Friday, July 26, 2013

Three modern heroines of third-wave feminism

Forget Kate and her brace of  kings-in-waiting for a moment. These are the women who are already helping to shape our future society. And the great news is that there are plenty more like them, with brains, instinct, imagination and determination, who are unwilling to accept the status quo or to be fobbed off by officialdom.

Laura Bates (left, in a BBC picture) is the founder of the Everyday Sexism website that is cataloguing examples of casual abuse and harassment by men who see nothing wrong with eyeing up a teenager or thrusting themselves onto complete strangers on the Tube.

Jo (centre, anonymous for reasons that will become obvious) is behind the End Victim Blaming site, which aims to help people who have suffered violence to stop feeling guilty - and to change the media vocabulary to end the use of what she calls the language of perpetrators.

Caroline Criado-Perez (right, in a photograph by the Independent) spearheaded the campaign to retain a woman on British banknotes after Sir Mervyn (now Lord) King announced that Churchill would be replacing Elizabeth Fry on our fivers in the next year or so. She has spent the past 48 hours doing the radio rounds, welcoming the confirmation that Jane Austen would be the face of the £10 note from 2017.

These women are key players in the latest incarnation of third-wave feminism. And they are so energetic and driven that - at last - it is possible to believe that there may be no need for a fourth.

To a relic of the second wave, the world they are encountering is shocking. Whatever happened to the 'new men' of the 80s? Were they just a chimera?

Somehow we have regressed to the gender stereotyping of half a century ago. How did we come to this point, with the pinkification of everything for girls and the primacy of the cupcake?

Do we blame the ladettes? The wannabe TV programmes? Overpaid footballers and their WAGS? The weight-obsessed celebrity mags that feel it's their right and duty to pronounce on the shape of every woman in the public eye? (This Kelly Brook bikini shot was in fact on the cover of six magazines on one newsstand last month - and inside another two).

And of course, the cover below has provoked predictable outrage. It does beggar belief. But when you are in the market of being rude to celebs (or lauding them to the heavens as some part of multithousand-pound wedding deal), it is sometimes hard to remember that getting too familiar with the royals won't please your readers. Especially if you follow up with thoughtless tweets.

Back in the real world, it may not matter much that builders are still wolf-whistling, but if a woman can't use public transport to get to work without arriving with semen running down the back of her leg, there is something wrong.

If social workers regard a 28-year-old man abusing a 13-year-old girl in care as her 'boyfriend', there is something wrong.

And if the Bank of England didn't realise that it wasn't a good idea to ignore half the population when deciding who to put on notes used by everyone, there is something wrong.

Writing in the Guardian yesterday, Zoe Williams hailed Criado-Perez, Bates and the No More Page 3 group as proving that modern campaigners were packing a punch. Let's hope that's true. What they are certainly doing is exposing how little we have travelled since the 60s; how misogyny has not simply survived, but thrived over the past half-century.

The Commonwealth had agreed (reluctantly in some quarters) that if little Prince George had been little Princess Georgina she would succeed her father to the throne, even if she had a dozen younger brothers. Progress. But women bishops? We're still waiting. Join an elite golf club? No chance - Muirfield members say they'd rather not stage the Open than allow women to join.

Women are under-represented in almost every walk of life, other than in the most menial of tasks or those traditionally regarded as 'women's work'. We all know about the glass ceilings, but what is even more worrying is the way that white men in their 30s and 40s are again dominating all aspects of our country and culture: the Government, the media, business, the Church. Women who advanced up the ranks ten or twenty years ago are suddenly nowhere to be seen.

It is bad not simply for women, but for everyone. It is sending the wrong message to today's young men and suppressing the able women who are emerging from school or university. This would not be of such huge concern were it not for the fact that girls are routinely outperforming boys right through from primary school to university. We are squandering talent in every sphere.

Why? How could this have happened? What caused the reinforcement of gender stereotyping? When did everything turn so pink? Who decided that girls shouldn't, after all, want to play with scientific toys?

Do people with any influence or power realise how far our society has retreated? How unacceptable behaviour has been accepted? Do we need Ken Loach to spell it out for everyone?

Let's go back to our heroic trio.

Laura Bates, Everyday Sexism

Bates, a 26-year-old Cambridge graduate, started the Everyday Sexism Project 14 months ago 'to catalogue instances of sexism experienced by women from on a day-to-day basis. They may be serious or minor, outrageously offensive or so niggling and normalised that you don't feel able to protest'. More than 40,000 people have sent in their stories and a book is in the pipeline. But this week the programme notched up a gear.

The British Transport Police combined with the Met and Transport for London to set up Project Guardian to monitor cases of harassment on buses and trains after reports showed that most people who suffered unwanted sexual behaviour did not report it.

They linked up with Everyday Sexism to tap into their expertise for guidelines on how to encourage victims - male or female - to report their experiences, no matter how apparently insignificant or how long ago they took place.

