Watching grainy footage of the 1913 Epsom Derby today (where suffragette Emily Davison threw herself under the King’s horse) made me think about how attitudes towards women’s issues have changed over the last 100 years.
The right to vote is something so fundamentally just and reasonable, that from today’s vantage point the counter arguments seem absurd. I looked up some of the prominent opposers of women’s suffrage: they included Herbert Asquith (Prime Minister and supporter of Liberal reforms), and Winston Churchill, the ‘voice in the wilderness’ warning us of Hitler as early as 1934.
Churchill opposed suffrage on the basis that “women are well represented by their fathers, brothers, and husbands.” What this tells me is that people who are intelligent, astute, and morally well-disposed are capable of forming entirely flawed views of a woman’s place in the world. And that’s something that hasn’t changed.
This was brought home to me this week, when I decided to ramp up my involvement with feminism by actively engaging with non-feminists. You see, nice though it is to interact with fellow feminists – people who relate to the injustices that rankle in my soul – these aren’t the people you need to convince. The people you need to convince are the men and women out there who don’t think gender equality is an issue.
Gloves off: I’m going in
To this end, I got chatting to a friend and ex-colleague about gender equality. He is intelligent, in a good job, and personally I like him a lot. Yet we sat together in the pub, beers in hand, while he spoke about how women have already achieved workplace equality, and how as a well-educated white man, everyone else has a louder voice than him – especially women.
These comments unnerved me for two reasons. First of all, because they come from someone I know to be in all other respects well-informed and fair-minded. Secondly, because they’re based on perceptions rather than reality. My friend’s perception is that wage inequality no longer exists. The reality is that women earn an average gross full-time salary of £23,100 – £5,600 less than their male counterparts. For recent graduates, men earn more than women across all degree subject areas. In a scienctific study, research shows that male candidates were offered over average £4000 a year more – based on gender and no other factors.
His other perception (that he is marginalised and women’s voices take precedence), is I think based on a lack of awareness of the menace with which women’s voices are shouted down and dimmed when they do speak out. Which is what the rest of my post is about.
For some people, women having the audacity to publicly speak out about things they consider unjust provokes ire and outrage: they’re deemed to be stepping out from their proper sphere. A hundred years ago, suffragettes were sexually assaulted and had ‘their breasts twisted’ by London police in the infamous Black Friday campaign. They were smashing stuff up? Then arrest them and put them in jail. The threat and execution of sexual assault upon women who speak up is not something new, and more worryingly, it has not gone away.
“Shut up or I’ll hurt you”
Fast forward to today, and activists still endure sex-based threats on the heels of public speech. Two female students received a spate of rape threats (not one or two) after objecting to sexist comments made on their appearance by male Glasgow Uni students during a Cambridge-Glasgow university debate. And despite these comments, which undermined the whole debate by failing to treat the students as intellectual equals, Glasgow University replied to a groundswell of complaints that there is ‘no case to answer’. This can’t be written off as merely the work of minority internet trolls. These are students at a good university, abetted by responsible adults, literally shouting down women in a debate who are trying to conduct themselves as equals. And it’s the same pattern: voice an opinion, get shouted down, then roll on the misogynistic abuse. In this case, the abuse went like this: “I scrolled through comment after comment discussing whether it would be preferable to rape me using a knife, or to keep me as a sex slave.”
That’s not what equality looks like.
The women I’ve profiled below (today’s feminists, arguably our answer to the Suffragettes) have all received significant threats of rape and assault, for speaking publicly about feminist issues. The men who make these threats aren’t attempting to challenge their opinions or engage in a discussion: they are effectively saying ”shut up or I’ll hurt you”. And this is a society in which men’s voices are maginalised?
|Who?||Public action/statement||Resulting violence/threats|
|‘Black Friday’ suffragettes||Campaigned for women’s right to vote||Sexual assaults|
|Laura Bates||Created ‘Every Sexism’, an org and online space to share upsetting and sexist experiences||Death and rape threats|
|Lucy Holmes||Objected to page the Sun’s Page 3||Death and rape threats|
|Rebecca Meredith||Objected to comments on appearance in intellectual debate||Rape threats|
|Lindy West||Objected to rape jokes||Death and rape threats|
To return to the view of my friend: I can’t accept claims that we live in an equal society, when instead of a rational debate, a woman voicing an opinion provokes threats of sexual violation. If you fit the profile of my friend, you rarely encounter sexism firsthand. You don’t experience the undercurrent of sexual intimidation, the unconscious bias against female employees, the lack of pay equality. I don’t blame you for not being aware of these things – but just because you haven’t experienced them, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.