I Must Have Blinked: Gender Inequality Is Over, Right?

“I loathe feminism: the sisterhood, from Germaine Greer to Harriet Harman, have a lot to answer for in my view. They carry much responsibility for hindering women from achieving their full potential; theirs are the shrieking siren voices telling women and girls they cannot succeed, as somebody – men, or “the system” – will stop them. That’s a load of rubbish. We women are not victims, as I keep telling university students. We are not martyrs. We are the majority. The only thing that’s holding you back is your belief in yourself.”

The Telegraph article written by Edwina Currie a week ago should have come with a trigger warning.  Addressing the Oxford Union, Currie lambasted feminism in the way only a woman who has reached the peak of her privilege can: by making that oh-so-familiar ‘feminism isn’t needed, because I did alright’ statement.  In the article, which can be read in its entirety here (trigger warning!), Currie went on to describe how she battled her way through knock backs and trials, citing her resilience and her self-confidence as the reason she succeeded.  In fact, in a glorious act of victim-blaming, she asserted that women themselves are their own worst enemy and the reason for the pay gap and sexism.

Instead of boiling with rage at her lack of solidarity, I started to question my own thought processes.  Was gender inequality a thing of the past?  Had I blinked and missed someone waving a purple flag to indicate the end of the millennia-long gender war that we’ve all been fighting?  Were women free now to go back to the kitchen and make dinner?

Forgive me. I mock.

For me, October has been a month of remembering the reality of the need for women’s activism.  I attended and presented at the WomenEd Unconference – a remarkable event.  Those who were there saw that it was a celebration of women in education.  I have largely ignored the inevitable comments on why we have to have a women’s conference because they spark in me a desire to smack my head against a table.  I’ve been hearing those same comments – if we had a men’s conference, there’d be uproar/just a small vocal minority who don’t represent the silent majority – since I became aware of identity politics in my early twenties.  If I had a penny for every time I have heard ‘women should stop complaining about equality, it’s all fine now – especially as I haven’t experienced any problems’, I’d buy a really expensive bra and burn it.

I do wonder where this dismissal of the need for feminism and women’s activism comes from.  Just seeing the criticisms made of the WomenEd Unconference made me realise that it actually was needed and that we hadn’t come that far in seeing women’s voices as important and valid.

In all walks of life, in the developing world and the western world, women take second place even though they make up half of the world’s population.  While we may not be ‘chattel’ in the way we were by legal definition until the 1960s, this doesn’t mean we should close our eyes to inequality.  There are now different inequalities to address and it takes a ‘vocal minority’ to do just that.  Moreover, the point of feminism lies not in its self-interest, but in its very belief that activism is on behalf of others – whether that support or activism is requested or otherwise.  So I’m sorry if you don’t want me to stand up for women.  I’m going to do it anyway.  Margaret Mead, American cultural anthropologist, stated: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

The biggest and most worrying trend is that the majority of the criticism I have seen of women’s activism has come from other women.  In this month of learning to celebrate women’s activism, I watched Suffragette and was horrified to see how late universal suffrage was declared in some countries.  I re-learned my love of the word ‘solidarity’ in seeing how the female characters leaned on and supported each other during the worst of their experiences in fighting for the vote.  Solidarity is a beautiful word and one that women, in particular, don’t use or practice often enough.  There is something quease-inducing when I read comments on Twitter and Facebook on identity politics and watch women seeking approval from men they deem to be powerful – I don’t see reasoned argument.  I see sycophants simpering.  I recall reading this in a History source at school:

“The real reason why women ought not to have the political franchise is the very simple reason that they are not men, and that according to a well-known dictum, even an act of Parliament can not make them men. Men govern the world, and, so far as it is possible to foresee, they must always govern it.” Mrs Humphrey Ward, The Literary Digest, 1908

I worry because this ‘I don’t get why we need women’s activism’ smacks of a lack of self and world awareness; it smacks of a mistaken belief that women talking about women’s equality is actually about them hating men.  Or criticising men.  Or blaming men.  I’ll say it again.  Feminism is not about men.  To think so fundamentally misses the point of it.  It’s a criticism levelled at women who dare to talk about what it means to be a woman in education or politics or law or in any field dominated by men.  And we are well aware of how relative the term difficulty is, to both the past and to societies different from our own.

