Talking about women

I’ve been a feminist for as long as I can remember. A slow, simmering anger at the way women are treated as second class citizens in society has bubbled underneath the surface of my seemingly placid exterior for many years. Most of the time when I’m harassed, heckled or, worse, touched – this happens a lot on crowded public transport, so I have one thing to thank coronavirus for – I put up and shut up, as we women have been conditioned to since time immemorial. Just ignore it. Just keep walking. Don’t engage, don’t escalate. As we women know, those who think we ask for it by wearing too much make up and too short skirts, the level of harassment we face is not in any way correlative to our appearance – I have even been harassed and heckled while on a school trip with a gaggle of my students staring wide-eyed behind me. I can promise you that my regulation school trip raincoat is not in any way sexy. That was a great lesson for my students on why Miss is always banging on about feminism.

My anger reached boiling point last week in a meeting where as a department we were talking about teaching Of Mice and Men to a class, and how we would handle the racism in the novel without upsetting or making uncomfortable the black students in the room. The n word is said numerous times in the novel, and it’s a discussion so many teachers have around the world every year, I’m sure – do we say it? Is it ok to say it even after we’ve explained the context? Is it a word that should now never be said? As a word, it carries such a weight, and it’s one that needs to rightly be measured with such care when it’s encountered in the classroom. What made me angry in that meeting was the sudden realisation that we weren’t having the same conversation about the words used to describe Curly’s wife in the book. Why weren’t we worrying equally about how the girls would feel about hearing a girl, of a similar age to them, described as a bitch? As jailbait? As a tart? As a rattrap? As a tramp? As poison? Why aren’t these words treated with the same horror and aversion as the n word? Why don’t they carry the same weight of violence and trauma? Because they should, shouldn’t they? Calling a woman a dog means she is being called subhuman. Therefore less than, and not entitled to the same rights as, men. And to call a woman ‘bait’ or a ‘trap’ for men – suggests that they should carry the full responsibility of men’s reactions to them. This is where our victim blaming and shaming comes from. Our language forms our way of seeing the world. The n word is now very rightly recognised as being a horrifically derogatory and demeaning word. However, the fact that similarly derogatory and demeaning words in our vocabulary used to describe women are not seen as such, and have become accepted and normalised, says everything about women’s place in our society.  Every time we use these words we are reaffirming the fact that women are seen as less than men, in every way. And yet no one bats an eyelid at them. In my almost ten years of teaching, I’ve been part of countless discussions about how to sensitively communicate racist language in novels. I’ve never once heard any one discuss how to communicate misogynist language.

I watched a powerful documentary last night, on Netflix, called Missrepresentation, all about how society’s way of viewing women is formed by the media we consume. It told me nothing I didn’t already know, but seeing it laid out in facts and figures was incredibly upsetting. So many people tell me that feminism isn’t necessary any more – that we have equality now – and yet this documentary shows in indisputable statistics that we’re actually going backwards, not forwards, in the fight for equal rights for women. Less than 10% of films made have women as the main character, but even in those films where women are the main character, the plot of almost all of those films involves the woman’s pursuit of a man to complete her life. What message does this send to the children in our classrooms, who now spend most of their free time watching Netflix? When they see women represented, they see them represented entirely within a context of their relationship to men. Success for a woman, in a film, is, over 90% of the time, seen as achieving a successful relationship with a man. The same cannot be said if you reverse the genders, of course. Men in films are out saving the world, achieving career success, defeating enemies and generally proving how strong and brave they are – of course, this carries just as much of a problematic weight as the passive depictions of women in media, because it makes boys and men think that they have to ape this almost toxic level of masculinity in order to be successful in life. But at least men are told that they have a contribution to make to the world – for women, the overriding message is, success for you is getting that ring on your finger and a baby in the oven. No matter what else you achieve in life, ultimately, without a man by your side, you’ve achieved nothing. Sounds like a plot of a nineteenth century novel, doesn’t it? And yet here we are two hundred years later, still peddling the same narratives.

