Is this what a feminist looks like?

It’s been an odd couple of days since Queen Elizabeth II died, and one of the oddest things about it has been the appearance of a rash of statements, news articles and opinion pieces on the question of whether the Queen was a feminist.

This hare may have been unwittingly started by the actor Olivia Colman in a statement she made back in 2019 to publicize a new season of Netflix’s royal family drama The Crown, in which she was about to play the role of Elizabeth II. She called the Queen “the ultimate feminist”, adding that “she’s the breadwinner. She’s the one on our coins and banknotes. Prince Philip has to walk behind her. She fixed cars in the second world war”. 

I’m sure Colman didn’t anticipate that these remarks would become a talking point in the aftermath of the monarch’s death three years later. Nevertheless, that’s what happened. First the Washington Post ran with “Was Queen Elizabeth II a feminist?”, then suddenly the pieces were everywhere: The Independent, The Guardian, Metro, Woman’s Hour, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, the business publication Forbes (which brought a “lean in” vibe to the proceedings by suggesting that “the queen’s commitment and dedication to her own job paved the way for other women to dedicate themselves fully to their careers”). The majority of them took the view that the Queen had indeed been a feminist, though dissenting voices included the Guardian columnist Zoe Williams and Amanda Taub in the New York Times.

I also have a view on the question itself, as will become clear, but the question I found myself asking as I scrolled through all this commentary was about words: what do these people think the word “feminist” means? Actually, my brain formulated it rather more prescriptively: “does anyone know what feminism is anymore?” This spontaneous reaction was slightly embarrassing, because I am, among other things, the author of a short introduction to feminism which is quite insistent on not being too prescriptive about the meaning of the word. For as long as feminism has existed there have been different/competing definitions of it, and massive disagreements among those who claimed to represent it. As a political movement it has always and everywhere been decentralized, a loose and shifting coalition of autonomous groups which themselves varied wildly in their mode of organization; there’s no politburo-style committee with the power to decide on or enforce a party line for everyone who uses the label “feminist”. In my book I dealt with this by proposing a very minimal working definition of a feminist as someone who believes two things: (1) that women are oppressed as women, and (2) that this can and should be changed through political action. Everything else—how you analyse the nature and the root causes of women’s oppression, what kind of change you want to see, what kind of action you think will bring it about—is up for grabs.

In theory, then, I’ve got very little interest in attempts to police the way the f-word is used—and as a linguist I have a lot of interest in observing how it actually is used, and how that varies and changes over time, as it inevitably will. But the “was the Queen a feminist” debate did make me wonder if we’re in the process of evacuating the word of both its political meaning and its history. 

As the feminist theorist Sylvia Walby has observed, feminism is now understood by many people more as a kind of personal identity than as a political project: we ask “is so-and-so a feminist?” rather than “does so-and-so do feminism?” Since we’re currently in a phase when feminism is cool rather than despised (this goes in cycles), one result is that almost any woman who isn’t actively anti-feminist is fairly likely to identify herself as a feminist. For large numbers of women who don’t “do” feminism—or any other kind of politics—that’s just a shorthand way of indicating that they subscribe to what is now a conventional, mainstream view in most parts of the world: women should be equal and free to choose their path in life, whether it be full-time parenting or running for president. (This is the kind of feminism The Onion had in mind when it marked International Women’s Day with a piece headlined “Women now empowered by anything a woman does”.)  

Despite–or rather because of—her privileged position, the Queen was not, in the mainstream feminist sense, “empowered”: she spent her life in the proverbial gilded cage, with no freedom to choose her own path, or to express political views of any kind. Commentators wanting to claim her as a feminist were therefore obliged to look for evidence of her doing or saying things which might be read as signs that she was privately sympathetic to feminist ideas. In many cases what they came up with strained credulity. For instance, many pieces cited the fact that when she married she kept the name Windsor rather than taking her husband’s name, Mountbatten, prompting him to complain that he was the only man in the country who couldn’t give his name to his children. I doubt this had anything to do with feminism: it’s far more likely to have been motivated by dynastic considerations. It also overlooks the evidence that in private she did defer to her husband. After Philip died, we were endlessly told that although he walked behind her on ceremonial occasions, when it came to family matters, he was the “undisputed master”; in public she wore the crown but at home he wore the trousers.

Another striking thing about the commentary, which is also in line with the broadening and political bleaching of the f-word’s meaning in contemporary discourse, was its tendency to uncritically equate “being a feminist” with “being a woman who occupies a position of power”, or in this case perhaps I should say “being a female figurehead”, since as a modern constitutional monarch the Queen, though influential if she chose to use her influence, had no serious political power. Having your picture on stamps and banknotes doesn’t make you powerful, it makes you a symbol; nor is it very convincing to suggest that merely having a woman in that symbolic role somehow elevates the status of women in reality (see also fertility goddesses, Marianne, the Virgin Mary, etc.)

A lot of this power and leadership stuff felt weirdly anachronistic, talking about a woman who personified an ancient and highly traditional institution in the sort of language we might associate with profiles of Silicon Valley “girlbosses”. Writers kept referring to the Queen as a “role model” for women leaders, which was particularly jarring given that the role of a hereditary monarch is only open to a tiny, pre-determined set of people, who do not have to have any ambition to fill it, nor any particular aptitude for it.   

But perhaps this is a bit more complicated than I’m suggesting. From Amanda Taub’s thoughtful piece in the New York Times I learned that in 1952 an aspiring woman politician wrote an article for the Sunday Graphic which contained these words:

If as many earnestly pray, the accession of Elizabeth II can help to remove the last shreds of prejudice against women aspiring to the highest places, then a new era for women will indeed be at hand.

Once again this glosses over the fact that hereditary monarchs do not “aspire to the highest places”, they are simply put in their predestined place when the time comes. But could it be true that a society which has accepted a queen as its figurehead (because with monarchy you get who you get) becomes more receptive to the idea of a woman leader who did have to aspire to power, and compete for it with men? This writer apparently hoped that was true, though she was not, in any other respect, a feminist. Her name, in case you haven’t already guessed, was Margaret Thatcher.

Amanda Taub also talked to a historian, Arianne Chernock, who had studied the phenomenon of the “queen crazy woman” in 1950s America. In 1953 a report on this phenomenon in the LA Times quoted a psychologist who explained that for some American women the Queen had become “a heroine who makes them feel superior to men”. Though my own feminist education has given me a strong tendency to suspect any pronouncement about women made by a psychologist in the 1950s of being sexist bullshit, I don’t find the idea that identification with a female figurehead might prompt women to imagine having power either implausible or uninteresting; all liberatory politics has to begin in the imagination.    

My own objection to the idea that the Queen was a feminist is not really about her personal views (of which we know almost nothing) or the way she conducted herself (as Amanda Taub notes, “she stuck quite rigidly to traditional gender roles in terms of her behavior, clothes and public presentation of herself as a wife and mother”). It’s more about the extraordinarily patriarchal nature—and I mean “patriarchal” in the strictest and most literal sense—of the institution she was born into and dutifully served throughout her life.  

Many commentators pointed out that she presided over the 2011 reform of the law of succession which dispensed with male primogeniture: in future Britain may have a Queen regnant who has younger brothers (though we already know it won’t happen before the death of George, son of William, son of Charles). But one thing nobody mentioned (so forgive me if I do) was that one of the primary responsibilities of any queen, regnant or consort, is to produce legitimate heirs. This is another aspect of the “gilded cage”: royal women may live in luxury, be deferred to and publicly venerated, but they are also regarded as breeding stock. Elizabeth I managed to choose to remain unmarried and childless, but it wasn’t easy for her to hold that line, and I can’t imagine a modern, figurehead-type queen being able to hold it. Feminists may not agree on much, but one thing they mostly have tended to believe is that compulsory heterosexuality, marriage and reproduction—along with the whole concept of “legitimacy”—are among the cornerstones of the patriarchal order. Royal women are living symbols of what that order means for women, and even though what they experience is the luxury version, I find it impossible not to see it, and their consent to it, as a sort of degradation. (I think some royal women, especially those who married into it, have also come to see it that way, and their response has been to look for an exit.)

When I say that the Queen was not a feminist, that’s not a criticism of her or the way she did the job: a royal woman born in 1926 was never very likely to be a feminist. Her views and her behaviour, like everyone else’s, were bound to reflect her social milieu and life-experience (which in some ways was unusually varied, but in others extraordinarily limited). In that respect I found some of the arguments against her being a feminist as off-point as the arguments in favour. For instance, some people maintained she wasn’t a feminist because she was an upper-class white lady who was comfortable with hierarchy and inequality and, at a minimum, unapologetic about British colonialism. Well, OK, she was all of that; but in that case Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (aka the suffragettes) wasn’t a feminist either. (In her youth Pankhurst was a radical, but she became an avid nationalist, an outspoken defender of the Empire and, eventually, a Tory—while at no point renouncing her commitment to women’s rights.) This is another case of projecting a contemporary, broadened definition of feminism (as a movement to end all forms of social injustice rather than specifically a movement to advance women’s rights) onto a figure from an earlier period of history.

I’m still committed to the view that feminism is a house of many mansions: there are and always have been competing/conflicting definitions, and that hasn’t stopped feminists from getting on with whatever they saw as their work. But I’m equally committed to the view that however variously we define its goals, principles or methods, feminism is a political project: simply existing as a famous or powerful woman does not, in and of itself, make someone a feminist. We should be able to admire the achievements of non-feminist women without needing to co-opt them into a movement they never wanted to join, and we should be able to criticize the ideas or actions of feminist women, past and present, without needing to deny that they were ever feminists.      

Body language

At the girls’ grammar school I attended in the early 1970s, most of my peers’ most hated subject was Latin, which was generally considered to be super-hard, super-boring, and of no practical use whatsoever. I too found it pretty tedious, but there were several subjects I hated more, including geography, PE and, above all, domestic science. So I was content, if not exactly ecstatic, to plod on with Latin until O Level, the ancient equivalent of today’s GCSE. The school encouraged us to do this if there was a chance we might go on to university, and especially if we aspired to study medicine. Whenever we complained about the uselessness of Latin, we’d be told that ‘Latin trains the mind’, followed by ‘and you’ll need it if you want to be a doctor’.

Today’s medical students are not expected to have studied Latin, but they still need to learn a technical vocabulary which is heavily reliant on it. In anatomy, for instance, much of the standard terminology dates back to the Renaissance, when Latin was the language of learning across Europe. And sometimes, decoding medical Latin reveals that it isn’t just the language that’s ancient.

Last year the New York Times reported on the experience of Allison Draper, who as a first-year medical student came across a reference to the ‘pudendal nerve’. Not knowing the word ‘pudendal’, she consulted a dictionary of anatomy. She was shocked to learn that it derived from the Latin verb ‘pudere’, meaning ‘to be or make ashamed’, and that ‘pudendum’, a gerundive form meaning, roughly, ‘thing to be ashamed of’, was the standard anatomical term for the outer female genitalia. She decided to write a paper arguing that such terms had no place in modern medicine. Her (male) anatomy professor supported her, though he admitted that before she raised it he had never given the matter any thought.  

Another male anatomist, Bernard Moxham, had already concluded that ‘pudendum’ was a problem. To his mind it was not only sexist but also unscientific, putting moral judgment in place of description. Moxham had previously served as president of the international organisation that oversees the standard reference work on anatomical terms, Terminologia Anatomica, and he proposed that organisation’s terminology group should consider replacing ‘pudendum’ and ‘pudendal’ with more objective, descriptive alternatives.

He was surprised when this proposal met with resistance. Some members of the group maintained that the terms weren’t really sexist: they could be interpreted as referring not to the negative concept of shame but to the ‘positive’ concepts of modesty and virtue (though it’s hard to see what’s positive about locating women’s virtue in their genitals). Others warned darkly of a slippery slope: if ‘pudendum’ went, how many other traditional terms might also have to go because they were scientifically uninformative or out of tune with modern sensibilities?  Eventually the group agreed that ‘pudendum’ should be removed from Terminologia Anatomica, but ‘pudendal’, as in ‘pudendal nerve’, should stay; they were concerned that its removal might cause difficulty for colleagues in other branches of medicine. However, a pain-management specialist who regularly performs the procedure known as a ‘pudendal block’ told the Times she found its survival ‘incredible’. ‘What’, she asked, ‘does that say about the medical establishment and their attitudes to women?’ 

The story of ‘pudendum’ does say something about the sexism of medicine as an institution, but arguably it says at least as much about the culture in which medicine exists. In the 21st century it may seem crassly offensive to label women’s genitals ‘the thing to be ashamed of’, but historically that label served the same purpose which is more often served today by using vague expressions like ‘undercarriage’ or ‘bits’. These are forms of polite avoidance, ways of not directly naming the offensive thing itself. And what’s behind that is not a specifically medical prejudice, but a far more general and culturally pervasive view of female sexuality, and the associated body-parts, as a source of shame and disgust. That view remains widespread among women themselves: surveys have found that many or most of those questioned regard terms like ‘vulva’ and ‘vagina’ as embarrassing and offensive.

But while medical terminology reflects the prejudices of the surrounding culture, the authority and prestige of medicine give its language a particular power to define the realities it speaks of—including the female body and the processes which affect it. Challenging that power, and medical authority more generally, has been an important feminist project more or less throughout the history of the movement. But as the case of ‘pudendum’ shows, it isn’t easy (even for insiders) to shift the norms of a linguistic register whose traditions are so revered and so jealously guarded. How changes happen, when they do, is a complicated question–as we see if we consider an earlier challenge to the language used by doctors about women’s bodies.    

