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Why I’m a radical feminist

I recently decided that I don’t have the luxury to be a liberal feminist. I honestly don’t understand how any woman does. Because liberal feminism has lost sight of simple fact that male violence against women is global, and endemic. Other women have written about this, so I’m not going to rehash their arguments here. But, if I had to pick a defining characteristic of the people committing violence against women, I’d say they are male humans. With penises. If I were to define the victims, I’d mention the fact that they all possess a vagina. Some people seem to think these facts are unimportant. I don’t: here’s why.

In case you missed it, women are dying

In November 2013, I spent a month volunteering in Rajasthan. At that time, I worked for a big financial company that offered bursaries to people who wished to undertake voluntary work. I wanted go armed with as much knowledge as possible, so I undertook a research project and learned about India. I learnt about the huge numbers of menstruating girls who have no access to sanitary products. I learnt that menstruation is such a source of taboo and shame that girls are kept from school. I learnt that the value placed on female lives is so low, that the population demographic is skewed. I learnt that, since 1985, selection abortion and infanticide has meant that there are 10 million missing girls in India.

Seriously, let’s think about that for a moment. There are currently 8.8 million people living in London. Imagine the whole city, deserted and devoid of life, like a scene in 28 Days Later. That’s how many female lives have been lost. Why? Because they were female, and Indian society culture places a lower value on female lives.

Before we get too smug, and assert that not valuing female lives is an Indian problem, let’s think about Brock Turner. Lest we forget, he’s the unanimously convicted US rapist reported in the media as a champion swimmer, accompanied by a cherubic photo. His victim writes that:

“At the bottom of the article, after I learned about the graphic details of my own sexual assault, the article listed his swimming times. She was found breathing, unresponsive with her underwear six inches away from her bare stomach curled in fetal position. By the way, he’s really good at swimming”.

Why does this matter? Because the media framed this crime as “look, he did a bad thing but seriously, a man’s LIFE could be ruined!” The impact on the woman’s life is minimised, because a man’s life is deemed more valuable. And while it’s fucked up, this view is rampant. The oppressions I’ve outlined happen to women, because they ARE women. The reality of being a woman is not something they can opt out of. Liberal feminism has lost sight of that. So I’ve lost all time for it. feminism-295245_1280

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The clue’s in the name

This really resonates with me. I kept my name when I married and the censure took me by surprise.

language: a feminist guide

The lawyer Miriam González Durántez was unimpressed this week when she was invited to speak at an International Women’s Day event by someone who addressed her as ‘Mrs Clegg’ (she is married to the MP and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg).  The Daily Mail deplored her ‘aggressive feminism’,  while below the line its readers, inevitably, complained about bloody foreigners with no respect for British traditions.

Meanwhile, in the House of Commons, Emily Thornberry MP–who is not a foreigner but rather the Shadow Foreign Secretary–protested to the Speaker after Theresa May called her ‘Lady Nugee’ (Thornberry’s husband, it transpires, is Sir Christopher Nugee).  Whereas ‘Mrs Clegg’ seems to have been a careless mistake, ‘Lady Nugee’ was evidently a deliberate taunt. Even as May apologised, she found it necessary to inform the House that she herself had been known by her husband’s name for the last 36 years.

You…

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How to define a woman?

feminism-295245_1280As I sat cosied up with my coffee this morning, I came across this article by Gaby Hinsliff. Remarking that “if there ever was a universal consensus on How to Be a Woman, it’s dissolving fast”,  she discusses the changing notions of femininity and womanhood. It made me a little uneasy to see various mentions of gender in her article, but none of sex. Because while I support trans rights, I’m really concerned at the erasure of biological sex in the definition of women.

Female biology is important. I was on a volunteer placement in India a while back – where I learned that huge numbers of menstruating girls have no access to sanitary products and where the topic is such a source of taboo and shame that they are kept from school. Where female foeticide (aborting unborn female babies) is so widespread that it has skewed the population demographic. The International Development Research Centre estimates that selective abortion is responsibility for 10 million missing girls in India since 1985.

