went head to head with feminist blogger Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour on Monday, how did she deal with the accusation that, well, women want more than dating tips and body image hypocrisy? Rhiannon, who writes for brilliant new feminist blog The Vagenda, wondered if the magazine could do with changing the record if it wanted to be more supportive of women's issues. Louise didn't agree. Her argument centred on the fact that women must want to read about that kind of thing, because Cosmo shifts plenty of copies - 1.6 million of them, to be precise. She wondered why women who complain about magazines like Cosmo don't just set up an alternative. Rhiannon asked if she thought it was good that teenage girls might be getting negative messages from the relentless focus on appearance and pleasing a man - Louise replied that actually, plenty of older women are into Cosmo, because they're newly single and want to know - I quote - "about the new rules of dating". Erm, yay?

I'm not buying it. I know for a fact that women do get sick of standard women's magazine fodder, which is outdated and repetitive. I think that when journalists refuse to acknowledge this, they're underestimating their readership. I do think it's good when mainstream magazines cover feminism. But I think they have to be careful that they don't reduce it down to something with no substance and no passion in their quest to make it appealing to a new audience.

The new edition of Cosmo is now out. Included, one of its "10 rules for living the Cosmo life": "Outshine your male colleagues in that early meeting - all while wearing stilettos and a bodycon pencil skirt. Feminist and fabulous? Hell, yeah!". When the magazine takes part in the Women of the World festival, well-known women will take the "for" and "against" sides in a debate called "Can you vajazzle and be a feminist?" It's not filling me with hope for the future of Cosmo's relationship with gender equality, let's put it that way. Let's move away from the clichés, and towards an approach to empowering women that actually seems genuine.

This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz.

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