Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History

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Feminism definition: advocating social, political, legal and economic rights for women equal to those of men
Feminist: a person who supports feminism

Monday 9th November was Equal Pay Day. Now, you might fondly and sensibly imagine that this was a day of celebration, bunting, cake and street parties to commemorate the stunningly simple premise that possession of ovaries doesn’t mean your work should be paid or valued less, nor that your contribution is thought to be any less important. After all, it’s over 55 years since the notion of equal pay for equal work first featured in a party’s election manifesto (Labour, 1959, natch), although it was doubtless condemned at the time by the Tories as being a dangerously radical notion which would bring about floods, hurricanes and the end of civilisation as we know it. The Equal Pay Act finally became law in 1970, triggered in no small part by the 1968 Ford sewing machinists’ strike, although the act didn’t come into force until December 1975 (no hurry lads, take your time…)
So, how can it be that nearly 40 years later, November 9th is in fact the day which marks the gender gap, which means that women effectively stop earning relative to men? The official figures show that the current difference between men’s and women’s pay is 14.2%, although, as Sky news helpfully pointed out, the gap has narrowed this year, with Equal pay Day being 5 days later this year than last. Well, whoopee shit and be still, my beating heart.

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I try

I have considered myself a feminist for as long as I’ve known the word existed and understood its meaning. I am ‘Ms’ on my passport and all official documentation and by now am thoroughly sick of the bemused pause which inevitably follows when I explain this to the person on the other end of the phone at whichever service provider I am speaking to. Men do not have to reveal their marital status when giving their title, so why should I have to? If I know you well enough to reveal this personal detail about myself, I will let you know in my own time, thanks. If you’re the person delivering my sofa or fixing the cistern well, mind your own beeswax. I am not by nature an awkward or stroppy person – I’m usually standing at the back, gazing at my shoes and hoping not to catch anyone’s eye for fear of being consumed with existential angst or good old British embarrassment. But I’ve always thought it was worth taking a small stance on this, as it is symbolic of a much larger issue.

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Glass Ceiling

There are a lot of factors at play here, I think. There is confirmation bias, which means those who hold the powerful positions (who are generally pale, male and stale) tend to appoint and promote people who look/talk/think like them, even if they think they’re being open minded and fair in their selection processes. This can be entirely subconscious, of course, but can also be deliberate; there are still plenty of men around who rather resent the steps women have taken towards equality and, deep down, think that we should be at home cleaning behind the fridge instead of cluttering up workplaces with our handbags and opinions. Or who tolerate us, providing we organise birthday collections, deal with tearful colleagues and get the teas in (even better if we can bring homemade cake too).
Then there is the fabled glass ceiling, the ‘invisible but real barrier through which the next stage or level of advancement cannot be reached by a section of qualified and deserving employees’ and the effect of maternity breaks, which can have a twofold negative effect. Most obviously, a woman who takes even a few months out can feel she has lost ground compared to her male counterparts but also can be bizarrely considered to lack commitment by doing so. As if giving birth is somehow a frivolous, hedonistic and selfish pursuit, along the lines of taking a cruise or something, rather than essential to the continuation of the human race (I haven’t been on a cruise myself, but I think I’d rather give birth again without pain relief than do that anyway. It may have been nasty and brutish, but at least there weren’t overweight Americans in fluorescent synthetic leisure wear and baseball caps in the delivery room taking photos)

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But I think one of the reasons why the gender gap still exits is that we’re just too damned nice. Women are characterised as being gentler, more considerate and more conciliatory than men. Like all stereotypes, there is some truth in this but also some lazy assumptions; these virtues are not exclusively female. Maybe it is a confidence issue: maybe it is nurture rather than nature but few women feel comfortable arguing about feminism in public, myself included. Look at the terms used to describe assertive women; ball breakers, bossy, harridans, bitches, harpies, dragons. Assertiveness is seen as somehow unfeminine, while cooperation and collaboration are seen as soft values, somehow less important than the sort of eye catching ‘strong’ values of bold and decisive decision making that men are often admired for. So if a woman displays ‘feminine’ traits, she isn’t taken seriously, while if she is assertive, she is seen as unfeminine.

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I’m just a girl

I don’t have a daughter myself, but if I did, I would be teaching her something no one ever taught me. It is ok to be angry, it is ok to be pissed off and, above all, it is ok to express these emotions. It is ok to speak up and to demand that you’re heard. That is, you have a right to define yourself, to take up your space in the world and to have a voice. To have an opinion which is as valid as any man’s and which ought to be heard and valued equally. Obvious, right? But you might be surprised and/or depressed to learn how often women are not allowed to do this. ‘Calm down dear’ is the most famous misogynist silencing tactic from the ham-faced replicant currently masquerading as Prime Minister but most women will have been dismissed with similar phrases at some point or other, or told they sound shrill or hysterical if they continue to argue a point. (Or kindly patronised, while some well meaning chap explains that their personal truth isn’t, in fact true at all.) It is rude and disrespectful, of course, but it also denies expression of an alternative point of view, which is often an essential part of a woman’s contribution to a debate. How are we to progress if our views, our perspective, our input isn’t valued?

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Army of me

I keep feeling that we have been far too patient for far too long, but my customary optimism was draining away and I was struggling to think of a way to change anything much – short of dismantling the whole structure of society and starting again in a less patronising, patriarchal, outmoded and ridiculous way. Then I remembered something I read last month about it being the 40th anniversary of Iceland’s ‘Women’s Day Off’. Women in Iceland were actually granted the vote in 1915, years before we were finally allowed the same right here. But by 1975 there were only 3 female MPs there, which comprised just 5% of their parliament. So, on October 24th 1975, 90% of Iceland’s women decided to demonstrate their importance by going on strike. It paralysed the country, with factories, schools and shops closing, while fathers were forced to take their children to work with them.
The results were pretty stunning; five years later, Vigdis Finnbogadottir was elected as Iceland and Europe’s first female president (she was also the first woman in the world to be democratically elected as a head of state) (imagine that! A democratically elected head of state!). All women shortlists were introduced in the 1983 election and Iceland now tops the WEF’s Global Gender Gap index. Scandinavian countries take the top 5 places, while the UK comes 26th, behind Slovenia and Moldova, among others.

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What you waiting for?

There is an aphorism attributed, probably incorrectly, to Eleanor Roosevelt: “Well behaved women rarely make history”. Whoever said it certainly had a point and I’d like to see more of this. Less waiting our turn, fewer polite requests, more justifiable anger and a greater say in how decisions are made, power is allocated and the machinery of state is set up. I don’t want to be waiting another 40 years to live in a country which respects, values, listens to and takes seriously 50% of the population. Not too much to ask, is is? Otherwise I’ll be on the next plane to Reykjavik/Oslo/Stockholm/Helsinki/Copenhagen…

By Treasa O Deoradhain @elephantlass


3 thoughts on “Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History

  1. Would like to add my own observation to this article. Women make up the majority of workers in the front of house retail/service sector. I am one of them. As such, part of our jobs (and we would be sacked otherwise I can assure you) is to be subservient to the public and our bosses. We must not argue, no matter how rude, stupid, obnoxious they are. We are not thanked or respected for being strong and assertive in fact, if we wish to keep our jobs, we are discouraged from being so. Maybe this is one reason it is so difficult to break out of the “feminine” mindset.


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