Last week, one of my female sixth formers said that feminism has gone ‘too far’. I could have cried. The fight is so far from over, and yet the greatest victory patriarchy has achieved in the twenty first century is normalising misogyny to the point where many people have become convinced there was and is no need for a fight in the first place. What’s the solution? Well, we need better stories, and we need better language. And more of us need to recognise that we need these, and we need to fight for them to become reality. No more putting up and shutting up. Because if we keep doing that, nothing will ever change, and in two hundred years’ time, we’ll still be reading novels and watching films where women are bit parts in their own lives.

50 comments

  1. Absolutely, it’s especially saddening to hear that one of your pupils thinks feminism has gone too far, and is essentially no longer necessary. I think single, childless women sometimes have the hardest time. I find it extremely frustrating when people ask me either in a bemused or patronising way why I am still unmarried in my mid 30s, as though I am somehow incomplete, and there is a whole area of life I am missing out on. There’s still such a long way to go.

    1. I agree entirely, Alyson – marriage and children is still considered the ‘norm’ for women and if you haven’t chosen to conform to that, you’re pitied or people think there’s something ‘wrong’ with you. It’s so sad that people can’t envisage a life for a woman aside from marriage and/or motherhood. There is such a long way to go!

  2. Hi Rachel, Thank you so much! Just read this:

    Plato defines education as that ‘which leads you always to hate what you ought to hate, and to love what you ought to love from the beginning of life to the end.’

    You are a Christian right. I just read this in Heschel’s The Prophets – The Meaning and Mystery of Wrath

    There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious more dangerous. A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being in turn accepted.

    The wrath of God is a lamentation. God is not indifferent what man does to man. This is the meanings of the anger of God: the end of indifference.

    Maybe people start to hate discussions about discrimination and misogyny because it is not about what it means to be human anymore. There is so much shouting involved and not much listening. It is not about what we have in common, it is about what keeps us apart.

    You show that anger is the end of indifference.

    Sorry for the long post. It just happens that I was reading this and your post at the same time!

    1. Thanks for this Maria – so interesting and I love that quote about anger being the end of indifference. I couldn’t agree more about the shouting. If we all listened more, the world would be a much fairer and kinder place!

  3. Thank you for mentioning that show on Netflix. I’ve not heard of it & will watch with my mother tonight if I can.

    And thank you for this post: I totally agree. And you make SUCH an interesting point about Curly’s wife.

  4. Wow – quite powerful and sums up what I’ve been feeling for quite a while. This: ‘ In my almost ten years of teaching, I’ve been part of countless discussions about how to sensitively communicate racist language in novels. I’ve never once heard any one discuss how to communicate misogynist language.’

    1. Thanks – it’s mad, isn’t it? Misogyny seems to be incredibly low down on the list of everyone’s priorities! Of course you can share – thank you for wanting to!

  5. I completely agree! Thank you for putting this post out. Curly’s wife is never even named in “Of Mice and Men” which is also dehumanising. I only read it recently for the first time (somehow I avoided it at school) and found it was pretty shocking, particularly considering how short it is! I hope you find a way to teach the misogyny as well as the racism.

    1. Thanks Katharine! Oh yes. And she gets murdered, and then blamed for it – because she asked for it by being provocative, of course! It’s a very complex novel in so many ways – people often choose to teach it because it’s short and accessible linguistically – but there’s so much beneath the surface that it can be very difficult for kids to grapple with properly. I love teaching it because you can have so many powerful conversations – and misogyny is always the main one I have when teaching it!

  6. Rachel, I completely agree with what you say. How lucky your students are to have you as their teacher. You will sensitise at least some of them and create an awareness to the issue of misogyny and sexism. – But it is truly frustrating that this awareness is still far from being a general attitude.

  7. D’you know, there is not a day that goes past – and for context, I’m in Melbourne, Australia, in deep lockdown for the eleventy millionth week, and won’t be emerging anytime soon due to being immune suppressed – that I don’t hear casualised misogyny in every day conversation – whether it be via social media, where it’s rife, on TV, and even – despite 12 years of solid education – out of the mouth of my (male) partner. It is SO embedded in western culture, particularly in Australia.

    Sometimes, it just makes me tired, and I wonder why I bother. But, ultimately I don’t feel I have a choice, other than to keep going. Keep fighting. Keep calling it out when I hear it – no matter how insignificant each incident or sentence might feel at the time.

