A Pox on the Patriarchy
- Caroline Criado-Perez
So, this week, Louise Mensch stood down from her position as the Right Hon MP for Corby. And right on cue, the lovely, dependable internet produced a re-run of last-month’s hand-wringing about whether us crazy women can ever be expected to ‘have it all’.
Why, Lord, why can’t I have it all?? Don’t be so unreasonable! Never mind that ‘having it all’ is an entirely nebulous concept that will and should mean different things for different people. Never mind that I can find no evidence of any feminist anywhere ever telling me that I must strive for this mythical ‘all’. Never mind that ‘having it all’ is not even a pipedream for most women, who have to have it all by default – and then some. No, apparently ‘feminism’ has told me that I should want it, and therefore I do want it, and therefore I should and must have it.
But I’ve already written on this. What I haven’t written on is something that annoys me almost, maybe in fact just as much. And it’s a trend that I think can be illustrated by a few choice quotations:
‘Do Marissa Mayer’s maternity plans make her a fit role model for women?’; ‘I mind the effect of’ the Middletons’ ‘vacuity and lack of serious purpose on the younger generations’; How ‘irresponsible’ of Katie Price to say she never uses contraceptives.
I could go on (and seemingly never-endingly on), but I am sure you get the picture – and these are only a smattering of examples that I found while researching the trend whereby women get held to an exacting standard by virtue of the fact that an individual woman is seen to represent her gender.
As an English Literature graduate, this all seems depressingly familiar. In A Literature of Their Own, Elaine Showalter wrote of the Victorian era that, ‘A woman novelist, unless she disguised herself with a malepseudonym, had to expect critics to focus on her femininity and rank her with the other women writers of her day, no matter how diverse their subjects or styles’. (p.73). It was this kind of sexist prejudice that caused Marian Evans to reinvent herself as George Eliot, and the outed Currer Bell, known to us as Charlotte Brontë, to preface one of her works with the passionate declaration that, ‘To you I am neither man nor woman. I come before you as an author only. It is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me – the sole ground on which I accept your judgment.’
Now, as in the Victorian era, this gender-based judgement applies solely to women.
Do male CEOs get a slew of articles questioning their plans for paternity leave – and are they criticised for ‘letting their gender down’ if they plan not to take any (or, more likely, to take any)? Do men get told that more was ‘expected’ from a man on behalf of his gender? Do men who don’t seek to define themselves by their career, but instead choose the role of supportive ‘house-husband’ get castigated for setting a bad example to their sex? Do male celebrities get asked to shoulder the responsibility for their fans’ sexual health? Based on (admittedly unscientific) Google searches which yielded a total of nil results, I must conclude that the answer to these questions is a resounding no.
So why is this still happening – and why is it directed almost exclusively at women?
It is interesting that the majority of this criticism comes from female commentators – and more often than not, feminist commentators. There is a feeling in many of these articles that those women who do not subscribe to a ‘feminist’ standard are somehow betraying their gender and preventing progress. This is understandable; as women we too often find ourselves blocked on every side by patriarchal beliefs, and it is disheartening to find women who seem not to understand the level to which their lives are dictated to by societal strictures that are steeped in patriarchy.
Nevertheless, it is not a function of feminism to castigate women for buying into patriarchy; as Goethe said, ‘None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free’, and attacking these women is hardly going to endear feminism to them. Furthermore, by presenting a single standard for women to live up to, this type of rhetoric runs the risk of acting as little more than an inverted patriarchy, rather than a true liberation.
When Janet Street-Porter tells Louise Mensch that she ‘can’t be a feminist and a clothes-horse’, she promotes the patriarchal desire to place women in a single category, rather than the feminist aim to enable women to act freely, without being judged as female standard-bearers. When Sophie Warns and Julia Llewellyn question, respectively, Katie Price and Marissa Mayer’s ability to act as role models for women, they ironically act against women’s interests, by reinforcing the centuries-old patriarchal designation of women as a homogenous block rather than as individuals.
In a recent article for the Independent, Owen Jones wrote of the assumption that gay people have an automatic responsibility to take a stand about their sexuality. He imagines a time when ‘total equality’ will have been achieved: ‘Being gay will not be seen as a separate, defining identity.’ Jones is right; and this statement could and should be equally applied to women.
Being a woman should not mean that you owe something to your gender. It should not be seen as your ‘defining identity’. Laurie Penny should not be considered ‘a disgrace to women’ for making comments – those comments should reflect herself, and herself only, just as David Starkey’s do.
To suggest anything different merely subscribes to the damaging and homogenising patriarchal tendencies that don’t allow women to be individuals. As feminists, we must take a stand against this: the time for ‘total equality’ has come.
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A shorter version of this article originally appeared in e-feminist