In 1985 the UK medical journal The Lancet published a letter from a group of senior obstetricians calling on the profession to stop using the term ‘abortion’ to refer to both induced terminations of pregnancy and ‘spontaneous’ or involuntary pregnancy loss. The letter stated that in the writers’ experience, women who had experienced pregnancy loss found the use of ‘abortion’ distressing and offensive. It proposed, on ‘humanitarian grounds’, that non-induced cases should instead be called by women’s own preferred term, ‘miscarriage’.

Research has shown that ‘miscarriage’ did subsequently become more common in medical usage. But there has been some debate on the role played by the Lancet letter. Was it the letter that changed doctors’ attitudes, and thus their linguistic choices, or was a gradual shift from ‘abortion’ to ‘miscarriage’ already happening in response to external pressure? Patient-led groups and women’s health activists had established a clear preference for ‘miscarriage’ before 1985: in 1982, when a charity was set up to support affected women, its founders named it the Miscarriage Association. Might these ongoing developments, led by women outside the profession, have played a more important role than the letter in shifting the professional consensus over time?      

That question has recently been revisited in an article by the corpus linguist Beth Malory, who investigated the use of ‘abortion’ and ‘miscarriage’ in the titles of articles published in three UK medical journals (The Lancet, the British Medical Journal and the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology) between 1975 and 1995. Using a statistical modelling technique called ‘change point analysis’, which is designed to identify sudden (rather than gradual) changes in an established pattern, she found that in this case there had been a moment when the pattern abruptly changed, and there was an 85% probability that this occurred in 1986—within months of the publication of the Lancet letter. In Malory’s view this is strong evidence that the letter played a pivotal role in the shift towards ‘miscarriage’.

That doesn’t mean external pressure played no role: the letter was, by its authors’ own account, a response to the concerns expressed by patients and organisations representing them (the letter cites a survey conducted by the Miscarriage Association in which 85% of respondents opposed the then-current medical use of ‘abortion’). But it does seem likely that the effect of the letter reflected the authors’ status as eminent members of the medical profession, which enabled them to make the case for ‘miscarriage’ more authoritatively than the women they spoke for could have done. So, in this case as in the case of ‘pudendum’, the moral of the story seems to be that changing the language of medicine is not something sisters can do for themselves: they may be instrumental in preparing the ground, but ultimately they need the support of high-ranking insiders. (Who will often, as in these cases, be men.)    

Nearly 40 years have passed since the Lancet letter, but the issue it addressed hasn’t gone away. ‘Miscarriage’, once recommended as a compassionate and respectful choice, is increasingly under fire itself. And this time women are voicing their objections from a platform that didn’t exist in the 1980s.

In 2020, after the model and media personality Chrissy Teigen shared the news of her recent pregnancy loss on Instagram, the response quickly spread across social media, and then to mainstream publications like Glamour magazine, which ran an article headed ‘Women are calling for the word “miscarriage” to be banished for good’. The article reproduced a Twitter exchange in which a woman expressed her appreciation for Teigen’s use of the term ‘pregnancy loss’, observing that ‘“Miscarried” is such an awful description…it’s like you did something wrong’. Other women agreed: ‘miscarry = mishandle’, tweeted one, while another added, ‘you’re so right…it’s no wonder so many women carry feelings of shame and guilt after their loss’. Many women commented that the term ‘pregnancy loss’ was new to them, and said they planned to start using it instead of ‘miscarriage’.

This change already had some professional support. In 2011 the US journal Obstetrics and Gynecology published a paper entitled ‘Nomenclature for pregnancy outcomes: time for a change’ (note: no question-mark), which argued that new terms were needed to reflect both advances in scientific knowledge and what it called ’emotional considerations’. The authors’ own list of suggested terms contained several that included the word ‘loss’ (e.g. ‘embryonic loss’ and ‘early pregnancy loss’). ‘Pregnancy loss’ also appeared in some of the article titles in the paper’s bibliography, showing that some specialists had already adopted it.

Though it hasn’t happened yet, it wouldn’t surprise me if ‘pregnancy loss’ became the dominant term in the not-too-distant future. Personally I think it’s a good term: it’s straightforward, transparent and acknowledges what the experience means to those affected by it. But it’s still striking, as Beth Malory also comments, how fast and how far ‘miscarriage’ has fallen. The responses to Chrissy Teigen suggested that it is now widely seen as a woman-blaming term (in the words of the tweet quoted earlier, ‘miscarry = mishandle’). That isn’t just a lay view, either: in 2015 a doctor writing in the Toronto Globe & Mail argued that ‘miscarriage’ was a harmful term because the ‘mis-’ prefix leads women to believe their pregnancies have ‘gone wrong’ (when in reality it’s more likely they were never viable) and that this must be because of something they did wrong.

This argument implies that the negative associations of ‘miscarriage’ are–and always were–an integral part of its meaning. Yet if we look back to the 1980s, there is no reason to think it was perceived as negative. In those days it was championed by feminists, patient groups, charities and eventually doctors; it was presented as the term women themselves preferred. One of the advantages it was said to have over ‘abortion’ was that it didn’t carry a stigma, or make women feel they were being blamed. Evidently that’s changed during the last 40 years; but what has happened to change it?   

The short answer is that changes in word-meaning may reflect changes in the surrounding culture, and in this case I can think of two developments which might be relevant. One is the increasingly aggressive promotion of the idea that individuals are responsible for their own health, and the associated tendency to blame any problems on people’s own unhealthy choices; in the case of pregnant women, whose choices also affect their unborn children, this attitude is particularly punitive (think of all the total strangers who feel entitled to intervene if they see a pregnant woman drinking alcohol). The other is the rise in popular culture of a new ideal of perfect motherhood, embodied by celebrities and social media influencers who plot an exemplary and very public course from conception (which happens exactly as planned) through a radiantly healthy pregnancy to birth (ideally ‘natural’), after which they have no trouble bonding with the baby, and quickly shed any excess weight. For the great majority of women (maybe all of them) this ideal is unattainable, but that doesn’t stop them feeling guilty for falling short.

Of course it’s true that pregnant women in the 1980s—and for that matter the 1880s—were nagged about their health and presented with unrealistic images of motherhood; it’s also true that women who lost a pregnancy were always susceptible to feelings of shame and guilt. But I’m suggesting that the pressure on prospective mothers to be ‘perfect’ has been massively ramped up in recent decades, and that this may at least partly explain why ‘miscarriage’ has taken on more negative, judgmental or accusatory overtones. It’s a projection of our feelings about the thing onto the word that names it. And one question that might raise is whether changing the word will solve the problem.

Critics of this kind of change are fond of pointing to cases where terms which were introduced to replace a stigmatising label rapidly became pejorative themselves, necessitating a further change in the approved terminology (‘handicapped’ replaced ‘crippled’, and was replaced in its turn by ‘disabled’; ‘lunatics’ became ‘insane’ and then ‘mentally ill’). New terms are corrupted by the persistence of old attitudes, turning the project of reforming language into an endless game of whack-a-mole. My response to this is ‘yes, but…’. Changing linguistic labels may not eliminate social stigma, but that’s not an argument for sticking with terms that have become pejorative. You wouldn’t tell someone suffering from chronic headaches that they shouldn’t take a painkiller today because it won’t stop them getting another headache tomorrow. Temporary relief is still relief.

But when feminists get involved in debates about medical terminology, we should be clear about what renaming can and can’t achieve. Terms which were targets of feminist criticism in the past, like ‘hysteria’ and ‘frigidity’, may no longer appear in doctors’ diagnostic manuals, but they live on as everyday sexist insults (also, how enthusiastic are we about replacements like ‘female sexual dysfunction’, which arguably just repackage the old sexist ideas under a new, blander label?) What we’re ultimately fighting is not a war on words, but a battle against oppressive beliefs and practices. Language can play a part in that, but it isn’t the only thing we need to change.

I’m grateful to Beth Malory for sending me her article (which I hope those of you with access will read for yourselves), but she should not be held responsible for the opinions expressed in this post.

2021: mixed messages and weasel words

When I last did an annual round-up we were nearly a year into the pandemic. 2020 had been grim, but it seemed possible 2021 would bring a gradual return to something more like normal life. It didn’t: though the government in England declared ‘freedom day’ in July, as I write in late December normality still seems a long way off.

Living through this pandemic has something in common with living as a feminist. In each case you’ve always got to be prepared for some new horror, while at the same time knowing (a) that the underlying problem is the same one you’ve been shouting about forever, and (b) that the response of the people with the power to do something about it will be the same mixture of arrogance and incompetence, excuse-making and victim-blaming, which has failed on every previous occasion. Spin and disinformation will abound, and large sections of the media will amplify them.

In Britain, and particularly in England, the pandemic has been, among other bad things, an object lesson in how not to do public communication. One reason for that, though not the only one, is that the Communicator-in-Chief, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is a man who has never been renowned for his clarity, honesty, seriousness, grasp of detail or commitment to any kind of public service. It’s hard to think of anything he has said since about March 2020 (when he announced the first full lockdown by saying ‘you must stay at home’) that has not been evasive, confusing or misleading.

By the end of 2021, as evidence surfaced of Johnson and his colleagues drinking and partying while the rest of us were forbidden to socialise or even visit dying loved ones, the public’s patience began to wear thin. But the media had spent the year making excuses for ‘Boris’, if not explicitly then implicitly, by using language that echoed his own carefully cultivated image as an unruly schoolboy forever getting into ‘scrapes’, and in some cases blaming his poor decisions on the malign influence of his partner Carrie. And yes, this is about sexism. Though I don’t think feminists should idealise women leaders (which was something of a trend in 2020), at least women in positions of authority generally make some effort to look and sound like competent adults. No woman could get away with Boris Johnson’s naughty schoolkid act.

For British feminists—and many women who might not think of themselves as feminists—perhaps the galvanising horrific event of 2021 was the abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard in March. There were many other killings of women by men this year (by December 18 there were 136 known cases), but this one stood out because the perpetrator was a serving officer in the Metropolitan Police, who had used both his police ID and the circumstances of the pandemic to entrap his victim (he told her he was arresting her for breaching the public health rules in force at the time). It also emerged that his predatory attitudes to women had been known to his colleagues for years, and that he had been reported more than once for exhibitionism—reports which his fellow-officers apparently did not follow up on. The case thus highlighted not only the extent to which women’s freedom is restricted by their well-founded fear of male violence, but also their inability to trust the police.

Violence against women in general is a subject on which mis- and disinformation is rife, mainly because of the constant repetition of ancient but demonstrably inaccurate and misleading stories about why it happens and who is (or is not) responsible (‘he just snapped’; ‘she rejected him and he couldn’t live without her’; ‘an isolated incident’, etc., etc). But in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder what we got from the authorities, as well as assorted experts and pundits, was gaslighting on a grand scale—a sustained attempt to persuade women that when they described the realities of their own lives they were being irrational and even ‘hysterical’.  

My most-read post of 2021 was an analysis of the discourse in which the mass outpouring of women’s anger was dismissed as an overreaction to something (the killing of a woman by a male stranger) which was, mysteriously, both an inevitable fact of life and at the same time ‘incredibly rare’. (So, maybe one or two cases a decade then? No: according to the UK Femicide Census they account for about one in every twelve cases. Applied to this year’s figures that statistic would translate to roughly one every month.) Think-pieces in the media asked why women are so afraid of men; few asked why so many men habitually behave in ways that make women fearful. And in a bravura display of missing the point, it was suggested that any lone women stopped by a male police officer could call a police station to verify that he was legit. This advice entirely ignored the reason why the question had been raised in the first place—that when Wayne Couzens stopped Sarah Everard he was not impersonating a police officer, he actually was one.  

The anger this case provoked among women gave a boost to the ongoing campaign to extend current legal provisions on hate crime to offences motivated by misogyny. For a moment it seemed as if the government would seize on this apparently popular demand, but in the event they decided to pass. I did not share some feminists’ disappointment: I’m no fan of the government (see above), but I am nevertheless a ‘misogyny hate-crime’ sceptic, for reasons I wrote about in March. Apart from my doubts about whether ‘hate’ is the right frame for most violence against women and girls, I agree with those feminists who have argued that the main problem for victims of rape, sexual assault and domestic abuse is the failure of the criminal justice system to enforce the laws we already have. One issue here is how poorly resourced the system has become after years of public spending cuts. But another is the endless excuse-making and victim-blaming complainants continue to encounter within a system that is itself institutionally sexist and misogynist.

The criminal justice system is not alone here. A number of schools responded to incidents of girls being upskirted by boys by telling the girls to wear ‘modesty shorts’ underneath their uniform skirts. Perhaps the teachers who came up with this policy weren’t aware that upskirting became a criminal offence in 2019. Or perhaps making new laws is just a futile symbolic gesture if you don’t also make efforts to tackle the attitudes which both underlie the behaviour you’re concerned about and ensure that most instances of it will continue to go unreported and/or unpunished.  

This year brought more evidence that UK schools are struggling to deal with endemic sexual harassment and rising numbers of sexual assaults, including a growing number involving children aged under 11. On this issue disinformation took another common form—using language that obscures who’s doing what to whom. The vast majority of sexual assaults recorded in schools are perpetrated by boys against girls, but the statistics which contained this information were reported in virtually all media sources using the studiedly gender-neutral (and reciprocity-implying) phrase ‘sexual abuse between children’. We do need to talk about the way early exposure to a highly sexualised popular and online culture is affecting both girls and boys—but without implying that the effects are the same for both.

