The female voice… February 28, 2014Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Feminism, The Left.
A thought-provoking lecture given by Mary Beard for the LRB a week or so ago and one well worth thinking about. In it she discusses the way in which women’s voices are excluded by a range of factors from the general (and socio-political) discourse. She talks about how in antiquity ‘A woman speaking in public was, in most circumstances, by definition not a woman. ’ and how a raft of gendered assumptions entered into the picture (low voices – manly, courage, high pitched voices – unmanly, cowardice, etc). Her argument is multilayered. She notes that:
This is the tradition of gendered speaking – and the theorising of gendered speaking – of which we are still, directly or more often indirectly, the heirs. I don’t want to overstate the case. Western culture doesn’t owe everything to the Greeks and Romans, in speaking or in anything else (thank heavens it doesn’t; none of us would fancy living in a Greco-Roman world). There are all kinds of variant and competing influences on us, and our political system has happily overthrown many of the gendered certainties of antiquity.
And this has both a political aspect and a very contemporary social media one…
Of course, we don’t talk in those bald terms now. Or not quite? For it seems to me that many aspects of this traditional package of views about the unsuitability of women for public speaking in general – a package going back in its essentials over two millennia – still underlies some of our own assumptions about, and awkwardness with, the female voice in public. Take the language we still use to describe the sound of women’s speech, which isn’t all that far from James or our pontificating Romans. In making a public case, in fighting their corner, in speaking out, what are women said to be? ‘Strident’; they ‘whinge’ and they ‘whine’. When, after one particular vile bout of internet comments on my genitalia, I tweeted (rather pluckily, I thought) that it was all a bit ‘gob-smacking’, this was reported by one commentator in a mainstream British magazine in these terms: ‘The misogyny is truly “gob-smacking”, she whined.’ (So far as I can see from a quick Google trawl, the only other group in this country said to ‘whine’ as much as women are unpopular Premiership football managers on a losing streak.)
In a context like this it becomes a situation where for women the very act of speaking becomes one which is hedged in by this tangle of preconceptions, assumptions and diversions so that the essence of that speech, the message that is sought to be imparted is lost entirely, or at the very least muted. And we’ve all seen this, the unconscious and sometimes conscious marginalization of women in discussion and debates, the tendency to defer to men, to seek the ‘last word’ from them. My thought was that if they didn’t get how problematic that was then chances are they didn’t get anything at all.
One of my least cherished moments was at a meeting of politicians – all supposedly ‘progressive’ – where as a bystander I saw what could only be described as the males overdosing on their own testosterone and the females sitting impatiently waiting for them to be done. What was remarkable to me was that rather than a discussion of equals it was one where there was a meta discussion taking place between the men and directed to one another in the form of jokes and asides and the more serious formal discussion – engaged in by the women – was effectively sidelined.
Which means that when Beard asks the following it resonates with me very strongly:
Do those words matter? Of course they do, because they underpin an idiom that acts to remove the authority, the force, even the humour from what women have to say. It’s an idiom that effectively repositions women back into the domestic sphere (people ‘whinge’ over things like the washing up); it trivialises their words, or it ‘re-privatises’ them. Contrast the ‘deep-voiced’ man with all the connotations of profundity that the simple word ‘deep’ brings. It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they don’t hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it; they don’t hear muthos. And it isn’t just voice: you can add in the craggy or wrinkled faces that signal mature wisdom in the case of a bloke, but ‘past-my-use-by-date’ in the case of a woman.
I hope that last is changing, if only very slightly and with agonising slowness, and there may be a few straws in the wind that indicate that it is. It’s difficult to judge – and I have to be careful that my own age doesn’t inflect my observations here – but it does seem that older women are becoming an increasing part of the societal backdrop and where – for example in the media, when their voices and faces are excluded there is much more a recognition of same and a backlash against it.
Beard also points to the way in which some women negotiate this issue – and in my view, rightly points to the enormous problematical aspects of same.
