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I felt a post coming on today when I caught myself sounding just like my mother. The subject was women who choose to rely on their male partner’s earnings instead of going out to work themselves.

Although my mother did work periodically – on a part time basis, usually to “help” when money was tight, as long as it didn’t interfere with looking after the children – her main role was always to keep house and to be our mother.

Once or twice, she tried to kid me that it wasn’t so bad, being a mother and housewife. I didn’t believe her. It wasn’t the life I wanted and (apart from a brief wobble when as the mother of a young baby I suddenly wanted to be exactly that and never have to go back to work again) I’ve felt the same way my entire adult life. Maternity leave is the only time I have ever been out of work or off work, and it drove me crazy. It would be disingenuous to suggest that being off work was the only thing that made me crazy. But it didn’t help, and I am certain that it was getting back to work that saved me. Work isn’t a bowl of cherries but it is independence – and, of course, a break from domestic drudgery. In my case, Arbeit really does macht frei.

My mother, despite having been to work only now and again and only on a part time basis, is very quick to criticise women who do not work. She recounts, for example, the stories of her various friends’ offspring who have marriages that break up and is scandalised that ex-wives seek maintenance payments from their ex-husbands instead of going out to earn their own crust. I argue sometimes, and suggest that there might be lots of good reasons why a wife, especially a mother, could reasonably expect her ex-husband to help support her – not least because so many women give up their own careers and torpedo their own earning potential in order to look after their husband and children, to be that mother and housewife, to further the husband’s career and enhance his earning power at the expense of their own. As it happens, my mother is one of those women – she could have had a great career herself if things had turned out differently. She says that if she had been left to cope alone, she would have done, and would have gone out to work and done it all, and claimed not a penny from anyone. I believe her. But wouldn’t it have been unfair?

And yet…

There is something in me that reacts quite violently, reflexive and unthinking, on this subject. So often it is hinted or implied or outright said that a working mother is an aberration: the suggestion that my own “choice” to work (as if I even had one) is not valid.  So often I am told, directly or indirectly, that a woman’s place – and especially a mother’s place – is in the home looking after her family. Which is a lie. And when a woman reinforces that lie by actively choosing to take up that place, it pisses me off.

I am quite defensive on this, and not always wholly rational. If I manage to switch on my brain for long enough, I am not likely to hold it against the woman personally, because she is not the patriarchy. In particular, older women who married in the 1970s or 1980s or so – the generation of our mothers – get a pass on this. Serious job or career opportunities for women were so thin on the ground, and the training for motherhood and house-wifery was so intensive, that for most there was no realistic choice anyway.

But on the other hand, for my own generation, surely things are different? There is a glass ceiling, of course, and three-year-old girls still get Barbies from old men pretending to be Father Christmas – but we are a world away from the world in which our mothers grew up. These days, a woman who is perfectly capable of working but who chooses to rely on a man instead is (on the whole) making a genuine choice. Why? If there are no realistic job opportunities, I can understand it. If you have children and have made a pragmatic decision to take the risk of dependence on someone else in order to have the opportunity to be a full-time parent, fair enough. But there are women who just feel like it is the man’s role to provide, and it is her role to care for a man (and his children). It isn’t necessarily laziness, but it is the voluntary and unnecessary assumption of the passive role of female dependence. And that pisses me off.

It’s like not voting.
It’s like one in the eye for all the women who fought to free their sisters from household drudgery and servitude.

And – the longer we collectively assume responsibility for housework and childcare, the longer it will be before we kick away the idea that this is Woman’s natural place – and that men who “help” are somehow special. And that will keep the glass ceiling firmly in place, because practical equality in public life can never happen while there is practical inequality in private.

And that – as I think I may have mentioned – pisses me off.

Some time ago I wrote a post that proved rather more controversial than I was ready or able to deal with. This one.

When I wrote it I was feeling pretty disillusioned, frankly. Here was I, attempting in good faith to examine my own privileges, race, class, hetero(ish) and more… hoping to encourage other women to examine theirs, hoping to find useful insights and move forward to useful actions… and yet everywhere I turned there seemed to be blank looks, active discouragement. Why did these women, professing to be radical advocates for female liberty, fail to see any oppression but their own? I was fed up of seeing people around me, including people who I felt should know better, being so damned heartless.

