Women of note
Feminists face a tough battle, it's time for some tactical thinking
Wednesday 26 June, 2013
When you've been a woman for as long as I have - almost as long as the Queen's been the Queen - you get used to the way that sexism pervades our society.
It ranges from builders' wolf whistles to rape; from ironic references to cushions and hoovering to violence of the tongue as devastating as a blow to the stomach. And for all the equality laws of the past four decades, women are still lower paid and still find it harder to get full-time jobs.
There are the ignorant - people who lump women together with the disabled, homosexuals, immigrants and 'other minorities', forgetting that women are the majority - and the unthinking. Female votes put the brake on 80mph shouted the Times splash headline on Saturday, almost inviting every bloke who picked up the paper to blame the missus for spoiling the fun.
In fact most drivers, both male and female, were in favour of the higher limit. But Downing Street was apparently afraid of losing the votes of women who were against the change and so abandoned the plan.
The logic of this escapes me, so I'll run through that again: 53% of women were in favour of an 80mph limit, 41% were not - so rather than upset the 41%, the plan was dropped. Sounds like nonsense, and of course it is. But it's so much easier to put the focus on unidentifiable 'females' than on the safety campaigners and vested interests that lobbied against the change.
When it comes to equality, certain sectors of society are locked in the first half of the last century, most particularly business and finance, politics, the police and the media. They beat their chests and wring their hands saying 'We'd love more women to come forward/move up'. But they don't mean a word of it. They talk about ratios and quotas and positive discrimination.
Women don't need these things; the need is for there to be a will to treat everyone equally - for without that will, no artificial devices can correct the imbalance. More women than men are qualifying as doctors, vets, lawyers and dentists - the most competitive fields of study - and there are far more female undergraduates across our universities than there are male. So there is no doubt the talent is there; it just all goes pear-shaped in the workplace.
we want? The irony of that is that these diehards, who would have shaken the ladder as she climbed the first rungs, ended up adoring her. But they've always been like that. They just need educating - though preferably not by the Australian political classes.
More worrying are the police and the media, which seem to be regressing towards the 19th century. No matter how often codes of conduct are revised, no matter how many public inquiries condemn police practices, nothing seems to shift the mindset that only white men are worthy of respect - whether inside or outside of the force.
Meanwhile television networks that regard grey hair in male presenters as a sign of gravitas continue to push women off camera the moment the first wrinkle appears. Within the Press, middle-aged white men are again dominant in setting the news agendas while women, with few exceptions, are once more consigned to features or subordinate roles. This is especially galling after the great strides of the 80s and 90s.
Given all this, it's hardly surprising that there has been an upsurge in interest in the feminist movement - and the centenary this month of Emily Davison's Derby death has been a convenient peg for a new call to action.
Lest there is any doubt that action is required, take a look at the Everyday Sexism Project, an alarming catalogue of evidence of the contempt in which women are held, especially by young men who should have been taught better by baby-boomer parents. Fresh examples appear on the site and on Twitter every minute (no exaggeration). You can see a random selection on the right.
So how are we women countering the louts and the dinosaurs?
By demanding an end to page 3 girls and a petition to have a woman's picture on a banknote.
I'm treading on dangerous ground here, but these don't seem to me to be the vital issues of the day. Pretty young girls are queueing up to feature on page 3 and if they want to take off their bras and pose for photographs in the hope of advancing themselves, why stop them? The budding lawyers, doctors, vets and dentists have their opportunities, is it right to deny those with a little less up top (but a bit more further down) their chance of a richer life?
Is it exploitative? Is it demeaning? Is it offensive? Perhaps, but I find I object more to the nudge, nudge, wink, wink captions than to the generally cheery photographs. I'm glad the days of women draping themselves over boats and cars are over, and I wouldn't be sorry to see page 3 disappear, but I think there are more troubling matters for feminists to worry about.
