Tuesday, 25 February 2014

A History Lesson: women work.

If I read one more article claiming that women didn't work before the fifties I'm going to beat said article upside the head with my history degree.

Shit, was that classist? Okay. I'm going to beat it round the head with my ABILITY TO READ FUCKING WIKIPEDIA.

"What was the most important technological invention of the last four hundred years?" asked the lecturer, back in English Social History 1851-1991. "The spinning jenny!" said one dude, who was very into Marxism and the Industrial Revolution. "The internet!" piped up another, who clearly had his own website on Geocities back in the 90s and was so proud of himself for thinking outside the box.

"Would any women like to make a suggestion?", Mr Lecturer asked. I grinned. I was going to like this class.

"The pill?" I proffered. "Or the washing machine?"

Southampton City Council paid a giddy fortune for me to get educamacated, and I took on a hefty wallop of debt for the same reason, and from my perspective, it was all worth it just for that one moment in a cramped, musty corner of a converted Georgian townhouse. We beamed at each other in a smug haze of humanities joy, silently congratulating each other on being at least six times cleverer than anyone else in the room. It was ace.

So yeah, the washing machine probably had more impact on society than the internet. But saying things like
"Rather than spend their time washing clothes, women could go out and do more productive things. Basically, it has doubled the workforce."
displays not only a racist, classist conception of "women" as a category, but also a basic lack of appreciation of actual historical facts. When people say "women" didn't work before the fifties (or 1939, or 1914, or whatever arbitrary date you're throwing at me) they mean middle class white women didn't work.

Poor women, which, then even more than now, included virtually all women of colour, have always had to work. It wasn't a choice between sitting at home in a Feminine Mystique nembutal haze or throwing off domestic shackles to take up a fulfilling career in advertising or whatever - it was a choice between shitty, back-breaking, poorly paid work, or your kids not eating.

Rather than spend their time washing clothes... do you really think that middle-class and aristocratic white women scrubbed their own knickers? Come on. They hired poor women to do it for them, as well as light their fires, swab their floors, cook their meals and raise their kids. Hundreds of thousands of working class women made their living this way - before and after marriage - because there was no other option.

Let me take you on a whistlestop tour of female engagement in the British workforce. Back in ye olde medieval times, they worked on the land; with the rise of cottage industry, the home and the workplace were one and the same, and women worked as weavers and candle makers and cobblers and locksmiths and in dozens of other trades. Women dominated the factory workforce during the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Up until the Second World War, women also made up the bulk of domestic workers, before inventions like the washing machine - oh hi! - radically reduced the availability of jobs in this area. Even before this, more women chose factory work when it was available (particularly in war time) due to the greater freedoms and higher wages it offered. Particularly from turn of the 20th century, women also worked in shops, as secretaries, as waitresses.

Obviously they were mostly forced into the more menial, lower paid end of every industry, and paid less than men for identical work, because sexism. Bit like today, really.

Oh yeah, and you'd better clarify that you're talking about work outside the home, or are you saying that raising kids and scrubbing floors and feeding families and growing food and making clothes and washing huge tracts of fabric by hand only counts as work if someone's willing to pay you a pittance for it? Really?

What people really mean when they talk about Women Working Outside The Home is women getting fancy white collar professional work - fields like law and medicine which didn't open up to women as a class until much later. (For more on how traditionally female fields of healing and midwifery were taken over by the chaps, who, centuries later, deigned to let the ladies back into 'their' field, try Barbara Ehrenreich's For Her Own Good.)

Claiming that women as a class didn't work before some kindly gentleman rocked up to liberate them with his exciting new labour-saving washing machine is to ignore vast swathes of historical reality. It reduces the millions of women who were active in the workforce, and in the trade union movement, to footnotes in the important business of Dude History. And it's just not true.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

we're exactly what this country needs

Four conversations:

1. Is monogamy a problem, and, if so, what is the solution? Is it creepy 70s style swinger parties where you'll inevitably end up face to face with your dad?

2. Compare and contrast the popular and media reactions to John Terry calling an opposition player a "black cunt", and Luis Su├írez calling an opposition player "negrito". The former remains England's Brave JT, beloved in his besieged, boring stolidity; the latter decried as a latter day demon, the diving, cheating, out-of-control biting little fucker. a) Racism? Racism. b) How much does this depend on applying West European/USian colonial conceptions of race and integration, wherein we're all supposed to pretend to be Colourblind and treat the fact that some people aren't white as a secret that dare not speak its name, to a South American context? c) How much of our attitudes to the issue is based on i) the fact that we support Liverpool, and ii) this video?

