Happy International Women’s Day!
Firstly, let me say, I love IWD. It creates a brilliant platform to celebrate women’s stories, women’s history and women’s activism. I particularly love the stories you hear about activism from around the world – last year I went to see Angélique Kidjo and Fatoumata Diawara perform and share stories of women in Benin and Mali at the Women of the World Festival at the South Bank Centre.
I am also very grateful to IWD – I got my first job in politics after going to a panel discussion to mark IWD in 2009. I was so inspired I decided to hound one of the panellists for an internship, and that eventually led to a job in Parliament with Emily Thornberry MP.
And it’s in Parliament, on the theme of women’s political representation, where I’m going to stay today – this blog post does not have a very international flavour I’m afraid. It’s been revealed today that tax and benefit changes since 2010 have hit women nearly four times worse than men. Yes, you read that right,FOUR TIMES worse.
Analysis by the House of Commons Library has shown that since 2010 George Osborne has raised a net £3.0 billion (21%) from men and £11.6 billion (79%) from women. Cuts to tax credits, reductions to childcare support through tax credits and child benefit cuts all contribute to these staggering statistics.
When I read numbers like these the question I ask is why? Does George Osborne hate women? Is he on a mission to make women poor? Does he believe that the vast majority of families are supported by a male breadwinner? I believe the answer to the first two is ‘no’ – despite appearances I don’t believe the Chancellor hates women or is on a mission to raid their coffers – if only things were that simple! The answer to the third question though is probably ‘yes’, maybe I’m naive, but I prefer to believe his actions are misguided rather than blatantly sexist.
And I don’t think it’s fair to solely blame the Chancellor for numbers like these – I hold the whole Treasury team and the Cabinet responsible. Mr. Osborne is powerful but the Prime Minister and his colleagues also have input into where the axe falls. And if you take a look at the Cabinet (which I urge you to do), you might realise what I’m getting at.
Just four out of the 22 members of the Cabinet are female, and just one of the five Treasury ministers (scroll down to the ‘Our Ministers’ section). And I like to think that if women were a bit more visible in society, if women’s politics (and not women’s bodies) were a bit more prevalent in the media, there might be a few more women with a seat at the top table. And if all these things were the case then maybe, just maybe, everyone at the top table, women and men, would do their sums before they sharpen the axe.
Don’t panic, this hasn’t turned into a wedding blog… I wouldn’t dare try to enter into that very crowded part of cyber space!
My fiancé went on his stag do this weekend, so what did I do? I bought myself a ticket to a feminist play – Rapture, Blister, Burn at Hampstead Theatre.
To be honest I’ve avoided the theatre during the last few years (musicals excepted). To some people the following words will be sacrilegious, but I generally find the theatre to be a waste of money. The reason for this is the setting of the theatre itself; it’s warm, it’s dark and it’s filled with those ludicrously comfy velvet seats. The result is that somewhere between the curtain coming up and the interval I usually nod off into a deep slumber. To pay £50 for a good snooze is ostentatious at best and frivolous at worst.
But when I heard Emilia Fox and Emma Fielding (the stars of the performance) being interviewed on Radio 4′s Woman’s Hour, I decided to give the stage another shot. At £29 a ticket I knew that if the worst happened it would be a cheaper nap than some.
Well, it was the best £29 I’ve spent in a long time. The first observation I’m going to make is how strikingly theatre audiences seem to reflect the characters on stage. The place was packed with women. Some years ago I went to see a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with an all-black cast and it was the same – the majority of the audience was black. It seems to me it’s not that difficult to work out how to get audiences of greater diversity into theatres… anyway, I digress.
The play is set in the USA and is about two female friends who chose very different paths in life; Catherine opted for a career, as a feminist academic, Gwen opted for marriage and children. To complicate things Gwen married Catherine’s boyfriend Don, who she split up with to pursue a fellowship in London after university. Catherine moves home to care for her sick mother and after a decade apart she rekindles her friendship with Gwen. She ends up teaching Gwen and Gwen’s babysitter Avery a course in feminist theory.
Three generations of women explore the choices they’ve made through the vehicle of Catherine’s course in feminist theory. The play uses smart dialogue and intensely believable characters to collide academia and reality and the result is intelligent, emotional and really funny. Laugh out loud funny in fact. Much of the amusement comes from Avery, the teenager babysitter, who takes great enjoyment in doling out relationship advice to Catherine, although her own relationship, with a Mormon who’s making a reality TV show with her, is clearly far from perfect. Catherine’s mother, Alice (played by Polly Adams), who has a penchant for martinis, is also a source of much hilarity.
