Thursday 11 May 2017

What's Gender Got to Do With It? | Turn LEFT and Make June the End of May

A couple of weeks ago I received my copy of a journal which includes an article written by myself and friend and colleague Mike Brennan (Brennan, M. and Letherby, G. (2017) ‘Auto/Biographical Approaches to Researching Death and Bereavement: connections, continuums, contrasts’ for Morality: Promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying 22(2)). Our piece is about the interconnection between autobiography and biography in social research focusing on death and bereavement. As such the article contains reference to aspects of each of our personal and professional identities and experiences. Given this we both wrote our biographical notes in the first person. I did not pay much attention to the biographies at the copy-editing stage – ‘silly' mistake. From the content of my contribution to the article it is obvious that I am a woman (amongst other things I make reference to my experience of miscarriage). Yet, my biography now reads:  

Gayle Letherby is currently [job title] and combine (sic) freelance academic activities with other writing and non-academic projects. His academic research and writing interests embrace all things methodological (including feminist, auto/biographical and creative approaches); reproductive and non/parental identities; gender, health and wellbeing; loss and bereavement; travel and transport mobility and working and learning in higher education. His recent publications include . . .

Throughout my career as a sociologist in higher education I, alongside other female colleagues, have experienced regular sexism. I have had my status and titles denied or deleted and my abilities questioned. My late husband (also a sociologist) and I wrote together of our different experiences within the academy (Letherby, G and Shiels, J. (2001) ‘Isn’t he good, but can we take her seriously?’ in Anderson, P. and Williams, J. (eds.) Identity and Difference in Higher Education London: Ashgate). Amongst other things we reflected on the different ways students related to us in that my expertise on many subjects and issues, including feminism, was much more likely to be challenged than John's (i.e. 'Can we take her seriously?'); and although we were both conscientious about and enjoyed the pastoral care aspects of the job John was much more likely to be lauded for this whilst I have have often been criticised for 'not being available' when needed (i.e. 'Isn't he good'). 

I don't recount these anecdotes to wallow but rather to provide examples of some of my personal examples of @EverydaySexism. The general acceptance of words and phrases that are derogatory towards women and girls is another example of day-to-day sexism and with this in mind a little while back I published a Blog entry on how the language used in political debate is often sexist. Here is an extract from my piece:  

Social media - which I greatly appreciate - both for its challenge to the mainstream media and the opportunity it provides for broad based discussion, debate and education - adds to the problem. I, and I know I am not alone in this, am dismayed by the possibilities it gives for smears and insults, bullying and intimidation; both from named individuals and those who hide behind anonymity/alternative identities.  Indeed, on many occasions the ease of the action seems to inflame the activity. Sadly, it seems that people from all sides of the political debate; both those on the right and on the left, use Twitter and Facebook and so on, to assault those with whom they do not agree. Even those who are not particularly aggressive or personal in their condemnation of a person, political party, policy or news item often resort to chauvinistic abuse; unfortunately supporting the view that these are just normal, everyday, acceptable insults.  With this in mind I groan when people I admire refer to the minister for health as Jeremy *unt and I shudder when those I don’t combine racism, sizeism, ageism with misogyny to describe or lambaste female, and male, politicians and those that support or challenge their approach, actions and ideas. Recently, on my Facebook feed I was more than heavyhearted to see, on a page very supportive of the Labour leadership, a cartoon meme with Jeremy Corbyn holding a banner complete with the words ‘let’s try not being twats’.  When asked why he doesn't retaliate to the constant barrage of, often extremely personal, attack he receives Corbyn's response is ‘I’m not going to get in the gutter with anyone’. With this in mind it's hardly likely that 'twat' is part of his vocabulary. As with many other issues, I'm with Corbyn on this.

On Tuesday the 9th May Theresa May and her husband Philip appeared on The One Show on BBC 1. The following has already been much reported: 

‘Well, there’s give and take, like in every marriage!’ said Mr May, laughing. ‘I get to decide when I take the bins out – but not if!’
 ‘There’s boy jobs and girl jobs,’ said Mrs May.
The language used by May is interesting. First: the girl/boy issue. Although, as I wrote in the earlier piece referred to above, reclaiming of language is a good thing, that she used childhood descriptors in referring to herself and her husband is not, I would suggest, 'sweet' as a writer in The Telegraph claimed but rather shows a spectacular like of insight from such a powerful woman.  Second: the gendered job issue. Where to start here. To begin we know that in the UK and elsewhere in heterosexual relationships: 

Women today spend as much time doing housework as in the 1990s. Men have increased their housework contributions – a nod towards greater gender equality. Yet women still spend twice as much time on housework as men.

I sometimes write short fiction including pieces prompted by my research interests. I have for almost 30 years studied and written about the experience of women and men who do and do not have children in terms of both experience and status. This story (also published on ABCtales seems relevant here: 

Hard Labour

I’ve never worked as hard as I have since I gave up my full-time job to stay home with the twins. Then I worked eight-to-five, an occasional evening and a few hours over the weekend. Now I’m on duty all day and all night.

I’m exhausted.