Two thousand officers have been given special training in sexual offences, with particular emphasis on the first contact with victims. An extra 135 officers, both in uniform and plainclothes, have been supplementing the regular force every day this week and the BTP have been taking part in live Twitter chats and responding to tweets describing unwelcome incidents - even events going back weeks or months.

It was as heartening to see the BTP geared up for the enterprise as it was dispiriting to read what women commuting to work have to put up with.  Take a look at this Twitter thread:


Far more encouraging was the response of the police, who took every incident seriously, gave out numbers for people to text or telephone and urged individuals to take their complaints further.

It was wonderful, after too many years of stories of cops' insensitivity and dismissivenenss,  to see a police force so pro-active and apparently understanding of what they were dealing with -  and they were rewarded with many complients from tweeters, as in this case:

The overwhelming response to the initiative has been one of surprise and delight and the BTP will be issuing some statistics on the project on Monday.

The transport project is Bates's second triumph within two months, for she was also behind the campaign that forced Facebook to stop people posting images encouraging rape and other violence against women.

Everyday Sexism pointed out that pictures of breastfeeding or of woman who had had mastectomies were banned, while those of women trussed up or children with black eyes were allowed.Bates combined with the Americans Soraya Chemalnd Jaclyn Friedman in an email and Twitter campaign aimed at advertisers such as Dove and Pringles. Fifteen suspended their accounts with FB.

Within a week FB had admitted that it had failed to identify and remove 'hate speech' from the site and promised that it would review and update its moderating procedures.

Perhaps the next step is to get mainstream advertisers to get real. These appeared on a newsfeed only the other day:

Jo, Ending Victimisation

Unfunny jokes about 'get back to the ironing' and the casual disrespect and contempt displayed by the Tube gropers are probably the most visible examples of sexism. Ending Victimisation is seeking to tackle public attitudes to bigger sins. To try finally to get across the message that a rape victim is not 'asking for it' because she's wearing a pair of Daisy Dukes and a strappy bodice on a hot day; that a woman being beaten black and blue by her partner is not just 'a domestic'.

The website is the brainchild of Jo, who describes herself as a working-class northerner in her mid-thirties. She says she had the idea in May, started to build the website on the 21st and went live on the 24th. It is run by a women's collective and, eight weeks on, is already getting 30,000 uniques a day.

The objective is to stop people blaming victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse - and to help the victims to stop thinking that they somehow brought their injuries on themselves.  She says it is outrageous that women are expected to change their behaviour or their wardrobes to avoid being assaulted.

Jo is particularly keen to change the 'problematic' language used by journalists, by social workers and in the family courts, and to develop a new vocabulary that makes plain who the guilty party is. 'Child porn', for example, is easy shorthand and everyone knows what is meant. But it is inaccurate. Pornography is produced by willing participants for a willing audience. Pictures of children cannot fall into this category. 'Child porn' is in fact evidence of child abuse.

Jo believes that domestic violence is not taken seriously enough by the courts -  to the extent that men who have killed children have been described by lawyers as 'good fathers', while magistrates have criminalised women attacked by gang members.

Here are some of the examples that have been posted on her site this month:

My father is a violent alcoholic who allowed my brother to be abused and then beat him because ‘ you deserve it'

Marte Deborah Dalelv was on a business trip to Dubai. She was raped after a night out with colleagues and went to the police who imprisoned her and, four days later, charged HER with three crimes, including having sex outside of marriage. She was convicted and  sentenced to 16 months in prison for having the temerity to report her assault, compared with the 13 months that her alleged rapist received. 
To add insult to injury, reports now suggest that she has been sacked because of her  'unacceptable and improper behaviour'. 

 'A jilted man allegedly fatally stabbed his ex-wife with a kitchen knife after seeing her in the company of her new lover over the weekend.' 
As ever, the defence for male violence occurs within the first sentence; this time it was the second word. Linda Akim is dead because she  'jilted' her husband. Not because her ex-husband was violent. Not because Kudakwashe Mushandira chose to stab Akim to death. It is Akim’s fault for ending her relationship.

I was walking to a nightclub with a friend, when we were stopped by policemen who asked our age. I was in a PVC miniskirt and black fishnet top and I thought they were just mocking us 'goths'.  When I became indignant that they were hassling us and making us late for meeting our friends I was told be nice to policemen and not be so cocky as dressed the way I was it would be my own fault if I got 'raped down an alley' and where would they be then? I said that I would hope the police would help me and they just laughed.
Utterly horrible. I spent the night hiding under my coat as I was suddenly very aware of my outfit not as an expression of my individuality, but as a signal to potential rapists.

Jo hopes to set up a free service for the media, children's services, social services and the justice system offering guidance on language that does not make the victim feel or appear guilty. As we can see here from this submission by a youth justice worker, it is much needed.