    The young women in your class have grown up knowing they can vote, that they can – potentially – do any study or job they choose, that they’re as good as a man in terms of their intellectual/creative/whatever capacity is concerned. I know they’re still going to run into misogynist crap at some point in their journey, as do you – I hear your frustration so clearly. Because it’s all still their.

    Our federal government just released its annual government. Full of job creation, stimulation funding, tax cuts, etc, that they say will get Australia’s economy back on track for everyone. In the billions allocated, there is $240M specifically for women’s issues. Women here, and I’m sure there too, have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic financially and jobs-wise, and all the job stimulus is weighted very much to construction, energy (gas…no renewables), trades – all majority male job sectors. It’s utter bullshit and the women in this country seem to be finally seeing, across the spectrum, just how male-centric conservative governments are.

    There will always, sadly, be work required by those of us who are aware of the ongoing inequities. Hang in there, Rachel!

    1. Karen, I feel your anger! There is SO much more work to do. Until there are more women in seats of power, the casual misogyny that happens every day – due to a lack of female representation and a lack of men’s ability to consider women’s needs – will continue. You’re so right – we need to keep fighting, keep calling out – and little by little, the change will happen. I hope you’re out of lockdown soon – hang in there!

      1. Oh lordy – I’m just re-reading my original comment and spotting all the errors in my words…oops. And I call myself a writer… #facepalmemoji ! Apologies.

        You hang in there too. My stepson is in London, so we’re very aware of the COVID situation there, and are very concerned. As tough as this lockdown has been, I know we’re extremely fortunate in Australia to have been comparatively lightly affected by the virus while so many other countries, the UK included, are dealing with a much worse situation. Stay safe!! xx

  8. Thank you for sharing. Your students are fortunate to have a teacher who makes these points about the words they read every day. The very words that shape the bias they will use to operate on in the world

  9. Fully support your comments. Earlier this year I read Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. If you’ve not already read, I suggest you do and encourage your pupils to do so to. It makes clear how everything defaults to considering the norm as male – probably white or European male, and young – and arranging the world around their physical and economic needs. Examples include winter gritting plans being based on getting to the workplace, rather than the more complicated trips that carers (either sex) make to school, nursery, shops and then work. The failure to value women’s unpaid economic contribution – eg in heterosexual couples the balance between the sexes and childcare and housework – and how to allow them to be participate more fully in the workplace. Finally, the fact that medicines are tested on men which means doses may be wrong when applied to women (usually smaller body size) and failure to take account of potential different impacts – some medicines don’t work as well on women and others work differently due to genetic differences between individuals, which can reflect ethnic backgrounds too. This is aside from the differences arising from menstruation and pregnancy.

    It is a book that should be read by everyone – especially politicians, civil servants, local government workers – to ensure we start questioning the default assumptions on how the world is arranged.

    BTW I recall Of Mice of Men from 40 years ago reading it at school, and it wasn’t a pleasant book then. I’m not sure why it is still being read – other than its shortness. I don’t recall the racial aspects being discussed despite 4 or 5 afro-Caribbean pupils in the class nor the nameless existence of Curly’s wife. The book also raises in my mind issues about how those with mental handicaps are presented. I’m not sure it is appropriate for school children to read – perhaps 6th formers or graduates.

    1. Thanks Ellen! Yes, I read Invisible Women when it came out, and lapped up every page – I’ve lent it out and bought copies for friends, and the shock and anger experienced by all of us has made us all really want change. The more this information gets out there, the more women will start making noise and advocating for reform – I hope. It really frustrates me that so many women seem to think that feminism is ‘over’. They need to read Invisible Women! OMAM is a very problematic text – it’s normally taught in Year 9 or 10 these days – it’s a complicated text for them to grapple with because of the many forms of discrimination explored – but they always enjoy it. It’s very easy in terms of language which is why it’s so widely taught, I think – and I do think it’s very valuable as an accessible introduction to how difficult the world can be for so many people. And how little that changes over time, sadly…

  10. Thanks for a very thought-provoking post Rachel. I agree with you, but it did make me think about all sorts of disparaging language – not just for black people or women, but for anybody – ethnic minorities, religions, disabled, jobs (calling the police ‘pigs’, for instance), and even men – are terms like ‘d***h***’ acceptable?
    And should we discriminate between characteristics people can’t help, such as race and sex, and their behaviour, which they can? Would it be acceptable to call someone who robbed an old lady ‘scum’ for example?
    A lot to think about, and I must read Mice and Men.