There’s a lot of muddled thinking in this area, though, and in 2021 it produced some strikingly mixed messages. On one hand there were repeated expressions of concern about the effects of social media in ramping up the objectification of teenage girls and the attendant dissatisfaction many feel with their bodies. In January, for instance, a report was published which found that heavy use of social media was associated with lower levels of wellbeing and self-esteem for adolescents generally, but girls experienced a steeper decline than boys from the age of 14 (with one in three girls reporting negative feelings about their appearance). Yet in the same month a public health campaign to increase the take-up of cervical cancer screening among young women suggested they should encourage their peers to get screened by posting coded references to the state of their pubic hair (‘bushy, bare, or halfway there?’) on social media.

While objectified female bodies are hyper-visible, women’s voices continue to be silenced and disparaged. Examples that made the news in 2021 included the story of the man in charge of the Tokyo Olympics, who defended the near-absence of women in his organisation by saying that women would cause problems with their incessant talking, and a study which revisited some 40-year old findings about who speaks in US university classrooms and reported that not much had changed (men in this study talked 1.6 times as much as their female peers). My post on this topic was inspired, however, by a more positive story, about a woman whose response to being told to stop talking by a man in a Zoom meeting was swift, uncompromising and highly effective: she expelled him. I refer of course to Jackie Weaver, who became a national celebrity after a recording of the Handsforth Parish Council meeting went viral.  

In summer, reading an academic history of women’s contributions to language study before World War II made me wonder how many of the women discussed had an entry on Wikipedia. I discovered as I expected that many of them did not, but I was also shocked by the sexist and sometimes downright insulting content of the entries I did find. I also discovered a study which found that feminists’ efforts to redress Wikipedia’s well-known gender imbalance are being undermined by a persistent tendency for entries about women to be nominated for deletion because, allegedly, their subjects are not sufficiently ‘notable’.

We had a topical illustration of women’s non-notability in December, when the Sunday Times ran a piece about the data scientists who’ve become popular celebrities during the pandemic. All the individuals featured were white men. The i-Paper swiftly countered by profiling a selection of what it mockingly dubbed ‘the female “data lads”’. ‘Men’, the writer observed, ‘have indeed been at the forefront of Covid number-crunching, but because the pandemic did start a long time ago but not as far back as the Dark Ages, swathes of women have been doing it too, also amassing thousands of online followers’.

In October and November this blog took a backseat to my day-job, and I only returned to it as the end-of-year festivities approached. Not that I was feeling the seasonal goodwill: a rant about the portrayal of ‘Nana’ in Christmas ads was as festive as it got. It could have been a lot darker, though. Shortly before Christmas I stumbled across a tweet whose author had collated no fewer than four versions of a family Christmas card in which Dad, Mum and 2+ kids posed for the camera wearing Christmas jumpers or Santa hats—and in the case of Mum and the kids (or in two cases, just the daughters), a strip of duct-tape fixed firmly over their mouths. This delightful scene was captioned ‘Peace on Earth’. (In case you’re wondering, I’m not reproducing these photos because they contain degrading images of children too young to have given informed consent to their public circulation.)

When the depiction of gagged women can become a humorous Christmas meme, we are a long way from where feminists might have hoped we’d be in the third decade of the 21st century. And this wasn’t the only point in the year when I wondered if we were going backwards. In April the death of Prince Philip unleashed a global wave of commentary so overtly patriarchal it could easily have been composed 100 years ago. Its main theme was Philip’s difficult position as a man forced to walk in his wife’s shadow—though we were repeatedly assured that in private he ‘wore the trousers’. An Italian newspaper approvingly remarked that ‘he was the only one who could tell the sovereign to shut up’.

Telling women to shut up was one of the recurring themes of this year. But so was women refusing to (be) shut up. Those who featured directly in my posts included not only Jackie Weaver, but also the women who organised and attended vigils for Sarah Everard despite attempts to stop them, and the female employees whose testimony led to the downfall of New York state Governor (and serial sexual harasser) Andrew Cuomo. In this second Plague Year, when so many women were so overburdened with extra work and worry, the fact that they continued to raise their voices was cheering, even if the events they were responding to were not. Thanks to everyone who read this blog this year, along with all the researchers whose work I made use of; let’s hope things get easier in 2022.


September was an eventful month in the ongoing War of the W-Word. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) tweeted out an edited version of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s words defending a woman’s right to choose, in which the words ‘woman’, ‘she’ and ‘her’ were replaced with ‘person’, ‘they’ and ‘their’. The medical journal The Lancet published a cover informing readers that ‘Historically, the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected’. And a series of British politicians publicly tied themselves in knots about whether it’s permissible to state that ‘only women have a cervix’.

‘Bodies with vaginas’ caused particular offence, but as the science writer and editor Sue Nelson pointed out, The Lancet had taken the phrase out of context. The statement on the cover was what’s known in the trade as a ‘pull-quote’, lifted from an article discussing an exhibition about menstruation at London’s Vagina Museum. Not only did the article mention women, it did so in the very sentence the quote was taken from:

Historically the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected—for example, the paucity of understanding of endometriosis and the way women’s pain has been seen as more likely to have an emotional or psychological cause, a hangover from centuries of theorising about hysteria.

The article does connect the treatment of ‘bodies with vaginas’ to the fact that vaginas, on the whole, belong to women. But the cover obscures that through selective quotation. Sue Nelson described this as ‘deliberately provocative’, adding that it was ‘clickbait…virtue-signalling, or both’.

What is it, though, that makes ‘bodies with vaginas’ so provocative? Many critics complained that the phrase dehumanised women by referring to them as ‘bodies’, but I’m not convinced that ‘bodies’ is the problem. I don’t think The Lancet would have been deluged with complaints if its cover had called attention to the historical neglect of ‘the anatomy and physiology of women’s bodies’, or ‘female bodies’, or ‘the female body’. On the cover of a medical journal, in a sentence about anatomy and physiology (‘the study of the structure and functions of bodies’) those phrases would not have seemed out of place.

In my view the provocation had less to do with the words The Lancet did use than with the word it conspicuously avoided. Whatever else they communicate, expressions like ‘bodies with vaginas’ (see also ‘menstruators’, ‘pregnant people’, ‘anyone who has a cervix’) signal that the speaker or writer has made a conscious decision not to use the word ‘women’. Particularly when it’s repeated across contexts and over time, this intentional avoidance implies that ‘women’ is taboo: it belongs to the category of words whose offensiveness makes them ‘dirty’ and publicly unspeakable.    

At this point you might be thinking: but this isn’t about avoidance, it’s about inclusion. It’s a way of acknowledging that some individuals who have vaginas/periods/abortions do not identify as women, but rather as trans men or nonbinary people. Is this not the same argument 1970s feminists made when they objected to the pseudo-generic use of masculine terms like ‘chairman’? I agree that there are parallels; but there are also, if you look closer, differences.     

1970s feminists looking for alternatives to ‘he/man’ language had a number of strategies at their disposal. One of these was ‘doubling’, conjoining terms with ‘and’, as in the phrase ‘servicemen and women’, now routinely used by politicians paying tribute to the armed forces. Feminists don’t complain about the continuing presence of ‘men’, who are still the majority of those who serve. But when the problem is the word ‘women’, and the issue is including people with other gender identities, there’s a tendency to shy away from the ‘add on’ approach (e.g. ‘we provide advice and support to pregnant women, trans men and nonbinary people’). The preferred strategy is to substitute a word or phrase that does not contain the word ‘women’—even if the result is bizarre (‘bodies with vaginas’), circumlocutory (‘anyone who has a cervix’) or unclear (e.g. the ACLU’s use of ‘person/people’ in a context where the reference is not to all people but specifically to those who can become pregnant). If you’re just looking for ways of referring to a category which includes but is not limited to women, why is it so important to avoid the word entirely?  

Another piece of evidence that we are dealing with avoidance is that the substitution rule only applies to ‘women’. As critics of the Lancet cover pointed out, a few days earlier the journal had tweeted something about prostate cancer which referred to those affected by the disease as ‘men’. If inclusiveness were the sole concern, the same considerations should apply to prostate cancer as to cervical cancer. In both cases, some patients in need of screening or treatment may identify as trans or nonbinary. But texts about cancers which only affect male bodies do not talk about ‘people with prostates’ or ‘bodies with testicles’. That can’t be because ‘men’ is more inclusive than ‘women’; the difference is that ‘men’ is not taboo.      

The English word ‘taboo’ means a kind of avoidance which reflects our notions of polite or socially appropriate behaviour. It covers such injunctions as not swearing in certain contexts (in front of your grandparents, or at a job interview), and not speaking plainly about certain subjects (e.g. death). The word ‘woman’ was once considered impolite (as a child I was taught to call say ‘lady)’, and avoiding it to be inclusive is also, to some extent, about politeness—being sensitive to others’ feelings and trying not to offend or upset them. But some aspects of the way this avoidance plays out might remind us of taboo in the more technical, anthropological sense.

The anthropological use of ‘taboo’ reflects the way it was observed to work in the Polynesian societies which originally gave English the word. In those societies, ‘tabu’ (or ‘tapu’ or ‘kapu’) is connected to the concept of ‘mana’, a form of power which all things are believed to possess, and which is dangerous if not correctly channelled. The danger is managed through the observance of ritual prohibitions, like not eating certain foods, or not bringing objects that serve one purpose into a space reserved for another, or not uttering the names of gods, rulers, or the recently deceased. Taboo-breaking is understood to be both dangerous and shameful: offenders may be shunned, and in extreme cases even killed.      

The avoidance of ‘women’ among contemporary English-speakers is not motivated by fear of supernatural forces, but it does sometimes seem to be rooted in another kind of fear—the fear that if you don’t observe the rules you will be publicly shamed and ostracised. When politicians were asked about ‘only women have a cervix’, it was striking how many of them could not explain why, in the Labour leader Keir Starmer’s words, ‘it is something that should not be said’. Some of their responses were like the answer James Cook got when he asked why it was forbidden for Tongan men and women to eat together: ‘it is our custom’, they told him, ‘and the custom is right’. A taboo does not require an explanation.     

Even in modern western societies, linguistic taboos retain an element of the ancient belief in word-magic. An obvious example is swearing, where the effect depends on harnessing the power attached to a specific word: if you substitute a synonym (e.g. say ‘copulate off’ rather than ‘fuck off’) the effect is completely lost. And quite similar ideas about the potency of certain words inform some common recommendations for making language more inclusive.

The psychologist Carol Tavris drew attention to this phenomenon in a piece about some new guidelines produced by the University of California at Irvine (UCI).  Noting that the guidelines recommended avoiding ‘hearing impaired’ and replacing it with ‘hard of hearing’, she wondered why one was considered preferable to the other. The answer is that guidelines often proscribe terms that include the word ‘impaired’ on the grounds that it is negative and therefore stigmatising. But is ‘hard of hearing’ any less negative just because it doesn’t contain ‘impaired’? (One piece of evidence which might suggest otherwise is the existence of the joke-expression ‘hard of thinking’, meaning ‘stupid’.)

Even if they’re not efficacious, we might think these avoidance-based rules are harmless. But as Tavris says, for the average language-user, who is not steeped in the discourse of diversity, equality and inclusion, they make talking about certain issues into what can easily appear to be a minefield. They also create a gap between the approved language of inclusion and the everyday language used by most people most of the time. The mismatch is apparent in another of UCI’s recommendations—to avoid the phrase ‘homeless people’ and substitute ‘people experiencing homelessness’. If most ordinary English-speakers don’t follow this advice, is that because they don’t believe homeless people are people? Or are they just reluctant to use such wordy, convoluted jargon? Maybe they think ‘people experiencing homelessness’ is a patronising euphemism—like when doctors ask if you’re ‘experiencing discomfort’ when you’re actually in excruciating pain.   

Disregarding the views of ordinary language-users is a mistake language reformers have made repeatedly. When the ACLU substituted ‘person’ for ‘woman’ in its edited quote from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, many objections took the form of mockery—repeating the same substitution in a context where it was clearly absurd, like ‘When a man loves a person’, or ‘feminism is the radical notion that persons are people’. Something similar happened in Britain after the Sex Discrimination Act made it illegal to use gender-specific terms in job advertisements. With the many jobs whose title had traditionally contained ‘-man’ there were two options: you could either use paired terms like ‘servicemen and women’, or find a gender-neutral variant to cover both. One result was a crop of new compounds like ‘chairperson’, ‘salesperson’ and ‘spokesperson’. Another was an endless stream of jokes about ‘personholes’, ‘personagers’ and whether in future diners would have to ask the ‘waitperson’ for the ‘people-u’.

To begin with this looked like a predictable backlash which would die down as the new terms became familiar. But there were other problems with -person. One was our old friend ‘the illusion of inclusion‘. Outside job ads, person-terms were frequently used not as generic substitutes for ‘man’, but as euphemisms for ‘woman’. Women were ‘chairpersons’, while men continued to be ‘chairmen’. It also became evident that replacing ‘man’ with ‘person’ often produced real terms that sounded like jokes. Soon after the law came into force I got a job in a local hospital, where my wage-slip informed me I was a ‘laundrywoman’. I found that term archaic, but on reflection I could see why it hadn’t been replaced with the ludicrous-sounding ‘laundryperson’.

‘Person’ once appeared to be the obvious substitute for ‘man’, but in hindsight we can see that it failed. Today almost none of the old -person compounds survive. But over time people converged on more acceptable solutions to the problem of making job-titles inclusive (e.g. ‘chair’, ‘sales assistant/associate’, ‘firefighter’). What they rejected was not the basic principle of inclusion, but the imposition of terms they found unnatural or ridiculous.    

The very public controversies of the last few weeks suggest that the kind of inclusive language that requires the avoidance of ‘women’ may be encountering similar resistance. It wasn’t just a certain kind of feminist who criticised ‘bodies with vaginas’. There were other Lancet-readers who were not so much offended as just bewildered that a medical journal would go to such lengths to avoid the W-word.

