This post and the previous one were created in reaction to recent events where I have noticed a creeping and insidious sexism resurfacing in the male-centric Westminster political media. In contrast to this creeping sexism, this post attempts to unpack the idea of different kinds of womanhood.
Part 1, highlighted that women and men have complex identities. The post continues this idea by: discussing the shift amongst women to a pro-independence position, analysing the experiences of strong women within my own family, seeking to counter recent media attacks on prominent working women who have not borne children and briefly considering the long-term creation of current pensioner poverty of 1960s and 70s inequality in the workplace.
A final conclusion is that we have to be careful when considering woman role models that we do not replicate the very value system that produces sexism. That is, at the same time as confronting media practices of discrimination we have to watch we do not create our own rigid stereotypes of alternative ways to be a ‘natural woman’.
The recent STV poll showing support for Independence on 55% and the Union on 45% hid a more important story that relates to the way that Women shifted away from the Union as they made their minds up towards the end of the referendum and even now are shifting to embrace the concept of Independence.
There used to be a large gap in the way men and women saw independence, for example, the rather unfortunately named AQMeN study of August 2014 suggested only 27% of women supported independence. Of course, this study must have been flawed in some way because Ailsa Henderson’s research shows that actually 43.4% of Women voted Yes.
Now, taking out don’t knows/wont votes, a recent YOUGOV poll for the Times suggests that women are almost as likely as men to support independence and are now more supportive of Nicola Sturgeon than men – conclusion Nicola Sturgeon, unlike Alex Salmond, can win a referendum because support for independence from Women is somewhere between 52-55%.
These women have been encouraged by their different forms of engagement e.g. as new members of: political parties, leftist groups (such as radical independence) and more community based groups (such as Common Weal and Women For Independence).
There is something about the energy with which women engaged with the referendum that is suggestive of the type of liberation that many women experienced during the 1984-85 minor’s strike, Women turned up in droves wanting to help’ said Brenda Proctor when discussing the role of Women Against Pit Closures.
Women during the minor’s strike – took active roles in what had previously been male dominated spaces. Though it should be pointed out that before the 1980’s I myself had always assumed women were powerful.
Indeed, I was meeting some of my cousins this week and talk got onto different types of families. I have 6 cousins on my mother’s side who are women and two cousins on my father’s side who are also women. There are only two men in my generation of our family (a step cousin and my brother), so when we were growing up my ideas concerning gender could not associate with stereotypes about male dominated social spaces.
I hadn’t seen my cousins for a while and we shared many a memory about our family dynamics. Our conversation concluded with us agreeing that there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ family. When I was growing up I became aware at an early age that families were complex. For example, my mother was adopted by her aunt so our grandmother was also our great-aunt.
Our grandmother smoked a cigar, kept a tight grip on the house hold accounts and used an iron moral code to hold in check our grandfather. Rumours were that our grandfather had had problems with drink when in the army in North Africa during WWII. He certainly didn’t seek any religious absolution for his sins as he never went with our grandmother to the local church.
I was thinking of our grandmother this morning when I saw that the first train to run on the newly opened borders railway line was driven by Yvonne Reid – how refreshing, in a previously male dominated occupation, that this wasn’t something that people commented upon.
Our grandmother was a feminist before the term became the territory of academics. She worked all her life and during WWII was a dispatch rider in the Auxiliary Fire Service in Edinburgh and would tell stories of haring around on her motorbike to get to various places.
Her later preference for wearing ‘slacks’ owed much to having worn ‘breeks’ when riding her motorbike. It also led her to gain an interesting family nickname – Whilst travelling on her motorbike on Princes Street (the major street in Edinburgh) her ‘breeks’ split, revealing her underwear to an unsuspecting but appreciative Edinburgh audience. She was for ever more to be known by our cousins as ‘aunty panty’.
