A Pox on the Patriarchy
There have been some persistent rumours, nastiness, and lies flying around about the women on banknotes campaign. So rather than spend my time repeating myself over and over again, I thought I’d put all the points into one blog post, so the next time someone brings it up, I can just point them here.
A persistent rumour is about the money that was raised. By raising this money to challenge the Bank of England under the Equality Act we did a bad thing. And we wanted 16k! Imagine! The figure is the first, though fairly irrelevant thing to deal with. Still, when criticising a campaign, it’s nice to get things right, isn’t it? So the fundraising goal was actually £13k; we raised £13,675 and did it in under two weeks. No-one was forced to donate money, people did it because they, like I, thought this was a terrible decision to have been taken by the Bank. No, no-one was going to die directly as a result, but it added to a wider culture where women are undervalued, and where they and their contributions don’t matter. And if you’re a feminist, you have to care about that really. The same people who attack the campaign often complain about their voices not being heard, women’s voices not being heard, the media focusing on the wrong stories (they also spend a lot of their time critiquing women’s roles in films and TV, so why this is different to banknotes I’m not sure).
But anyway, why is that? Why does the media still tend to prioritise white male voices and stories over those of anyone else? Simply, it’s because of the priorities of the people taking those decisions. And those people tend to still overwhelmingly be white men. Their interests and choices aren’t a conspiracy, it’s simply a reflection of their world, their world-view. Nevertheless, the world-view doesn’t encompass, and therefore doesn’t serve, vast swathes of the population. So it matters that women are underrepresented in all areas of work and life, from the media, to parliament, to the upper echelons of business – not because of the nice jobs that we want those particular women to have, but because of the *influence* that people in those roles play. Yes, eventually we want a revolution where capitalism is gone and hierarchy is dead: but at the moment, this is the world we live in, and I’d like people making decisions about my life to reflect the diversity of the country a bit better.
The banknotes campaign could have been a campaign about any area where women are undervalued and underrepresented. It just so happened that this decision came along and it pissed me off. Oh, and in the end, we didn’t need the money anyway, so it all went to women’s charities (Women’s Aid, Fawcett, Rape Crisis), who desperately need the funds in the face of ever-increasing government cuts. It was an absolutely amazing feeling knowing that not only had one small crack of inequality been sealed up, the campaign had also directly helped vulnerable women to the tune of thousands of pounds. Added to this was the minor coda in the shape of #feministtenner, the hashtag that trended on twitter a week or so ago, and resulted in a four-fold increase in donations to Refuge. Does this all sound a bit smug? Maybe. But honestly, I don’t care. I *love* that the campaign resulted in so much money going to women’s charities. I’m proud of that.
Another charge levelled at the campaign is that too much time and effort was spent on it when I should have been doing something else. I find it sad when women who call themselves feminists start talking like this, because it’s exactly the same charge that sexist men use against feminists. Why do you care about inequality in the West when children are STARVING in Africa? It’s the same level of debate. We shouldn’t put up with any equality, with any injustice. Someone having it worse off is not a reason to stick with a shoddy status quo where two women a week die every week from domestic violence. Where 11 women were killed thorough male violence in the first 18 days of December.
Ah, they say, but you were focusing on banknotes, not domestic violence. Well, yes, I was. But, forgive me if I’m wrong, but my impression of feminism is that we didn’t just want to treat the symptoms, we also wanted to tackle the cause. So in my mind, that means that we need to look at why so many women are still suffering from male violence, still being sexually assaulted, still being killed. And why, given the World Health Organisation has this year called violence against women a global health problem of epidemic proportions, this isn’t front page news, why the government isn’t even quantifying the number of deaths through male violence, why in fact they are savagely cutting the sector – a sector I might add that if anything needs extra funds during a recession? I don’t know about you, but I really doubt that it’s because women and their contribution to society is valued. To be honest, I think it’s more likely to be the opposite.
I think it’s more likely that invisibility of women in public life, that the failure to remember and record their achievements and contributions, that their relative absence from the higher echelons of public decision-making and opinion forming have more to do with it. It has more to do with why violent men think women are abuse fodder, deserve their emotional and physical abuse, especially if they dare to speak up and “out of turn”, and it has more to do with why society ignores it. You’re free to disagree with me of course, but you might be interested to know that women who work in the violence against women sector don’t disagree with me. In fact, they lent their support to the campaign, for exactly the reasons I’m outlining.
And as a side-note, to be honest, I’d prefer if the campaign hadn’t taken so long too. To be perfectly honest, for something as simple and clearly obviously ridiculous as taking a decision that ended up with an all-male line-up on banknotes, I sort of expected the Bank of England to fold within a week. The argument was so clear, I couldn’t imagine anyone being stupid enough to fight it. The fact that they did, and that they fought so determinedly, is more an indication of the level of sexism still prevalent in society than my priorities as a feminist. Should I have just given up and said “OK, fair enough, it’s shit, but you win because I’ve got other things to do?” Maybe you think I should have; I think their stubborn, dismissive and patronising attitude, along with the reasons I’ve outlined above, showed it was a fight worth fighting. And might I add that the tidal wave of rape and death threats I received as a result of winning that campaign, suggested quite a few sexist and violent men also thought it was quite an important battle? And look how we keep coming back to sexist and violent men. Funny that, isn’t it?