But many women were angry, and that isn’t hard to understand. Erasing one group of people as a way of including others sends a clear message about who matters and who doesn’t. And replacing the word a group of people use to name themselves with terms that many of them find alien and insulting makes it clear that women’s own preferences are irrelevant. This isn’t new: for millennia, all kinds of names have been imposed on women against their will. In that respect, terms like ‘menstruator’ and ‘birthing person’ are not so different from ‘slut’ and ‘slag’. Men like Keir Starmer and the editor of The Lancet would deny that they think of women as subordinates–yet they apparently feel entitled to tell women what it’s acceptable for them to say about their own bodies. They need to understand it isn’t up to them to decide, and let women speak, in their own words, for themselves.                    

The fall of Andrew Cuomo

Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned this week, following the publication of a report which found he had ‘sexually harassed a number of current and former New York State employees by, among other things, engaging in unwelcome and nonconsensual touching [and] making numerous offensive comments of a suggestive and sexual nature that created a hostile work environment for women’.

The part of this story that caught my attention was Cuomo’s repeated protestations that what had happened was not harassment, it was ‘miscommunication’. Referring to a complaint made by his executive assistant Charlotte Bennett, he told the investigators that Bennett had ‘processed what she heard through her own filter. And it was often not what was said and not what was meant’. At a press conference after the report was published, he again insisted that Bennett had ‘heard things I just didn’t say’.

This didn’t get my attention because it was novel or unexpected. We’ve heard it before and we’ll undoubtedly hear it again. So, this may be a good time to take a closer look at the ever-popular ‘miscommunication’ defence.

There are several reasons why this defence is useful to men like Cuomo. One is that it stops short of calling the complainant a liar: that’s also popular, of course, but for a liberal politician with a lot of female supporters there’s something to be said for a less overtly woman-blaming approach. It also has the advantage of resonating with beliefs about communication which are part of our cultural common sense. Cuomo suggested that some of the complainants had misinterpreted his actions because of cultural differences (he’s Italian-American, he touches everyone); he also mentioned generational differences (he’s 63, you have to make allowances). And lurking in the background was the idea that men and women routinely misunderstand one another because they’re from different planets, speak different languages, and process reality through different ‘filters’.

The claims made in self-help books about ‘male-female miscommunication’ are not, in fact, supported by credible evidence. But the miscommunication defence contains a core of truth which makes it difficult to refute conclusively. Because humans are not mind-readers, and language is not a rigid code in which every utterance has only one possible interpretation, there’s always room for doubt about what someone really meant by what they said.

When Andrew Cuomo says of Charlotte Bennett that she ‘heard things I just didn’t say’, he’s describing what all of us do all the time in our efforts to understand other people. We have to ‘hear things they didn’t say’, because not everything we need to make sense of an utterance is in the words a speaker uttered. Some of it we have to supply ourselves, using contextual information, background knowledge about the world, and our ability to reason about how everything fits together.

If someone says to me ‘it’s cold in here’, is that a statement or is it an indirect request to close the window? To decide, I have to put the words together with other relevant information. If we’re two strangers sitting in a public building (where neither of us has the authority to go round closing windows, or the obligation to make other visitors comfortable), I’ll probably treat it as small-talk and respond in kind (‘yes, it’s freezing’). But if the speaker is my boss who’s just walked into my office, I might well take it as a request and respond by closing the window. In which case, clearly, I will have heard something my boss didn’t actually say.

Because she didn’t actually say it, however, it could turn out that I got it wrong. Maybe when I move to close the window she’ll say ‘oh no, don’t do that, I like it cold’. It’s always open to the speaker to deny that what you inferred was not what she intended. And to complicate matters further, when she denies saying A and meaning B, that could be because she genuinely didn’t mean B, but it could also be a strategic denial: she did in fact mean B, but it’s in her interests to say she didn’t.  

Men accused of sexual harassment have an obvious interest in denying they meant what the complainant took them to mean. And this will often be made easier for them by the nature of the communication whose meaning is in dispute. While some forms of verbal sexual harassment may be direct enough for their meaning to be indisputable, others are very indirect, relying on the hearer to ‘read between the lines’. In this respect, sexual harassment is not unlike another linguistic practice through which sexual interest may be communicated: flirting.

Flirting has been defined by the linguist Scott Kiesling as ‘an off-record negotiation and recognition of interpersonal desire’. ‘Off-record’ means that the participants don’t put their cards on the table: they leave things inexplicit, vague or ambiguous. It’s been suggested that this element of uncertainty is part of what makes flirting fun–it keeps the participants guessing and prolongs what’s been called ‘the excitement of possibility’. In the case of sexual harassment, however, inexplicitness serves less benign purposes. Uncertainty about the harasser’s intentions only increases the victim’s discomfort (is she misjudging the situation? If she objects will she be being unfair?), and in the event of any challenge it gives the harasser ‘plausible deniability’.

In 2003 the conversation analyst Liisa Tainio published an analysis of a phone conversation in which a Member of Parliament in Finland sexually harassed a 15-year old girl (he was later convicted of attempting to sexually abuse a child). This was the second call he had made to the girl: after the first she decided, with the help of her family, to arrange another call and record it. Tainio’s transcript confirms that inexplicitness is a key feature of the harasser’s talk. At no point does he explicitly mention any recognisably sexual activity: his proposition to the girl, which he repeats in various forms no fewer than 15 times, is that they should ‘go for a ride’. At one stage he mentions the possibility of going to a hotel: that might hint at a sexual intention, but since there are other, non-sexual things one could do in a hotel, it remains ambiguous and deniable.

However, Tainio points out two other features of the call that support an interpretation of it as harassment. One is the repetition of the proposition. Issuing the same invitation 15 times in a single conversation is highly marked behaviour. Analysis has shown that if someone is going to accept an invitation they will normally do so promptly; if they hesitate or hedge that will be heard as declining, even if it isn’t followed by a direct refusal (refusing by ‘just saying no’ is in reality very rare). The girl does hesitate and hedge (‘I don’t know’… ‘I’m very busy’), but the MP ignores this, and keeps re-issuing the invitation. By normal standards he is badgering her, and that’s one piece of evidence suggesting harassment.

The other piece of evidence that he’s harassing her is the fact that he tries to blackmail her. He informs her that he knows (because he’s been spying on her) that she has had a boy in the house in her father’s absence, and then says:

Listen, I know more about you than you think. I won’t ever tell these things to your Daddy, y’know …cause I do know your Daddy… I won’t gossip, I won’t do that, I’m nice enough …but I know a lot about you

This is a good example of an utterance whose intended meaning differs from its apparent meaning. On the surface he’s promising not to tell the girl’s father what he knows, but by implication he is threatening to tell unless the girl co-operates.   

Despite the creepiness of this man’s behaviour—spying on an adolescent girl and calling her at home to ask her out—Tainio tells us that the police and the press were initially reluctant to treat it as sexual harassment. That may be because, as she says, ‘there is no one single feature of the talk which could be “typical” of sexual harassment’. In particular, the MP makes no explicit and unambiguous sexual propositions. Tainio’s analysis picks out several different features (the badgering, the hesitant or hedged responses, the veiled threats), and suggests that it’s only when you put them all together (along with the information that this is an adult man talking to a 15-year old girl) that the case for sexual harassment becomes compelling.

Could we make a similar analysis of the interaction which prompted Charlotte Bennett to accuse Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment? Not quite, because we don’t have a recording of the interaction; but we do have a detailed narrative account of Bennett’s testimony, which is included in the report I linked to earlier. Here’s an extract:

the Governor asked her how long it had been since she hugged someone, and complained that he had not hugged anyone in a long time. Ms Bennett understood that the Governor did not seem to be asking about platonic hugs, because when she responded that [he] could hug his daughters he responded with something like “No, no, not like that–a real hug”. Ms Bennett testified that the Governor then said he was lonely and that he wanted a girlfriend in Albany. In the same series of conversations, the Governor asked her if she had ever been with older men and whether she thought age mattered in relationships. According to Ms Bennett, while she was trying to figure out how to answer…he cut her off and said “I don’t think [age differences] matter”. [He] then said that he would have a relationship with someone who was “22 and up” or “over the age of 22”. Ms Bennett noted that earlier the same day she and the Governor had discussed the fact that she had recently turned 25. The Governor also asked Ms Bennett if her last relationship had been monogamous.

From this Bennett concluded that Cuomo was expressing a sexual interest in her—something he strenuously denied, saying she had ‘processed what she heard through her own filter’ (i.e., her interpretation was not grounded in any plausible reading of what he said to her). To assess these competing accounts, we need to reconstruct the process Bennett might have gone through to get to her conclusion. Were her inferences, as Cuomo suggested, unwarranted, or were they, in context, reasonable?

We can begin by acknowledging that Cuomo didn’t explicitly say he wanted a sexual relationship with Bennett (if he had there would be nothing to argue about). He did, however, introduce the topic of sexual relationships into a conversation that took place at work, and you would expect someone in Bennett’s position to treat that as meaning something. You would also expect her, in pondering what it might mean, to take account of who was talking to whom (sex-talk addressed by a man to a woman has a different range of potential meanings from the same kind of talk between two male colleagues, for instance). Of course, the fact that he broached the subject does not, in itself, license the conclusion that he was hitting on her (though it doesn’t rule out that possibility either); but there were other clues in the details of what he said. For instance, he mentioned wanting a girlfriend in Albany (he knew Bennett was living in Albany); then he asked if she’d had relationships with older men (he’s an older man himself, nearly 40 years older than Bennett), and followed up by saying he’d have a relationship with anyone older than 22 (Bennett was 25 and that had been mentioned earlier in the day). Finally he asked if her previous relationship had been monogamous (a question that could be heard as probing her openness to casual or illicit sex).

As in the Finnish case, you can’t point to any single thing Cuomo said as definitive: you have to put it all together and consider the cumulative effect. That’s evidently what Charlotte Bennett did, and while we can never know with 100% certainty whether the conclusion she ultimately came to was right (in the sense of reproducing exactly what was in Cuomo’s mind), I think we can reject the claim that she simply imposed an interpretation which the evidence did not support. She did have to read between the lines, but those lines weren’t just figments of her imagination. 

Cuomo, of course, disputed that. He claimed that his reasons for broaching the subject of sex were related either to his responsibilities as Governor (e.g., his comments about hugs expressed a general concern about the emotional impact of Covid restrictions on New Yorkers) or to his role as Bennett’s mentor (he said he’d asked her about her experience with older men because he’d heard rumours she was involved with someone older and he wanted to give her a chance to talk about it). Once again, we can’t be 100% certain these explanations are untrue, but we might think they’re less convincing than the one Bennett constructed from the same evidence. That appears to have been the view of the investigators, whose report describes Cuomo’s account as ‘unpersuasive’.  

Am I saying that there are no circumstances in which it would ever be legitimate for someone like Cuomo to claim that miscommunication had occurred? No: clearly people can and do misunderstand one another. But I don’t think just saying someone misunderstood you is sufficient to make the case, and I also don’t think communication between men and women has some special propensity to go awry. In fact, I believe that so-called ‘male-female miscommunication’ often doesn’t involve misunderstanding at all; what’s presented as a misunderstanding is actually a conflict.

There’s a famous line in the 1967 prison movie Cool Hand Luke, spoken by the prison warden after Luke has escaped and been recaptured: ‘what we’ve got here is failure to communicate’. They both know communication is not the issue. Luke doesn’t defy the warden because he doesn’t understand him. His defiance is a challenge to the warden’s authority. It’s a conflict, not about what words mean, but about who gets to impose their will and who is obliged to submit.

Back in the days when sexual harassment, in Gloria Steinem’s words, ‘was just called life’, women on the receiving end of behaviour like Andrew Cuomo’s had little choice but to submit. They might complain about it privately, but it was difficult to challenge the prevailing view of harassment as just normal male behaviour. Harassers didn’t need to justify themselves, because they didn’t expect their behaviour to have consequences. The courts agreed that employers could not be expected to regulate this kind of behaviour, since, in the words of one US judgment quoted by Gillian Thomas in her history of Title VII,

The attraction of males to females and females to males is a natural sex phenomenon and it is probable that this attraction plays at least a subtle part in most personnel decisions.

Today things are different. Sexual harassment has been named and defined as a problem; workplaces have policies that prohibit it, procedures for reporting it, and sanctions for those who perpetrate it. In practice we know this hasn’t solved the problem. But it has had some consequences, and in my view the popularity of the miscommunication defence is one of them. This defence is a weapon in the ongoing conflict between men who still feel entitled to harass women, and women who’ve been emboldened to challenge that.  

In this case the conflict was resolved in favour of the women. But the struggle isn’t over. Though it didn’t prevent the fall of Andrew Cuomo, the miscommunication defence remains an obstacle to justice, and feminists must continue to point that out.   

Fighting words

Note: this is post is a reworking/updating of a piece I wrote for Trouble & Strife magazine in 2014.

Remember Betty Friedan’s ‘problem that has no name’? Or Gloria Steinem recalling that in the 1960s no one talked about sexual harassment–not because it didn’t happen, but because ‘it was just called life’? Naming women’s experiences of oppression has always been an important political task. Though you don’t solve a problem just by giving it a name, naming it brings it more clearly into focus, making it easier to recognize, to analyse and to fight.

Feminists don’t always agree on what a problem should be called. We have arguments about terminology—about the difference between, say, ‘prostitution’ and ‘sex work’, or ‘gender-based violence’ and ‘male violence against women’—because we don’t think these are just empty labels. They are tools for making sense of the world, reflecting different understandings of what they name.

