“I’m feeling my age…” Misogyny and the Middle Years…

I’m feeling my age*.  After reading a great piece in the Guardian this week about Kat Banyard, ‘Britain’s leading young feminist,’ entitled: “We were sold a lie,” I’m realising I’m on, probably, my fourth wave of feminist revivalism.  And whilst I’m delighted that this is all back in the public discourse again, I can’t help but feel I’ve been here before…  

In the last week we’ve seen; Australian PM Julia Gillard’s epic denunciation in parliament of the Opposition leader’s casual sexism; the Taliban shooting of Malala, a 14 year old girl for the crime of campaigning for education for girls; the sheer number and variety of stories featuring on the @EverydaySexism twitter feed; the studied lack of curiosity or concern about the Jimmy Savile rumours which persisted over decades; the Women in Journalism report, showing how few women either report the news or feature in the news (other than in lite porn or the sneery/judgey/‘faux-worry’ “oooh, isn’t she looking a bit fat/thin” stories…) And – new to me this morning – the Gawker exposure of Reddit, who claim that they’re ‘protecting free speech’ (it’s a huge social network news site, so mainstream it hosted an Obama Q&A session last month) by keeping open the ‘subreddit’ groups, called – and I don’t need to explain these – ‘Jailbait,’ ‘Niggerjailbait,’ ‘Chokeabitch,’ ‘Creepshots’ and ‘Incest’, where group members share photos on the above themes.   It’s moments like these that remind me – in case I’d momentarily forgotten – how pervasive, persistent, deeply-entrenched and widespread misogyny really is.  

I’m just going to take a moment to explain misogyny here.  Only last week I had an amusing twitter exchange with Philip Blond on abortion time limits; he seems to think that his views can’t be misogynist if some women agree with him.  With all due credit to Wikipedia (I’m using easily accessible sources here, so as not to disadvantage the likes of Blond – who isn’t, it seems, so hot on the more rigorous research methods): 

Michael Flood says: “Misogyny functions as an ideology or belief system that has accompanied male-dominated societies for thousands of years and continues to place women in subordinate positions with limited access to power and decision making.”   

Allen Cooper says: “Misogyny …. is a central part of sexist prejudice… and, as such, is an important basis for the oppression of females in male-dominated societies. Misogyny is manifested in many different ways, from jokes to pornography to violence to the self-contempt women may be taught to feel toward their own bodies.”

But back to Kat Banyard, whose key headline I’ll just quote here. “Throughout the 90s and much of the noughties, we were sold a lie on an almighty scale. That equality had been won, that the battle was over, and now was the time to enjoy our rights.”  

And whilst I agree whole heartedly with Kat on many things, my own memory of that time is, in fact, a bit different.  Those of us who were having our kids in the 90s, trying to combine parenting with working, really wanting to buy the ideas we were being sold, encountered something quite different.  

For example. In the late 80s/early 90s I worked for a huge, highly regarded, multinational company which was a founding member of Opportunity 2000 – the campaigning group set up to improve women’s representation and retention in the workplace.  This was, it must be said, largely driven by the ‘business case’ that the country was about to face a demographic time-bomb and that there wouldn’t be enough workers to go round by Y2K, rather than the moral imperative that equality and inclusion might be good things per se… but hey! you take your opportunities where you can…  

So when I got pregnant, I thought it would be an easy ask to take three months maternity leave from my job as Head of Management Development and to come back for a year part-time.  How wrong I was.  Apparently, the fine words written in the Opportunity 2000 manifesto were clearly meant for those other companies.  I was told, by the American HR Director, that I had two choices: I could either come back to work full time (as quickly as possible, please) and keep my seniority; or I could ‘mommy track’, take a demotion – and work part time.   As it turned out, he discovered that I had a third choice; The Equal Opportunities Commission took up my case and the payout funded the start up of my freelance consulting business.   Meanwhile, for many poor and working class women, the ‘opportunity’ to work simply continued to mean to work in part-time, low paid, low status, insecure work: the idea that the battle for equality had been won rang a bit hollow there too…

So I don’t think there has ever been a time when women – at a certain point in our lives – weren’t aware that society was working really hard to package up and sell us a big fat lie.  The trouble is, I think we really want to believe it – it’s hard to take in, sometimes, just how vile misogyny is – and perhaps we can’t really believe that ‘generic men’ could possibly really think like that about the particularity of us – real, living, breathing, feeling women; their mothers, their sisters, their partners…  But I think it’s a process of realisation that we all come to, given time, when we test the boundaries of what’s acceptable; of how a woman is supposed to be; and when we bump into those things that reveal the dark shadow of misogyny, just behind the shiny marketing and seductive doublethink that has, meanwhile, “co-opted the language of feminism.”  

I am delighted that younger women like Kat Banyard and the UK Feministas are loud, out on the streets (demonstrating in London on 24th October), taking action and – yes, angry – as they come to their own point of realisation that the world is not quite so welcoming and benign for them as it said on the packaging…  At my age, I have also come to terms with the realisation that picking apart the structures of misogyny, with its couple thousand year history and its fundamental, fungal grip on all aspects of human culture, is also just going to take us all some time… 


*49, for the avoidance of doubt!


About suepritchard

I live a portfolio life: researcher, writer, consultant, organic/permaculture farmer, single mother of three grown-ups and social activist..... My main work is running SULEiS, a consulting network for building leadership and change capability, inside and outside traditional organisations, to make practical progress on the difficult issues.
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