This family nickname seemed to meet her approval as it reinforced her independent, fearless and formidable status. Whilst older family members reminisced about the difficult conditions in the air raid shelters, we children would play with our grandmother’s Fire Service cap imagining nervously of: the terror that came from the skies; the sounds of the tracer bullets and nights lit up by explosions and fire.
Some people think that Edinburgh didn’t experience any bombing during the war but that is not the case, there were numerous raids. At least 20 people were killed and over 200 injured (see link).
Indeed, such were the perceived dangers my wife’s father was sent to a cousin’s farm in East Lothian to avoid the bombing and witnessed what became known as the Humbie Heinkel being forced down by the spitfire of Archie Mckellar 603 squadron, the first bomber in the UK to be shot down. He also told us that Archie did not live out the war.
What is very interesting about our grandparents is that neither of them held any bad will for German people after the war. Post-war our grandmother cousin married a German man called Gerhart Conrad and our grandparents would often visit Germany, regularly travelling on co-op bus tours of the Rhine.
Our grandparents developed further friendships with people they met there and brought us back various memorabilia, including lederhosen – yes there could be a picture out there somewhere of myself and my brother dressed as if to take part in an amateur version of the Sound of Music.
When we met as a family in the 1970s at our grandparent’s council flat in the Inch in Edinburgh, our grandmother’s feminist credentials were often a topic of discussion. There was a sense that her feminist identity was a lived experience, that her contribution to the work place was the equal of any man and that she was a person of intellect who could stand up to any sexist male arguments that were current at the time.
Our grandmother did not necessarily connect her form of feminism with what was going on in England in the 1960s and 70s. She certainly did not associate feminism with theory. She had no academic qualifications but could offer a credible experience-based position on any topic. In this sense her feminism was a way of being rather than some type of abstract entity.
Our grandmother would have considered herself liberated but not radical. She was a very respected woman in her community, a church goer and carried out a leadership role in the crystal factory she worked in. She had a very calm way of dealing with a crisis, which was probably due to experiencing major upset in childhood, which made everyday issues less significant.
Our grandmother lost her father to the first-world-war, supported her mother to bring up 5 children and had to grieve the loss of one of her brother’s aged 6 to scarlet fever. Our grandfather, a lance-sergeant in the Seaforth Highlanders, was killed in action in 1915 at the battle of St Julien, Ypres, about the time of the first ever gas attack, he also witnessed the Christmas day truce.
Our great-grandmother placed an obituary in the local paper which included this poem:
Sleep on dear husband in a far of grave
A grave I shall never see
But as long as life and memory lasts
I will remember thee
At the turn of the century, our great-grandmother had come to Edinburgh, from rural Cockburn’s Path. In her early teens, she worked a housemaid for a family in the ‘Leith North’ census area of Edinburgh. She married our great grandfather who at the time was a maltman (later he became a miner).
Our great-grandmother came to Edinburgh at a time when 3 and 4 bedroom houses were built with a tiny boxroom above the kitchen for a maid. The houses also had a series of bells, one in each room, from which the owners would call for attendance.
Our great-grandmother’s experience of running around and being subservient to the house owner was often contrasted with that of our grandmother, especially when discussions turned to the concept of women’s liberation.
Our grandparents always had things for us children to read in their flat. If we didn’t know how to do something, there would be a set of DIY books to choose from. If we needed to answer a question about geography, there was an enormous encyclopaedia. If we were looking to read about another topic, there were numerous copies of the reader’s digest to be taken from the bookshelf.
I loved the reader’s digest stories that talked about the expanse of North America, daring rescues in Alaska, survival in the mountains and conflict at the frontiers. We would act these stories out in the playground with American accents taken from the movies and imagine a life so different and glamorous to the grey and depressed nature of the 1970s oil crisis, deficit reduction and power cuts.
Our grandparents gave us an enthusiasm to read. But, our grandmother’s Presbyterianism also connected reading, learning, doing and working. Her view was that learning should be put to good use. In many ways, her views were similar to the Workers Education Association that states:
We believe learning is for everyone and learning is for life. It helps people feel that anything is possible. It can be life-enhancing and life-changing – improving health, self-confidence and creating positive changes that ripple out from individuals to communities.