I couldn’t manage without mum. She comes over every weekday and feeds, bathes or plays with Harry and Ben whilst I catch up with housework and throw a few vegetables and some meat in the slow cooker in an attempt to prepare a supper that doesn’t need three to five minutes in the microwave.

I’m exhausted.

I was once amongst the first to scoff at stay-at-home mothers who moaned about their lot. How hard could it be? I’d planned to get back to my art, pick up where I left off after leaving college, before joining the rat race. I haven’t opened the new brushes I bought in the last months of the pregnancy, my artist’s eye useful only for deciding which primary colours to dress the children in.

I’m exhausted.

The boys' faces light up when Sam comes home, devaluing my daily grind in a heartbeat. I listen to the stories of deals and mergers, of collaborations and office politics. I nod but I’m uninterested, my own workplace all consuming. I used to enjoy sex. Now I’m grateful there’s somebody else around at night to take a turn with wet bottoms and fractious moments.

I’m exhausted.

Tuesday and Friday I attend mother and toddler group; my lifeline. I was quiet at first, unusual for me. I felt out of place. But the twins are a novelty and there’s always a pair of arms to relieve me of at least one. I’ve made a new friend. Alice too is overwhelmed by the whole experience and never has time to read a book or take a bath. She tells me about her cracked nipples. I wince, grateful for formula feed, and admit to wearing yesterday’s underwear as all the rest are in the washing basket. Conspiratorially we talk of our lives BC (before children) when we were smart, intelligent change-makers in the workplace, efficient in the home and fun outside of it. Before children we were our own people with our own separate identities. Now all our energy, our effort, our conversation, is devoted to our children.

I’m exhausted.

A rare night out. I book the babysitter early so I can wash and dress slowly and alone. The drive is blissful with folk music on the stereo rather than children’s favourites. After parking the car and flicking a bit of what I think might be banana off my jacket I walk to the party. I see Sam talking animatedly with some old friends. We wave. The hostess hands me a drink and introduces me to her neighbour. He smiles and asks the usual icebreaker question; ‘what do you do?’

‘Me, I’m just a househusband,’ I reply.

And, what about households that do not fit into the neat 'boy/girl' mix? One response I read on Twitter was by a woman asking May's advice on who should take out the rubbish, herself or her female partner. And my Twitter response:  

'As a woman who lives alone luckily I have learnt how to 'take the bins out' - it was tough!' 

In another part of the programme the focus was on Theresa May's love of shoes and she retold an anecdote that she has shared before about a woman she met in a lift who told her that it was her (May's) shoes that prompted her to pursue a political career. If true, is this really something a female Prime Minister should be proud of; that her fashion sense and not her personal and political values are what makes her a role model to others?  In a piece of 'fiction' I wrote recently about both the pantomime that is Prime Minister's Questions and the 'Emperor's New Clothes' type presentation by the Tories, both within and outside of Westminster, I referred to May's love of clothes. Sadly much of the response to this piece was in terms of criticisms of her appearance which was not my intention. I regret that my piece was not clear or nuanced enough although I stand by my view that the Mrs May needs to think more carefully about her presentation 
of self in a society where increasing numbers of people do not have enough money for food and buying new shoes is way down on their list. The best response (in my opinion) to Monday night's programme was from Cat Smith, previous MP and current Labour candidate for Lancaster and Fleetwood 'Your shoes got me into politics #GE2017'. Her tweet was accompanied by this picture: 

A few weeks ago I came across an interesting article posted by the Women Against Tories Facebook page (who now kindly also promote my Blog posts). When searching for the page a list of other Women Against . . . options came up. I found the Women Against Feminism page particularly upsetting. This image is prominent on the site. This poster and other pictures and posts on the page are distressing and insulting in their inaccuracy. They are also disrespectful to the many, many female and male campaigners, activists, teachers, academics and others who have throughout history, and to date, worked tirelessly for gender equality. Many/most such advocates also reflect on how issues other than sex/gender such as ethnicity, age, dis/ability, sexuality are significant and indeed often interact with each other and with gendered difference in terms of in/equality and in/justice.  

In my own sociological work on (amongst other things) reproductive and non/parental status and experience; working and learning in higher education; travel and transport; loss and bereavement I have always, alongside other feminist social scientists, considered gendered expectations and experiences. This has included attention to when the gender order works against men and boys; when and how male and female experience intersects as well as a focus on the inequalities that women and girls face (for example Marchank, J. and Letherby, G. (2014) An Introduction to Gender: social science perspectives (revised second edition) London: Routledge).


Gender inequality remains a major barrier to human development. Girls and women have made major strides since 1990, but they have not yet gained gender equity. The disadvantages facing women and girls are a major source of inequality. All too often, women and girls are discriminated against in health, education, political representation, labour market, etc. - with negative consequences for development of their capabilities and their freedom of choice. (see The United Nations Human Development Reports for more detail
A newspaper article written by Ryan Frances in March 2017 highlights some specific issues in the UK. Her analysis considers how gender differences intersect with class, ethnicity and other differences, thus:

That ‘austerity is a feminist issue’ is now a well-used idiom does not mean it’s any less true. Look at the latest gender breakdown of cuts released this month and what’s striking is that nothing’s changing. According to Sarah Champion, the shadow equalities minister, 86% of the burden of austerity has fallen on women since 2010 –a figure that remains entirely static from last year. Inequality is business as usual: by 2020, a decade on from when austerity first began, men will still have borne just 14% of the total burden of ‘welfare’ cuts.