As times change, names may also change: in recent decades there’s been a change in the way we name forms of oppression. The radical social movements of the 1960s and 70s popularised a set of terms ending in –ism (e.g. racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableismageism, classism); many of these are still in use, but more recent social justice activism has produced another set that end in –phobia (e.g. homophobiatransphobia, Islamophobia, fatphobia, femmephobia, whorephobia). This hasn’t (AFAIK) prompted much heated debate: we don’t seem to think it matters much whether we call something an ‘ism’ or a ‘phobia’. But –ism words and –phobia words frame the problem in different ways–and that difference may not be inconsequential.

If we look at their meanings in the language as a whole, words ending in –ism most commonly name systems of ideas or beliefs–political, religious, intellectual or artistic (e.g. feminism, socialism, nationalismBuddhism, postmodernism, surrealism). Terms like sexism and racism are also names for systems. They were intended to capture the systemic nature of male or white dominance, the idea that these were not just individual prejudices, they were built into the social structure and the workings of social institutions.

Words ending in -phobia, by contrast, most commonly name clinical conditions. The first ‘phobia’ word to appear in an English-language text was hydrophobia (Greek for ‘morbid fear of water’), meaning rabies; in the 19th century the term became associated with mental rather than physical illness, and in current medical usage it names a class of anxiety disorders in which something that is not objectively a threat triggers a pathological reaction—intense fear, panic, disgust, an overwhelming desire to avoid or escape the danger. In everyday parlance the term is used more loosely: it retains the sense of ‘a pathological (over)reaction’, but the emphasis is less on uncontrollable anxiety, the main symptom of clinical phobia, and more on aversion or hatred. Terms like homophobia, transphobia and Islamophobia thus suggest that the problem is not so much social structures as individual feelings or mental states.

Does the shift from ‘isms’ to ‘phobias’ go along with a shift in our understanding of oppression? Clearly there hasn’t been a total shift: we still talk about ‘isms’, and we still (at least sometimes) think in terms of systems. But in today’s progressive discourse I do think there’s a stronger tendency to link oppression directly to feelings of antipathy–and to treat those feelings as a source of harm in their own right. If I believe you hate me for who I am, even if you do nothing about it, that oppresses me.

A version of this idea has been incorporated into the law through the concept of a ‘hate crime’, an offence which is motivated by hostility to the victim as a member of a certain social group. Such offences are seen as particularly serious because the victim is harmed twice over–not only by the act itself (e.g. a threat or an assault), but also by the hostility that motivates it. The law doesn’t criminalise hate itself, but it does treat it as an aggravating factor in cases where it motivates a crime, and directs the courts to consider imposing harsher penalties.

As I explained in a recent post, in Britain crimes against women are not currently eligible to be treated as hate crimes. Some feminists have campaigned for that to change, arguing that misogyny should have the same legal status as racism or homophobia. But there are also feminists who see this demand as misguided. The commonest crimes against women, they point out, such as domestic violence/abuse, do not fit the legal definition of a hate crime. They don’t express hostility towards women in general, but rather the perpetrator’s feeling of entitlement to dominate and control ‘his’ women. A law which treats domestic abuse as less serious than ‘misogyny hate crime’ will not deliver justice for most women.   

At a more general level, this disagreement reflects differing understandings of how women’s oppression works. It’s not that woman-hatred doesn’t exist, but if we want to understand the system feminists call patriarchy, we shouldn’t over-emphasise the role played by hate, or underestimate the contribution made by acts and practices which have other motivations. Domestic abuse is about dominance and control; many forms of workplace discrimination (e.g. not hiring female job applicants on the grounds that they might become pregnant, or paying women workers less than men) are motivated by economic self-interest. Other patriarchal practices reflect ingrained cultural beliefs about women’s nature and what’s best for them: in particular, the belief that women’s ‘natural’ role is to take care of others’ needs, and that curtailing their freedom for the benefit of others does not harm them in the same way it would harm men. This seems to be the attitude of the World Health Organisation, which was criticised last week for suggesting that women ‘of childbearing age’ should be ‘prevented’ from consuming alcohol, It’s also the attitude of men who do no housework or childcare. Hatred, in short, is not a necessary feature of oppression. Is the emphasis placed on it in current progressive discourse actually obscuring the nature of the problem?.

Another question we could ask is how this emphasis on hate might be affecting our own political culture. It’s a difficult one, because there was never a golden age when feminists didn’t criticise, attack or trash each other. (As Ti-Grace Atkinson said 50-odd years ago, ‘Sisterhood is powerful’. It kills. Mostly sisters’.) They just didn’t always do it for an audience of thousands on social media. But contemporary practices like accusing people of being ‘phobic’–harbouring irrational/pathological hatred—tend to raise the emotional temperature. When hating is thought of as the ultimate sin, or even, in the ‘phobia’ frame, something akin to a mental illness, the target of the accusation is bound to resent it–and also, perhaps, the critic’s presumption in claiming to have access to her inner feelings. The object of her alleged hate, meanwhile, may feel that since the provocation is so extreme, she is justified in fighting fire with fire–with abuse, threats, or demands for the offender to be fired/de-platformed/ostracised.   

Last week, two much-discussed pieces of writing directly addressed this issue. One was an essay in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recounted her own experience of being targeted after making what some considered a transphobic comment, and went on to criticise the vindictive online culture which has created a climate of fear, bad faith and self-censorship. The other was an article in which Ayesha Hazarika, a member of the Board of the UK women’s rights organisation Fawcett, described current feminist debates on sex and gender as ‘fights to the death of [sic] who can scream and shame the loudest’. I don’t think that’s universally true. But I do think the contemporary tendency to label anything anyone takes exception to as ‘phobic’ or ‘hate speech’ encourages more extreme and more emotion-based responses. These labels function like ‘fighting words’, provoking or escalating conflict.

The debate Hazarika discusses is relatively recent, but many much older political arguments among feminists (some, indeed, as old as feminism itself) have come to be conducted in the same accusatory language. Familiar criticisms of make-up and high heels draw complaints of ‘femmephobia’; concerns about sexual practices like ‘breath play’ (aka choking) are denounced as ‘kinkphobia’; feminists who oppose the sex industry are accused of ‘whorephobia’. Will reframing them in this way resolve these long-running disagreements? Do the new terms shed any new light, or do they just generate (even) more heat?    

The terminology of oppression has always had a tendency to rely on analogies between different forms of it. The term sexism, for instance, was modelled on racism: many women who became active in US second wave feminism drew inspiration from their prior experience in the civil rights movement, and from the parallels they perceived between Black people’s situation and their own situation as women. This tendency has continued in the age of the internet meme, a unit of meaning which replicates rapidly, generating new variations as it goes. The recent proliferation of ‘phobias’ is one product of that process.

But the analogies are always imperfect (many commentators have criticised 1960s feminists for overstating the parallels and underplaying the differences between sexism and racism) and as they multiply they may become progressively less illuminating. For instance, it’s not hard to see the logic of labelling prejudice against lesbians and gay men homophobia: some of the forms it commonly takes do exhibit the irrational loathing and disgust the word ‘phobia’ brings to mind. But it’s harder to see why the devaluation of ‘feminine’ things should be called femmephobia. Who feels loathing or disgust when confronted with, say, a lipstick or a Barbie doll? Whorephobia is even less apt: suggesting that feminists who oppose the sex trade do so because they hate the women who work in it is like suggesting that anyone who criticises Tesco or Amazon must hate checkout operators and warehouse workers.

‘Hate’, to me (and probably to most people) is a strong word, but in some circles it and its derivatives (‘hate group’, ‘hate speech’) are used so freely, and with such a broad range of reference, it’s hard to connect the emotional charge of the word with what it’s being used to describe. A lot of this hyperbolic hate-talk is probably just unreflective habit; but that doesn’t mean we can’t stop to reflect on what it means and what it does. In my own opinion it would be no bad thing if we were more selective about what we label ‘hate’, and what we pathologize as ‘phobia’.

Hit or Miss

This post is about a longstanding feminist bone of contention: the use of the terms ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’ to address teachers in UK schools. According to Project Britain, a website about British life and culture,    

Teachers in primary schools (4-11 year olds) are always addressed by their surname by parents and pupils alike, always Mr, Mrs or Miss Smith.…. In secondary schools (11-16 years), teachers are usually addressed as Miss or Sir.

This is a bit of an overgeneralisation: there are primary schools where ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’ are used, and secondary schools which prescribe other forms of address, most commonly ‘title + name’ (i.e., ‘Mrs/Ms/Miss/Mr Smith’). When I put out a call to teachers on Twitter asking what terms were used in their schools, most reported either ‘Miss/Sir’ or ‘title + name’, but some reported the use of first names (especially in private schools and sixth form colleges where students are over 16), and some worked in schools where the prescribed form for women was not ‘Miss’ but ‘Madam’ or ‘Ma’am’.

This variation isn’t new. At the girls’ grammar school I attended in the early 1970s we were strictly forbidden to call teachers ‘Miss’ (or ‘Sir’, though since we had almost no male teachers that issue rarely arose). We had to call them ‘Miss/Mrs X’. That wasn’t because of any feminist objection to ‘Miss’. It had more to do with class snobbery. Saying ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’ was ‘common’, something the kids at the local Secondary Modern did. This prejudice seems to have been quite widespread. One woman who answered my question on Twitter commented that when she was at school her teacher used to say ‘don’t call me Miss, you’re not at Grange Hill’ (the name of a fictional comprehensive school in a popular children’s TV series).  

It’s ironic that my school regarded ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’ as low-class and vulgar, because ‘Sir’, at least, seems to have originated—like so many British educational customs—in the public schools that educated the sons of the privileged in the 19th century (note for Americans: ‘public’ here means what you’d call ‘private’, i.e. fee-paying; your ‘public school’ is our ‘state school’). Calling teachers ‘Sir’ was like calling your father and other senior male relatives ‘Sir’—not uncommon at the time—or like calling a superior officer ‘Sir’ in the army: it was a mark of respect for and deference to authority in a hierarchical and highly regimented institution.

The story of ‘Miss’ is different. It’s not clear that pupils at elite girls’ schools addressed their teachers as ‘Miss’ (as opposed to ‘Miss X’). You don’t see it much in early 20th century schoolgirl fiction: at Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, for instance, only the French teacher is ‘Mam’zelle’, while other teachers are addressed as ‘Miss Potts’ or ‘Miss Williams’. Both in fiction and in life, however, their title was always ‘Miss’, the conventional marker of a woman’s unmarried status. Though the law had been changed in 1919 so that women could enter professions that had previously excluded them, many employers, including the local authorities that employed most teachers, continued to limit women’s access to employment by operating a ‘marriage bar’. They refused to hire women who were already married, and required those who married later to resign. In theory this policy was illegal, but challenges to it failed repeatedly, because of the widespread view that, as an Appeal Court judgment put it in 1925,  

It is unfair to the large number of young unmarried teachers seeking situations that the positions should be occupied by married women, who presumably have husbands capable of maintaining them.

The marriage bar in teaching lasted until 1944, and this is thought to be the reason why ‘Miss’ became the female analogue of ‘Sir’ in British schools.

But times have changed since 1944, and most women teaching in Britain’s schools today probably aren’t, in any other situation, ‘Miss’. In any case, the problem feminists have with ‘Miss’ isn’t just about the title itself, it’s also about the lack of parity between ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’.

In other contexts the female address term analogous to ‘Sir’ is not ‘Miss’ but ‘Madam’ or ‘Ma’am’: though ‘madam’ has undergone some semantic derogation (it has acquired the specialised meaning ‘woman in charge of a brothel’), as an address term it retains a higher degree of formality and gravitas than ‘Miss’. That’s presumably why the related form ‘Ma’am’ has become the standard address term for senior female officers in the armed forces and the police. ‘Miss’ does not suggest deference to someone senior: though it originated as an abbreviated form of ‘mistress’, which did historically denote a woman in authority, its modern associations with youth and what you might call ‘juniority’ mean it can easily come across as belittling or trivialising. Even if you don’t find it belittling, it’s less deferential than ‘Sir’. As the feminist linguist Jennifer Coates commented in 2014, ‘Sir is a knight, but Miss is ridiculous–it doesn’t match Sir at all’.  She added:

It’s a depressing example of how women are given low status and men, no matter how young or new in the job they are, are given high status.

But this critical view of ‘Miss’ is not shared by all women teachers, or even all feminist teachers; and the reasons for that are complicated.

One complicating factor is our old friend the sociolinguistics of status and solidarity. The non-reciprocal use of any title marks the existence of a status hierarchy (if you call me ‘Professor’ and I call you ‘Susie’ it’s a safe bet that I outrank you), and feminists tend to be ambivalent about that, caught between resenting the way respect-titles are often withheld from women when men get them automatically, and feeling we shouldn’t care, because after all, we believe in equality. In that egalitarian spirit, some of the people who answered my question on Twitter said they’d prefer to be called by their first names. Though these commenters were critical of ‘Miss’, their objection was more to status-marking in general than to the sexism of ‘Miss’ in particular. This brought them into conflict with other people who were more interested in levelling up (ensuring that women teachers got the same respect as men) than levelling down (flattening the hierarchy by eliminating titles). The most-liked comment made by anyone in my thread was an uncompromising defence of hierarchy:

Miss or Sir is appropriate. Teachers are educators and advocates. They are not, nor should they be ‘bessie mates’ with their students. Titles establish boundaries. Boundaries help children as they grow into adults.