These are sex-based oppressions: girls and women literally dying because of being female. In the US, the sex-based oppressions are different: a lack of affordable contraception, maternity care and abortion. But if you remove any mention of biological sex from the idea of being a woman, you are in effect saying that these sex-based oppressions don’t matter. You’re also stymying efforts to tackle these problems, because you’re removing the very language that articulates them.

Woman – a loaded word

Living rurally as I do, I couldn’t make the recent women’s marches protesting Donald Trump. But I did buy a knitted pussy hat, and have been strutting about it in ever since. Upon reading that various transactivists were calling pussy hats transphobic (because they represent vaginas), I was really pissed off. I want to be good trans ally, but as someone who has been grabbed by the vagina, twice, I’d say it’s up to me how I respond to those assaults, and what I wear to protest them.

I’ve seen transactivists affirming that the mere mention of female biology is “literally violence”, while Planned Parenthood now refers to women as ”menstruators”. The British Medical Association is also removing the words ‘woman’ and ‘mothers’. To any guys reading this – how would you feel if the word ‘man’ became politically loaded and you were to be referred to as ‘ejaculators’? Would you be cool with that, or would you find it a tad dehumanising?

It goes without saying that trans people need to be actively included when medical providers outline their services, but there’s no logical line from there to erasing the word ‘woman’ and any mention of female biology. There is, there has to be a way of supporting our trans sisters without policing the language that lets us describe the realities of being female.

Anne Brontë – my unsung feminist hero

As a long-time fan of the Brontë sisters (Anne, Emily and Charlotte, in order of preference) I was eager to see To Walk Invisible, the recent BBC drama depicting their early lives.

I was particularly keen to see if the drama would follow the well-trodden path of some literary critics, by lauding Charlotte as a feminist and and ignoring Anne. Although it went some way to quashing the idea of “Anne the lesser sister”, it followed the usual pattern of portraying Charlotte as a feminist before her time. This was reflected in the reviews:  Den of Geek points out that “early in the piece, Charlotte bemoans a woman’s lot in a similar speech to the one she would later give her most famous character, Jane Eyre”.

Although I enjoyed it, the BBC adaptation reignited a sense of injustice I feel whenever the Brontës’ work is discussed: the dismissal of Anne as both a writer to equal her sisters and as a feminist revolutionary. So, this post is about why Anne Brontë is a true feminist hero. And also why we should maybe think twice about plugging the idea of Charlotte the Feminist Trailbazer.

Anne: telling uncomfortable truths

A viewpoint I’ve come across in literary criticism of the Brontës is the need to make a ‘feminist reading’ of Jane Eyre. That seems to mean that if you read it with your feminist hat on, and go mining for feminist goodies, you’ll unearth some. You need make no such effort with Anne’s novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The feminist message sears the page.

Before I get into the text itself, I want to stop to consider another writer I love – Charles Dickens. Dickens used characters like Jo in Bleak House to show the rest of society how poverty and neglect laid waste to the lives of the poor. He pulls no punches – Jo is always “moved on” by those in authority, despite being a homeless orphan, destitute and having nowhere to “move on” to. Jo dies in the street, hapless and penniless, a child with no-one to mourn him. Dickens was revolutionary in that he used his writing to effect social change. He holds up a mirror to society, asking “what kind of culture permits a child to die on the street? How do we remedy this?”

That’s the first step to remedying a societal ill: shining a light on it. It’s not welcome, it often makes people uncomfortable – but we need to see the unvarnished truth.

In the preface to the second edition, Anne wrote ‘My object in writing […] was not simply to amuse the Reader; neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public: I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral’.

Anne Brontë’s truth was an unwelcome one, that her contemporary readers were not ready to hear: why we need feminism.