My mother’s sister was 21 when their mother died and old enough not to be adopted by our grandmother. She was very independent and her husband, our uncle, was Catholic. Her marriage was pretty brave and unconventional at a time where mixed marriages where frowned upon in Scotland.
Our aunt is that wonderfully strong kind of person who is adept at removing or ignoring rigid rules and would always encourage our creativity and had no truck with the rigidity of Presbyterianism. It is from her that I developed my own creative and rebellious streak.
Our aunt also gave no truck to our fathers control freakery, for example she gave us noisy toys that my father had banned from the house, almost baiting my father to take her on. It was as if our aunt was the self-appointed guardian of our fun.
When I was 7 or 8 our grandparents, aunt and uncle travelled to the USA to see our grandmother’s brothers and their families who had migrated to Portland Oregon. We saw them off from a viewing platform at Edinburgh airport and managed to also see Concord undertaking a test flight.
The excitement of watching planes take off to international destinations stays with me and the stories from America concerning food, drink, huge open spaces and grid layouts encouraged us as children to broaden our outlooks. Our grandfather explained the USA as, ‘like here but twice as big’.
I still have relatives in America, I have a very nice 2nd cousin who used to be a truck driver and drove this huge rig, pretty cool ugh? Our 2nd cousin is just one in a long line of strong women in our family who have worked in ‘traditional’ male roles.
I have another cousin who was a bus driver and further back in our family tree we have a great grandmother who was a baker near the Royal Mile and another who ran their own fruit and veg shop on Buccleuch Street in Edinburgh – it would appear there have been hard working feminists in our family since the term was coined in France in 1837.
The fact that women in our family are grafters will be no surprise to other women. At a time when employment law did not protect women from exploitation, they grafted in spite of the fact that had no guarantee of fair treatment, equal pensions or job security. I feel something of such women’s energy in the recent shift towards independence and support of Nicola Sturgeon. Woman have been able to assert themselves in social spaces in a collective away that may not have been seen since the end of world-war II.
The post-war context did not support woman in the workforce and attempted to silence their presence in the work place. For example: war-time nursery provision was quickly shut down: some employers expected a woman to give up work when she got married; and the Beverage report, in a sexist way, suggested that women wanted to be homemakers and dependent housewives.
Yes sisters, it was that sexist. Most women had to balance work and taking care of a family without a supportive employment structure (see Stephanie Spencer’s book). For example, male managers at the Ford motor company didn’t see any problem with paying women 15% less than men for the work they did (see woman’s strike at Ford). It’s a national disgrace that the pay gap has still, to this day, not been overcome and that Labour councils have perpetuated this inequality.
The choice not to work tended to be only open to more wealthy women and my memory is that all the women in our family worked from the time they left school (in my mother’s case she started working at the age of 14 and a half).
The post-2nd world war context ignored these worker’s rights, produced sexist systems to reward men (at the expense of women) and attempted to silence the feminist shift that had been building since before the wars.
But, here is this thing, the inequality of the 1960s and 70s still has ramifications now. The sexist 1960s and 70s work context still exerts a pressure and inequality on women now because many of them don’t have additional income from an occupational pension, unlike their male counter parts.
These women, who have worked all their lives, were not afforded access to the welfare state and pensions in the same way as men. Indeed, most of the women of my mother’s age that I met during the referendum did not have occupational pensions (or if they had a small pension that was below the level of the pensioner guarantee).
The very painful irony of referendum day was that my mother voted No and her ex-boss who denied her pension rights was stood opposite me and my Yes rosette with a No rosette on. Our mother had voted with the very person who had ensured that she received a pittance of an occupational pension.
Yet, at the Westminster election, perhaps inspired by my experience, our mother voted SNP – a change has happened.
