Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"...Are there any women here?"

I 've been taking part in a PhD student's research into the attitudes and identity of working mothers. The research involves detailed recorded interviews. The first interview lasted well over two hours, and generated a transcript that was well on its way to being a novella. it was interesting to see my patterns of speech written down verbatim. Whilst the ums and errs quota caused mo great surprise, I never realised how many times I start a sentence with the word 'so'.

So...yesterday's follow-up interview lasted around 1 1/2 hours. Mostly it picked up on threads from interview one. However,  the last question blindsided me somewhat. I was asked, what does the word feminism mean to me, now? And what does it mean, as a mother?

I recalled my DM-wearing days at university and in my twenties, when 'feminist' was a badge of honour. When I felt genuinely angry about the failure of society to create the conditions for equal pay and equal opportunities. When the mere notion that a working woman would regularly do far more housework than her working male partner incensed me. When the church's failure to fully embrace the ministry of women felt like a wound in the side. I felt distanced from that person, almost as if I had forgotten how being her felt.

Yet I don't believe these issues are less important now; I just seem to have lost the energising anger. I have become tired, and complacent. But on the plus side, my version of feminism has shifted its focus from the parochial white British middle-class angst towards a bigger picture. So here's what I told the researcher; and here, too, is what I want to pass on to my daughters.

I don't believe men are the enemy. I know and have known too many lovely men, gentle and respectful, to ever think that for a minute. Men who even call themselves feminists, too. But the centuries of malecentric society, coupled with our apathy and our stupidity have created the conditions we find ourselves with today.

We women should respect ourselves a lot more. Part of that respect means not investing so much energy, money and time spent in self-flagellation - do I look too fat? Too old? Too pasty? Too ugly? Each woman needs to decide where the line should be drawn, for herself - mine is after mascara, but well before Botox - and then forget it. Don't get dragged across it by a perception of other people's expectations. Be around those who love you as you are, and begin to see things from their perspective.

The continuing disparities between men and women in the workplace and in how jobs are allocated in the home are concerning, and ultimately something we need to solve. But that is as nothing compared with the utter contempt expressed through domestic violence. Whilst this is a male problem, we cannot wait for men to solve it - not those men. And those women who are already trapped in a cycle of violence are least able to make change happen. We need to foster a steely self-respect in girls and young women, teaching them zero tolerance for any behaviour that undermines, belittles and isolates them - whether it be actual or real psychological and physical abuse. Likewise boys and men need strong role models that vociferously reject all notion that women are weaker, and that jealous love leads to acceptably poor behaviour.

Girls in this country should be aware of the great legacy we have from the Suffragette movement, as well as more modern feminists. That women who speak out on such issues have always been made figures of fun, but that this should only make us more grateful. It is a right, not a concession, that we have good antenatal care, favourable divorce laws, that we can wear what we want, have a choice of career, and drive our own cars. All the more reason to be aware of so many places in the world where this is not the case. Girls need to be taught the links between attitudes, beliefs, actions and law in such places, so that they can fight for the global sisterhood as well as recognising the more insidious forms of these attitudes in their own place of birth.

It is feminism that has enabled me to get a University education; to decide when I wanted children, and how many; to take time out to look after them, and to return to work. Feminism protects my rights to earn money, spend money, borrow money and throw it all away on what I like. Feminism is front and centre every time I take my voting card to the polling booth; and when I sit on a jury. It stands beside me when I talk to those who have suffered abuse from men who should have been their allies. It screams with rage as I flick through the newspaper.

I want my girls to be proud to describe themselves as feminists, wearing that badge as they approach their world with all its complexities, all its light and shade. Just as their mother does: although I think, for a while, she forgot.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Take that, Beijing

I think I heard right. I did, didn't I? Please, God, let it be true...

Danny Boyle has planned to feature allotments as part of the Olympics opening ceremony.

Is there anything more British than the allotment? The creation of tiny pockets of ordered green chaos, where city folk get to play at being farmers? Once you hear that so-and-so has an allotment, your whole attitude towards them shifts, however badly you may have considered them before. No-one can ever be truly grumpy with an allotment owner. The very word - roll it around, now, on your tongue - is up there with pastry-brush, sock drawer and topiary.

Allotments suggest tradition, yet impermanence. A rugged coping sort of attitude, but in an organised, nit-picky kind of fashion. A stand-by-your-beds fingers-on-lips-no-talking approach, fuelled by an enormous sense of the absurd. In short, allotments are quintesentially British.

I hope there are allotments. But if there aren't, please can we have a silly red phone box, one with the sort of door than gives one a hernia to open and that always smells of loose change and wee? Or perhaps a series of mini-roundabouts, or a larger one with a pointless lump of mangled metal puporting to be modern art, that someone has hung a few hanging baskets from in order to cover the obscene graffiti? Could we have a long queue of disappointed people awaiting something greasy and rancid from a roadside burger van, washed down by a mug of scalding tea with the teabag still in it? (Sorry - 'in which the tea bag is still in' - no, wait - 'in which there is still a teabag')? Can we have a radio-phone-in about the pointlessness of the monarchy, followed immediately by a parade in their honour, involving the SAME PEOPLE??

And over it all can we please, please have, in fact this is so obvious now I come to think of it that I'm almost sure it's one of the aces up Danny Boyle's sleeve, if not, have this one for free mate - can we have, in a massive nod to Pink Floyd's glory days, a giant inflatable Stephen Fry floating gaily high above the fake clouds, then set free to drift above the London skyline until coming to an untimely end when punctured by The Shard.