Those who do manage successfully to get their voice across very often adopt some version of the ‘androgyne’ route, like Maesia in the Forum or ‘Elizabeth’ at Tilbury – consciously aping aspects of male rhetoric. That was what Margaret Thatcher did when she took voice training specifically to lower her voice, to add the tone of authority that her advisers thought her high pitch lacked. And that’s fine, in a way, if it works, but all tactics of that type tend to leave women still feeling on the outside, impersonators of rhetorical roles that they don’t feel they own. Putting it bluntly, having women pretend to be men may be a quick fix, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.
But then as has been evident all too often online it’s often irrelevant whether a woman adopts a certain persona and role or not but the very fact that she is a woman. As evidenced by social media:
Some of these same issues of voice and gender have to do with internet trolls, death-threats and abuse. We have to be careful about generalising too confidently about the nastier sides of the internet: they appear in many different forms (it’s not quite the same on Twitter, for example, as it is under the line in a newspaper comment section), and criminal death threats are a different kettle of fish from merely ‘unpleasant’ sexist abuse. Many different people are the targets, from grieving parents of dead teenagers to ‘celebrities’ of all kinds. What is clear is that many more men than women are the perpetrators of this stuff, and they attack women far more than they attack men (one academic study put the ratio at something like 30 to 1, female to male targets). For what it’s worth (and I haven’t suffered anything like as much as some women), I receive something we might euphemistically call an ‘inappropriately hostile’ response (that’s to say, more than fair criticism or even fair anger) every time I speak on radio or television.
That statistic alone, if accurate or even if only half or a quarter or a tenth accurate, of 30:1 attacks online on women is dispiriting in the extreme. And it raises a parallel question, what is wrong with men (and a small minority of women) who carry them out? What is it in their psychological make up that they feel it is appropriate to act in ways that offline would be regarded as sociopathic at best? And worse still, what of this attitude inflects their offline interactions with women?
And Beard makes some very pertinent points about the reality as against the perception of social media and its effectivity and those who use it for hateful purposes:
It’s driven, I’m sure, by many different things. Some of it’s from kids acting up; some from people who’ve had far too much to drink; some from people who for a moment have lost their inner inhibitors (and can be very apologetic later). More are sad than are villainous. When I’m feeling charitable I think quite a lot comes from people who feel let down by the false promises of democratisation blazoned by, for example, Twitter. It was supposed to put us directly in touch with those in power, and open up a new democratic kind of conversation. It does nothing of the sort: if we tweet the prime minister or the pope, they no more read it than if we send them a letter – and for the most part, the prime minister doesn’t even write the tweets that appear under his name. How could he? (I’m not so sure about the Pope.) Some of the abuse, I suspect, is a squeal of frustration at those false promises, taking aim at a convenient traditional target (‘a gobby woman’). Women are not the only ones who may feel themselves ‘voiceless’.
Beard draws a line between the societal exclusion of the female voice and online media and the offline world too. And again she makes a clear point about the political aspect of this.
But the more I have looked at the threats and insults that women have received, the more I have found that they fit into the old patterns I’ve been talking about. For a start it doesn’t much matter what line you take as a woman, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it, it’s the fact you’re saying it. And that matches the detail of the threats themselves. They include a fairly predictable menu of rape, bombing, murder and so forth (I may sound very relaxed about it now; that doesn’t mean it’s not scary when it comes late at night). But a significant subsection is directed at silencing the woman – ‘Shut up you bitch’ is a fairly common refrain. Or it promises to remove the capacity of the woman to speak. ‘I’m going to cut off your head and rape it’ was one tweet I got. ‘Headlessfemalepig’ was the Twitter name chosen by someone threatening an American journalist. ‘You should have your tongue ripped out’ was tweeted to another journalist. In its crude, aggressive way, this is about keeping, or getting, women out of man’s talk. It’s hard not to see some faint connection between these mad Twitter outbursts – most of them are just that – and the men in the House of Commons heckling women MPs so loudly that you simply can’t hear what they’re saying (in the Afghan parliament, apparently, they disconnect the mics when they don’t want to hear the women speak). Ironically the well-meaning solution often recommended when women are on the receiving end of this stuff turns out to bring about the very result the abusers want: namely, their silence. ‘Don’t call the abusers out. Don’t give them any attention; that’s what they want. Just keep mum,’ you’re told, which amounts to leaving the bullies in unchallenged occupation of the playground.