Helen’s choices (or lack thereof)

Helen Graham, the heroine of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, is young, well-off and beautiful. Beguiled by good looks and charm, she marries Arthur Huntingdon. Arthur turns out to be dissolute, vicious, and a self-destructive alcoholic. They have an infant son together, who Arthur corrupts – by teaching him to swear at his mother and plying him (a toddler) with alcohol. Profligate and unfaithful, Arthur’s initial tenderness for Helen turns to contempt, as he boasts to his friends that “I value her so highly, that any one among you, that can fancy her, can have her and welcome”. Because Wildfell Hall is an epistolary novel, we follow Helen’s disillusionment via her diary entries, watch her brimming hope for her marriage turn to disappointment, regret, then revulsion.

Unsurprisingly, Helen wants to leave Arthur. But though an heiress when she married, all of her money and possessions now belong to Arthur. She exists legally as a chattel of her husband.  Strong-willed and intelligent, Helen is also a talented artist, and plans to escape to a quiet retreat and make a small living selling paintings. Arthur hears of her plans, restricts her access to money, and burns her painting materials. Helen is resourceful though, and escapes with the help of a relative and her servants. She hopes to live quietly at Wildfell Hall, and preserve her son from Arthur’s contaminating influence.

She succeeds. But as a single woman, she is subjected to malicious remarks from the local women and minister, who speculate that she is an unmarried mother and the mistress of her landlord. Those are her choices: stay and watch the ruination of her son, or leave her husband (which is illegal) and become an object of scorn.

Patriarchy, hiding in plain sight

Because of patriarchy, there can be no peace for Helen. She is constantly afraid that her husband will find her place of refuge, remove (and corrupt) their son. Which would be perfectly legal. Arthur already has her money – because she has no right of property, and no money of her own any more.  And although he could divorce her if he chose, she is refused a divorce without his consent.

Anne’s tactic here is similar to Dickens’. Via Helen, she lifts a mirror up to Victorian readers, and shows them just vulnerable women are to the whims of men. And how fucked they are when marriages break down. Eventually, (spoiler alert) Helen finds love with a second husband, Gilbert Markham. But that is not the point of the book. In the preface to the second edition, Anne wrote that “when I feel it my duty to speak an unpalatable truth, with the help of God, I will speak it, though it be to the prejudice of my name and to the detriment of my reader’s immediate pleasure as well as my own”. With icy clarity, Anne shows how women suffer, and how children’s lives are blighted by sexual inequality.

Asking the right questions

Another aspect of Wildfell Hall that makes it so strikingly feminist are the questions Anne poses, via Helen. Early in the novel, Helen learns that another suitor, Mr Boarham, has approached her aunt and uncle (her guardians) to ask for her hand in marriage. Helen answers “I hope my uncle and you told him it was not in your power to give it. What right had he to ask anyone before me?”

What right, indeed. To this day, some men still ask a woman’s father for her hand in marriage. Anne was questioning this back in 1848.

Later, having been introduced to Gilbert Markham and his mother, the three talk about the best way to rear a young boy. Gilbert believes boys shouldn’t be overly sheltered, that “if you were to rear an oak sapling in a hothouse, tending it carefully day and night…you could not expect it to become a hardy tree, like that which has grown up on the mountain-side, exposed to all the action of the elements”. Helen counter this by saying “Granted; – but would you use the same argument with regard to a girl?”

What follows is a debate about the education of girls and boys, in which Anne discusses the sexism at the heart of this paradigm. Why must girls be sheltered, while men are free to experience the world? Are girls innately more prone to moral corruption, that they shouldn’t be exposed to it? It’s a debate that’s still relevant today. Again, Anne was ahead of her time.

What did the public make of Wildfell Hall?

Anne published The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1848, the year after Wuthering Heights (Emily’s), Jane Eyre (Charlotte’s) and Agnes Grey (Anne’s first novel) hit the shelves. It was to be her final novel – she died from consumption the following year.