I started this blog because I was frustrated with how removed feminist theory is from real life. This play brings the two together in a funny accessible way without passing judgement or patronizing women. I’ve never seen that done before and I’d like to pay tribute to Gina Gionfriddo who is an exceptionally talented playwright.
The one time I stayed awake for the duration of a play and I went to the theatre on my own! Normally I dread the post-play dissection with fellow theatre-goers, but on this occasion I’m dying to discuss Rapture, Blister, Burn with someone. So please, buy a ticket and let me know your thoughts.
As usual for this time of year the media is filled with round-ups of 2013. When it comes to feminist takes on the last year though, there have been a lot of blogs and articles focussing on the sexism that took place in 2013. It makes for shocking and depressing reading. So I thought I’d focus on the positive: who are the women and men, and what are the events that took place, particularly in the political sphere, that are worth celebrating?
1. Malala Yousafzai
No one can forget Malala Yousafzai standing up at the UN on her sixteenth birthday to call for universal access to education. It’s nineteen minutes long but it’s worth watching the video in full. That girl is pure courage and pure inspiration.
2. Caroline Lucas MP says ‘No more page three’
Caroline Lucas MP made an impassioned speech about violence against women and media sexism whilst wearing a ‘No more page three’ t-shirt. She was told to cover it up with her jacket because she was not conforming to Parliament’s dress code. She then whipped out a copy of the Sun, available across the Parliamentary Estate. It seems bare boobs are fine, t-shirts on the other hand…
Caroline, I’ll embroider the slogan on a suit jacket for you if you want to do it again. Go girl.
3. New Zealand legalises gay marriage
Two videos for the price of one!
This is a brilliant and hilarious speech from MP Maurice Williamson in favour of gay marriage.
For me the laughter turned to tears watching this video, when the bill is passed. I defy anyone not to be moved when the singing starts – beautiful.
I’m a real fan of BBC Radio 4′s Power List, put together by the fabulous team at Woman’s Hour. All of the other ‘lists’ of women I’ve ever seen are titled ‘sexiest’, ‘hottest’ or ‘most beautiful’. This list is a celebration of powerful woman and I think that’s pretty radical.
A Girl Called Jack has been writing for some time, but she’s really been recognised by the media this year. She’s a young single mum, who after losing her job, found herself having to feed herself and her son on £10 a week. She’s got a blog of budget recipes, but she’s also a vociferous campaigner on child poverty and hunger. She’ll be one to watch as in 2014 she’s bringing out a book and she’s got an advertising deal with Sainsbury’s.
6. Wendy Davis speaks for 13 hours to try and block a bill in Texas reducing access to abortion
Wendy Davis was fighting Senate Bill 5, which banned abortions after 20 weeks and forced the majority of abortion clinics in Texas to close. Sadly the bill passed later in the year, but Wendy has vowed to run for Governor and make overturning it a priority. Wendy, we’re right behind you.
This was a major step forward for individuals who are intersex and I hope that other countries follow in Germany’s footsteps in 2014.
8. Australia’s Prime Minister defends marriage equality
Australia’s Prime Minister spoke out in favour of gay marriage, having previously been opposed to it. Politicians are usually lambasted when they change their mind, but I think this is one U-turn we can all applaud.
A coalition of activists launched the social media #FBrape campaign to lobby Facebook to change its policies around content that glorified rape and domestic violence. See, YOU can change the world. Facebook invited Women Action Media (WAM!) and The Everyday Sexism Project to provide input on how its new Community Standards should look.
Having the recognition of an internationally respected organisation made global headlines. WHO’s landmark report on violence against women drew on studies from around the world, and found that more than 1 in 3 women will experience violence during their lifetime.
I hope that some of these stories and the people behind them inspire you and give you hope for the year to come. Let me know what inspired you this year.
Labiaplasty is a plastic surgery procedure for altering the labia minora (inner labia) and the labia majora (outer labia), the folds of skin surrounding the human vulva. It’s often called the ‘Barbie’ surgery because it makes your down there, look like, well Barbie’s. If you’re still confused, there are before and after pictures of operations here. This week I read a BBC news article saying that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have warned that labiaplasty should not be carried out on the NHS.