It’s misogynistic process where such behaviours are if not excused allowed to persist.
She doesn’t offer a clear path forward, perhaps because there isn’t one. Instead she argues that:
We need to think more fundamentally about the rules of our rhetorical operations. I don’t mean the old stand-by of ‘men and women talk different languages, after all’ (if they do, it’s surely because they’ve been taught different languages). And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that we go down the ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ route. My hunch is that if we’re going to make real progress with the ‘Miss Triggs question’, we need to go back to some first principles about the nature of spoken authority, about what constitutes it, and how we have learned to hear authority where we do. And rather than push women into voice training classes to get a nice, deep, husky and entirely artificial tone, we should be thinking more about the faultlines and fractures that underlie dominant male discourse.
What I’m pointing to here is a critically self-aware ancient tradition: not one that directly challenges the basic template I’ve been outlining, but one that is determined to reveal its conflicts and paradoxes, and to raise bigger questions about the nature and purpose of speech, male or female. We should perhaps take our cue from this, and try to bring to the surface the kinds of question we tend to shelve about how we speak in public, why and whose voice fits. What we need is some old fashioned consciousness-raising about what we mean by the voice of authority and how we’ve come to construct it. We need to work that out before we figure out how we modern Penelopes might answer back to our own Telemachuses – or for that matter just decide to lend Miss Triggs some hairpins.
Consciousness raising. Questioning the fault lines and fractures that underlie dominant male discourse. And all that those entail. Her vision and her part-solution are egalitarian and necessary. They link into clearly progressive areas but they remained focus on one key issue in a structure that is by any standard oppressive/repressive.
One Billion Day Rising February 14, 2014Posted by WorldbyStorm in Equality, Feminism, The Left.
ONE BILLION RISING FOR JUSTICE is a global call to women survivors of violence and those who love them to gather safely in community outside places where they are entitled to justice – courthouses, police stations, government offices, school administration buildings, work places, sites of environmental injustice, military courts, embassies, places of worship, homes, or simply public gathering places where women deserve to feel safe but too often do not. It is a call to survivors to break the silence and release their stories – politically, spiritually, outrageously – through art, dance, marches, ritual, song, spoken word, testimonies and whatever way feels right.
Our stories have been buried, denied, erased, altered, and minimized by patriarchal systems that allow impunity to reign. Justice begins when we speak, release, and acknowledge the truth in solidarity and community. ONE BILLION RISING FOR JUSTICE is an invitation to break free from confinement, obligation, shame, guilt, grief, pain, humiliation, rage, and bondage.
The campaign is a recognition that we cannot end violence against women without looking at the intersection of poverty, racism, war, the plunder of the environment, capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy. Impunity lives at the heart of these interlocking forces.
It is a call to bring on revolutionary justice.
And talking about the Dáil… July 17, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Feminism, Irish Politics, Workers Rights.
1 comment so far
Martha Kearns has a pretty good piece in the SBP on the dispiriting and dismal scenes involving Fine Gael TD Tom Barry last week. Until the point where it isn’t.
But let’s note the good stuff first.
I don’t think anyone would disagree with the fact that there was no malice intended. But what the actions – which quickly spread across the internet in the form of a 14-second-long video clip – showed were disrespect, misogyny, inappropriateness, childishness. – and, of course, a total lack of awareness of how to properly behave in a workplace, let alone in the country’s chamber of political power.
And she continues:
If any other woman was subjected to this level of mishandling while she was trying to carry out her work, sanctions would already have been taken against the man involved. And she would have a case filed with the Equality Tribunal before she left the office that day.
I’m a bit less sanguine than she that ‘any other woman’ would be able to get to the ET, perhaps most or many, but I would think, and this is drawn from my own experience, that some workplaces are deeply misogynistic and sexist to the point where people are too intimidated to complain. Still, not difficult to believe that she is correct in relation to the following, that because of the context it was smoothed over…
But this is politics. To be more specific, this is Irish politics. Sure, it’s all a bit of a laugh and why don’t ye wimmin just calm down and see the funny side of it.
