‘You start by sinking into a mans arms and end up woth your
I USED to work as a journalist on one of Britain’s most popular music papers. Like the other writers, I got most of my work via the Deputy Editor. As befitting someone who had such a powerful role in the paper, his desk was at the end of a large open-plan office, his gaze dominating our working space.
One day another woman journalist came in, looking for work, She was refused, but the Deputy Editor then spent the rest of the day making lascivious comments about the size of her breasts, I was sickened and humiliated for my own sake, and on the other woman’s behalf.
The Deputy Editor felt it was quite acceptable to relate to women purely on the basis of his own predatory sexuality. Since I was not prepared to flirt with him, he disliked me and starved me of work. And my experience was typical. There were then no other full-time women journalists on this paper. Other women writers who experienced this man’s attitudes, supported and amplified by the atmosphere of laddishness prevailing in the office, sooner or later, simply gave up and left - discouraged and demoralised.
This experience was typical in another way too. The disadvantages that I experienced because I was female appeared as personal problems, Male forms of dominance often relate to private life, so falling into the most personal area of all.
Many men find it hard to understand the full extent of the disadvantages that are experienced as personal faults by women, For example, one linguistic study by Zimmerman and Candace showed that men make 98 per cent of the interruptions in mixed-sex conversation, Most men are not aware that they dominate a group’s talk to this extent. Men are taught - and learn to assume - that they are the standard by which everyone else, significantly enough called mankind, is measured. This means that men’s advantages become invisible to them: their privilege is part of normality.
In contrast my identity as a woman does impinge on my everyday experience: being female affects how I feel and how I think; it colours my view of the world; it limits what I believe I can do or achieve, where I feel able to travel on my own, and it limits my capacity for self-respect. Women’s inferior social position affects our personal lives in ways to which men are oblivious, for they do not experience them. Understandably men often find the disadvantages women face hard to understand.
Feminism has addressed itself to these processes and has made ‘the personal is political’ into one of its central tenets. Through the activities of feminists, personal life has come to be seen as one of the key areas in which patriarchy - which is male power - is exercised.
The idea that the personal is political means that whole areas of life that were once not considered political are now seen to be of crucial importance. Feminism has ensured that the bedroom is beginning to be seen as political as the boardroom - or the battlefield. And what happens in the home is as politically important as what happens in the trades union meeting.
One of the campaigns initiated by feminists has moved what was considered a private problem - that of a man leering at a woman, or treating her as a sexual object in other ways - into the public sphere. To do so women gave this ‘problem’ a name: sexual harrassment. Consequently behaviour that had been previously unnamed, and so invisible to all but its victims, became visible: and simultaneously a politics developed around it. This particular exercise of male power over women was now on the agenda. It could - and has been - challenged. Sexual harrassment has entered our vocabularies and our lives.
This and other new issues of women’s discontent entered the political arena in the late 1960s and 1970s. They emerged then because changes in the job market and contraceptive technology meant that, for the first time, large numbers of women began to perceive that, in theory, they could now choose whether to live in the private sphere - in the home raising children - or in the public sphere - in paid jobs.
But the belief that women had unfettered choice - and consequently that feminism was now obsolete - was to be short-lived. Not only has the recent global recession meant that women are losing jobs faster than men, but difficulties have emerged for women who have got jobs. The idea that equality in employment was all that was required has been superceded as women have realised that they need to go beyond it.
Reaching beyond simple material equality involves a change in the expectations of how both sexes should act in the home, in the paid workplace and in community life. In other words, changes are needed in both public and private life. Without any shake-up of the rules governing men’s and women’s work-loads at home and in paid work, many women found that they had just added another job to the one they already did: holding down a paid job, and doing most of the housework and childcare.
Desperately they tried to live up to the emancipated ‘Superwoman’ image. But the real world of twin-tub washing machines, endless mouths to feed and shirts to iron in the ‘double day’, took a relentless toll. Even Superwoman was no match for these pressures. She lost - and continues to lose - in both public and private life: worn out at home and unable to advance in the world of employment.
One of my friends who teaches made this point very neatly when one of his female colleagues left school for a better job. He made rosettes which proclaimed ‘rare event: woman leaving for promotion’ and, underneath, ‘women’s devotion, men’s promotion’. He was right. Women are usually too busy being supportive to their partners at home to even entertain the idea of a rewarding career for themselves.
Women’s inequality does not only help the men they live with. It also serves the interests of the men who are in control of our society. Employers are only too glad to pay women half as much as they pay men: it increases their profits. Similarly, governments can conveniently rely on the unpaid work of women who will take over the care of the young, the sick, the unemployed or the elderly when they make cuts in public expenditure. According to the UK’s Department of Employment, 13 per cent of British women now provide care for a sick or elderly dependent, a figure that is steadily rising.