Just in case you need any more ideas, Danny, here's a few I prepared earlier. See what you can do.

Iconography, UK

In this we trust:
Buses will arrive at any time
other than the one in the timetable.
The seating on all public transport will be rationed.
The weather will disappoint
or will appear on the front page of the tabloids
under the headline, ‘Phew, what a scorcher!’
The female newsreader will be both younger and more attractive
than her male counterpart,
unless she is on the radio.
Grammar pedants will wage war on incorrectly applied apostrophes
and any sentence at the end of which there is a preposition.
Parents will claim that certain dietary choices will cause pectoral hirsuitism;
and that turbulent air currents will create the conditions for facial paralysis.
At the Post Office, there will always be a queue of politely-spaced people
who will collectively require three forms, the dispatch of two parcels,
and several books of second-class stamps, which will be pushed under the plastic grill with no good grace by someone who always wanted to work
in a library.

In this we trust: Punch will never attend relationship counselling with Judy
Alice will forever fall tumbling down the rabbit-hole
The answer to all our pain and gnawing moments of self-doubt
will be a good strong cup of tea.
Telephone boxes will always be red, despite evidence to the contrary;
Similarly police constables will wear odd pointy hats, like the one in Noddy.

In this we trust: For St Patrick the Irish will wear the green, for St David the Welsh will wear a daffodil. Scots will fly the flag for St Andrew and raise a glass to Robbie Burns; whilst St George’s Day will be marked by a muted scout parade and a phone-in to radio 2 about the diffidence of the English.

In this we trust: at occasions of collective self-parody we will all join together in singing
‘And did those feet, in ancient times,’
As if we understood it
As if we believed it.
Meanwhile, at the far end of the Kingdom,
The Angel will stand with his rusted arms outstretched,
both revered and loathed in equal measure;
waiting for us to turn in his direction
to greet the New Jerusalem.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Witness Protection

There were two kinds of girls at my school: there were those who were good at P.E. – who could run a mile or 10, who could leap over any obstacle, who could catch a ball without that sweaty moment of self-doubt that accompanied its painfully slow trajectory towards – inevitably – the ground (perhaps via your nose), and who could hit flying objects with ridiculous implements – a hockey stick, a tennis racquet or (most dangerously of all) a lacrosse stick – with force and deadly accuracy.

And there were those who couldn’t. Guess which camp I fell into?

To be seen to be trying and yet still failing was a far worse crime, in teenage-girl land, that simply not bothering. So I didn’t bother, with panache. When we were told to run round the field, I developed a stitch and walked. When practicing netball passes with a couple of partners in crime, we would stand statue-like watching until the teacher turned, then furiously pass the ball between us, until she turned back to the far-more-hopefuls and we resumed our somnolent state. When swimming widths in time trials I would swim in such a way that I wasn’t stuck in another girl’s wake, thus ensuring that I didn’t get a mouthful of spray and that I always reached the far side last. Or one of the last. There was a group of us, all equally useless, all equally afraid of making fools of ourselves. Our main objective was to get through the torture of P.E. lessons, under the teacher’s radar and, more importantly, to escape without the attention of those girls who were in the netball / hockey / swimming teams. Not to be ridiculed, and not to be yelled at – that was our goal.

The weird thing is that, left to our own devices, even we sad team of underachievers could enjoy sports. Once we were in fourth form – year 10, in new money – the teacher twigged that we would be far happier, less inhibited, and therefore more likely to actually, you know, DO stuff, if she left us to our own devices, taking the girls who were good at games away to train separately. Of course, it may also be true that these girls benefited significantly without being hampered by our uselessness…still, we blossomed, albeit in an out-of-breath cack-handed sort of a way. No longer were we held back by pointless instructions about the correct grip for forehand or any notion of an off-side rule. We were free to run and attack and defend, to hit and to leap and to…well, almost to catch. But it didn’t matter, because no-one was watching, well, no-one that mattered, no-one who was GOOD at this stuff. We just picked the ball up, brushed away the grass, and threw it – in entirely the wrong direction.

And in the middle of all that lack of expectations and pressure-off, I even discovered that I was reasonably OK at one or two things.

In the letter written to the Hebrews the writer says this:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
Hebrews 1:1-3 NIV

I have heard that passage preached upon many times. It is used to comfort and inspire its listeners. It is meant to make us focus, to redouble our efforts in the way that we live our lives.

But if I run, I don’t want to be watched. A great cloud of witnesses would paralyse me with fear.

Now, thirty years after the trauma of school P.E. lessons, I go to the gym, picking the time carefully to avoid most members. On the rare occasion my family persuade me to play a competitive game, I give up as soon as I realize that my poor attempts are making victory impossible and (to my mind) ‘spoiling’ the game for everyone else. I can’t help it: I am genetically and experientially programmed to want to crawl under a rock. If you ever want to precipitate my mental breakdown, put a rounders bat in my hand, gather round everyone I know – and a few strangers for good measure – start chanting ‘Hit it! Hit it!’ and then throw the ball towards me. But I warn you – it won’t be pretty.

If I am to be inspired and comforted, I need a different metaphor. I need a personal trainer, one who loves me exactly as I am but realises I could do with losing a couple of pounds, and improving my strength and stamina. I would enjoy training alongside those who are as rubbish as I am, and are open enough to admit it. Who think getting out of breath and going beetroot red are normal. Who want to play games, eclectically, not bound by rules and a sense of how things should be done. Who encourage one another in having fun, not breaking records. And who never ever throw spherical missiles near my head.

Since we are surrounded by a great cloud of underachieving but loving encouragers, let us run…