Why are we so afraid of the idea of women in power?
Saturday 9th May 2015
Women have been sidelined and written out of history due to a longstanding notion of what constitutes the ‘natural order,’ writes LOUISE RAW
IN the run-up to this election, you may have noticed the mainstream media noticing something very particular — the leaders of the Green Party, the SNP and Plaid Cymru are not men. They’ve been falling backwards off their chairs.
Excitement has been considerable, with some commentators opining that feminism can now pack up its bags and go home — its work here is done.
But is that really the case? The tone of much of the commentary suggests not. We might have expected the tabloids to take more interest in the women’s hair and clothes than their gravitas — and so they did, with the odd publication ranking the women in order of attractiveness.
But consider James Ashton on Plaid’s Leanne Wood, in the Independent (even before it essentially declared for the Tory Party): “Less fierce than Nicola Sturgeon, less shrill than Natalie Bennett, Leanne Wood has emerged from three-and-a-half hours of prime-time television as the leader you’d most likely invite around for a cup of tea.”
Shrill? Fierce? Cups of tea? Can you imagine David Cameron or Ed Miliband being rated in those terms? I’ve met Bennett, and a calmer, more measured woman you’re unlikely to meet. Nor does the Sturgeon I’ve seen and heard in the media bear any resemblance to the woad-clad Braveheart, roaring and rattling her sword at the English, who is supposed to be making my blood run cold.
Such are the workings of sexism and misogyny. Women in the vicinity of power must be reduced, made manageable, diminished. And if they refuse to, as the wonderful Ngozi Adichie has it, shrink themselves, then they are a threat, and we will demonise them.
Behind it all lies the idea that women attaining power is new. If something’s a novelty, it’s not tried and tested. It could fail, be a passing phase, a mistake — could even lead to disaster. It might also be a threat to that extremely subjective concept, so infinitely malleable to such a variety of arguments — the “natural order.”
Naturally, this is a crock. As socialists, by definition somewhat at odds with the system we live under, we should find it easy to accept and challenge that kind of cant (not a typo). And yet ideas about the dodginess of women in power seep into all our consciousnesses.
How can they not, when every other billboard tells us women are here to ornament, to compete with each other for men, and at the mercy of hormones, periods and other bodily unpleasantness?
The history of women’s lives is fudged, blurred, ignored, not taught. No wonder some believe its chronology was essentially: Dawn of time; babies; cooking; cooking; nothing much… (millennia pass) … 1960s! Miniskirts! The pill! Working women (secretaries, etc)!
If you skew the facts like this, it’s easy to think nature has been usurped, and that this explains all modern social malaise. It’s feminism — boys no longer know how to be men, women feel they have to have careers and are unhappy in them, kids are neglected, you can’t even open a door for a woman without being arrested, political correctness gone mad, yada, yada.
Just as we’re messing up the environment, we are messing — at our peril — with the essential nature of men and women.
Whereas in “the old days…” This would all have been music to John Knox’s ears. The Protestant preacher and reformer pulled no punches when he titled his 1558 polemic The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women. By “regiment” he meant “rule” — there wasn’t some 16th century marching army of uppity women, sadly. What really got Knox’s goat was Catholic queens like Mary of Guise. To rail against them, he went straight to the “it’s not natural” box (“monstruous” means “unnatural” here). “For who can denie but it repugneth to nature … that the weake, the sicke, and impotent persones (yup, that’s women) shall norishe and kepe the hole and strong, and finallie, that the foolishe, madde and phrenetike shal gouerne … and such be al women.”
Foolish, mad, frenetic — ringing some shrill, fierce bells? Like any modern Twitter troll, Knox published anonymously, but authorship quickly became known and shot Knox stupendously in the foot. That same year, Protestant Elizabeth I took to the throne. She took umbrage at Knox’s insults to female sovereigns and put a complete block on his involvement with the English Protestant cause after 1559.
But if men were arguing against women’s power in the 16th century, clearly there’s nothing new about the concept. In fact, we can go back much further — anthropologists have shown us women hunting and fully involved in “pre-historical” societies. The evidence is there, should we care to see it, for ancient Egyptian women working, including as brewers, medieval women in every trade from fine art to construction and powerful in the guilds, militant women weavers on strike in 1788 — it’s a long list, covering every historical period imaginable.
But there’s profit in “othering” women and keeping all of this quiet. If you tell people for long enough that they’re not capable, it will sink in. Though they know, intellectually, that it’s not true, some of that will be internalised.
Companies make millions telling women they are unacceptable as they are, and must constantly improve every physical aspect of themselves. Wax that body hair, be thinner, prettier, younger-looking — and then we just might treat you nicer. Black and Asian women are sold skin-bleaching products and must straighten or otherwise Westernise their hair.
Mothers are told their most important new job is getting “their body back” post childbirth (where did it go? Who is snatching the corporeal form of new mothers? We should be told).
This is women’s true life’s work, and a handy distraction from that pesky pay gap. Rape, domestic abuse, street harassment, FGM? Nothing a new pair of shoes can’t make better.
It has been capitalism’s most successful trick to make the majority of citizens of the world feel unequal to holding power — from the divine right of kings to “scientific” treatises on the inadequacies and lack of full humanity of black women and men, women generally, and the working class, it’s been done relentlessly and well.
We can’t do better than writer and theorist Bell Hooks here, who has long warned against the interconnectivity of race, capitalism and gender both creating and perpetuating systems of oppression and class domination.
But few white feminists are introduced to Hooks’s work. Even those who fight for liberation are made to feel they can only operate in their own limited spheres — class, race, religion, gender — all are absolute divides we cross at our peril, we are made to believe.
So white feminists can talk about their Muslim sisters, but not to them — they’re “naturally,” or at least culturally, anti-feminist, aren’t they? Also we’d probably offend them somehow. No wonder the marvellous Sara Khan of Inspire Muslim Women, who challenges gender discrimination in Islam, is writing a book on how the left has failed Muslim women.
All the mainstream parties, and all of us as individuals, need to utterly and publicly reject divisive thinking right now. The protests, opposition and strength under impossible duress of our sisters and brothers in Gaza, Ferguson and Baltimore and the young mothers fighting enforced homelessness in Britain cannot but impress and teach us that we must talk to Muslim women, black women, working-class women — and, yes, men — not just when we want their votes, but constantly.
As socialists — especially if we’re white — it’s incumbent upon us to do this, too. Yes, we might misunderstand, tread on cultural sensitivities, get it wrong — so we will learn, listen, fight our own privileges, and do better. We cannot be silent any longer and we must no longer allow ourselves to be divided. We need to remember that “divide and rule” carries within it an equal and opposite potential — unite and conquer.
Louise Raw is the author of Striking a Light: the Bryant & May Matchwomen and Their Place in History (Bloomsbury). The 2015 Matchwomen’s Festival is on July 4 in Canning Town. Discounted advance tickets now available at www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/matchwomens-festival-2015- tickets-16082194276. Children’s tickets are free.