3. If class expresses itself in part in terms of attitudes, beliefs, and ways of living, and most people retain those attributes when they change their material circumstances (eg. someone from a working class family earning over £30k and meeting world leaders on a semi-regular basis still finding that expensive dinners and posh hotels feel exclusionary; or someone born into the monied middle classes living out the Common People lifestyle but still feeling that expensive dinners and posh hotels are a human right), is it still meaningful to describe individuals as being working- or middle-class? Is class something better understood on a macro level (while still acknowledging the micro effects on people's daily lives), with individuals' migration between classes basically irrelevant on a larger scale?

4. On difficult conversations:
"Dude, you just need to suck it up and talk about it. Get over your natural British reserve about discussing difficult subjects."
"I think it's a female thing too, the imperative to say whatever will make the most people the most comfortable, rather than what is actually true? Social lubrication, emotional drudge work, that sort of thing."
"Sure, but that's a very class- and nationality-specific version of femaleness though isn't it? Like, I'm not going to trot out the stereotypes, but not all women in the world are socialised into the nicey nice kind of womanhood you're talking about."

On the one hand: I have really good friends. Yay for us.

On the other: if we can do this in normal conversation, poking and prodding at our respective privileges and working through difficult ideas together, utilising our differences in terms of class and race and sexuality and gender rather than getting pummeled by them - over email when we're bored at work; on the phone while we're cooking dinner; on the sofa with the Champions' League on in the background - why is it so difficult for feminism, and social justice movements in general, to do this on a bigger scale? I suppose I'm back at the eternal question of Why Does Feminism Keep Fucking Up, a post which, hilariously, has no comments.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Ruddy bloody brave strikes again

Because I am a tireless warrior against the heterosexist patriarchal implications of Valentine's Day, I spent the first three hours of February 14th in the Whittington Hospital having my heart function monitored.

For romance.

In sadly less hilarious news, the ECG tech was the worst. I go for tests so often that we've kind of bonded - we greet each other by name, I ask after her kids, she compliments me on my boots, I forget that I'm semi naked in a seriously cold room.

Sadly, a shared love of charity shops does not preclude someone being an intrusive, overstepping, disableist fuckwit.

The referral form said "high resting heart rate noted after switching anti-depressants, please check for recurrence of ablated tissue".

The ECG tech said, "You don't need to be on anti-depressants! You just need to be brave!"

I could have said, "well, I've been exhausted since 2009, I feel like I'm walking through a thick, viscous fog most days, I have been trying really hard not to kill myself or lacerate my long-suffering left arm since last May, and the only thing that has had any noticeable impact over the last eleven fucking years is the combination of mirtazapine and venlafaxine which are upping my serotonin and noradrenalin and making being awake feel like an achieveable possibility, and no, "being brave" is actually not as effective at that."

I could have said, "when you do ECGs on patients who take insulin to manage diabetes, or beta blockers to address cardiac arhythmia, do you tell them that they should ditch their meds and just 'be brave'? When you have a headache, do you take a paracetamol, or do you just tell yourself to 'be brave'?"

But, y'know, fuck it. I made a split second decision that, if she was going to say something so cruel and make me feel so uncomfortable, I would, for a moment, drop the constant effort to make unmad people feel comfortable when faced with mental illness. I would make her as uncomfortable as she made me.

I said, "Well, I want to die, so I think I kind of do."

Not to brag, but I think my response was actually pretty brave.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Valentine's and Galentine's, Steaks, Fisting and Falafel

The only thing I find more depressing than Valentine's Day, in a world-weary is-this-really-how-people-see-themselves why-god-why sort of way, is Steak and Blow Job Day.

They're two sides of the same tired, heterosexist, high fives to the patriarchy coin: predicated on the assumption that
1. Men like sex but hate relationships, and
2. Women like relationships but hate sex.

It's such an unbearably sad way of looking at romantic interaction. If you genuinely believe both of those things, wouldn't any dude-lady relationship be an unfulfilling transaction where you tolerate something you dislike in order to get something from another - something they don't want to give? Why would you want to fuck someone who doesn't want to be fucking you? Why would you want to date someone who wasn't thrilled to be dating you right back?