Our mother always assumed she would have access to my father’s pension but when they separated and he dropped out of the workforce, that opportunity disappeared. We need to ensure that land ownership and community tax are radically changed so that housing costs don’t push these women into poverty.
We also need to offer a higher pensioner income guarantee to ensure woman are not worse off than men and whist making this change point out to women who voted No that it was the male-centric Westminster system that created this inequality in the first place and continues to put their pensioner sisters at risk of poverty.
Just as women of my mother age find it difficult to escape the continued inequalities of a sexist welfare and pension system, sexism is still inflicted on women who are of current working age whether it be through the pay gap, poor early years provision and/or just down right sexist remarks.
Sexism isn’t over, women still experience sexism at work but the post-referendum rise in support for Independence suggests that women see the solution as lying with an Independent Holyrood government headed by Nicola Sturgeon.
I was appalled but not surprised to see sexism in England in relation to the Labour Party Leadership contest – isn’t it interesting that the Labour Party have never had a female leader at Westminster.
I don’t know Liz Kendall, she appears to be too right wing to be leader of the labour party but whatever her politics, sexism is wrong and women do not have to put up with up.
Liz Kendall recently told a person from the Mail On Sunday to, ‘f… off’, because they had asked her how much she weighed. ITV reported that Kendall also stated:
‘I cannot wait for a world when women are judged the same as men”.
How about developing a world where we all work together to stop being so judge-mental? How about developing a world where men and women are not judged but are accepted for their different ways of being? How about developing a world where we stop utilising arbitrary, loaded and normative criteria to measure and judge people?
I would be happy to see someone like Liz Kendall in charge of a strengthened organisation to sort out journalists and newspapers who lie, bully, or hound people with woefully sexist, disablist, ageist, homophobic or racist behaviour. Her slightly authoritarian outlook might work better there than in other social policy areas.
Discriminatory behaviour is illegal in the work place. If you were to make sexist comments to a colleague or raise issues regarding children at an interview you would be disciplined, so why are journalists allowed to act in this way? Journalistic freedom does not include freedom to break the law and freedom of speech should not provide Cart Blanche freedom to discriminate against your fellow human beings.
We need to apply the same laws and work practices to journalists that the rest of us abide by. There should be no excuse for constantly punting stereotypes about the ‘normal’ way for women to be.
Yet, the main stream media also recently thought it a great ‘jape’ to publish an article asking why ‘so many’ female politicians and powerful women did not have children.
In the case of politicians who have not borne children, such thinking uses a single aspect of a politician’s identity, gender, to attack their identity. Discrimination can come in various forms but this form is straight forward – the journalist becomes the arbiter of what counts as ‘normal’ and insinuates this judgement to his/her readers. The journalist uses specific criteria, having children, to define womanhood and to insinuate that a politician who does not have children is not normal.
At best, such journalists act in an extremely manipulative fashion by seeking to be the sole arbiters of normality. At worst, they act as small minded bigots who profit from pushing the drug of discrimination to other bigots.
My grandmother would have gladly chopped these men down to size. My cousins tell me that our grandmother mellowed in later life and I had missed out on experiencing the fearsome task master who gave my mother merry hell when she asked to go on a work’s outing at the age of 15 and failed to tell our grandmother it was to a dance in Fife that would include American airmen.
Apparently the bus was a wee bit late back and my mother missed her 22:00 curfew by fifteen minutes – which was seen as a heinous crime in their household at the time. My mother tells it that any punishment was worth the experience of learning to jive with dashing and handsome airmen who wore such smart uniforms.
Our grandmother was never fearsome with us, she never bore children but this did not stop her from being a very loving parent and grandparent.
I have previously mentioned my dearly departed friend Mairian Corker in this blogg. Marian had three children, her partner Janet Hill, like my grandmother, also never bore children but she was a truly special person who performed an enchanting mother/aunt role for all of the children who came to her home whether Mairian’s or my own.