While it might be fruitless to try and engage with those who believe women are equal now that they have the vote (I mean, what else might be needed?), here I go.  In 1970, Foucault outlined the movement away from the enactment of power from a visible and physical phenomenon manifested in the punishment of the human body.  He used the example of a regicide being tortured.  The effect was to punish the criminal and to discipline society.  Post-enlightenment, western Europe moved away from torture – the physical control of bodies – and moved towards a more subtle enactment of power – that of incarceration, the erasing of identity through conformity and uniformity, and the use of the gaze to control.

What does this have to do with women and equality?  It’s exactly the same process.  Women had to fight oppression that was open, clear and could be pinned to suffrage, equal legal rights in marriage, divorce and childcare, abortion, contraception.  Those were obvious forms of oppression.  In true Foucauldian style, oppression is not a visible force 99% of the time.  It is the structures of power, in the representation of women in the media, in the subconscious message.  The best introduction to this ‘disciplining’ of women comes in the brilliant documentary, Miss Representation.  In the first five minutes, the narrator shows you the barrage of images that women are subjects of and subjected to in a post-feminist age.  And we don’t even realise.  Because inequality now in the UK isn’t about the vote, or legal rights, or control over our bodies – it is something much more subtle than that.  Don’t believe me?  Type in ‘female teacher’ into Google and see what comes up.  Type in ‘male teacher’ and compare.

Now that you’ve done that, read this.  Now this.

I’m in Japan at the moment, visiting schools and learning about the education system here.  I like the values, the ethos and the cleanliness of the schools.  But I haven’t met a single woman in a position of responsibility yet.  I know what I’m grateful for in the UK, but that’s not a reason for me – or other women passionate about celebrating women in education – to ‘pipe down’.  It’s just not going to happen.

feminism 6

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6 comments

  1. teachwell

    Yet solidarity it seems means compliance to views of the group. Any challenge is unfounded or wrong. Any examples of discrimination are seen as challenges, even though you can’t do anything about the actual problem if the problem is not outlined.

    What is this sentence supposed to do other than try to shame, insult and push women who disagree with your agenda to agree with it?

    “There is something quease-inducing when I read comments on Twitter and Facebook on identity politics and watch women seeking approval from men they deem to be powerful – I don’t see reasoned argument. I see sycophants simpering.”

    Wouldn’t criticisms be better answered than dismissed in this way? Dismissed in a way that you say women are in the first place? So who is doing the dismissing and on what basis? What makes your statement any less offensive towards women than the ones you claim are made against feminists?

    Also as a human being why does gender have to THE thing that matters? On what basis is It more important than culture, ethnicity, religion, etc and this is being decided by someone other than the person themselves and if they do not see as important as other aspects of their identity then it is ok to chide and patronise them. You say it’s not about men but it kind of is because you are engaging in gender politics so to say it is not in relation to them is false. Unless you want to exist apart from them…

    The only case of women being discriminated against in education is the less than 50% representation of women as secondary head teachers. Women are the majority of class teachers and primary head teachers. So what is being asked for here is not equality, it’s proportionality. As a female dominated sector the proportion of female leaders should match the proportion of women in the workforce and if it does not then it has been assumed this is due to discrimination. Again with no evidence. It is possible to research into this area and find out what the number of applications made by men/women are and the % of each that succeed in gaining positions they have applied for. If the problem is making the application in the first place, that is a different problem altogether. Perhaps in some instances it has nothing whatsoever to do with gender, could it be discrimination of a different sort? How can you know without actually looking into the figures and reasons?

    Also if this principle of proportionality were to be accepted then it would not lead to greater equality within the education sector or any other sector in fact it would embed inequality. If we want equality in education that means more men joining as classroom teachers not less and in primary school more male headteachers. It is this point that many are the most critical of. Do you accept proportionality is acceptable in any sector where men make up the majority of the workforce? If not, why not?

    The differences in pay (which compared to many sectors) are small have not been researched to check what the cause is. Assuming it’s sexism doesn’t make it so and does not explain why in some cases, e.g. that of class teachers there is no pay gap at all. Is this explained by other factors such as maternity leave, part time work, etc. Again claiming it is discrimination without evidence is wrong.

    Most problematic of all is this idea that by virtue of being a women that it somehow allows to accuse others of sexism without reproach, regardless of whether one is correct or not. Sexist is quite rightly seen as a negative, to use this then to taint people is not something one should take lightly.