Caveat: I am not talking about everyone or even anyone in particular, other than myself. Dear reader, it’s almost certainly not about you. I’m just saying that this feeling was there, for me, this disillusionment, exasperation. I’m just trying to explain. Explain myself. My naivety. My sudden disappearance, my disengagement from radical feminist circles. Where it all went.

So.

The “trans” issue, the fear – yes, fear – that some women seem to have, the fear that transwomen will damage or even shatter the peace of a woman-only space, this issue just happened to be the one that went nuclear: people I knew, people I considered friends, people who’d commented here before, people who’d never even heard of me or this blog until they saw a link somewhere, they all turned up to have a slice of the action. I’ve been sort of puzzled about how that issue happened to be the one that broke the camel’s back, the one that made me question whether I can even call myself a radical feminist any more. It’s an issue in which I have no personal involvement, no axe to grind, just one in which I had become sort of engaged. But, after all, perhaps it’s not surprising: trans-exclusion seems to have become one of the radical feminist touchpapers, the way abortion rights are a touchpaper in US politics. So I wrote some posts about it, and that was the one that happened to go nuclear.

I have learned a lot since then – from writing that post – from the frankly overwhelming trainwreck that ensued, spinning out of control quick as quick – and also from the rather more thoughtful responses I have read, some in comments but mostly by e-mail and on the blogs of women of many shades of opinion. I have read responses to and critiques of my post from all sides. (Hard to believe, but people are still writing about that post. And I’m still learning.)

Some things that I’ve learned.

I understand far more now about where women are coming from who wish to exclude transwomen from “women-only” spaces and services. And I recognise that the privilege of not being afraid is one that not all women have, whether or not they are trans. And I can understand some women born female not wanting anything to do with women born “male”. And from my place of privilege I am not going to blame them* or say that they are bad people, that would be unfair and untrue.

* I blame the patriarchy. Obviously.

Having a deeper understanding of the honest and heartfelt reasons some women have for wanting to keep transwomen out of women-only spaces hasn’t changed my mind about the issue. If anything, I am now even clearer in my mind, that the exclusion of transwomen is – just – wrong.

Feminists have, in general, come to realise that more privileged women must end their erasure and exclusion of less privileged women: of lesbians, of black women, of women with disabilities, of poor women, of young women, of old women, of pretty and plain and fat and thin women. If in practice we haven’t actually ended all erasure and exclusion, we do at least recognise that in principle it is wrong.

Some feminists who are not trans haven’t yet got to the same realisation when it comes to transwomen: some of us still try to justify a lack of concern for them (excluding them from women-only rape crisis and domestic violence shelters) by claiming that they are not women, by turning a blind eye to the rape and violence that they suffer precisely because they are women. On this issue, many women who are not trans still know too little, engage too little, listen too little.

When all is said and done, if I were writing that post again, I wouldn’t change a lot. I would amend some points of detail, and I would watch my language more closely. I would be a bit less tactless, less patronising and sanctimonious actually. I would also be less tentative about identifying transwomen as women. I would think more carefully about whether and why I still cast transwomen as “other” than women, rather than as simply a particularly category within class Woman.  I would be less fearful about upsetting my radfem friends, too; with notable exceptions on both sides of the divide, some of my radfem friends turned out not to be so friendly after all.

And, finally, if I were doing this again, I would put comments on moderation, or at least waded the hell in once it became clear that the thing was getting out of control. If i can figure out how, I’ll be putting comments in moderation for this post too – just in case.

Where does that leave me?

Older, wiser, and still here – now and then.
Still trying to work it all out.

Youth violence is not about race – the problem is feminism

Dear Mr Lammy

I read with interest your article published today regarding the difficulties that young men often face in Britain, and in particular the problem of young men becoming involved in gangs.

There is however an aspect of your comments that I found troubling.

I will quote: “Some of the old images and expressions of masculinity are disappearing from society. Most obviously the relationship between men and their work has undergone a revolution. A model of work built on physical endeavour is slowly being replaced by an emphasis on intellectual and emotional labour. Women are beginning to break through the glass ceiling, displacing men as the principal earners for the first time.”