The No More Page 3 campaign believes, however, that the easy accessibility of what it describes as soft porn helps to shape men's view of women and diminishes their respect. Given the oafish behaviour detailed in Everyday Sexism, it is a fair argument.
The banknote campaign is different and, whisper it softly, I don't think it serves the feminist cause very well. You can never be equal if you need or demand special treatment.
The Bank of England clearly didn't think too long or hard, if at all, about the gender of the next person to be honoured on the £5 note. And that's a good thing.
In whatever walk of life or area of society, people should be treated in the way merited by their actions and achievements. It's a shame there will no longer be a woman other than the Queen on our currrency, but it would have been a greater shame if whoever chose the replacement for Elizabeth Fry had thought 'We'd better have another woman.'
Caroline Criado-Perez, below, has worked ferociously and tenaciously to garner nearly 30,000 signatures for her 'keep a woman on English banknotes' petition. That's some achievement, but no more than might be expected from Ms C-P, who is, by all accounts, one smart cookie. The Oxford postgraduate student describes herself as a furious feminist and she is particularly angered by the under-representation and misrepresentation of women in the media. She has set up a website to ensure that female experts are available to offer opinions on any number of issues, she runs a blog with the slogan 'a pox on the patriarchy', and works as a freelance journalist - all the while studying for her master's.
In the course of her banknote campaign, she has written repeatedly to Sir Mervyn King, publishing the correspondence, and appeared in every national paper, the Huffington Post and on radio and television stations all over the country. Her efforts have wrong-footed the Governor to the point where he has been forced to say that the Bank has a contingency plan for someone other than Sir Winston Churchill to feature on the fiver and that Jane Austen is 'quietly waiting in the wings' to make her appearance.
Between them, they've stirred the pot so that every paper seems to be running 'Which woman should be on the banknote?' features. The same half dozen names appear at every turn - Mary Seacole, Ada Lovelace, Mary Wollstonecraft, Rosalind Franklin, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and the blessed Jane.
Odd that, isn't it? Well no. Asked to name great British women, most people run out of steam after Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Fry, as the Bank seems to have done. Yet I'd bet that anyone could rattle off ten times as many men in sixty seconds flat - and be aware of why they were in the frame. You can see how easy it was for the Bank to fall into the trap.
My problem with the debate is the letter 'a'.
Keep a woman on English banknotes;
Which woman should be on the fiver?
Imagine if that has been 'which man should be on the fiver?' Or 'which black/gay/blind person...'
This isn't equality, it's tokenism. It's as though the feminists are saying 'We don't care who it is, we just want a woman', while those (presumably men) commissioning the newspaper articles are saying 'If you were allowed one, who should it be?'
There have been many, many great men through British history - and rather fewer great women. There is an interesting debate to be held on what should be the criteria for recognition on a banknote, but gender ought not to be one of them. Should candidates be instantly recognisable to all Britons? Towering giants of the arts, science, social reform? People of international renown? Or people whose retrospective importance outweighs their fame?
If the women's cause is to be advanced, then the latter needs to be emphasised. That way we would highlight the achievements of people whose efforts have been under-reported and under-estimated for decades. People like Rosalind Franklin, right, whose DNA X-ray work provided the vital key to the mapping of the human genome. She was sneered at and patronised in the lab by Crick and Watson, who danced off to collect their Nobel prizes and then took a quarter of a century to make grudging acknowledgement of her contribution.
Had Ms Criado-Perez approached the Bank (and the media) with an extensive list and said 'You know there are so many unsung British women who achieved great things, how about raising their profile by putting them [not "one of them"] on the currency?' she might have found that the door opened easily. The Bank would probably have been grateful for the suggestions.
Instead we have a campaign that has the air of women stamping their feet shouting 'It's not fair.'
And that means we also have men patting us on the head saying
'Calm down, dear, we'll give you that Pride and Prejudice woman next time...
'Now get back to the hoovering.'