This unequal impact isn’t just contained within the benefit system, but rather spreads to many of the choices the Conservatives are making. NHS and local government cuts of course affect men as well, but as women are a vast chunk of the public sector workforce, they are hurt most when public services are squeezed. Similarly, although it’s rarely talked about in such terms, the crisis in social care is in many ways gendered: it’s largely women who make up home care and agency staff – insecure, low-paid work – while it’s also women who are the bulk of family carers for disabled children and elderly parents. When a council cuts a care package, it’s largely wives, mothers, and daughters doing the unpaid labour to plug the gap.....

Crucially, in the push to acknowledge what’s being done to women in an era of cuts, we have to highlight how race, class, and disability fit into this. By 2020 Asian women in some of the poorest families will be £2,247 worse off. That goes up to £3,996 for black single mothers. White men in some of the richest households, by contrast, are set to lose only £410.  Disabled and chronically ill women – many of whom are carers themselves – face huge and continuing cuts to disability support, from fit-for-work tests to the latest changes to personal independence payments.  

By definition, vast cuts to the social security system are going to hurt not the middle classes, but low-income families already struggling. Yet next month’s new round of benefit measures take this even further, in essence targeting poor mothers and their children. The ‘rape test’ for benefits coming into force in April [and since defended as ‘fair’ by Theresa May and other Conservatives *] – part of a crackdown on child tax credit claims for more than two children – is reflective of how low the government has sunk, yet it is part of a string of upcoming policies that independent bodies warn will cost families thousands. The charity Gingerbread says universal credit changes alone will see working single parents lose £800 a year on average by 2020 (90% of single parents are women).  As a new wave of child poverty approaches,  it’s working class mums – scraping by on zero-hours contracts, agency work and benefits – who will be queuing in food banks and opening eviction notices.

For more detail here read this article (complete with embedded video) by Kerry-Anne Mendoza

With all of this in mind I just can't take this image seriously: 

For some further detail on how the Conservative (Theresa May), Labour (Jeremy Corbyn) and Liberal Democrat (Tim Farron) leaders have voted on issues that specifically affect women see In sum Jeremy Corbyn has voted consistently in favour of women’s reproductive and human rights whereas Tim Farron and Theresa May were much more likely to not vote or vote against issues that benefited women. (NB: the 2015 Amendment making it explicit that gender selective abortion is illegal was aimed at criminalising women and there were concerns of increased ‘back-street’ type terminations). 

In my academic work I have written critically about how women are often expected in their professional life to be better than men, work harder than men, in order to 'get on' whilst at the same time they are required to demonstrate the caring qualities that are seen as a key part of 'ideal' womanhood: 'the doctor/teacher (see above)/social worker (etc.) was a woman so I expected her to be more understanding, supportive blah, blah, blah'. Yet, I cannot help be so very disappointed that the second female British Prime Minister is as unconcerned with gender (and human and animal rights (note her recent statement that she supports an overturn of the current ban on fox hunting)) issues as was the first. As Debbie Cameron wrote recently: 

Conservative women like Thatcher can also exploit the fact that authority itself is positively valued on the political right. As much as he or she may resent being bossed by a woman, your average Tory will take a strong female leader over a weak and ineffectual male one. If she passes their political virility test by being tough enough on their hot-button issues (war, national security, crime and immigration), conservatives may be willing to elevate her to the quasi-mythical status of the ‘Iron Lady’ [as they did with Thatcher].

Despite her record as a hardliner on at least three of the issues mentioned above, Theresa May has not been given the ‘Iron Lady’ title. But it’s no accident that she and her supporters have spent the last two weeks talking incessantly about her ‘strong and stable leadership’. This is simultaneously a dig at her opponent Jeremy Corbyn (who is by implication weak and chaotic), and a message to anyone who might harbour doubts about a woman leader’s strength, determination or resilience. Like Thatcher before her, May is willing to embrace sexist stereotypes, but selectively, to suit her purpose. What she seems to be trying to project in this campaign is a combination of Mummy’s* [maternal power being the only expression of female power acceptable to the right] ruthless protectiveness (she’ll give no quarter when it comes to standing up for her British brood) and the stubborn persistence of the ‘bloody difficult woman’.
*an internal Conservative Party nickname for May and Thatcher before her. 

SO: What Has Gender Got to Do With It? 

Answer: A LOT

8th June 2017, the day of the General Election, is also the 104th anniversary of the death of Emily Davison Wilding a British suffragette who fought for the right for women to vote. She was arrested nine times and was force fed whilst protested through hunger strikes whilst in prison. On the 4th of June 1913 Davison Wilding stepped in front of King George V’s horse and died from her injuries four days later.  

We ALL know what to do.

TURN LEFT and Make June the End of May

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