A strong woman is a woman at work
cleaning out the cesspool of the ages,
and while she shovels, she talks about
how she doesn’t mind crying, it opens
the ducts of the eyes, and throwing up
develops the stomach muscles, and
she goes on shoveling with tears
in her nose…
A strong woman is a woman in whose head
a voice is repeating, I told you so,
ugly, bad girl, bitch, nag, shrill, witch,
ballbuster, nobody will ever love you back…
Marge Piercy – “For Strong Women”
As a child, I grew up in the ‘safety’ of white suburbia. Feminism was not even a word and women activists appeared only as historical figures, dismissed and derided as harridans. Whilst I rejected the ‘womanly ambitions’ being imposed on me by my deeply unenlightened school – marriage and motherhood – there seemed to be few other alternatives available. It wasn’t until my twenties that these possibilities came into view and, for those, I must give thanks to my mother.
I’d already started breaking free of the powerful conditioning I’d been unknowingly subjected to by becoming involved in trade unionism. The freedom to challenge the status quo, even in small ways, had been a personal epiphany and during these changes, sometime in 1979/80, that my mother handed me a fat red-covered book and said “Read this.” The book was “Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism” by Mary Daly. At the risk of sounding trite, it changed my life and I have never forgotten the transformational impact the book had on me. When I identify myself as a feminist, this is the source and well-spring my feminism emerges from.
“There are and will be those who think I have gone overboard. Let them rest assured that this assessment is correct, probably beyond their wildest imagination, and that I will continue to do so.”
Mary Daly (1995)
One impact of Daly’s book triggered my interest in the hidden histories of women. I’m deeply grateful to the likes of Dale Spender for showing me – even in part – how knowledge of women had been systematically buried or disguised. I remember well both Daly and Spender’s astonishment when Matilda Joslyn Gage stepped out the shadows and took her rightful place alongside Elizabeth Cady-Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. All these women taught me how our history gets buried within patriachal systems and my experience since then points to how little this process has changed.
Feminists who have been struggling to build Women’s Studies course and programmes speak to each other of this eerie experience, seeking confirmation of our own clear memories: “It’s like beginning from square-one.” “It’s like re-inventing the wheel.” “It’s as if nothing had ever happened.” “They seem lobotomised.” “We should have forseen this.”
Mary Daly: Gyn/Ecology (1978)
This tour around my own feminist history has purpose not because it is ‘right’ for anyone else but because, for me, it defines the problems we continue to face even now. With the ability to look back over the last 30+ years, it is quite clear that the Women’s movement of the 1970’s and 80’s failed in our ambitions. Despite all that energy, all that power, the position of ordinary women is now worse than it ever was. Whilst not wanting to detract from the ‘success’ of forcing the Bank of England to keep one – one single woman – on British banknotes, this very fact illustrates our failure. If we had been successful, this contemporary issue would never have arisen because women would be occupying an equal place already. The fact that young women today have had to campaign in such a way says it all. Women haven’t progressed our place in society at – in fact, we’ve regressed.
Given the responses to Caroline Criado-Perez and her supporters’ success, it is not hard to see why.
There is a sea of boiling anger out there because men are taught from a young age that women are here to serve, and then they grow up and discover that women often elect not to do that. Some misogynists—the Rick Perrys of the world—calmly react to this realization by deciding that women’s rebellion is a temporary, feminism-induced insanity, and that the proper legislative pressure plus a good dose of condescension can return them to their natural state of servitude. Some men get a sick pleasure out of stripping away the “illusion” that women are equal and violently showing them exactly how inferior they are. The online troll population has these kinds of characters in it, but the dominant class is men who don’t get the level of sexual attention they feel entitled to from women, and therefore have concocted elaborate, dogged theories about how women are broken, because they cannot ever allow that women have a right not to like them personally. (Or that if they started acting like decent people, maybe they would actually be more likeable.) All misogynists get upset when women are given attention for their talent or skills; it violates their core belief that women are here to serve. This is why writing on the internet while female means getting everything from laughably delusional men pretending to “critique” your writing while barely concealing their rage to rape and death threats. Particularly if your writing is not upholding the opinion that women are inferior servant class.
As Marcotte points out, this does not apply to all men nor does this behaviour exclude women. It is, nevertheless, the prevailing view of the patriarchal system that currently runs the UK – we need only look at present government policies to see this. But the UK government is not just misogynist – it’s racist, “disablist”, homophobic, poor-hating… the examples of its collective bigotry seem never-ending. Whilst some of us have known this for a while, we can be grateful to Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasey and other campaigners for piercing the ‘disguise’ so effectively that many more are starting to see the problem for who it is. If ever there was an example of the selfish gene in action in our societies, we see it clearly in the misogynistic, bigotted systems that currently pervade our human world.
So what to do? If there are certainties that have arisen from the Women’s Movements of the past, the first one is this. Silence will not work. Silencing is the working tool of the patriarchs designed to dismember our complexity, individuality and variety. Using silence will fail us all.
The second lesson I draw from the mistakes of our past is this: for as long as we try to dismember our individual experience in favour of a single cause, we will fail. Evolution favours co-operation. Co-operation does not equal control. Co-operation – to work effectively – requires difference. Without difference, there can be no co-operation. Without authentic differences between us, we will never get to truly understand the problems we face. Middle-class white women can never appreciate the experiences of working-class women of colours. The able-bodied will never understand the experiences of those who are differently-abled. Men will never understand the experience of women. Communities in one part of the world will have different needs and priorities to a community elsewhere. These are not criticisms, they are facts! It is simply not possible to produce a one-size-fits-all approach to life or living. Nor is it the case that simply because I don’t have the knowledge, wisdom or experience to overcome obstacles, others are similarly ignorant. When we respect difference in both ourselves and others, we open the door to cooperation. In opening the door to cooperation, we evolve.
Where the selfish gene is exclusive, evolutionary cooperation is inclusive. The latter requires everyone to become a part of a greater inter-connected whole where each individual is seen as valuable part of a greater whole. This is what evolution is about and it’s the path I choose. All this blog aims to do is explain the experiences that inform the reason for my own choice.
For two years of wild and sometimes dangerous adventure, I worked and fought alongside vigorous, happy, well-adjusted women who laughed instead of tittering, who walked freely instead of teetering, who could outfast Gandhi and come out with a grin and a jest. I slept on hard floors between elderly duchesses, stout cooks and young shopgirls. We were often tired, hurt and frightened. But we were content as we had ever been. We shared a joy of life that we had never known.