Last night, my sister told me the story of her last office job. For three years, she drove herself into the ground, working ten hour days, unable even to have a normal “how’s it going?” conversation because no time too much work no time. Her boss systematically broke down her self-esteem, made her feel inadequate for not being able to do three people’s work. Every time my sister made an attempt to find another job, her boss would lock onto it and redouble her efforts to belittle her, make sure that she knew that no one else would hire her and better the devil you know, might as well stay, just for another month or so. She isolated her from other colleagues, made sure she had no one else higher up to discuss the matter with.
My sister said that even now, years later, the effects of this are still with her: she was terrified of starting in a new office job because she was sure she was incapable, a failure, an idiot. Talking about it last night, we suddenly realised that this sounded more than anything like an abusive relationship. Constantly thinking, it’s me, I’m not good enough, if I just tried harder. If I just wait until after this report’s due, she’ll be less stressed, it’s my fault, I should stay later, work harder, be better.
The dominant conversation about abuse is about intimate relationships, and about women as victims and men as abusers. Which, y’know, is because that’s how domestic violence generally works: usually in heterosexual partnerships; men are usually the abusers; women are generally the recipients. But this has lead to a blanket assumption that this is the only context in which abuse happens.
I’ve been reading an analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, and thinking a lot about women in positions of power: how they get power, keep power, maintain authority. How, to borrow a phrase, they have to be twice as tough to be accorded half the authority. In a male-dominated environment, any woman is at a disadvantage; a young, short, blonde woman has to go to extraordinary lengths to be taken seriously.
Which does not bode well for her underlings.
Which is not to say that women are inherently bad bosses, despite what Jennifer Anniston’s oeuvre may suggest. It is not to say even that the patriarchy requires women in positions of power to be abusive. People of all genders have the capacity to abuse what power they’re given. Perhaps it’s to do with how we place greater value on something that’s more difficult to obtain: it is, all else being equal, harder for women to gain power in the workplace than men, harder for them to maintain that power, harder to command respect from colleagues, superiors and employees; so maybe there’s a greater fear of losing it, maybe some women will go to extremes to protect that power, to repel potential or imagined challenges. Wendy Webster talks about how Thatcher was portrayed not merely as beating her opponents, but as obliterating them; if they weren’t humiliated, punished, rendered powerless, she had lost.
Part of the miracle of Obama’s election was the fact that he was ‘allowed’ to be from a marginalised group and to run on a progressive platform: almost every female premier I can think of has won by being tougher than the men; tougher on the poor, on immigrants, on unions (Cristina Fernandez being an interesting exception).
One of my favourite things about social justice theorising is that it (famously) makes the personal political. It takes the sting out of what would otherwise be another thing to beat yourself up about: it doesn’t stop you arguing with your boyfriend about leg-shaving, but instead of thinking I am ugly and you are mean, you can put it in the context of we are both operating under the hegemonic patriarchal ideals of ‘beauty’ and need to find a way to navigate them. Instead of thinking I am a failure why can’t I just work harder I’ll never be able to leave this job and I’m not good enough for anything else, you can recognise the abusive dynamics at play and acknowledge that it is not, in fact, All Your Fault. Because to my mind, writing an essay about power and its misuse is a lot more fun than sobbing dejectedly in a toilet cubicle because you used the wrong font on a spreadsheet.