Deemed a “phenomenal success”, the novel sold more copies than Wuthering Heights had the year before. That said, some contemporary critics shied away from the character of Arthur Huntingdon (styled on Anne’s brother, Branwell). They found the subject matter – a wife’s anguish at her husband’s self-destructive alcoholism – too coarse. That said, one critic made what I consider to be a penetrating observation: “[English] society owes thanks, not sneers, to those who dare to shew her the image of her own ugly, hypocritical visage”.

anne

But Victorian society wasn’t ready to contemplate its “hypocritical visage”. The obvious remedy to the powerlessness of women Anne portrayed would be for men to give up some their power: by allowing women equal rights of property within marriage, or by giving them the vote. Or for that matter, simply acknowledging that Anne had a point. Instead, Anne was deemed coarse-minded for giving voice to the truths she has observed. Her revolutionary message was ignored and snuffed out. Disappointingly, her own sister Charlotte was the biggest detractor of Anne’s work, most notably in her ‘Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’, published after the deaths of Anne and Emily.

Finding the subject matter distasteful, Charlotte seemingly missed the point that Arthur Huntingdon’s depravity was necessary: to show what women were exposed to. She wrote that “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” by Acton Bell, had likewise an unfavourable reception. At this I cannot wonder. The choice of subject was an entire mistake”.

Writing to her publisher, Charlotte also said that she didn’t think Anne’s book was worth preserving, or reprinting. In fact, she suppressed the reprint when it became due in 1850. And in the now-famous biographical notice, Charlotte laments the poor reception of Emily’s book, opining that “[Anne] wanted the power, the fire, the originality of her sister”. Our contemporary view of Anne is, I believe, tainted by Charlotte’s subjective opinion of her sisters and their writing talents.

If Charlotte had refrained from placing Anne and her work at the bottom of the pecking order, would we have a different opinion of the Brontë novels today? I believe so. Michael Armitage of Sheffield University writes that “Charlotte lived on for another five years [after Anne’s death] during which time her later novels, along with Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights continued to be published, firmly launching these two sisters into literary stardom; while Anne’s masterpiece was completely suppressed”.

As a writer and a sister, it was Charlotte’s prerogative to comment on her sister’s book. I don’t take issue with her right to have an opinion, although I absolutely disagree with her views. What bothers me is the fact that today we celebrate Charlotte as a ‘feminist trailblazer’ – when she suppressed and belittled Anne’s feminist text. Which isn’t very sisterly, in either the familial or the feminist sense. (Her denigrations of Anne as a novelist I’ll leave for a future blog). Anne’s novel – described by Dr Stevie Davis in the preface to the Penguin edition as “a feminist manifesto of revolutionary power and intelligence” wouldn’t be in our hands today if Charlotte had had her way. That’s another reason why I’m uncomfortable when I see Charlotte singled out from among her sisters and lauded as a feminist.

Anne’s legacy to me

I end on a personal note. In my bedroom hangs a print by Joaquin Sorolla that I bought in 2008 from the Prado in Madrid. It’s called María pintando en el Pardo and shows a woman painting in profile. I bought it because it reminded me of Anne’s Helen, painting to earn a living, and bearing up with dignity against a phalanx of patriarchal heartbreak. It’s a totem of calm in a mad world, and it soothes me. But it also pains me sometimes, when I think that Anne created this powerful and subversive book, yet was made to feel ashamed of it. Without denigrating either Charlotte or Emily, it’s time we recognise Anne, my unsung feminist hero.

From Greece with love

Since it’s National Poetry Day, here’s a poem I wrote about Greece, austerity and valuing the wrong stuff.

greece

Learned heads shaking,
Lamenting,
My feckless, spendthrifty ways.
Apologies, my friends, but I just can’t summon the remorse.

 

You like everything to be paid for; neat, balanced
Yet my boundless gifts
Of language, democracy, philosophy
Lie weightless on your scales.

 

Austerity.
One of my words, you know
Appropriated by you
Repatriated to me as neighbourly advice
Sinister and smug.