To see Janet engage with children just lit up your day. Her body language, facial expression and eyes told children how comfortable she was with them. We used to laugh of the irony that myself and Mairian were the ones who were supposed to be the ‘experts’ on childhood. Janet knew more about how to be with children than any of us.
I see a similar look in Nicola Sturgeon’s eye’s when she encounters children in public spaces, she lights up, closes the space quickly and immediately works out what’s going on in their world. It’s magical.
I was also greatly touched by the emotion in her and other MSPs voices when they talked at First Minister’s questions this week of the disgrace that families and children should be drowned whilst trying to escape war. The women spoke in a way that did not require them to fullfil the dispassionate male politician stereotype.
Yet, this is also the danger to my story, Janet Hill had and Nicola Sturgeon has a gift for speaking to, with and about children. But should, for example Nicola, have to be good with children to overcome the media jibe regarding childbearing?
We don’t need to simply shift the criteria required of politicians from, ‘child-bearer’ to ‘good with children’. If Nicola wasn’t ‘good with children’ it shouldn’t necessarily matter to us. Nicola has other skills, knowledge, experience and ways of being that we can celebrate. For example, she has a particularly important knack, at the moment, of being able to out flank the unionist parties and ensure the political agenda stays on issues that matter to everyday people’s lives.
So, when thinking of shifting from processes where we are judgemental about each other to processes where we recognises a person’s capabilities in a positive and ‘socially just’ way, there can be at least two important things we need to do.
The first is to examine how that person would wish to be thought of. What would they see as their capabilities, their identities and/or their gifts that they can offer the world? More importantly, how would they describe their way of being and do we appreciate them not only for what they offer us but also for who they are?
The second part of the recognition process can involve thinking generously about a friend and sharing what you think they give, to you, your friends and others. I think when you genuinely love, admire or appreciate another person, you should be able to express how much they enrich your life and vis-versa.
If you have experienced a lot of pain and rejection in your life this mutual appreciation and openness can be very difficult. But, it’s never too late to learn. I know it’s difficult for some people to talk about their feelings but we have to if we are going to make the world a more equitable place and ensure #LoveWins always.
My stories only reveal a small part of these women’s identities. Indeed, they are only the parts of their identities that I, a man, remember and my view is simply a partial and evolving view.
I greatly appreciated our grandmother for her ability to stand up to bullies (most of whom were men) – but not all women should need to ride a motor bike to get our attention.
I greatly appreciate women who are ‘good’ with children – but if they are not good with children then we can appreciate other aspects of their identities and experiences such as the way they help organise a community group, touch people’s hearts through song or support us through difficult times.
I was totally in awe of our South African workmate, mentioned in my last post, and her ability to Karate Kick but I hope she doesn’t need to use that ability currently when running her successful social enterprises.
We should never assume that identities stay fixed over time or that our way of being brought on by necessity is the best way to be.
Marian Corker always pointed to the importance of dialogue. It’s easier to appreciate people when they have talked to you about their complex identities. Dialogue closes social space and enables opportunities for greater understanding of each-others contribution to the world.
But people’s contribution to the world should not, in a sexist way, be judged on the basis of economic or biological productivity. Concepts such as ‘contribution’ should not be reduced to simply judging a woman by her workplace role or her familial context. People who don’t bring up families still make an immense contribution to the world by simply being themselves.
For example, people who don’t work, such as the retired, can still experience inequality because of the long reach of the 1960s and 70s sexist welfare and pensions systems. Yet, ironically those woman continue, as they have always done, to provide the younger generation with important examples concerning how to confront male hierarchies, how to run local groups and how to campaign, tirelessly, for social change (whether they have born children or not).
Whatever their diverse identities we need to celebrate women and men for just being them-selves. That was what was so enjoyable about the #indyref, we didn’t seek to impose a uniform identity on each other – we found different ways of just being together that were bigger, more important and so much more enjoyable than anything the present economic system has to offer – demonstrating once again that #LoveWins, always, when we let people be them-selves.