Whatever the intentions behind Barry’s behaviour, it raises further questions about the establishment’s ongoing plan to attract women into the political arena. Out of the 166 Dáil seats, just 25 (or 15 per cent) are held by women. This is behind the world average of 19.5 per cent and the European Union average of 24 per cent. Ireland lies in 76th position in a world table of women’s political representation in parliament.
And also she continues that the structural aspects are such that they are deeply problematic for any woman with a young family lot thinking of having children. Of course this is true of a broader swathe of the working environment too, and it is indicative of just how working lives are, of necessity, fitted around commercial and work demands and to the detriment of personal and familial issues.
As it happens Gerry Adams was one of the few to bring that up in the actual debate, particularly when it came to the absurdity of the late night/early morning sitting. Because, of course, it wasn’t just the TDs but the workers in the Oireachtas, many of who found themselves forced to remain there because the representatives couldn’t organise their time more efficiently and more appropriately. Something to consider in light of all the rhetoric about that sitting.
Still, got to admit that for all that it is good to see the ‘m’ word in use, I found the following a bit irritating:
The latest antics in the Dáil are hardly going to have young, professional women banging down the doors at Leinster House.
Professional women? Surely any women?
Women and work June 10, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Feminism, Irish Politics.
Interesting collection of articles in the Irish Times on women and work this weekend.
It’s purpose was to examine the issue at the 40th anniversary of the abolition of the Civil Service (and large parts of the private sector) bar on women working there once they were married. It’s passing should be a cause for genuine celebration in relation to assisting in the opening up of opportunities in the subsequent decades, though some of the accompanying materials to the articles suggests there’s a long way to go yet.
However, those who were asked to contribute in interview appeared to be, unfortunately, a not entirely representative group given their experience of workplaces.
There was a teacher, an entrepreneur, the chief executive of Tallaght Hospital, an author and former children’s laureate, an IT project manager, a communications consultant and journalist and a retiree from a career in administration
Where were those working in retail, in call centres, in manufacturing, on minimum wage, and so on and so forth?
This is in no sense to diminish the individual experiences of those interviewed, but difficult not to feel that in terms of class this was skewed distinctly in one direction.
That said one interesting – and in a way heartening – aspect was, almost overwhelmingly, the general response to questions on feminism where it was clearly viewed as positive term and not something to shy away from using.
Incivility…and worse June 4, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Feminism, LGBT Rights.
Well here’s a display of incivility, misogyny and anti-lesbianism, as related by Julie Bindel. What’s amazing to me are two aspects of this, firstly that a Radio 5 ‘satirical’ panel debate thought that it was appropriate to discuss – even, perhaps particularly, in a ‘humorous’ way – the proposition “Give me 20 minutes with her and I’m pretty sure I could turn around Clare Balding”, and then some of the incidents Bindel recounted of male antagonism to her as a lesbian.
I like Balding’s response in the following, even if it is descending into a ‘fight fire with fire’ dynamic:
Last year she reopened a feud with the Sunday Times television critic AA Gill, who described her as “a dyke on a bike” in his column in 2010. Balding described Gill as a “great twat” and claimed he hates clever women as she spoke in defence of Mary Beard, the on-screen historian who Gill suggested was too ugly for cameras.
Bindel argues that:
Lesbianism is a significant threat to men [just to be clear she modifies all other instances of the term ‘men’ to ‘a lot of’ or ‘men of the sexist variety’, so no she doesn’t mean all men - wbs]. After all, we are rejecting them sexually and, more importantly, making it clear we do not need to be desired by or betrothed to a man in order to have an identity. Clare Balding needs to be put in her place, according to the sexists, because she has no right to be a successful professional, a well-loved public figure and an out-and-proud lezzer.
This concept of threat is very important and deeply disturbing because of the potential for it to take very dangerous forms. I think she’s also exactly right when she argues that this is essentially a part and parcel with other forms of misogyny.
But you know, I think her conclusion is where it’s at.
What they need is a bloody good lesson in keeping their opinions to themselves.
Backroom in the SBP on abortion – again… May 9, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Feminism, Irish Politics.
