What an extraordinary week we have just experienced for women. Firstly, the Duchess of Sussex’s bombshell interview, secondly, the arrest of a police officer charged with the murder of Sarah Everard, thirdly, the celebration of International Women’s Day and fourthly, this weekend, Mother’s Day. Sadly, the two former events highlighted the continued victim narrative and experience of women but the third, a celebration of how far we have come in my own lifetime but how far we still need to go.
The fact is that women still feel wary when they go out at night. There is a continued threat of harassment or assault. This means that around 50% of the world’s population feels under threat from the opposite sex in how they go about their daily lives. What an extraordinary thought that is. Certainly, there are parts of the world where a woman is not allowed to go out in the daytime even, or without a chaperone. In one way or another, many women have their freedoms curtailed.
This has been the case for centuries and we still have much to alter to reach a time where women truly have equal status in this world with men. But it is really only in my lifetime that women – and that is more often women in developed countries – are able to work, to take the pill, to get control of their lives, to be able to divorce without shame or without losing access to their children, to own property and get credit or a mortgage in their own right. For previous centuries it was not considered necessary nor attractive to educate women. My own mother, when she went to university in the 1930s, was accused of becoming ‘a blue stocking’ for demonstrating her intelligence. And she was not alone. Even today some men can be threatened by an intelligent woman, or a woman with a career or salary perceived to be more successful than theirs, so women may be encouraged to hide their light under a bushel.
Reading the French philosopher, Michael de Montaigne, this morning in his essay on Social Intercourse, he talks of women as potentially benefiting from poetry as “it is a frivolous, subtle art, all disguise and chatter and pleasure and show, like they are.” It struck me, reading this, that it is only in today’s world that women can have the potential to be fully themselves rather than the toys of men as they had to be in previous times such as his, and inevitably this continues to turn the tables on the old ways of relating. As Caroline Criado Perez suggests in her brilliant book Invisible Women, it is not always the intention of men to forget the needs of women: it simply doesn’t enter their heads to consider what those needs might be, whether designing bullet-proof vests for female police officers or technology for health apps. So, not necessarily a conspiracy against women; simply a blind spot.
Why can’t we rub along together happily as equals but different, I wonder? Is it the hormones? Certainly, the physical differences between men and women give men the advantage out on the streets. But it is more than this. It is the legacy, I believe, of all these years of women having to be subordinate to men because they simply couldn’t look after themselves without a husband or a brother. Without work they could not survive, without contraception they were constantly pregnant or busy with many children. Even the wealthy could not avoid this – Queen Victoria apparently did not enjoy being pregnant but nonetheless ended up with 9 children. And she had plenty of staff to help with those – imagine what that was like for a woman living in poverty.
Even once we started to be able to control the number of children we had, and to be able to work and even rise to be Prime Minister or CEO, we had to fight for equal pay and this fight continues, particularly during this Covid pandemic. It makes me sad to think of Sarah Everard, a successful and delightful young woman from all accounts, having her life taken just for the simple act of walking home. It makes me sad that Meghan Markle should have felt such a victim of circumstances when she could have been such a role model of success for all to see had she been able to manage the situation in which she had placed herself. We women have to keep reflecting, observing, analysing, adapting and asserting ourselves so as to move out of a sense of victimhood.
And we have to change and collaborate, for sure. I have personally run Leadership for Women, Management for Women and Assertiveness for Women courses in business, alongside coaching many bright women managers who nonetheless often were the subject of some discrimination and crude comments and jokes. This needs to become a zero-tolerance fact. Sure, don’t crush humour and banter, which are often the spark of life, but not if those are to the detriment of another human being. I suggested many times to the organisations in which I worked that it would be helpful to work with men to help them adjust and adapt their behaviours in this new world but could not sell this idea to the still mainly male senior managers.
Boys and young men could benefit from considering what kind of men they want to be in a world where women do have equal status. The kind of treatment women receive in schools and universities where their photographs are graded by boys or men in terms of their attractiveness must stop and must be harshly punished by the authorities of the school or university. It is totally unacceptable and only perpetuates the feeling that it’s only a woman’s looks that matter.
Fortunately, the kind of tragedy that struck Sarah Everard is unusual but the newspapers are still far too full of stories of women being murdered or attacked. It is, to me, an extraordinary feature of men that they have to hit a woman or abuse her rather than just leave her. Laura Bates’ book Everyday Sexism demonstrated, as do many experiences reported in the papers, that everyday discrimination continues. The endless television and film crime dramas of women being attacked doesn’t help.
I end on a more positive note, however, that the Oxford Dictionary has been persuaded to change its definition of ‘woman’, now describing words such as “piece”, “bint”, “baggage”, and “bitch” as only ‘derogatory or dated’ terms. However, much of the definition still has subordinate connotations of women.
Words matter, actions matter, the ability to enjoy our freedoms matter. But don’t let us, as women, be victims, nor turn men into persecutors. The majority of men are considerate, so one murder does not make all men evil by any stretch of the imagination. Let’s try to collaborate and cooperate as human beings in this world, to create an environment where everyone can walk the street safely. I am sure we want this for ourselves, our parents, friends, partners, siblings, children and grandchildren. Working within schools, universities, workplaces and families to change the macho culture and laddism that still exists so that everyone regards one another with respect has the potential to create a better and safer world for us all.