The popularity of these operations has exploded in recent years and according to the BBC the numbers have increased fivefold in the last decade. Sometimes there’s a real need for this surgery and you only have to read these posts on Mumsnet to see why. But in recent years there’s been a trend for ‘designer vaginas’; vaginas that fit an ideal introduced by porn. And with porn now freely available through the internet, it’s become a standard that many men and women seem to expect.
We’ve seen the same thing happen with the removal of pubic hair – women in porn are bare down there and so many of the female public has followed suit. But shaving or waxing is reversible; it grows back and without any serious long-term side effects. Labiaplasty can leave women with pain, scarring, less sensitivity and a host of other problems, and once it’s been done, it’s irreversible. You only have to read these heart-wrenching stories to realise that for many women having a ‘designer vagina’ left them feeling butchered, scarred and violated.
Personally I’ve always felt uneasy about cosmetic surgery. While it’s obviously a personal choice, it’s always seemed a great shame to me that women (and men) feel the need to nip here and tuck there to fit a body ideal that doesn’t exist; that people feel so unhappy in their skin that they’re prepared to undergo major surgery with all the risks that come with it. For so many people to be running to the operating table to change how they look I think says more about the problems of our society, than any problems with our bodies… but that’s another blog post for another day.
What I find incredibly ironic about labiaplasty is that while some women are desperate to go under the knife to have their vagina altered, others are fighting a long hard battle against female genital mutilation (FGM). What’s FGM?
Here’s the World Health Organisation’s description:
Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
Sound familiar? Yes, to me that sounds a hell of a lot like cosmetic labiaplasty and FGM has been illegal in the UK for 28 years (although there are yet to be any prosecutions). FGM is understood to predominantly take place in African and Asian communities, and is performed both in the UK and abroad. Some 20,000 girls living in the UK are thought to be at risk and 140 million women worldwide are living with the consequences of FGM.
You may think it’s crass to make comparisons between the two procedures. FGM is most often performed on children who have no choice. It often takes place in unsanitary conditions and carries far more health risks (including death) than labiaplasty. The point of FGM is to ensure women do not experience sexual pleasure so that they are virgins before marriage and remain faithful afterwards. I assume that women seeking a labiaplasty want to make themselves more sexually desirable, rather than remove their own feelings of pleasure. And women in a position to have a labiaplasty presumably know the risks and give their full, informed consent, which cannot be said for the frightened women and girls who suffer FGM.
Like all cosmetic surgery, to have a labiaplasty is a women’s free choice, and I would always defend a women’s right to make her own choices about her own body above everything else. But I hope these women consider the irony of their choices in a world where so many other women are fighting to keep knives away from their vaginas.
I’ve often wondered which social practices, that today are considered completely normal, will be exposed as being discriminatory and abusive in the next fifty years. What is it that we’re doing now that in 2063 will be viewed on a footing with unequal pay and marital rape?
I pick these examples because it was only in 1970 that it became illegal to pay a woman less than a man, and it was just 22 years ago (in 1991) that it became illegal to rape your wife. During the last century both of these things were viewed as widely acceptable, but in recent decades the tide of public opinion turned and now we have legislation to protect women facing these issues. So what are we doing today, that could be blindly causing harm and pain to others, which in the future will be deemed unacceptable?
At the LSE (where I did a Masters in gender theory) I remember spending hours in the library struggling to make sense of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble… and that was just the first chapter. I remember trying to wrap my head around new concepts of gender that had never occurred to me, because I’d never bothered to question the status quo. I remember struggling to articulate those concepts to those around me and trying to imagine what a better world might look like.
One of the things that really struck me was how to imagine gender. I’d always thought of male and female as secure categories, which were easy to define and articulate. It had never occurred to me to think of gender in any other way. But the more I read, the more I learnt. One of the things I realised was that there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who are born without without clear male or female genitalia, and so our obsession when a child is born about whether it’s a boy or a girl, whether to buy baby blue or baby pink, is actually incredibly unhelpful to a large number of parents.
Parents are often pressured into decisions about surgery and gender assignment just days after their child comes into this world. One of things contributing to that pressure is that when you register a birth you have to register the child’s sex, and you have to do this within the first 42 days of life. Operating on a healthy newborn baby, to fit society’s idea of male and female seems fairly extreme, particularly in a culture which also places a high value on individualism and self-determination.