Some interesting thoughts on that topic which for once offer a more rather than less positive approach. It argues that in the 1980s there was a
…real strategic vision for the movement and the organisational framework to push it forward.
They decided not only to play defence but to go on the offensive, particularly on the issue of abortion where they were determined to prevent a repeat of the American example.
And if I understand the argument made by Backroom correctly it is that PLAC/SPUC and other forces operated with the grain of public opinion and thereby were able to ‘set the terms of the debate’ successfully. Not that their victory was inevitable but that they were able to project themselves as ‘representative of [a large strand] in society’.
And it points to problems with the manner in which anti-abortion campaigns have been run, particularly since 1992…
The big change that happened in 1992 was that the pro-life movement became genuinely activist and, with that, less strategic and responsive. The creation of Youth Defence gave a strident and fundamentalist image to the entire movement which has proven hard to shake.
Their guerrilla campaigns on divorce in 1996, and on various European referendums, helped dramatically to dilute the movement’s focus and give the image of a socially conservative faction which would do almost anything to achieve its ends.
Rather than being representative of society, as it had worked hard to be in the earlier campaigns, the new image became that of the “bearers of truth”, holding up a standard to which others must conform.
There’s definitely something in that, to my mind. Let’s not regard the 1980s with a rosy tint. The conflict was very hard-edged indeed. But… the appearance of YD et al certainly added another element to the mix and in some respects pushed the image of ‘pro-life’ to a more extreme position, something that has been perhaps more problematic for them than has been admitted.
It’s certainly been very noticeable to me that Version 3.0 of the conservative social campaigners has been noticeably softer-edged. The Iona Institute, Rónán Mullen and others have sugared the pill and made quite some effort to put clear blue water between them and the successors of YD.
And this is tricky.
As Backroom continues:
Diarmuid Martin regularly points out, even among the now minority of Catholics who are regular Mass-goers, strict obedience to the social teachings of the Church is very much a minority pursuit in Ireland. Yet the pro-life movement is overwhelmingly dominated by people whose worldview is shaped by their religion.
Naturally, as Backroom points out, there’s nothing wrong with this. But, as with the last week – and noted in comments here – there’s the danger that too much weight will be afforded unrepresentative voices.
And here polling data is useful:
…but much of the rest of Irish society instinctively reacts against what it sees as the wider “agenda”. The most recent polling on abortion by Red C for The Sunday Business Post shows a population which is instinctively against the wide availability of abortion, but is wrestling with where to place the point of compromise so that tragic cases can be dealt with.
I have to smile when I read the following, though:
No comfort or engagement is coming from pro-life spokespeople. They are being very assertive on why the government’s plans are wrong – what they haven’t done is to put forward an alternative.
Leaving aside for a moment the points of principle, which should of course be the main concern, it is very hard to discern a strategy from the pro-life groups beyond “whatever you do, do nothing”.
Of course there’s no alternative. For them it’s entirely black and white. To argue an alternative would be to weaken that central principle.
And in a way this is one positive of the legislation – albeit as Backroom notes ‘Labour TDs will – when it is voted through – have just voted to re-legislate for a ban on abortions’.
Effectively so, and yet, abortion will now be legal in certain circumstances.
But the pro-life movement should not fool itself: this bill will become law and will be passed with a comfortable majority in both the Dáil and the Seanad.
When this happens, what will be the remaining influence of the movement if it has declared the end of the world and it hasn’t happened?
And there may be something in the following:
A short-sighted and strident approach to this legislation may well speed up the demise of the pro-life campaign as a major force in Irish public life.
But… but… if ever there was a case of wait and see I think this might be it.
Toy stories… May 9, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Feminism.
The row over gender-specific toys has taken a new turn after Tesco admitted its description of a children’s chemistry set as for boys was incorrect, and launched a wider review of the way toys are labelled on its website.
The descriptions were not on the boxes of the toys but – and this is in some ways worse again – on the Tesco website.
As anyone who has to shop for gifts for children will know toys are already massively gendered from the word go. And it doesn’t take a Republican to see there are problems with some of the materials directed particularly at girls – it’s all princesses, and perfect marriages and so on. I was in Chapters the other day and discovered this particular example of the genre which – whatever way you cut it – makes literally no sense at all in the context it is positioned within.