In many of the multi agency meetings, child sexual exploitation meetings and other professional meetings I have chaired or attended, the blame for the trauma lies firmly with the girl. Below are a selection of examples:

She needs to start making the right choices

She’s out of control

She loves him. There’s nothing we can do

She needs to take more responsibility

I just don’t understand why she behaves like this. She knows she’s going to get into trouble but she carries on

She’s storing weapons in her room. We’re letting the police deal with her now

We can’t stop her going out to meet him. She makes her own choices

I told her he was bad news but she wouldn’t listen and now look what’s happened

A crop top and a pair of Daisy Dukes
are not an invitation to rape

Caroline Criado-Perez, The Women's Room

This is a 1937 Austin 10. The car, which first went into production in 1932 and continued until 1947, was the Austin Motor Company's most popular model.

This is the 2017 Austen 10. The note may well prove to be the Bank of England's most popular currency.

We know about this new note so long before it is due to be introduced thanks to the efforts of Caroline Criado-Perez, a 28-year-old Oxford graduate now studying for a masters in gender studies at the LSE.

The announcement that Churchill was to adorn the next £5 note, leaving the currency without any female presence besides the Queen, was greeted with dismay by women all over the country. Criado-Perez was not one for grumbling acceptance; she decided to challenge the decision.

She took the Bank Governor to task in a series of letters, started a petition to support her case and threatened to take Sir Mervyn to court for breaches of the 2010 Equality Act. But she got no further than the hint that Jane Austen was 'waiting in the wings'.

The papers picked up on her petition, which secured 35,000 signatures, and many ran features asking 'Which woman would you want to see on a banknote?'

SubSist was sceptical about the campaign and remained sceptical this week as Criado-Perez's supporters went wild on Twitter, claiming a great victory after Mark Carney's formal announcement that Austen would indeed be the face on the £10 note from 2017.

This doesn't seem to me to be a huge triumph, since the decision was probably made some time ago. Churchill will still be on the fiver and there will still be no woman on any banknote for a year or so. SubSist also questioned the tone of the campaign, which smacked of tokenism. 'We want a woman. We don't care who it is. We want a woman.'

But that doesn't mean that the issue was not important, nor detract from the fact that Criado-Perez was the one person to do something about it.

The Bank missed a trick in not putting Mrs Pankhurst on the next note as the centenary of the Suffragette movement provided an obvious peg. Indeed, had Wellington been to coincide with the bicentenary of Waterloo, that would have been understandable. To pick Churchill, who could have made his appearance at almost any time over the next thousand years, only served to emphasise the male-oriented culture of the Bank.

Criado-Perez's real success in this campaign -  as she pointed out yesterday -  was to secure a promise that the system for choosing subjects for the notes would be reviewed.

This alone does not make her a feminist heroine. She achieved that status last year when she set up The Women's Room, a database of female experts on anything from farming to civil engineering.

She was inspired by two items about contraception for teenage girls and breast cancer on the Today programme last October. The discussion panel on each occasion was all-male because, the BBC said, it had been unable to find any female experts.

Criado-Perez formed a plan and, like Jo, immediately swung into action. She tweeted a request for women who were experts in any field to register with The Women's Room and the site was live within days. It now lists about 700 experts.

And to complete her hat-trick, the third of our third-wave feminist heroines also runs the Week Woman blog, motto: A pox on the patriarchy.

A final thought: These women have all acted quickly on longstanding issues and have all achieved rapid recognition and success. This is almost entirely thanks to the influence of social media, and in particular Twitter.

We know that Twitter was an important factor in the Arab Spring and, equally, that news emanating from it is likely to be unsubstantiated and sometimes unreliable. For projects such as these, however, it is ideal. People are coming forward to share their concerns in a way they would not do person-to-person or to mainstream newspapers and broadcasters.

Our trio are therefore helping not only the feminist cause, but wider society by exposing truths that would probably have remained uncovered. The scale of sexual assault and harassment on public transport, for example. Until now, we have had only official statistics to go by and so long as women were loath to report incidents for fear of being brushed off or regarded as over-reacting, the true picture could never emerge. And until we have that, no one can take appropriate steps to tackle the problem.

Anecdotal evidence can go only so far, but when there is enough of it, it can make people sit up and take notice -  as the British Transport Police have, to their great credit, done this week.

The down side, however, is that the trolls have had a field day. Bates appeared on the Jeremy Vine Show at lunchtime today. The callers were all male and almost all hostile. She held her own, but by the time she had got home the trolls had bombarded her Twitter timeline.

The same applied to Criado-Perez, whose language grew increasingly ripe through the evening as she fought back against neanderthals whose solution to uppity women was to give them 'a good rogering'.

We still have an awful long way to go. These women are not going to be right about everything. To some, they will appear to be man-hating extremists. But, hey, wouldn't you if you were confronted with something like this:

Still, at least @MrBLawton proves that not all men are bastards. Which most of us knew all along.

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