Browsing in Waterstone’s lately (yes I know they’ve dropped the apostrophe but on this blog standards will never slip) I came across a book by Mary Beard. I was actually looking for something political but they don’t have a politics section as such (hm) so I was directed to hover between history and philosophy. I also wanted to know when the new Hilary Mantel would be out (March) and how much it would be (£20-something, not bad for a 900-page hardback but I’m not sure I can afford it) and I ran into Mary Beard’s thoughts on Women and Power.
Like many such books it addresses the problem in all its aspects but neglects to ask why. Why do some men just want to shut women up? Why are they triggered by a woman expressing opinions in public? Why do some men get in a froth about putting Jane Austen on a bank note? Why, after you’ve expressed a complex and well thought-out view, do some men still act as if you haven’t spoken? And why does this sort of thing still happen?
Mary Beard’s thesis is that throughout recorded history patriarchy has silenced women in the public sphere. There are exceptions to this: she may speak in order to defend her family or tribe or to speak for the interests of other women, but she may not voice opinions on any topic as though she were a man. To do so is to invite ridicule, censure or even death.
Sadly, this attitude is still prevalent. I am frequently interrupted by men in meetings where men have been heard in silence, and it spills over into the arena of mansplaining where some men become like one-way radios set to transmit but not receive. In Waterstone’s the man who served me, though perfectly helpful and informative, was deaf to my replies that I had ‘already read’ the Guardian article about Hilary Mantel or that I ‘already knew’ about Mary Beard’s work. He could hear my questions but not my speech.
Along with many women in the public sphere, Mary Beard has had a bellyful of this. Female politicians frequently get death threats and Diane Abbott, being black as well as female, gets a double dose and has to send death threats in weekly batches to the police. This is not funny, yet she does her job week in and week out and will not be silenced. Why should she?
Many men have of course taken on board the demands of feminism, and thankfully in my experience the badly-behaved misogynist is in a small minority. But why do they do this in the first place?
i have a theory – it’s no more than a theory at present – that in the minds of these men is a binary system in which people are given a value of either 1 or 0, with no space in between. Therefore, under this system, if you’re not number one you are nothing. I read once that slave owners in the Southern states feared giving up their slaves would result in their own enslavement. They feared becoming slaves! Why? It seemed a ridiculous fear – after all, if they gave up their slaves nothing would happen except that they’d be obliged to pay people to do their work. I was completely baffled by this until I saw it as a binary system. In the minds of the slave owners there were only two positions, slave or master; and if you ceased to be one you would become the other. And so I think it is with misogynists: they fear their own subordination. They fear becoming nothing instead of something because in their binary system there is no such thing as equality. It does not compute.
As for what we do about this – well, I guess we just keep talking and refuse to shut up and go away.
That’s all. Now shut up and go away.
Just kidding. Happy Thursday.