It reminds me of Cliff Pervocracy's point about Fifty Shades of Grey: that negotiation is about finding ways for both partners to have a mind-blowingly amazing time - not about one party presenting a list of all the things they want to do to their partner and said partner picking the ones she hates least.
I asked for it, and I could have stopped it without fear of retaliation.  My tops asked me--and gave me--what I wanted, not merely what I could tolerate.  The whole thing was full of a spirit of fun and experimentation, not anger or bitterness.  And I loved the hell out of it.  I didn't come away thinking "that wasn't so bad" or "I had that coming." I came away thinking "I feel fucking fantastic." From Let's Read Fifty Shades of Grey: Chapter 15!
Of course, what's really frightening about this assumption is that it describes all sex as something that women will put up with but fundamentally don't want. It elides all sex with rape. Some radical feminists take this approach and argue that all PIV sex is bad because it's like rape; misogynists can convince themselves that rape isn't that bad because it's just like sex but more so. Neither approach leaves any room for female pleasure.

So imagine what a blessed relief it was to find out that someone has invented Fisting and Falafel Day.

I don't even really like falafel.


What I actually wanted to talk about, before I got distracted by rape culture (happens to me all the time), was Galentine's Day.

I celebrated it for the first time last year, because my Beloved Lady Friend was sad, and I thought she might be sad about being single on That Day, so we went for a pint and talked about novel writing and rimming and mental illness, because that's how we roll. This year, there will be two Beloved Lady Friends, and cocktails, and it will probably be exactly like Sex & The City, except in grimy north London. By next year I anticipate reaching Knopelike levels of dedication with knitted cushions featuring intarsia designs of my friends' faces embroidered with inspiring quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt.

The other half of my objections to V-Day - if you love your partner so damn much, show it every day of the year; why do you need a special day to remind you to be nice to them? - can easily be applied to G-Day. I suppose the difference is, with the former, it feels like you're Being Told to participate, whereas the latter is an active choice. Plus, our culture never stops trumpeting the Enormous Power of Romantic Love - but taking time out to celebrate the joys of female friendship feels a tiny bit subversive.

I'm going to end this here before I start extolling the virtues of abjuring electric light in favour of aligning your cycle with that of the moon. Happy Galentine's.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Money where your fist is

"Would you like to sign a petition in support of striking Tube workers?"

Yes! Obviously, a thousand times yes! Even if I didn't know what they were striking for, I'd say yes; it's my default position - strikes are good. I'd say it's genetic, except my sister seems to have gone the other way.

It was only after I'd scrawled my name in a vague attempt at solidarity ("I'M SORRY I CROSSED A PICKET LINE IT'S JUST LONDON'S REALLY MASSIVE AND I CAN'T WORK FROM HOME BUT I DID FEEL REALLY BAD ABOUT IT IF THAT HELPS") that I realised that the petition was organised by the SWP.

Remember when ye olde Socialist Workers Party just slightly embarrassing, populated entirely by 1. the over-earnest and under-informed folks at uni desperate to talk to you about Palestine, 2. Mark Steel, and 3. my dad?

No more! It turns out that the party is also, as an organisation, pretty cool with the idea of rape - or at least happier with the reality of women getting raped and their rapes getting hushed up than with the idea of tarnishing The Party by bringing their attackers to account. You know when you read those harrowing survivor accounts, where they detail how going through the justice system is often as horrific and violating as the assault itself? You would think, wouldn't you, that a party which proclaims itself to be in favour of revolution - which even pays lip service to the idea that a revolution in gender relations is as necessary as one in economic relations - would take this into account. But: not so much.
Some of the questions that followed included “what effect would you say drink and drugs had on you that night?” I was also asked and pushed to talk about abuse that had happened to me previously, as earlier on that night I had been emotional and had confided in the man that assaulted me. This was extremely upsetting for me during a process that was already hard enough. 
They claim to have "no faith in the bourgeois court system to deliver justice," but you've got to wonder what kind of justice they think they can provide when treating survivors with as little sensitivity or respect as the worst police officer.

Basically, the SWP's priorities go something like
2. Palestine
3. Stopping The War
4. Publication of truly abysmal newspaper
5. ... 
10. Uh, maybe we should do something about the oppression of women for millennia? And racism and homophobia and transphobia and all that other complicated Identity Politics shit that is really just a bourgeois distraction from Item 1, and also that we don't understand? When we've fixed the other stuff.
It is actually knackering trying to keep on top of all the things that are rubbish in the world. But it's important to try. The moral of the story being, be careful what you put your name to.