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.      

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.

Sherry for Nana?

If you’re looking for examples of banal sexism, Christmas TV ads are the gift that keeps on giving. At the beginning of this year’s Christmas ad season I was especially struck by Lidl’s evocation of Christmas Future (exactly like Christmas Past and Present except that Dad carves the turkey with a laser while Mum asks the visiting relatives how they’re finding life on the moon). Then I saw Majestic Wine Warehouse’s contribution to the genre, in which one of the staff members who’ve been helping families pick their festive drinks has a last-minute thought. ‘Sherry for Nana?’, he offers, thrusting a single bottle of the brown stuff into a grateful customer’s hands.

Now, I’ve got nothing against sherry: I learned to appreciate it by drinking it with friends in Spain, where it’s not reserved for old ladies (sorry, I probably sound as pretentious as the woman in the Waitrose Christmas ad banging on about how great sprouts are if they’re cooked with enough pancetta). Yet in Britain that perception is so strong, attempts to promote sherry to more discerning drinkers almost always begin with some variation on ‘it’s not just your granny’s Christmas tipple’. The use of the word ‘tipple’ appears to be compulsory in this context; you can even buy a personalised sherry glass inscribed with the words ‘Gran’s Little Tipple’.

On a website called ‘The Sommelier Chef’, a 2015 post entitled ‘Grannies’ tipple’ starts by acknowledging that ‘it has a stigma, Sherry: sweet, sticky, associated with grannies at Christmas’. The writer explains this unfortunate association with a bit of social history:

In granny’s earlier years it was thought unladylike for a female to drink hard liquor, and wine usually came in the form of claret that was drunk in very small amounts at dinner. Champagne was expensive and there was little alternative outside of port (thought a more manly choice) or sherry. So, it became acceptable for females to drink a small tipple of sherry for those special occasions.

But wait a minute, whose granny is she talking about? According to the Office for National Statistics, the average age for becoming a grandparent in the UK is currently 63. I’m also currently 63, and what is said here certainly doesn’t describe my ‘earlier years’. It’s more applicable to my own grandmother, who was born just after Queen Victoria died—if she were still alive she’d be almost 120—than to me, a baby-boomer who came of age in the late 1970s.

Grandma rarely drank alcohol (though some of her contemporaries clearly did: when I asked my partner if her grandmother drank sherry, she laughed and said ‘no, she drank sidecars’). But my generation of young women drank whatever we felt like drinking, including beer, wine, and many varieties of hard liquor. The only disapproval I remember this attracting was occasional comments from men in pubs who thought it was unladylike for women to order a pint of beer rather than a half. ‘Are you one of those women’s libbers’, they would ask—to which the answer was ‘yes, are you one of those male chauvinist pigs?’  

The Sommelier Chef’s account of ‘granny’s earlier years’ is an example of something which, for want of a better label, I’ll call the concertina-ing of women’s history. A great deal of popular wisdom, and for that matter popular feminism, seems to operate on the tacit assumption that the current cohort of women under 50 are the first to have experienced certain problems or enjoyed certain freedoms. Any woman born before a certain cut-off point (one whose exact timing is vague and elastic) gets consigned to some generic pre-feminist Dark Age, in which today’s grandmothers—women who were young during the heyday of the second wave—become indistinguishable from their own grandmothers, born before women in most places had the right to vote. In that sense, feminism’s imaginary older woman is a bit like ‘Nana’ in the adverts, forever drinking her thimbleful of Christmas sherry while knitting up a packet of Shreddies: she’s not just a stereotype, she’s a stereotype that’s got stuck in a time-warp.

Though ageing remains an unavoidable fact of life, what it means to be old has changed over time. Women in their 60s and 70s today may or may not be handy with the needles (I’m not knocking knitting), but they no longer look or sound like the Nanas in the Shreddies ads, with their quavering old lady voices and their 1950s perms. Today many or most women in their 60s still have jobs (in Britain the female state pension age is now 66, and is set to rise further); if she makes it to 65 a woman in the UK can expect to live, on average, for another 21 years.

This woman may be a grandmother, but she’s a long way from the stereotype of Nana as a kind, innocent old lady, skilled in the traditional domestic arts but unfamiliar with such newfangled inventions as the internet and feminism. She could be your teacher, your boss, or even the leader of your government. Maybe that’s one reason why the outdated stereotype persists—it’s an expression of nostalgia for a simpler time when, supposedly, women didn’t have that kind of power.