Though kudos to the author for not missing a trick in terms of increasing sales (I know, I know, the London one presumably came first).
What’s perhaps particularly depressing about the Tesco story is that:
Tesco had initially defended its decision to label the item, manufactured by John Adams, as a boys’ toy on its website following a storm of criticism from shoppers and gender equality groups.
WTF? Is it now so normative that toys, even toys which are per definition (and generally accepted as) ungendered, have to be categorised according to female or male, that Tesco couldn’t admit to its mistake from the off?
I think that is a deeply concerning issue. Campaigners from Let Toys Be Toys are responsible for the change of heart on the part of Tesco and I think they’re doing good work… http://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/
By the way, what was the Tesco ‘excuse’?
Tesco had justified the move by saying on Twitter: “Toy signage is currently based on research and how our customers tell us they like to shop in our stores”, adding that further research would be commissioned later in the year to provide “an up-to-date reflection of customers’ thinking”.
Which frankly sounds like a crock. And Let Toys Be Toys responded in the only way possible:
But a Let Toys Be Toys spokesman challenged Tesco’s position, tweeting: “Can you imagine if we took yr approach in schools: that science was just for boys & we shouldn’t bother teaching it to girls?”
It’s quite insane when you think about it. Take the following:
Boots recently admitted it was wrong to use separate in-store signs labelling girls’ and boys’ toys – putting Science Museum-brand toys in the latter category – after shoppers took to Twitter and Facebook to accuse the retailer of sexism. In a statement posted on Facebook it said it was taking steps to remove the signs and was dismayed by customers’ reaction.
Or take Lego, with their ‘Friends’ series which is directly marketed to girls – and which I’ve first hand experience of – to my chagrin – though it is possible to build spaceships from it as is noted in the following critique by Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency the concept is built from the ground up in gendered terms and some pretty dodgy concepts there to be honest (Sarkeesian notes that effectively the ‘Friends’ are ‘entirely different species’ in relation to other Lego figures and points to the entirely constructed historically gendered aspects of pink and purple being remarkably recent constructs too).
Anyone who wants to broaden horizons will be angered by these manifestations of deeply engrained sexism, for that is what it is. This quite deliberately pushes girls and women away from science and towards certain gender roles, and that this is actually more a product of capitalism attempting to delineate markets, in no way makes it easier to accept.
This from the New York Times from last year is particularly depressing:
But by 1995, the gendered advertising of toys had crept back to midcentury levels, and it’s even more extreme today. In fact, finding a toy that is not marketed either explicitly or subtly (through use of color, for example) by gender has become incredibly difficult.
And the thought comes to mind that there’s an oddity about all this too when one considers perhaps the most famous political former chemist in the UK was this individual here.
Got to admit… May 7, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Bioethics, Culture, Feminism, Irish Politics.
Jacky Jones in the Irish Times,former HSE regional manager of health promotion, is a voice of reason on a range of issues from private schools through to reproductive rights.
Unfortunately the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill 2013 will not protect or vindicate women’s reproductive rights. The name change – removing the word “maternal” from the title – means there is still ambiguity about whether the woman’s life or that of the foetus is prioritised. It is only a matter of time before another Irish woman asks the European Court of Human Rights to protect and vindicate her right to terminate a pregnancy because her health, as distinct from her life, is not protected by the proposed legislation. In the meantime, Irish women will have to rely on the kindness of strangers in the UK.
What has feminism ever done? May 2, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Feminism.
add a comment
what did feminism ever do for us?
and the answer is……
Like what exactly? Assuming you are a woman, what has Feminism done that has benefited you directly?
@boxoledo – I went to university, got a job, live alone, have my own bankaccount, am allowed to drive a car, make roughly the same amount of money my male collegues do and can decide how to live my life without a man interfering.
If i compare my life to that of, say, my grandmother, then I can say feminism has changed the choices I have immensely and very directly. We take all those things for granted these days. They are not.
I am assuming you are a man, or you would not have had to ask that question.