Finally, a note about Jane Austen. It may be convenient to paint the campaign as a simplistic little jaunt to get Austen on a note, but I’m afraid it’s incorrect. The campaign was never about her. It was about female representation. She was not my choice – and in any case, much of my campaign focused on the selection process. I wanted to know what kind of equitable process could end up with an all male line-up. It comes back to symptoms and causes again: the all-male line-up was the symptom, the cause was the discriminatory procedure, with criteria like “must have good artwork”, which immediately discounted the vast majority of people who weren’t white men pre about 1950 or so. And it’s a discriminatory procedure that they have now changed – another legacy of the campaign we fought so hard for.
However, even though she wasn’t my choice, the type of comments I’ve seen flying around about her — that she was a lightweight author who did nothing but write about rich women bagging rich husbands — are sexist in the extreme. Austen was an acute social commenter. She wrote incredibly critically about the role of women in society, about how “bagging a rich husband” was all they were seen as good for. Critically reflecting the stark realities of women’s lives in the 18th and 19th centuries did not mean she approved of them, as anyone with more than a glancing association with her work would immediately see. Austen has repeatedly come under attack for not writing about “serious” topics – and this attitude is exactly the same attitude that sees women’s lives, the problems women face, notably absent from the front pages of newspapers. The difficulties of our lives, the problems we face, like the epidemic of violence against us, just aren’t considered as important as the latest FTSE figures. Similarly, because Austen wrote about the constrained nature of women’s lives, how they are nothing more than marriage fodder, how they are misrepresented, how, yes people, even how they are “slut-shamed”, she is dismissed as irrelevant. Well, that is sexist clap-trap. She was a brilliant, nuanced and intelligent social commentator, who also, amazingly, managed to write beautifully and *funnily*. In short, she was a genius, and any feminist who sneers at her needs to take a long, hard look at herself.
So there we have it people. A campaign that certainly won’t change the world in one fell swoop, but a small contribution to that on-going change, part of the slow, piece-meal process that’s been going on for at least two centuries. And while it didn’t change the world, it certainly dramatically changed my life. Through the abuse it has inspired, from both men and women, I’ve become a different person, with a different life. I’ve become a person who looks at her computer and phone with fear – because not a day goes by when there’s not a new attack. I’ve become a person who suffers regular anxiety attacks and who has little to no control over her emotions. I’ve become a person who spends the majority of her time deeply unhappy and mired in self-loathing (more than I was before). I’ve become a person who on a daily basis thinks about just giving up on feminism, because clearly I’m not strong enough. Except, I can’t, because feminism is my life. Once you’ve seen the injustice you can’t unsee it. You can’t just say “yeah I’ll accept the status quo”. So I have to keep taking a deep breath, wading it and standing up for women’s rights, knowing I’ll get attacked, mocked, degraded, lied about, torn down. Not by men (although them too, mind you they tend to stick to rape threats and sandwich jokes, so at least you know where they are), but by women. And not just by women, by women who claim to be feminists.
It’s time to stop accepting women who spend the majority of their time abusing other women and tearing down their work as feminists. Publicly announcing that you are unfollowing an account that is campaigning to get the government to record women’s deaths through male violence because it retweeted another supporter that you don’t like, is not a feminist action. It’s obviously the action of a child, but more than this, it’s an action that puts a personal vendetta above ending the structural oppression of women. And that is the exact opposite of what feminism is about.
I know as I reach the end of this post, that by hitting publish I am inviting more abuse to rain down on my head from women who abuse other women under the guise of progressiveness. And I know it’s probably useless to beg. But I’m going to do it anyway. Please stop. You don’t know how much harm you are doing. If you care at all about other women, please try to take a step back from your anger and frustration, and see that continually attacking other women (and please don’t pretend it’s “constructive criticism”; wanking with the symbol of another woman’s activism is not “criticism”, it’s pointed sexual degradation. Accusing a woman of making up her abuse is not “criticism”; it’s gaslighting, victim-blaming and abuse), is not going to get us anywhere other than sending a lot more women down the path of depression and disengagement. And that isn’t going to help marginalised women – it’s going to help the people who are already getting fat off the rest of society. (hint: those people are not feminist activists and writers). The distinction between 30% cuts for women over all and 47% for black and minority ethnic women isn’t going to be dealt with by attacking the few feminists who (so far) have managed to get a tenuous hold on the media’s ear. What will help this is positive campaigning – campaigning which many women are now too scared and jaded to dare take on. Because who would offer themselves up for the inevitable punishment?
So please. Please, please try, if only for a Christmas break, to make a pledge to stop hate-reading our timelines, to get on with writing your own things, starting up your own campaigns. And who knows, maybe we could even support you in them? Wouldn’t that be nice.