You could, of course, defend the use of titles without endorsing the specific titles ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’, but evidently this tweet’s author didn’t pick up on the issue of sexism. She wasn’t the only one. It’s true that I phrased my opening tweet in a deliberately general, open-ended way—‘are [Sir and Miss] used at your school? Does that bother you? Why or why not?’—but since I’m a feminist who tends to attract other feminists as Twitter followers I was surprised by the number of respondents who either didn’t appear to have noticed any problem with the Sir/Miss pairing or who explicitly said they hadn’t thought about it before.

Others had thought about it, and had decided they didn’t mind being ‘Miss’. The main reason they gave for not minding was that they didn’t believe ‘Miss’ either was, or was intended to be, disrespectful. Calling women teachers ‘Miss’ was seen as, in one teacher’s words, ‘accepted practice, really’: it’s just what children do in school. Another teacher compared ‘Sir / Miss’ to a pronoun, a proxy for the teacher’s full name (which students may not know or remember), adding, ‘I don’t personally receive it as in any way derogatory’. Several respondents said that as long as students weren’t overtly disrespectful they didn’t care what address terms they used. What mattered was not the language but the quality of the relationship.

Some teachers at schools which prescribed other modes of address, either title + name or an alternative title like ‘Ma’am’, commented that pupils often reverted to ‘Miss’, which was entrenched, along with ‘Sir’, in the oral culture of their peer-group. Others also remarked that it’s primarily an oral form, and that in writing many students replace it with ‘Mrs’ or ‘Ms’. This is an interesting observation sociolinguistically: it may help to explain the longevity of a form which has its origins in the conditions of the fairly distant past (i.e., the period before the lifting of the marriage bar). While some aspects of the language of children and adolescents evolve rapidly (teenage slang is an obvious example), others may be very resistant to change, and particularly to attempts to impose it from outside.

‘Miss’ did have some feminist advocates. Two contributors to the thread cited the argument made by the teacher and writer Kate Clanchy in her book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me:  

Miss: I have heard so many professional people express distaste for that name, but never a working teacher. Usually the grounds are sexism, but real children in real schools don’t use ‘Miss’ with any less (or more) respect than ‘Sir’. ‘Miss’ grates only on the ears of those who have never heard it used well: as it grated on me, a middle-class Scot, thirty years ago. No longer: Miss is the name I put on like a coat when I go into school; Miss is the shoes I stand in when I call out the kids in the corridor for running or shouting; Miss is my cloak of protection when I ask a weeping child what is wrong… Miss seems to me a beautiful name, because it has been offered to me so often with such love.  

Clanchy thinks the distaste of ‘professional people’ for ‘Miss’ reflects a combination of class and gender prejudice. She points out that teaching has historically been both a profession open to women (albeit not always on the same terms as men) and ‘the profession of first resort for graduates from working-class backgrounds’. Those facts contribute to the perception of it as a low-status profession; in that context, criticisms of ‘Miss’ may be just another way to put teachers, and especially teachers of working-class children, in their socially inferior place. I can’t help feeling Clanchy has a point here. I also agree with her that ‘Miss’, uttered by schoolchildren, is neither more nor less respectful than ‘Sir’–though the fact that a term is used with the intention of showing respect, or being polite, does not prevent it from also being sexist (the word ‘lady’ is a case in point).

However, I can’t agree with Clanchy’s suggestion that working teachers don’t find ‘Miss’ distasteful. Some of the working teachers who responded to my tweet made their distaste for it crystal clear. For some the problem was its generic, depersonalising quality. ‘I’m not a fan…I’d prefer to be Mrs ____’. This complaint was also made by men about ‘Sir’. ‘I always hated it’, wrote one: ‘I have a name’.  For others, what they disliked wasn’t being addressed by a generic label, it was being addressed, specifically, as ‘Miss’. ‘I’m not a “Miss” and wouldn’t want to be called that’. ‘I’m a “Ms” and always have been’. Several women who had worked in schools where the prescribed female address term was ‘Ma’am’ contrasted it favourably with ‘Miss’. ‘Ma’am’, said one, ‘felt genuinely respectful, whereas “Miss” always feels demeaning’. ‘I miss the Ma’am’, wrote a woman who had moved to another school, adding ‘Really dislike Miss’. A man whose wife was also a teacher said that both of them were troubled by the disparity between ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’. ‘She receives a less flattering term of address – one that creates a child-like impression’.

This echoes some of my own feelings about ‘Miss’. One commenter suggested that the idea of it as demeaning is based on a lack of understanding of where it comes from: it’s a shortening of the ‘mistress’ in ‘headmistress’ and ‘schoolmistress’, and those are not demeaning terms. Well, maybe; but language change has obscured the connection. ‘Schoolmistress’ is now archaic (though while writing this I discovered that schoolmistresses do still feature in porn, where their main job is administering corporal punishment); ‘headmistress’ is going the same way, as schools increasingly shift to the gender-neutral ‘head teacher’. Today the most salient associations of ‘Miss’ have less to do with authority and more to do with immaturity. It’s telling, perhaps, that one woman in my Twitter thread said she preferred ‘Miss’ to ‘Ma’am’ because ‘Ma’am’ made her feel old. That points to another complicating factor: our culture views ageing in women so negatively, many women feel more flattered than demeaned by terms that imply youth.

I should acknowledge, of course, that you don’t get a representative sample of the teaching profession by canvassing your followers on Twitter. But the diversity of views expressed in my small and unrepresentative sample suggests there is no consensus on ‘Miss’. Which might also suggest there’s no great impetus for change. Though you’ve probably gathered that I’m not a fan myself, I do think ‘Miss’ is a survivor: the debate about it has been going on for years, and I doubt it will be settled any time soon.

Thanks to everyone who responded to my questions on Twitter.

Who’s to be mistress?

On April 13, the Associated Press Stylebook’s Twitter account issued a reminder:

Don’t use the term mistress for a woman who is in a long-term sexual relationship with, and is financially supported by, a man who is married to someone else. Instead, use an alternative like companion, friend or lover on first reference and provide additional details later.

I call this a ‘reminder’ because the rule isn’t new: it was added to the stylebook last year. Nevertheless, the tweet got a reaction: people were variously puzzled, irritated and–in the case of the usual suspects–outraged by this latest manifestation of political correctness gone mad. ‘The word “mistress”’, declared the Daily Mail, ‘is CANCELED’.

Many responses queried the suggestion that ‘mistress’ could be replaced by ‘friend’ or ‘companion’: weren’t those euphemisms rather than synonyms, and as such potentially misleading? The AP conceded that these alternatives ‘fell short’, but insisted they were ‘better than having one word for a woman and none for the man, and implying that the woman was solely responsible for the affair’.

By this point I was confused myself. Is that really the problem with ‘mistress’? And if it is, can it be solved by simply substituting a different word? I couldn’t help feeling that the AP was missing the point—or at least, that it was only skimming the surface. So, in this post I want to take a closer look at a word with a complicated history.

Borrowed from French in the middle ages (the earliest example quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from the early 14th century), ‘mistress’ was originally just the feminine form of ‘master’, and its core meaning was ‘a woman having authority or control’. ‘The mistress’ could be the female head of a household, or its the highest-ranking female member; she could also be a female boss, in charge of workers, apprentices or servants (it has the same sense in compounds like ‘schoolmistress’ and ‘postmistress’). The female respect titles ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’, which are still in use today, are both abbreviated forms of ‘mistress’–and what they originally marked was not marital status, but simply status.  

But of course, word-meanings can change—and when the words refer to women, they have a tendency to change for the worse. Back in 1975, Muriel Schulz named this tendency ‘the semantic derogation of woman’, explaining that

again and again in the history of the [English] language, one finds that a perfectly innocent term designating a girl or women may begin with totally neutral or even positive connotations, but that gradually it acquires negative implications. 

Schulz drew attention to several male/female word-pairs, including ‘Lord/lady’, ‘governor/governess’ and ‘master/mistress’, where the two forms, originally parallel, had diverged in their meaning over time. In each case it was the masculine term which preserved its original association with authority and status, while the feminine term acquired a less exalted meaning. For instance, while ‘Lord’ still denotes a male aristocrat, ‘lady’ can now describe a woman of any social rank. ‘Governess’, originally a direct equivalent of ‘governor’ (in the 16th century Queen Elizabeth I could be described as ‘the supreme Majesty and Governess of all persons’, meaning that as monarch she ruled over all her subjects), came to refer to a woman who earned her living teaching other people’s children. US states still have ‘governors’ (as do prisons in the UK), but where women have occupied those positions they have invariably adopted the masculine form rather than styling themselves the ‘governess’.

‘Mistress’ is a similar case, with the added problem that it exemplifies what Muriel Schulz considered the archetypal form of semantic derogation, where in addition to being downgraded in status, a word referring to women acquires a specifically sexual derogatory meaning. Often it ends up as yet another synonym for ‘prostitute’. ‘Mistress’ has stopped short of that final destination, but it’s certainly in the same ballpark: Schulz glosses it as ‘the woman with whom a man habitually fornicates’, while the AP’s rule proscribing the word alludes to the idea of the mistress as a ‘kept woman’, financially supported by the man in the relationship.

To understand this history we need to consider the larger context in which words are used—which in this case means examining the economic, social and cultural conditions that have shaped relationships between men and women. If we have, as the AP suggests, ‘one word for the woman and none for the man’, that’s not a random accident; it has a logic which is rooted in past and present realities.

In fact, though, we do have words for the man. Leaving aside the informal and pejorative ones (like ‘cheat’ and ‘love rat’), the most obvious one is ‘lover’. I was taught at school (I know, weird) that if Mary Jones is John Smith’s mistress, then John Smith is Mary Jones’s lover. ‘Lover’ is also the traditional term for a man in an illicit relationship with a more powerful women, as in the Boney M song about Rasputin (‘rah rah Rasputin/lover of the Russian queen’). The pairing of ‘lover’ with ‘mistress’ has a literary pedigree, going back to the mediaeval courtly love tradition in which a knight dedicated his life to the service of the lady he loved, but who was forever out of reach because she was married, often to a higher-ranking man (e.g. Sir Lancelot loved Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur). This is where we get another sense of the word ‘mistress’, ‘a woman who is loved and courted by a man’. That usage remained common in literature for several centuries, but there’s a note in the OED explaining that by the late 19th century writers had started to avoid it. They feared readers would interpret the word as referring to the morally suspect ‘kept woman’ rather than the idealised love-object of the past.  

We also have at a word for a ‘kept man’: ‘gigolo’, defined by Merriam-Webster as ‘a man who is paid by a woman to be her lover and companion’. But a gigolo is different from a mistress, in ways that reflect some basic facts about patriarchal societies. To begin with, fewer women than men have the resources to pay someone for sex and companionship. Also, men are not encouraged to view economic dependence on women as desirable, or even acceptable, nor to treat their own sexuality as a marketable commodity. That’s why ‘gigolo’ is—I would say—a more pejorative term than ‘mistress’. Of course, nobody tells women in so many words that they should treat their sexuality as a commodity, but historically that has often been their best or their only route to economic security. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when women’s earning opportunities were limited and their rights almost nonexistent, feminists often drew parallels between marriage and prostitution, pointing out that both were exchange-relationships–sex for money, or for upkeep—which women entered into by necessity. The mistress as a ‘kept woman’ also had a place in this structure. The gigolo does not: like his female employer he is an anomaly.

Would calling a man a gigolo imply, as the AP thinks ‘mistress’ implies, that he was ‘solely responsible for the affair’? My feeling is that it wouldn’t, and indeed that we wouldn’t describe this relationship as an ‘affair’. ‘Affair’ tends to imply mutual desire (even if there’s also a financial element), but the gigolo is understood to be in it for the money, not the sex—if his employer were desirable she wouldn’t need to pay. The gigolo isn’t like Whitney Houston’s character in ‘Saving All My Love’, lamenting that she can only share ‘a few stolen moments’ with her lover because his family comes first; nor is he Dolly Parton’s Jolene, the flame-haired temptress and homewrecker. He’s a paid employee, a sort of cross between an escort and a personal assistant.

There’s no way of knowing if the women in the songs are mistresses in the ‘kept woman’ sense, or just single women in relationships with married men. Do ‘kept women’ even exist any more? The economic element doesn’t seem to be central to the current meaning of ‘mistress’ for most English-speakers, who seem happy to use the word for women who have well-paid jobs and/or husbands to support them (Camilla Parker-Bowles, for instance, was referred to as Prince Charles’s mistress during the period when both of them were married to other people). I remember, back in the 1980s, being told about a senior academic who had allegedly asked a woman he met at a conference to become his mistress, presenting her with a draft contract in which he undertook to pay all her expenses if she gave up her job and devoted herself to his needs. We found this both shocking and hilarious: what professional woman in the late 20th century would be remotely interested in such a proposal? (Today I’d have another question: what man would feel obliged to make it?)

But if the ‘kept woman’ is disappearing—if women no longer need or want to be her and men no longer feel an obligation to compensate her—why do we go on using the term ‘mistress’ for women in sexual relationships with married men? Without the element of financial dependence there’s surely nothing distinctive about these relationships: anyone–man, woman, straight or queer–can get involved with someone who is cheating on their spouse. So, why not abandon ‘mistress’—which is sex-specific, presumptively heterosexual and, in its ‘kept woman’ sense, increasingly archaic—and adopt a single label that covers all the possibilities? If we don’t like ‘friend’ or ‘companion’, we could go with the AP’s other suggestion, ‘lover’. We use it for men, so why not for women too?  

