This event featured ten diverse writers explaining their reasons for being a feminist in very different ways. The chair Lennie Goodings wanted to explore the female gaze in a way that was absolutely exclusive. Feminism is exactly as complicated and as simple as wanting the best for everyone.
McDermid begins by explaining the crime fiction is now studied in academia and as a successful crime writer she often gets asked to speak or contribute to papers, which all require abstracts. Her abstract for this particular talk was ‘Well, duh!’
She says it never occurred to not to be a feminist, her family had feminist politics and her school made all the girls think that they could be anything. This meant that emerging into the real world and experiencing misogyny was a real shock. One of the points where she first noticed sexism was when her mother was part of the local bowling club. Men were allowed to bowl at any time they liked but women were only allowed to bowl during certain hours. Infuriated by this McDermid’s mother campaigned until the rules were changed.
McDermid explains that there has been change. A recent study discovered that for the first time women in their mid 20s are earning more than men of the same age. In Scotland the three main parties all have female leaders and Holyrood politics has a far more respectful and discursive tenor than the bluster and posturing of Westminster. However the battle is far from won and progress is not universal. Anonymity online translates directly into vicious misogyny online.
“I’m a feminist because I like to be on the winning side.”
O’Hagan spent a childhood on the west coast trying to find convincing arguments for feminism that would not be dismissed at home. He remembers a shop opening called ‘What Every Woman Wants’, which eventually changed to ‘What Everyone Wants’. He read a poem, which contained the line ‘No son of mine was ever a feminist’. It featured accusations of ‘eating grapes like a lesbian queen’, a call to ‘cremate your aprons, prams, and him’ and a line comparing Margaret Thatcher to a Yorkshire serial killer in drag.
“Made me laugh about the follies of men and made that part of me whole again…It wasn’t men I needed, just the one.”
Criado-Perez explains that for a long time she rejected the label of feminism. She accepted the stereotype of women being over-emotional, useless, trivial, “Just let me be the exception, yeah?”
Her awakening came from a book called Feminism and Linguistic Theory. There was a paragraph explaining that ‘man’, ‘mankind’ and ‘he’ were used as a universal term, and yet people always pictured men when hearing them. Suddenly she realised that when she heard ‘doctor’ she pictured a man, the same for ‘lawyer’, ‘judge’, ‘politician’. Any form of authority and she pictured a man. That was when she realised that the world as it was presented to her was wrong. She had internalised the poor representation of her own gender and now realised that men were viewed as human beings and women as something else. In her view feminism is that movement that will one day prove that women are also human beings.
Natasha Kanapé Fontaine
Fontaine is an indigenous woman from Canada and she read a poem exploring the fact that indigenous women are just being to wake and rise up.
She speaks of crying out at the famine of her people, her thirst being a manifesto and how she will sleep no longer. She laments the man ‘who taught me spineless’ and says that he is her ‘revolution and my madness. She is the moon and the earth and the sea and there is a celebration tonight.
“Tell me, who believes in prophecies today…I will make myself a woman with the ills of my people.”
Brookmyre is often told that he writes ‘strong female characters’ and understands that it is intended as a compliment, though there are a variety of issues implied in that phrase.
He speaks of men who gather on blogs and forums condemning those who are fighting for social justice. He sees these men as overemotional and hysterical in their response to things, exactly the traits they try to paint onto women. There was an exhibition of sports posters and the Athena Tennis Girl was included, as if there was something powerful about a voyeuristic shot of a girl so eager to play tennis she forgot her pants. Predictably as soon as anyone protested these men responded with condescension.
Brookmyre likes to imagine a hypothetical one of these men, Tom, starting work at an all male company where he suddenly realises that he is the only heterosexual. On meeting him the boss (a large, solidly built and very gay man) leans in and says, “You smell gorgeous.” Later at a meeting he introduces the newest member of the team by declaring that,
“We’re very lucky to have Tom with us, and I think we can all agree he’s very easy on the eyes.”
The meeting continues with Tom growing increasingly uncomfortable. At the end of the day he is called into the boss’ office. On the wall is a poster of a man who was so eager to play tennis that he forgot to change out of his assless chaps. When the boss asks if he likes it Tom explains that it makes him feel uncomfortable and that he also felt uncomfortable in the meeting earlier in the day.
“God’s sake Tom, I was only trying to give you a compliment,” the boss goes on to accuse him of dressing provocatively and saying that if he didn’t want attention he shouldn’t have worn such a flattering suit, “It’s only a bit of fun, Tom. See you heterosexual men, why do you have to take everything so seriously?”
Clifford was the first openly transgender woman to have a play in the West End. She speaks of a moment when she first began to live as woman and bumped into a man. He apologised with an ‘excuse me, madam’. Then he took another look at her and apologised more strongly. For a moment Clifford was confused before she realised that he thought she was male and that there is no greater insult between men that mistake them for a female.