Having given all this stuff a lot of thought, I was fascinated to discover on Friday that Germany is to allow parents to leave the box for sex blank when registering children. The reason is to remove pressure from parents for assigning a sex to their child where they display both male and female genitalia. It’s a means for parents to register the birth of their baby, without forcing them into a box they just don’t tick.
There are some who say the new law doesn’t go far enough, that rather than leaving the box blank, parents should have a third box marked intersex that they can tick. I happen to agree, but I also think we should applaud Germany for being the first to make this landmark change. It’s easy to criticise reformers for not going far enough, but in a world where I find myself having to tick a box marked female at least every few weeks, I think Germany’s doing a pretty radical thing.
In 2063 I hope that being intersex is no longer a taboo, that gendered identities aside from male and female are not just acknowledged, but embraced. I hope that people realise that not everyone fits into the boxes marked male and female, and that that’s ok. At the moment we’re causing hurt without even realising it, and I hope that in fifty years’ time that’s changed.
On the sixth of August I went on a cycle ride in the beautiful Kent sunshine with my boyfriend, Alby. We stopped off at a vineyard to taste some local wine where we bought a bottle of ‘Canterbury Choice’. The vineyard owner had started making wine as a retirement project, but the project had got too successful and he was running out of wine so he asked us not to tell our friends about the place – so I won’t advertise his business here (!) despite the fact that he does make an excellent dry white.
Anyway, we continued on our cycle ride, found a lovely picnic spot near the sea, opened our bottle of Canterbury Choice and tucked into a blue cheese and pearl barley salad we’d had for dinner the night before. I lay down with my head in Alby’s lap and he told me to close my eyes. When he said to open them again there was a small box on my tummy, and I was pretty sure I knew what was inside.
I am absolutely thrilled to be engaged to Alby. We got together when we were just teenagers and I don’t think either of us imagined we’d end up marrying each other. But I feel proud that we’ve carried each other through these past 11 years and I have no doubt he’s the one for me.
So, what’s the problem? Getting married has made me think very hard about my feminism. In fact, it was before Alby popped the question that I began contemplating what marriage means. I did a Masters in Gender at the LSE so it’s not like the issue hasn’t cropped up before, but it was during the campaign in the USA against Proposition 8 that I really got thinking. I have always been a strong supporter of gay marriage, and I thought most people I knew were too. So I was a bit shocked when some of my friends were questioning whether gay marriage is a good thing.
The argument rests on the fact that marriage as an institution has perpetuated inequality, so in the words of Dean Spade and Craig Willse ‘Expanding marriage to include a narrow band of same-sex couples only strengthens that system of marginalization and supports the idea that the state should pick which types of families to reward and recognize and which to punish and endanger.’
It’s a strong argument, but for those (like me and Alby) that want to publicly declare their love for each other, make a promise to be there for each other until the end of our days, and cash in on the £200 Tory tax break (only joking!), it’s not particularly helpful. Our decision to marry is about love and emotion and this argument is somehow devoid of that.
I have to say, for those young feminists who are seriously contemplating marriage, there’s not much advice out there. Wedding magazines steer clear of this thorny issue, in fact wedding magazines inspire a whole kind of other anxiety. Their pages are filled with ‘To do lists’ that start 18 months before your wedding. We decided to organise our wedding in six months, so technically I’m a year behind!
Anyway, I digress, there are a couple of good blog posts out there and this one titled ‘Who wants to marry a feminist?’ is full of helpful insights. Lisa Miya-Jervis concludes ‘Marriage, is now, potentially what we make it.’ We intend our marriage to be a partnership and I hope we will be able, in our own small way to redefine an institution, which hasn’t always been a good thing for women. Obviously, where the removal of dead rodents is concerned, responsibility lies squarely with Alby, but apart from that we intend to share the responsibilities of home and work and ask ourselves tough questions if that ever stops happening.
I’m acutely aware that women have a long way to go before we live in anything close to an equal world but I don’t believe marriage needs to be a retrograde step in that journey. Any celebration of love should be cherished, because for anyone who’s been to a wedding or civil partnership, they’ll know it truly is a beautiful thing. Marriage is what we make it and it’s only by getting married, we can make marriage better.