But the responses to the AP’s tweet suggested that some people do think a mistress is different from a lover. And this does seem to be connected with the question of responsibility, though I don’t see the connection in exactly the same way as the AP. To my mind, the issue isn’t that we have ‘one word for the woman and none for the man’—that she gets blamed because (only) she is named. Arguably it has more to do with the historical baggage ‘mistress’ carries, a lot of which is about female power. The mistress may no longer be a powerful woman in the original (social and economic) sense, but what she does still have, in our collective imagination, is sexual power: she uses her lover’s desire for her to gain authority and control over him.  

That view of the mistress was visible in some comments both on the AP tweet and the Daily Mail article. They tended to come from women whose husbands had had affairs, and who wanted to push back against the idea that it’s unfair to women to use a word that ‘implies the woman is responsible for the affair’. Their point was that wives are women too, and it isn’t unfair to hold mistresses responsible for behaving in ways that harm other women. Some conceded that the mistress wasn’t solely responsible—‘I know it takes two’—but they clearly blamed her more than they blamed their cheating husbands.

One reason for that may be simply that it’s easier and less painful to blame the one we don’t love. But also in the mix is the idea that when it comes to sex men are weak and gullible creatures: they can’t help themselves, whereas a woman in a relationship with a married man ‘knows exactly what she’s doing’ and could choose, if she had any decency, not to do it. In essence this is the ‘Jolene’ story, where the salient power differential is not between men and women, but between the wife and the woman who threatens to ‘take her man’ (an interesting phrase, since it reverses the usual pattern by making a woman the agent and a man the object).

The connotations ‘mistress’ has acquired over centuries of use make it particularly well-placed to serve this woman-blaming/man-excusing purpose. Yet it is clearly possible to express the same ideas in other words. As an illustration, consider a recent Spectator article in which Douglas Murray aired his concerns about the power wielded by Carrie Symonds, the partner of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Murray doesn’t call Symonds a ‘mistress’: though their relationship began while Johnson was married, it would be a strange term to use now she is living with him and their child in Downing Street. Instead he refers to her as Johnson’s ‘girlfriend’ or his ‘companion’. The AP Stylebook would presumably approve–except that what follows is exactly the kind of woman-blaming the ban on ‘mistress’ was meant to counter.

Murray points out that in Britain by convention we don’t assign a political role to the ‘first lady’ (or gentleman): we think the only people who govern us should be the ones we actually elected. But as he sees it Carrie Symonds is not abiding by that convention: she is using her position to gain undeserved political influence. He also suggests that many of Johnson’s problems since 2019 have arisen because of the ‘sway—even terror—his younger companion seems to exert over him’. She is said to be responsible for a number of misjudgments: for instance, she ‘persuaded the PM to stop a badger cull’, and ‘made him stop a COBRA meeting at the height of the Covid crisis’.

Here, once again, we have the female agent/male object pattern, presenting Symonds as the powerful one and Johnson as her puppet. Yet even if he did cancel an important meeting to placate her, that was still his decision, his action, his responsibility. He’s the Prime Minister, FFS: ‘she made me do it’ is the excuse of a four-year old. Granted, it’s not Johnson himself who’s making that excuse, but Murray isn’t the only person making it on his behalf. Dominic Cummings recently claimed that Johnson tried to prevent an inquiry he feared would cause ‘trouble with Carrie’; and more or less everyone blames her for the current ‘cash for cushions’ scandal. (And no, I’m not suggesting Johnson cares about cushions—just that he’s the one who ultimately decides what will or won’t be purchased for his official residence.)

Times may change and words may change, but what doesn’t change is the story of the ambitious, manipulative woman and the man whose desire for her makes him putty in her hands. You can give her whatever name you want: terminology, in this case, is a symptom of a deeper problem. Though I’d be happy to see the back of ‘mistress’, we shouldn’t imagine that cancelling the word will stop people blaming women, or making excuses for men.

What’s in a frame? Misogyny/hate

‘Women’, wrote Germaine Greer in 1970, ‘have very little idea how much men hate them’. Fifty years later, it seems we have woken up. The problem of woman-hatred is now widely acknowledged and discussed; in Britain there’s growing pressure for misogyny to be legally recognised as a form of hate. Campaigners have presented this as a question of parity, saying that the law should ‘treat misogyny like racism or homophobia‘ (which are already covered, along with religious hatred, transphobia and hostility to people with disabilities). It’s an argument that has resonated with many feminists, and it’s now under serious consideration. Though the Scottish Parliament recently rejected a proposal to include women in new hate crime legislation, a working party has been set up to examine the issue further. Meanwhile in England and Wales, the Law Commission issued a consultation paper last year which did recommend that the law should be extended. Since the outcry that followed the murder of Sarah Everard this proposal has attracted more mainstream political support.

So, it looks as if change is coming; but will that be a step forward for women? On reflection I have my doubts, and in this post I’m going to try to explain them.

In England and Wales currently there isn’t a specific hate crime law, but rather a patchwork of provisions threaded through other laws. One key provision is in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which says that if someone who committed a criminal offence ‘demonstrated, or was motivated by, hostility on the grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or transgender identity’, the court should treat that as an aggravating factor and consider whether to impose a harsher penalty. This also indirectly brings what is popularly known as ‘hate speech’ into the picture (though the term itself has no status in English law), in that the language someone used may be treated as evidence of hostile motivation. Other legal provisions target verbal behaviour more directly. The Public Order Act 1986 includes an offence of ‘stirring up hatred’, which will often be done by way of language (one recent case involved a series of anti-Muslim posts on Gab), and also one of using ‘threatening words and behaviour with intent to cause harassment and distress’.

The Law Commission has recommended that these provisions should be extended to cover hostility on the grounds of sex, or hostility to women (which of these options to prefer is one of the questions posed in the consultation). To reach that conclusion, it explains that it applied three tests:

  1. Demonstrable need: whether there is evidence that crimes against women are (a) prevalent and (b) linked to hostility and prejudice;
  2. Additional harm: whether women victims are more severely impacted by crimes which are motivated by hostility/prejudice, and whether these also cause harm to other members of the target group (‘secondary victims’);
  3. Suitability: whether an extension of the hate crime framework to crimes against women would be workable in practice and compatible with the rights of other groups.

The Commission concluded that the first two tests were met. Crimes which disproportionately target women (e.g. rape and sexual assault, domestic violence, forced marriage, FGM, street harassment, online abuse) are prevalent, rooted in prejudice, and have an impact on women in general. But some questions remain unresolved. One is the practical feasibility of extending the law, given the high number of crimes against women and the fact that the justice system is already overstretched. Another concerns the status of domestic violence/abuse, which some argue should be excluded because it isn’t motivated by hostility to women as a group; rather it arises within specific intimate relationships, which could be same-sex partnerships, or heterosexual ones where the abusive partner is the woman. The consultation paper does suggest that sex (more specifically, femaleness) should become ‘a protected characteristic for the purposes of hate crime law’, but it asks if there should be a ‘carve out’ for domestic violence.

This is one reason why some feminists are concerned about the Commission’s proposals. They fear the effect will be to create a new hierarchy of crimes against women, taking us back to the days when attacks carried out by strangers were seen as ‘worse’ than violence perpetrated by someone the victim knew. Feminists have also drawn attention to an even more basic problem, namely the failure of the criminal justice system to enforce the laws we already have. What good, they ask, is creating new offences, or giving the courts power to impose harsher penalties, when most of the crimes women currently report do not lead to a prosecution, let alone a conviction? And that’s not only because the system is under-resourced. Women are also denied justice because of longstanding biases, both in the system and in the surrounding culture. How can we trust institutions which are themselves riddled with misogyny to enforce new anti-misogyny laws effectively and fairly?

Campaigners for new legislation often argue that it will help to drive institutional and cultural change, by sending the message that ‘this is serious and will no longer be tolerated’. But in the case of crimes against women, this message often turns out to be no match for the prejudice it was meant to shift. For instance, this month the media reported on a school in Liverpool where girls had been told to wear shorts under their uniform skirts after several of them were ‘upskirted’ (i.e., boys took pictures of their underwear) on a transparent staircase in the sixth-form building. This story caught my eye because upskirting was recently the subject of a successful campaign to make it a criminal offence (it became one in 2019). The Liverpool boys, who were over 16, could in theory have been reported to the police. I’m not saying that would necessarily have been the right thing to do. I’m sympathetic to the argument that where possible we should try to educate young people rather than criminalising them. But it’s telling that this school did neither. Instead it chose to punish the girls, by imposing a dress-rule that would make them feel uncomfortable, undignified and as if they were the ones at fault.

Even if I had more faith in legislation as a remedy for social ills, I would still want to ask whether extending hate crime laws sends the right message about misogyny. My doubts on that score reflect my interest in language–in words and meanings and what might be called ‘discursive framing’. Treating misogyny ‘like racism and homophobia’ means slotting women into a pre-existing frame which was not originally designed for them. And that raises the question of how well the frame fits.

Categories have their prototypical members, the examples that spring to mind first when we encounter their generic label. Our prototype for the category ‘bird’, for instance, the kind of bird we’ll draw if we’re instructed simply to ‘draw a bird’, is something that looks like a robin or a sparrow, not an ostrich or a penguin. In the case of hate crime/hate speech the prototype is hatred of a racial or ethnic Other. This is where it began in the UK, with the outlawing of ‘incitement to racial hatred’ in the 1960s. Later religious hatred was added, and this was not a big stretch because it’s close to the prototype: often it’s as much about race/ethnicity as religious belief per se. The other types of hatred now covered by the law—homophobia, transphobia, hostility to disabled people—share some features with the prototype, in that they target minorities who are perceived as ‘different’, as outsiders. And there’s another thing these target groups have in common. Hatred of them is linked, historically and in our minds, to right-wing extremism. The prototypical (western) right-wing extremists, the Nazis, regarded Jews, homosexuals and disabled people as inferior and impure, and they did their best to exterminate them.

But this prototypical form of hate, the kind that motivates genocides and pogroms, that calls for the ‘repatriation’ of Black British people to ancestral homelands they have never set foot in or advocates the involuntary sterilisation of the ‘unfit’, is not what (most) misogyny is about. Though misogynists do see women as Other and lesser beings, who exist only in relation to men and for men’s benefit, few of them wish for a world in which women are not available to meet their emotional, domestic, sexual and reproductive needs. What they want is not to eliminate women, or to live entirely apart from them, but to exploit, dominate and control them. Misogyny, in short (as the philosopher Kate Manne has argued), is not a generalised hatred of women, but rather the punishment of women who refuse to stay in their subordinate place or to meet what men regard as their obligations. The extreme right has no monopoly on that kind of punishment, nor on the belief system which justifies it. Some forms of misogyny are so common and unremarkable, it hardly makes sense to label them ‘extreme’.

Because misogyny is so different from the prototype which hate crime laws were designed for, it’s difficult to just ‘add women and stir’. The Law Commission’s question about whether there should be a ‘carve out’ for domestic violence is one illustration of this difficulty: violence against an intimate partner is commonly understood as the consequence not of hate, but of its opposite, love, ‘gone wrong’. Murderers and family annihilators are said to have killed their ex-partners and sometimes their children because they couldn’t bear the pain of separation, rejection or ‘betrayal’.

I would have no hesitation in calling this behaviour misogyny, but I think what’s behind it is less a hatred of women than a sense of entitlement in relation to women. I would apply the same reasoning to, for instance, child abuse and elder abuse: what motivates these forms of violence is surely not a generalised hatred of children or old people, but rather a feeling of entitlement to use and abuse them, to exploit their relative powerlessness for your own gratification, or to punish them for making what you see as unreasonable demands. We should be able to recognise the seriousness of these forms of abuse, and to punish them as they deserve, without having to put them into a frame that doesn’t fit.

The notion of misogynist hate speech raises similar questions. According to the philosopher Alexander Brown, a typical legal definition of hate speech looks something like this:

(1) Speech [or other expressive conduct] (2) concerning one or more members of a protected group or class (3) that involves [expresses, incites, justifies] feelings of hatred toward group members.

Brown argues that this is too narrow, and that a better definition would reflect the way the term ‘hate speech’ is used/interpreted in ordinary language—which, as he points out, does not always treat ‘feelings of hatred’ as central. He goes on to offer a list of the types of speech (or writing) which in his view would ‘intuitively fall under the ordinary concept [of] hate speech’:

  1. Slurs, epithets or insults vilifying members of historically victimized groups (e.g. the N-word, ‘dirty Jew/faggot’)
  2. Forms of speech that assert or imply a group’s inferior or sub-human status (e.g. ‘these people [asylum seekers] are cockroaches’)
  3. Group defamation or negative stereotyping: the false/overgeneralized attribution of qualities/behaviour to a group (e.g. the blood libel; ‘homosexuals abuse children’)
  4. Incitement: advocating, justifying or glorifying hatred, violence or discrimination against a group (e.g. ‘kill all Xs’; symbols used to intimidate, e.g. burning crosses/nooses/swastikas)

Although this list makes no explicit reference to women–all the examples relate to race/ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation–it’s not hard to see how the framework might be applied to them. Clearly, there are slurs vilifying women (‘bitch’, ‘cunt’, ‘whore’); assertions of female inferiority and subhumanity are staples of online discussion among incels, MGTOWs et al.; negative stereotyping of women is commonplace; and under the heading of incitement/intimidation we could include the threats with which women are bombarded online, often expressed in the linguistic register to which Emma Jane has given the label ‘rapeglish’. Maybe we could even consider flashing, or sending unsolicited dick pics, as the misogynist analogue of the noose and the swastika. The problem with Brown’s taxonomy, then, isn’t that women can’t be slotted in at all. The problem is how much that leaves out.