    1. Thanks so much, Michelle Ann. There is so much unpleasant and derogatory language out there that shows the way we discriminate against all sorts of people, for all sorts of reasons, I completely agree. Language is so powerful, and we need to have more conversations about how we speak to and about each other – particularly in public forums. However, is it largely just misogynistic language that seems to be universally acceptable to publish in newspapers, to say on the news, etc – in official forums you don’t tend to see derogatory language towards other groups being used. That is what we need to fight against. We can’t police people’s every day conversation, but we should be policing what becomes part of public discourse. You should definitely read Of Mice and Men – it’s an incredibly thought provoking book and so well written. As problematic a character Steinbeck was, he certainly could write!

  11. So well said. Sad to hear the comment from your sixth former about feminism “gone too far.” Gone too far–when I see thong underwear for grade school girls displayed in clothing shops, the sexualization of young girls & women in advertising, the reality show of a certain family in California where everyone obviously has had “work” done. We’ve gone from bra burning to “Victoria’s Secret.” Keep up your good work Rachel!

  12. Thank you for your comment, I totally agree.
    In Denmark we just now have a #meeto discussion which is – I’m sorry to say – a couple of years behind the rest of the western world but better late than never. It has made me see my entire life in a new light, I’m, by the way, 65 years old.

    1. Thank you Hanne – and how amazing has the metoo movement been in showing all of us that we’re not alone? It’s made me see my life in a whole new light too!

  13. A excellent post and its always timely to remind ourselves that others out there struggle with the same things constantly. Sometimes I think it is just me out there battling these things alone and trying to make sense of it all. It is all so pervasive it is difficult to find where to start but I think you have a good opportunity to influence (maybe not the best word to use)your students and sow some seeds into their inquiring minds. Our first and only female Prime Minister (Australia), Julia Guillard did one of the best speeches on misogyny, in the Australia parliament a few years ago. I am just inspired everytime I hear it (you can google it). I cant even describe the sort of things people said about her – people on the lawns of parliament house with ‘Ditch the Witch’ signs… again all those words we use to demean women (mind you alot of women were holding them!). Julia has a podcast “A podcast of ones own’ if you are interested. She interviews some very interesting women and their lives and their experiences with misogyny. It saddens me to think that young women dont see any value if feminism… I just dont understand how as a women you could not want to be a feminist.

    1. Thanks so much Alexandra. Absolutely, we are not alone, and the more we talk about it, the more we strengthen each other. You are not alone! I have listened to Julia Gillard’s speech – it’s so brilliant, and I love watching the face of Tony Abbott as he realises he’s being totally destroyed by her – and I want to show it to my students too. I will check out her podcast – thank you for the recommendation! Absolutely – there is nothing better to be, in my mind!

  14. Couldn’t agree more! Looking back I’m amazed at the way civilised nations rightly condemned South Africa over apartheid whilst turning a blind eye (actually, scrub that; to turn a blind eye implies an awareness which was never there) to Muslim countries where women were treated far worse and in more ways than black people ever were. Please don’t think I’m excusing apartheid or using this debate to attack Islam. It’s just that I’ve felt for some time that given the (abysmal) choice between being black in apartheid South Africa or female in many/most Muslim states I’d opt for the former any time.

  15. Thank you very much for this post, Rachel. I am a man who agrees with every word you say. It embarrasses me that when reading Of Mice and Men some years ago I didn’t reflect on the point you make, which now seems so obvious. We live and learn – let’s hope we can also change.

  16. Great post. As others have commented, how very sad one of your pupils feels feminism has gone too far. I’m afraid she’ll soon find out that it hasn’t! One only needs to look across “the pond” to see misogyny at its worst and in charge! Jenny

  17. Also, have you noticed how female politicians, writers etc are usually referred to by their first names whilst men get their surnames?
    and don’t you just hate the way male teachers refer to the ‘mums’ as if that’s their only defining characteristic?

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