Yet many women will tell you that they do not need feminism. If a woman has a professional job, where her earnings are on a parity with men’s, it will not be economic necessity that pushes her into a relationship with a man. But other forms of constraint will, just as forcefully, operate to penalise her almost without her noticing. She is likely to be treated with suspicion and hostility if she is not in a couple or acting in what are defined as feminine ways (that is, ways which are not threatening to men). She will also be policed through certain types of informality - such as joking - and formal ones, such as not being recommended for promotion by her boss because her attitudes are deemed ‘unprofessional’. And one Toronto study noted: ‘The Canadian criminal justice system tends to dismiss those rape victims who, if of roughly marriageable age, do not live within the bonds of matrimony’.
For these and many other reasons, most women do eventually establish a committed relationship with a man. But this apparently free choice is undermined by the lack of real alternatives. And the sanctions that compel women to marry or live with a man are just as strong in our rich Western world, where love often masks necessity, as they are in the poor world, where there is no pretence at free choice and dowries and arranged marriages are commonplace.
It is because women’s identities are so strongly defined by living with a man, that feminism has tended to concentrate on challenging personal relationships. And this is the biggest price most feminists have to pay. Because feminism involves an almost inevitable clash of interests between a woman and her man. It will not be enough to simply appeal to him as a nice person. New Internationalist male readers probably are very nice. But asking them to give up privilege on the grounds of common decency will not, unfortunately, deliver the goods. Unless women refuse to leave the issues private and insist on making them feminist - by drawing out connections between their personal experience and the reality of male power - then they will lose.
One way for women to learn to make the political connections between public and private life is by joining a ‘consciousness raising’ (CR) group and comparing their personal experiences. These groups share some features with Chinese ‘speak bitterness’ sessions set up after the cultural revolution. But, in contrast to the Chinese experience, the emphasis in CR groups is on support and encouragement, not discipline and confession. Feminist politics stresses the strength that women gain by realising the similarities of their experience. By meeting informally, often in each others’ houses, and talking about what it is like to live in a patriarchal society with other women in a non-hierarchical, collectively-controlled way, a feminist politics is born.
Because women have personal experience of patriarchy, the women’s movement maintains that all are experts and that all are equally able to fight their own powerlessness. This means that feminists also believe that women have the right to decide for themselves the areas in which they fight. They do not have be told to organise in certain areas by a vanguard party, an elite cadre or a technological autocracy. Feminism asserts that women, as a subjugated group, will free themselves - nobody can do it for them.
This pattern gives the women’s movement the strength and flexibility that comes out of diversity. It means that many Third World women have chosen to organise according to different priorities to Western women. Black women in the rich world have pointed out that they face the additional burden of racism and may choose to organise independently of white women in order to challenge the twin disadvantages they face - both as women and as black people. Similarly working-class women, women who are handicapped and older women, to name but a few groups, have organised themselves into separate interest groups.
For some feminists, the next stage may involve choosing to become a lesbian. Feminism’s understanding of sexuality allows women to feel that this is not as large a step as is commonly assumed. Sexual preferences can be reoriented by choice, just as they were conditioned in the first place by the values of a patriarchal upbringing. Already emotionally and intellectually committed to feminism, and so to other women, some feel that it is perverse to keep their most intimate and tender moments for men.
Through the work of such women-identified-women has come much of the thought and action that has enabled feminists to open up new areas of debate. Many topics that we now take for granted as legitimate issues of concern only became so because of the activity of feminists. For example: motherhood, housework as work, women’s exclusion from science and technology, the practice of defining women’s work as ‘unskilled’ and mindless, the discrimination suffered by lesbians, pornography, rape, incest, pleasure as a political issue, the specific connections between masculinity and warfare and racism.
Feminism’s biggest contribution, however, is to show us all that, if we care about the underprivileged and the poor, then we can, and must, do something about the inequality between men and women. It shows both men and women that there is a profound connection between private life and the ways in which men function in the public sphere to dominate others. It shows that male violence and the wish to control are rooted in tour ideas of what it means to be a ‘man’, they perpetuate the domination, not only of men over women, it also of North over South, rich over poor and black over white. Only by breaking men’s power can we dismantle the foundations of this inequality. Feminism shows that all the different liberation movements of the world face the same basic problem. And it shows us that transforming the status quo does, literally, begin at home.
This special report appeared in the woman to woman - part 2 - an introduction to feminism issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.