This post comes with a health warning: it’s a bit of a rant, and it’s not very focussed. It contains lots of ideas I’ve been trying to get together for months now and in the end I just decided to mix them all up together in a post and marinade them in the public gaze for a while before giving them a stir and seeing what happens.
You see, sometimes in the early hours I wake up and worry about the state of current feminism. Now, I’m a feminist to my bootstraps (well, DM-bootlaces anyway) – I want women in positions of power: I want us to take an equal part in society, I want VAT taken off tampons. But I worry that there were people who used to get looked after who are not now. In the old days if there was an orphan or a parent or even a grown man who somehow needed looking after, the thing to do was look around for the nearest woman. If she was single, so much the better: if married, she would cope. In ‘Billy,’ Pamela Stephenson’s biography of Billy Connolly, he speaks about being brought up by one such woman, Mona, whose youth and marriage prospects were blighted by being expected to look after one child after another, and who took out her disappointment and bitterness on her charges.
And in Spanish novels of more than, say, fifty years ago it is common to read the lines ‘Who cooks for Senor ___?’ Where a man lives alone; there will be a woman who cooks for him – and probably another who cleans, and another who does his laundry. I imagine this was not confined to Spain either.
And sometimes I look back and I worry. In the old days it seemed no-one was left uncared for. Everyone worked together for the good of the community. Not true, of course, but the nostalgia persists, even though I know that no-one cared for the women; no-one brought them a cup of tea when they were tired or cooked a meal when they’d been busy all day or valued and appreciated everything they did: no-one except other women, because they knew what it was like. And whenever I’m tempted to feel nostalgic for those days I imagine myself looking after my father-in-law and cooking for my husband and doing my son’s washing as well as all the cleaning and never having any time to write, and I know that I would go stark, staring mad.
But now that we’ve have moved on, leaving a gap which, to no-one’s surprise, men have largely declined to fill; our work has been largely taken up by other women: women of lower status. Women from Asia or Eastern Europe. And here’s the thing; housework and care work is low-paid and low status. Were the women who perform these self-sacrificing tasks given a high status; were they consulted on all matters of national importance; were they well-paid and recognised for the work they do, it might not be so bad. But the opposite happens: they are taken for granted, unpaid, unrecognised and never consulted about anything. How many of those who walk the freshly-vacuumed Corridors of Power ever think about who vacuumed them?
In a recent poem I imagined what it would be like if Christ returned as a woman. She might well be a cleaner:
‘she hoovers early corridors
and rides a bleary bus
she clears a porthole in the fog
and looks like one of us.’
I was in Madrid in 1991 when there was a street-cleaner’s strike. In Spain strikes are rarely all-out stoppages but more like what we would call ‘work to rule’ – a minimum amount of work is done; so that instead of being cleaned the rubbish was swept into piles and left. Imagine the same thing happening in the Houses of Parliament: how many days would it take before the dirt piled up to an intolerable level? How long would it be before MP’s decided they couldn’t function?
I could go further and speculate about the sewers; but I suspect you’d prefer me not to. You get the idea; that here are men and women doing the most menial tasks who are in many ways the most essential members of society, and what status are they accorded? The lowest.
This is at its worst in India, where people are very strongly associated with the work they do. Everyone is assigned a place according to their birth; even now there is little social mobility (notwithstanding Narendra Modhi, the first ‘untouchable’ Prime Minister) and those who work with urine, dirt and faeces are themselves considered to be dirty and contaminated.
I’ve kind of gone off my point a bit. The point was going to be this: that feminism has come of age in the context of global capitalism; and in so doing it has taken on the ethics of a system which pits everyone against everyone else. In the seventies feminism was largely socialist, but it was the capitalists who thrust women into prominent positions, and feminism has latched onto this rising tide *and nowadays we are all supposed to be in competition with each other; so that political discourse often seems like a chorus of voices all shouting ‘Me too! Me too!’ with everyone jumping up and down waving their hands in the air.
For example. In my youth sexuality was a Big Issue. We talked a lot about gay men. Then it was brought (quite rightly) to our attention that lesbians existed too; so we began to talk about Gays and Lesbians. Then the people in between (if that isn’t an offensive way of describing them, which it probably is) pointed out that they existed too and would quite like to be included, so it became Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals; but it wasn’t long before a veritable rash of transgender people coupled themselves up to the train, making the current LGBT acronym – which is itself going rapidly out of date as the Q coach has been added (Q meaning ‘gender-queer’, which as far as I can figure out means you identify as whatever gender you damn well please and other people are supposed to remember who and what you are and which pronoun you prefer) and so it goes on. Some people have given up on the acronym altogether and just say ‘Quiltbag’. But whether anyone outside that social group knows what a Quiltbag is, I don’t know. It’s a bloody minefield.
I’m aware that I’m probably starting to sound intolerant. Sure, people have the right to identify with whatever they like and be called whatever they choose. It’s just that, with the best will in the world, it’s really hard work for the rest of us to get our heads round it. And I worry that this is leading to an ever-more fractured society, one in which different groups have different norms and assumptions about which the rest of the world has no idea. For example, in my youth ‘tranny’ meant one of two things: it was either a) a transistor radio, the sort you’d carry on your shoulder whilst swaying your hipster jeans-clad hips or b) a semi-affectionate term for a transvestite. But now I discover that ‘tranny’ is considered offensive – at least by those in the transgender ‘community’ – though how those outside of that community are supposed to figure that out, I don’t know.
I’m groping towards an idea here. Bear with me. Nowadays we are all supposed to be self-starting, self-marketing, self-motivating little market forces, all competing with each other, each living in our own brick box and driving in our own metal box to a work-space where we compete for jobs and salaries and recognition. And the capitalists rub their hands because now, instead of one person per family being hooked up to the machine, they can have two. Like hamsters on a wheel the modern couple both need to work in order to pay a mortgage or rent, because if they get off that wheel they will lose their home and enter into a downwards spiral. There’s no concept of sharing: the equation is that the more I have (the more money, fame, possessions) the less you have. And even when we get home and switch on the telly half the programmes are competitions in which one hapless contender is pitted against another while being held up to ridicule and humiliation in front of an audience. The schedules bristle with quizzes, game shows and talent shows. And the most popular programme at the moment? Yep – it’s a competition. ‘Bake-Off’ turns what ought to be a relaxed and creative activity into a frenzied fight for supremacy.
I just want to suggest that we can do better. Some politician recently got into trouble for saying that women don’t do so well in politics because they are ‘too nice’. Leaving aside that question – which I would’ve thought would be refuted in the persons of Thatcher and May – there’s an assumption that politics is essentially mean and nasty. And I question that. There can be few jobs in government more invidious than that of Northern Ireland secretary – but when you consider what amazing strength and understanding Mo Mowlam brought to the peace process, it makes you realise that we need more such women – more such people, people! – in politics.
So here’s the thing: instead of continuing to adapt to the world as it is, we need to change it. As the French say, ‘soyez realistique: demandez l’impossible.’
Phew! Rant over.
*one more thought: it is often said that a rising tide lifts all boats. This is true, except the ones tethered to the bottom