As her transition progressed she suddenly began to notice that men of a certain age were helpful. They would open doors and ask if she needed help with her bags. However, there was an air of condescension that was initially baffling. She wondered if she was suddenly looking stupid and then realised that the reality was that she was looking female. She was now pretty enough to be dismissed and devalued. A short while later she was entering a hotel and saw four young men appraise her and then look right through her with an obvious air of ‘old, fat, ugly, does not exist’.
This is changing, slowly and painfully. We are discovering our power and wherever this happens the world becomes a better place.
Robertson starts by explaining that he views feminism as being about equality and so he decided to read a metaphorical poem about inequality. It is written in the style of a Scots folk tale and is about a woman who’d had four sons, each of them blind and slow. Difficult on land but fine in the water. Her husband keeps accusing her of having an affair before leaving. As the poem goes on the husband returns ‘thick with drink’ and ‘relaxes them with a small knife’.
Their graves are then described and the narrator is shown into the house past a room with four small beds and four small candles. The tone of the ending suggests it might be that the narrator was the real father but the meaning is unclear.
“She gave me a skylark’s egg in a bed of frost.”
Seven years ago a lecturer asked who in the room was a feminist and Laurie did not raise her hand. She was unsure and afraid that if she said yes, she’d be asked to leave her make up bag behind. She knew the statistics but it wasn’t until she was doing PhD research in Tanzania that she fully understood why feminism was important. She heard harrowing stories of daily injustices. In a country where health care costs money, many of the women she spoke to had stories of the lengths they’d gone to in order to get money for a sick child. One was beaten by her partner, another went to a bar and found a man to sell herself to. Laurie says that she then said “When you have nothing left to sell, you sell yourself.” Inequality in schooling had left them devalued, easily exploited, and unable to fill in a complaint form or understand how to protest their treatment.
Laurie still didn’t feel able to call herself a feminist as she struggled with her own privilege. She was becoming a doctor on the back of their problems with inequality. She wondered how she could call herself a feminist when, to a certain extent, she benefited from the system. She now acknowledges that it would be better if those women were here to tell their own stories but that if a PhD offers her authority, she should exploit that. It is better to be a privileged western white woman who speaks out than one that stays silent.
Kumar is a comedian who says he feels woefully inadequate on stage with everyone else. He even considered reading from a blank piece of paper to look more prepared. He is also very aware that a male feminist needs to be careful about how he speaks. Male voices in feminism carry an odd atmosphere and too many carry a tone of condescension. However he feels as though feminism was handed down to him. His is a matrilineal family filled with formidable/terrifying women.
He then explains that he is tired of the right wing trying to claim that feminism had achieved its goals. For the CEOs of FTSE 100 companies there are more men called John than there are women in total. Second place in that statistic isn’t women either, it’s men called David (which points to a diversity problem as well).
Kumar is also aware that female comedians have a very different experience of the comedy industry than he does. He was once asked who he admired and who had influenced him and the (female) reporter was shocked when he named a woman. Equally the nasty comments on his YouTube are all along the lines of ‘asshole’ or ‘this guy’s not funny’. He knows a female comedian who gets comments of ‘this bitch should go to hell’ or ‘no one’s going to sleep with her’. He also observes that protection is lacking and that ‘the penis remains a powerful legislative tool’.
The bias towards male voices was brought home to him when he was involved in a program where they read scripts out live. He received one script by an anonymous author, which was all about female sexuality. When he got in contact with the writer later she said that having a male read it out gave it value, whereas from her it was just sex stuff.
Shafak begins with the story of her mother. At 19 she was married and thought love was enough so she dropped out of university and moved away with her husband. Three years later she was divorced with a small child and returning home to a conservative neighbourhood where her circumstances usually meant a marriage to an older man. However, Shafak’s grandmother intervened and told her to return to university and that she would look after Shafak. This meant that Shafak grew up in a household with two women who had made very different choices and almost lived in different worlds but continued to support each other.
Shafak explains that feminism is primarily about boundary transcending sisterhood and demanding respect and joy. It’s important to remember the words of women who struggled and that it’s not easy to be a man in a patriarchy either. Homophobia and Xenophobia also go hand in hand with patriarchy. Yet Shafak has had homophobes or xenophobes tell her they love her LGBT or foreign characters, suggesting that there is a great capacity for change beneath the veneer of prejudice and hatred.
She then talks of being a woman in Turkey, of daily harassment and discussions between women about carrying needles or safety pins with them on the bus. Some religious groups talk of a balance between male and female, a balance that is clearly broken. Feminism is constantly ridiculed, demonised and deliberately misunderstood by both the government and the media and yet it is so desperately needed.
As a testament to her parting line I mentioned to someone how interesting this event had been and he said he was tired of people ‘trying to be controversial’. Curating a discussion about feminism is not an attempt to stir thing up and be controversial; it’s an attempt to curate a serious discussion about an issue that affects more than half the world’s population and covers problems from equal pay all the way through to FGM and murder.