    Lastly – confusing socially constructed gender traits with biological determinism is seriously undermining the argument made here. I thought we had the right to be free of these social constraints, so why are a new group of feminists attempting to bind women to them?

  2. Hattie

    ‘the only case of women being discriminated against in education is the less than 50% proportion of women as secondary head teachers.’ Um… I was told I was employed in the basis that I ‘brightened things up around here.’ I have been asked not to wear trousers to work because it ‘gives the wrong image.’ I see discrimination in the workplace, harassment, sexism EVERY DAY. It may not be your experience but denying it is not acceptable.

    • teachwell

      That is appalling. You were hired as a teacher? Did you go to the union? What about a solicitor? Is the dress code part of your contract? There are things you can do to stop that from happening to you. In addition, if you have home insurance it usually covers legal costs. If trousers are excluded from the dress code in a contract there is not much you can do other than discuss it with HR. I would suggest you keep a journal or a log and then lodge a complaint. Harassment is against the law and you should have a complaints procedure at work. If there is any adverse effect on your career that’s what the courts and tribunals are for.

  3. suecowley

    Thanks for a fascinating blog. I have found it very interesting to watch the reaction to the WomenEd Unconference. I’ve always found that, if I feel something isn’t for me, then my reaction is to choose not to get involved, rather than to voice any negativity I might feel. There have been other conferences/movements that didn’t really strike a chord with me, but I haven’t felt the need to comment on them much because I don’t see how that would be helpful, especially given all the hard work that these things must take to set up. I wouldn’t set much store on the whole ‘what would people say if we set up a conference for men’ comments, since there actually *is* a conference for men working in the early years coming up soon and no one has had a cross word to say about it. I find it fascinating that so few men choose to work in the early years, and it’s interesting to consider how issues of the perceived status of EY educators, perception of who ‘should do’ childcare and much lower pay levels might have influenced that situation. The same questions surround the teaching assistant workforce, I guess, because that job is also one done mainly by women.

    I was delighted to do the keynote at the conference, because I feel that this is an important issue, and one that I can connect with and relate to. The steering group are such an inspirational group of educators, and they have worked so hard to get this movement up and running, I can only admire what they have done. Although things have moved on a great deal from when I was a child, clearly there is still work to do, as recent news about the persistent pay gap between the genders demonstrates. It seems that the introduction of PRP might exacerbate the gap. Here are a couple of quotes: “A recent survey of ATL members showed that women fared worse under the performance-related pay system” … “The average salary for a female teacher is £2,900 lower than that of a male teacher” from this article: http://schoolsweek.co.uk/schools-must-publish-gender-pay-gap-statistics/

    • teachwell

      Sue, there is not an organisation for men in the same way that WomensEd is an organisation and I think you know it too. It is specifically addressing the issues of recruitment. If WomensEd was about fighting sexism against women in the education system I would give it my whole hearted support. Except members, including you have made it about ideological preferences in teaching.

      So could you please clarify if you have proof that gender is biologically determined as you claim because otherwise your entire attack on the current reforms are baseless. You have chosen to mix that debate with sexism in order to prevent debate and silence those who are critical of the current education system. That is just wrong.

      I will however take this opportunity to apologise to you because I overstepped the mark in my blog and attacked you personally, which I should not have done. I am not going to make excuses for myself. It is the reason why I have rewritten it and left it with my arguments alone.

      For me it is about making changes to the system that I feel are much needed, especially in behaviour, especially that of children from challenging families, who I do not think are being served at all with the current system. I see behaviours reinforced through ignorance that can only lead to future problems with those children as adults, which again I do not think is taken seriously enough.

  4. Don't Feed The Pixies

    An interesting piece – it’s easy to fool yourself in 21st century England that just because gay people can marry and women can vote and that, in general, people are free to worship how they want that the problems of inequality have gone away – particularly if you belong to a relatively well off sub-section of that society. It’s interesting to note that at the time, and to this day, the Suffragette movement was deeply controversial – even amongst the women who supported it (and that the film makes no mention of Suffragists). But for well over 2,000 years now society has always, in one way or another, looked to hold another person down so they can climb up and i think feminism is as important now as it ever was. Perhaps one day people from all backgrounds will be treated equally – but only if they continue to make the world understand that they have that right

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