You go on to suggest that the solutions may include better male role models, funding for boys’ services, apprenticeships for young men – in short, new ways of helping boys to build up a new, healthier masculine self-image.

Firstly, I am troubled that you identify the disappearance of old images / expressions of masculinity, and women’s progress in the workplace, as causative of young men’s malaise. As far as women are concerned, many of those old images and expressions of masculinity only worked because they excluded and subordinated women: male-dominated workplaces; male-dominated sport; male-dominated homes and families; male-dominated politics; male-dominated life. If they had not excluded or subordinated women then they would not have expressed masculinity but humanity.

Is it fair to blame male violence on female advancement, on the lessening of female oppression? Is it fair to say that young men are giving up and turning to crime simply because they now have to compete with women for legitimate successes? Should we women give up our progress towards an equality not yet achieved so that young men will put down their knives?

I am sure you realise that when women are kept down in the workplace, women suffer. I am sure that you also realise that when women are given the default role of “secondary” earners at best, when husbands expect to earn more than their wives, women suffer. As a single working mother in a family with a now-absent father, I know the price women pay for being “secondary” earners – we pay it when we have a husband, and we (and our children) pay it even more after our husband has gone. I had no choice but to “displace” my husband as a primary earner, but I still don’t earn as much as a man would earn who had my skills and qualifications. I do not relish being “blamed”, as a woman who has taken a “male” job, for causing the disaffection and violence of male youth.

Still, what you say is, I think, absolutely accurate. If women gave up their progress towards equality in the workplace, in art and media, in sport, at home, in politics and in public life then men would feel more confident, more comfortable – and they may not feel the need to carry weapons to feel manly.

Nevertheless, I am troubled by your suggestion that the solution to violent masculinity, where knives and other weapons become symbols of male power in place of more traditional symbols such as male jobs, is to re-draw masculinity in a more “positive” way. In effect, you want to redirect masculinity, create new and less destructive definitions of manliness. Thus you want to recreate “traditionally male” jobs or other valuable and worthwhile “male” activities.

Yet I don’t see how young men can be encouraged into some valuable or worthwhile activity as an expression of masculinity – whether it is male jobs or boy scouts or anything else – unless you also deny women access to that same valuable or worthwhile activity. If women were allowed to do it on the same terms as men, then the activity would not be masculine. Redirecting young men’s energy into some “new masculinity” can only work if this glowing renaissance of masculinity comes at the expense of women. If the new masculinity isn’t about being better than women at violence, then it will be about being better, more powerful, more privileged than women in the workplace or in some other sphere of life where women deserve not oppression or discrimination but dignity and equality.

(And jobs are not male or female. Jobs are jobs. Women and men do them. Will young women be encouraged to go onto these apprenticeships? If not, what will they lose out on while young men are being encouraged to learn a useful “masculine” trade? How could encouraging boys instead of girls be justifiable under sex equality laws?)

So there is the choice – give men something good to do, which women may not do; or let men be bad.

I applaud you for wanting men to have something good to do: but not if you insist that it must be “manly”, because that means excluding women. However, the alternative is not to let men run wild: there is a third way, which is quite simply to discourage this idea that men must differentiate themselves from women at all – discourage this harmful polarisation of the sexes – abandon manliness in favour of simply humanity – embrace true equality.

In the past, when men were deemed indisputably superior to women, they were masculine and women were feminine. The sexes were utterly polarised. Now women are less submissive, less dependent, less traditionally feminine. Logically men have only two options – they can struggle to maintain the sex polarisation by becoming even more masculine, hyper-masculine in compensation for the lessening of femininity – or they can abandon sex discrimination and accept women’s equality as human beings.

Sadly, hyper-masculinity means, on the whole, that men become even more violent and even more domineering, often towards women. Wouldn’t it be better for all concerned if we stopped insisting that men be masculine and women be feminine, and just let them be human beings? If men didn’t feel such enormous pressure to be different from (and better than) women, then both of the problems we are concerned about would disappear. Men would not need to prove themselves with violence or rape. Women would not need to subordinate themselves to men in order to escape violence and rape.

The End.