One thing it leaves out is a feature of many kinds of misogynist discourse: the use of, specifically, sexualised speech to enact power and domination over women. A great deal of what women experience as intrusive, degrading or intimidating male behaviour is couched not in the language of hate, but ostensibly in the language of desire or sexual interest. Everyday street remarks like ‘nice tits’, or ‘give us a smile’, certainly don’t ‘intuitively fall under the ordinary concept of hate speech’: on the surface they seem appreciative rather than hostile, and men are quick to exploit that if women object (‘what’s the matter, can’t you take a compliment?’) But these comments are not innocent or harmless. As well as underlining women’s status as sexual objects, they are pointed reminders that women in public space are under constant male surveillance and must conduct themselves accordingly.

Other kinds of misogynist speech, like ‘rapeglish’, are closer to the ‘ordinary concept of hate speech’ because they’re explicitly violent and threatening. But even rapeglish tends not to be put in the same conceptual box as, say, racist or anti-semitic rhetoric, because its graphic sexual content prompts people to read it as a display of individual pathology rather than the expression of a hateful ideology. The same is true of indecent exposure, which is viewed more as a compulsion afflicting some (inadequate or disturbed) men than as an intentional form of expressive behaviour which is meant to humiliate and intimidate. Once again, the sexualised nature of the behaviour obscures the political purpose it serves. The philosopher Rae Langton has made a similar point about pornography, arguing that its sexual content tends to disguise its ‘status…as propaganda’. ‘For racial hate speech’, she writes, ‘hierarchy and subordination look like what they are… For pornography [they] look like what they are not–namely, the natural sex difference’.

Our belief in ‘the natural sex difference’ also makes it possible for certain non-pornographic messages that might otherwise be judged as hate speech to escape that categorisation. Consider the greeting card below, which was photographed in a bookshop: the fact that it was openly on display suggests that most people wouldn’t consider it hateful, even if some might find it tasteless.

Why not, though? Because it’s saying you can’t ‘shoot [women] and bury them in the garden’ rather than advocating that course of action? Because it’s clearly meant to be a joke? Maybe; but if the word on the card were not ‘women’ but, say, ‘Jews’ or ‘gays’, neither of those considerations would make it acceptable. Animosity between men and women (aka the eternal ‘battle of the sexes’) is understood to lie beyond the realm of politics and even culture: it’s seen as natural, universal and—crucially—reciprocal (just like the desire which draws the warring parties together). That’s why the one word you could replace ‘women’ with and still have an acceptable product is ‘men’—though you’d be glossing over the fact that in reality women very rarely kill men, whereas (in Britain) men kill women at a rate of 2-3 a week.

I’m not using these examples to argue that more kinds of speech should be legally defined as hate speech. I’m suggesting that ‘hate’ may not be the right frame for understanding or addressing the issue of misogyny. Feminists who favour that frame argue that equality requires inclusion: the exclusion of woman-hatred from existing provisions sends the message that women are less important than other groups, and that misogyny is less serious than other hatreds. But while I agree that misogyny is a real and serious problem, I don’t think that means it is, or should be treated, exactly like racism or homophobia. To me, taking it seriously means considering it on its own terms. Women need to be able to frame a response that begins from our experiences, our needs, and our ideas about what would truly make a difference.    

When words fail us

Nearly 50 years ago, Robin Lakoff considered what feminists might learn by paying close attention to language:

Linguistic imbalances are worthy of study because they bring into sharper focus real-world imbalances and inequities. They are clues that some external situation needs changing.

Everyday ways of speaking and writing are highly revealing about the attitudes and assumptions which our culture takes for granted; analysing language can help to make these visible, and show us more clearly what needs to change–which is not, as Lakoff goes on to point out, just language itself, but the ‘external situation’ which has made certain ways of speaking and writing seem reasonable, natural and self-evident.   

This week we’ve had a grim demonstration of that point, in the way various people and institutions responded to the news that Sarah Everard, a London woman who went missing in early March as she walked from Clapham to her home in neighbouring Brixton, had been murdered. On Wednesday we learned that a search had uncovered what are now known to be her remains, and a man (identified as an officer of the Metropolitan Police, which is also the force investigating the case) had been arrested on suspicion of abducting and killing her. Women responded with an outpouring of rage that lit up social media to the point of becoming news in its own right. But the reactions this anger prompted showed how powerful certain assumptions, and the linguistic formulas that encapsulate them, still are.

There are many examples I could give: I could write, for instance, about the number of men who expressed their sympathy ‘as a husband and father’, or made an analogy between sexual violence and theft (‘it’s too bad that your lives are limited by the threat of male violence, but that’s just the way of the world: you wouldn’t leave your car unlocked with the key in the ignition either’), or pointed out that more men than women are murdered (because god forbid that the killing of a woman should spark a conversation about, specifically, violence against women). But since this is just a blog post, not a treatise, I’m going to concentrate on what is arguably the most basic of all the inadequate and misguided responses we have heard this week: the idea that women, those irrational creatures, were ‘getting things out of proportion’.

This was, among other things, the official message put out by the police (and then echoed by other authorities like the Mayor of London). After initially telling women in the area where Sarah Everard disappeared that they should avoid going out alone after dark, the Met pivoted to insisting that there was no reason to feel unsafe, since, in the words of Commissioner Cressida Dick, ‘it is thankfully incredibly rare for a woman to be abducted from our streets’. ‘Abducted’ is doing some heavy lifting there: the fear Sarah Everard’s case prompted was primarily a fear of being killed, whether or not the killer abducted them first. And if Dick’s real point was that it’s rare for women to be killed by strangers, well, it depends what you mean by ‘rare’. The women who run the UK’s Femicide Census provided some helpful input: while their data show that most women victims are killed by men they know, around one in every twelve is killed by a stranger. If we applied that statistic to the data for the last 12 months (as presented last week in Parliament by Jess Phillips MP)–bearing in mind this record is probably incomplete because some recent cases remain unsolved–it would mean that around 10 women have been killed by strangers since March 2020. That’s one every 5-6 weeks. With all due respect to any statisticians reading this, most people would not define something that happens every few weeks as ‘incredibly rare’.

But at least Cressida Dick’s words were meant to be reassuring. Other contributors to the discussion seemed more interested in upbraiding women for their ignorance and irrationality. Marian FitzGerald, a Kent University criminologist who was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme, said:

I think I’m entitled to say, as a woman, we shouldn’t pander to stereotypes and get hysterical. Let’s not get this out of proportion and let’s not wind each other up to be unduly fearful.

The reason we become so fixated on cases like this one, she opined, is not that they are somehow typical, but on the contrary, because they are so unusual.   

Boiled down to basics, FitzGerald’s ‘rational’ argument seems to be that it’s stupid to worry about such low-probability events as the murder of a woman by a stranger. But violence against women exists on a continuum: while it’s true that the probability of being murdered by a stranger is low, the probability of an encounter with a stranger that could potentially turn violent is extremely high. This week UN Women UK reported on a survey which found that 97% of young women had been sexually harassed in a public place; for all ages the figure was 80%. Women know that most of these incidents probably won’t escalate, and certainly not to the extreme of murder (though violence doesn’t have to be fatal for us to want to avoid it). But we can never know for sure if a specific encounter will turn nasty, or if a particular male stranger is basically harmless or actively dangerous. (Read, for instance, this account by the Guardian writer Marina Hyde of a recent encounter with a stranger in public, and ask yourself if she was ‘unduly fearful’.)

It is hardly irrational for women in this situation to err on the side of caution. Nor should we overlook a point made by Fiona Vera-Gray, who has researched women’s responses to male intrusion in public space—that there’s no way to measure how many potential crimes are averted by women’s evasive action. The mere fact that nothing ultimately happened does not license the conclusion that a woman ‘got things out of proportion’: it’s possible that she correctly assessed the risk, and did what she needed to do to prevent the worst from happening.  

Another thing FitzGerald’s argument glosses over is that women don’t just get ‘wound up’ about male violence because of fear, but also because of anger. And the anger isn’t just about what some men do to some women, it’s also about the way that constrains all women’s lives. A woman who lives for 100 years without ever experiencing male violence directly will still have expended significant time and mental energy on the kind of ‘safety work’ Vera-Gray describes—knowing all the while that whatever happens, the consequences will be on her. She’s supposed to be able to judge, as one of Vera-Gray’s respondents put it, what would constitute ‘the right amount of panic’, and in hindsight it will always appear that she either under- or overreacted. If she’s attacked people will say she didn’t do enough to protect herself; if she isn’t they’ll call her ‘unduly fearful’ or ‘hysterical’.

Women are also angered by the (copious) evidence that most men who attack or threaten women will face no serious consequences. The police officer who has now been charged with the murder of Sarah Everard may appear to be an exception, but it’s emerged that he was reported a few days earlier for allegedly exposing himself in a fast food restaurant; whether his colleagues acted appropriately on this complaint is now the subject of an investigation. Meanwhile, another man who sexually assaulted a woman walking home in Oldham (he followed her, deliberately bumped into her, pulled her to the ground and had begun to touch her breast and genitals when she managed to activate the SOS function on her phone, at which point he fled) was given a suspended sentence because, in the words of his lawyer:

He is married and is a father to a four-year-old child. If you feel a custodial sentence is required, he would lose his job and he is the sole earner for his family, so this would have a significant impact.

The lawyer also argued that his client was not a serious threat on the basis that his crime had been ‘quite opportunistic’: he didn’t go out with a plan to assault a woman, he just seized an opportunity that happened, by chance, to present itself. ‘Opportunistic’ is another linguistic formula which tells us something about our culture’s common-sense understanding of male violence. What was this ‘opportunity’ that a man, acting on impulse, seized? It was simply finding himself in close proximity to a woman who was walking home alone. (What are the chances of that happening, eh?) While the lawyer did not condone his action, he presented the impulse itself as unremarkable–as if it were obvious that any man in this situation would see an ‘opportunity’, even if not all men would take it.

Why such ‘opportunistic’ acts should be treated more leniently, or their perpetrators as less likely to reoffend, remains—at least to me—a mystery. And in any case, there are reasons to question the absolute distinction between ‘opportunistic’ and ‘planned’ or ‘premeditated’ sexual violence. I find it hard to believe that a man would commit the kind of assault described above without ever having imagined or fantasised about this scenario, or to put it another way, planned it in his head. Yet when we talk about sexual violence we seem remarkably uninterested in the contents of men’s heads—the heads we feel the need to rummage through are women’s.

Since Wednesday’s explosion of female rage there has been a steady stream of commentaries and think-pieces musing on why women are so afraid of men and whether their fear is justified. (Here’s one, by a man, entitled ‘Why Don’t Women Feel Safe?’, which concludes that the problem is (a) rooted in female psychology and therefore (b) intractable) That question has attracted far more attention than another, at least equally pertinent one—namely, why do so many men persistently choose to behave in ways that make women afraid?

One piece which did grapple with that issue, written by Rachel Hewitt for the Guardian, suggested that the answer in most cases has nothing to do with seizing random ‘opportunities’ for sexual gratification. Rather, this behaviour is an assertion of men’s social dominance. Some men clearly do get a kick out of women’s fear, but even when they don’t, Hewitt writes, ‘street harassment is how men mark out public spaces as their own, making women into trespassers on male territory’. It’s also, as I have noted before (see here and here), a way of impressing on women that men are entitled to demand their attention—and to punish women who withhold it—at any time and in any situation.

Which brings me to the last linguistic detail I want to comment on: the constant use of the words ‘safe’ and ‘safety’. This is how the issue has been defined—not only by the authorities and mainstream commentators, but also to a large extent by feminists. You might wonder why I’m raising that as a problem: surely the issue is precisely that women don’t feel safe in public space. But what’s really at stake here is women’s freedom rather than just their safety, and I would like to see that f-word given more emphasis. To explain why, let me quote Kavita Krishnan, who put it far more eloquently than I ever could when she spoke at a protest in 2012, following the gang-rape of Jyoti Singh on a Delhi bus:

Women have a right to freedom. …I am saying this because I feel that the word ‘safety’ with regard to women has been used far too much. Women know what ‘safety’ refers to. It means – you behave yourself. You get back into the house. You don’t dress in a particular way. Do not live by your freedom and you will be safe. A whole range of patriarchal laws and institutions tell us what to do in the guise of keeping us ‘safe’. We reject this entire notion. We don’t want it. The Delhi police is running an ad campaign… [with] a Hindi film actor exhorting people, ‘Be a man, join me in protecting women’. I want to ask, what about the brother who cuts his sister’s head off when she dares to marry into a different community? Is he not playing the role of a male protector too? This machismo is not any solution to the problem of violence against women; it is, in fact, the root of the problem. This is what we need to understand.

The focus on women’s safety, rather than their freedom, is what has allowed so much of this week’s discussion to revolve around the legitimacy of women’s feelings and their behaviour—are they overreacting, getting things ‘out of proportion’, being ‘hysterical’? It is possible to debate this because (as a million Reply Guys reminded us) most women will not become victims of violent crime. What is less debatable is that the fear induced by what happens to some women makes all women less free.

As Kavita Krishnan would doubtless have predicted, ‘safety’ was quickly invoked by the police to stop women holding public vigils, aka protests, in response to a murder with which a police officer has been charged. Instead we were told to stay at home and light a candle, or to carry a flower when out and about, and post a photograph of it by a street sign with the hashtag #ReclaimTheseStreets. (Candles! Flowers! That’ll show them what women are made of!) Though the police have used the current Covid-related restrictions on public gatherings as the basis for the prohibition, I’m inclined to regard that as largely a cover for other concerns about women coming together and speaking out about the way our institutions—especially though not only the police and the rest of the criminal justice system—have failed us. Their words, and the words of many commentators on this week’s events, have also failed us. Both the words and the world they come from need to change.