 

My heroes might be gone now
They melt away without faith
But I’m not yet brought so low
You want my Acropolis?
You’re already in my debt.

 

 

My summer festival find – Glasgow’s WHITE

I stumbled upon Glaswegian five-piece White on day two of Portmeirion’s Festival No.6. Fifteen hours of rain meant that I was on my second change of clothes. The shorts I’d optimistically worn were peeled off and discarded back in the tent. I’d ingeniously repaired my burst welly by swaddling my foot in a binbag. We were trying to forget our crumpled tent, the casualty of a marauding jakey the night before.

Determined to make the best of the festival, we sought a venue with a roof. That’s how we found White – seeking somewhere NOT WET to eat some pizza and dry out.

At first glance, they look like a typical guitar outfit (albeit with a woman on drums), with obligatory fringe-tossing frontman. But these guys aren’t making wallpaper music – there’s serious talent here.

It’s hard to pin down their sound. Despite having two guitarists and a bassist, you can’t define them as a straightforward guitar/indie band. There’s an electro quality on some tracks that’s reminiscent of LCD Soundsystem. Lead singer Leo Condie’s vocals are ambitious and similarly hard to pigeonhole, switching from snarling to soaring.  The band released Future Pleasures last year, and I get the impression they’re proudest of this track. But I prefer I Liked You Better When You Needed Me, due for release this autumn. It kicks off with a meaty riff that revolves through the track, while there’s a nicely acerbic touch to lyrics. I’m not sure who takes the creative lead in the band, but someone is seriously good at writing bridges. There’s a big songwriting talent here.

In terms of performance, they sounded very tight. The risk (and reward) of smaller music festivals is the varying quality of the lesser-known acts. For every budding alt-j, there’s a dodgy counterpart (this festival also featured a scarf-waving warbler who thought she was a succubus). But for a band that hasn’t played a lot of gigs in their current guise, White are seriously slick. According to NME, this is because the band hid themselves away for most of last year, refining and rehearsing their material.

Leo Condie remarked that the band “wanted to have the songs in place, have an image and a sound in place, so that we’d be like a spaceship landing from out of nowhere.” Based on the set I heard at Portmerion, I’d say they’ve gained that point.

Image should always come second to sound, but they’ve got that nailed too. As a unit, they’re eminently watchable. Condie clutches the mikestand somewhat coyly, bearing a more-than-passing resemblance to Jarvis Cocker. But these aren’t borrowed feathers – there’s a charisma and joy in performing that’s all his own. On drums, Kirstin Lynn takes no prisoners, which is presumably why she’s known as ‘Glasgow’s hardest snare-hitter’. There are no passengers here: everyone is contributing to the sound.

Since Festival No.6, I’ve been hoarding and repeating the band’s few Spotify tracks. With more singles to come and a tour underway, I‘m rooting for them to get the success they deserve. As it is, I’m grateful to them for turning a soggy afternoon into a festival highlight.

 

Check out White on their current tour.

Taking Down ’15 Reasons Why I’m Not A Feminist’

I encounter number 10 a lot. Oft used by people who talk of women “playing the victim card”, as if structural oppression were akin to a game of Snap.

asexblogofonesown

So there’s a woman in America (where else) called Anna Senneff who believes that ‘third wave of feminism has gone too far’. She’s sick of Hillary Clinton running her mouth off about unnecessary and trivial things like, umm….’women’s issues’ and all that bollocks. Probably something about periods and vaginas, amirite? So Senneff wrote a list of 15 reasons why she isn’t a feminist. And because I’m a writer aka I’m basically unemployed, I am going to spend my Tuesday afternoon TAKING HER DOWN. Enjoy.

feminism

  1. Because I think that despite men having a more privileged role historically, men’s rights and issues are something we can’t ignore.

Men’s rights aren’t ignored. That is the whole bloody point *claws own face off with rage*. I will literally go to my grave chanting ‘feminism is about EQUALITY’.

  1. Because I don’t want to identify with a cause that has built its foundation on the idea…

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