The Nana stereotype is overtly positive rather than negative (that’s what makes subversions of it, like the foul-mouthed Nan character created by comedian Catherine Tate, funny), but it’s also an example of what’s sometimes called ‘benevolent sexism’, representing women in a way which is backward-looking, sentimental and deeply patronising. We love Nana, of course we do, but her ideas are old-fashioned, her tastes are a bit naff, and there’s a lot about modern life that she just doesn’t understand. We love her but we don’t see her as an equal–even if we’re the same age, we don’t recognise ourselves in her. That’s partly because, as I’ve already said, she’s a stereotype from a bygone age; but it’s also because of the stigma attached to ageing, which leads many older women, including even ardent feminists, to emphasise how unlike Nana they are.

In La Vieillesse (‘Old Age’), Simone de Beauvoir observed that in capitalist societies old people, like women, are treated as Other, different and inferior. This affects men as well as women, and for men Beauvoir suggests it may be even harder to deal with, because the loss of status takes them by surprise. I thought of this when I read about a Christmas ad that went viral in Germany this year:

The two-minute commercial follows a grandfather who, isolated by the coronavirus pandemic, starts his own solo fitness quest with nothing but a kettlebell. The elderly man struggles and groans but motivates himself with a photo in a frame of somebody the audience can’t see. It’s revealed in a moment that will melt even the iciest of hearts, just what the grandfather has been training for over his lonely year. As he finally meets with his family for Christmas, he picks up his granddaughter, and is strong enough to lift her up to put the star on top of the Christmas tree.

Could this ad have featured the little girl’s grandmother as its protagonist? In practical terms we might think the answer is yes: fitness regimes are not just for men. But symbolically it strikes me as very much a male narrative, about an old man’s resistance to the loss of status Beauvoir talks about. Rather than passively accepting his situation, he makes heroic efforts to overcome his physical frailty so he can play, when the time comes, an active and visible role in the family Christmas celebrations. The ad is undoubtedly sentimental throughout, but it does take the viewer on an emotional journey: while we may start out feeling pity for Grandpa, by the end we’re admiring his grit and determination. This is not a story I can imagine being told about Nana.

It’s true, of course, that advertisers don’t always portray older women as Nana: it depends what they’re selling and to whom. Nana works well in Christmas ads for food and drink, with their cosy ‘happy families’ vibe; but when it’s her money they’re after they’re more likely to go for a different stereotype, the ‘Glamorous Gran’. In ads for Voltarol or incontinence pants we see her lifting weights at the gym or getting dressed up to go dancing; in ads for anti-ageing products we see her ready for her close-up, perfectly groomed and still enviably attractive—even when, like Jane Fonda, she’s in her 80s.

Maybe this is the female version of refusing to capitulate to the indignities of old age: grandpa strengthens his muscles with a kettlebell, Gran battles her wrinkles with L’Oreal. But that comparison only underlines the point that ageism is inflected by sexism. Men are valued for what they do, whereas for women what matters most is how they look. The message of ads featuring the Glamorous Gran is that if we make enough effort and buy the right products, we too can remain acceptable to the male gaze. This is touted by the beauty industry as ‘empowering’ older women, but arguably it’s just another reminder that women’s power is dependent on their sexual allure.

For me, the choice between Glamorous Gran and Nana is like the choice between Babycham and Harvey’s Bristol Cream. I find both of them equally unpalatable, and equally remote from my actual life as a 60-something woman. You may feel similarly, or you may not: either way, I hope that all the glasses you raise this Christmas contain the drink of your preference, whatever that may be.

A very naughty boy

This week Fox News broadcast a bizarre exchange between Tucker Carlson and Britain’s own Nigel Farage. After Farage criticised Boris Johnson’s recent performance, Carlson offered a theory to explain what had gone wrong: ‘getting Covid-19 emasculated him, it changed him, it feminized him, it weakened him as a man’. He added that this was a general property of the virus, which ‘does tend to take away the life-force…it does feminize people’.

This proposition is nonsensical, to the point where even Farage appeared reluctant to entertain it. But Carlson’s obsession with male potency (aka ‘the life-force’) and his fear of feminisation is something he shares with many men–including, as it happens, the British Prime Minister. I’ve commented before on the peculiar turns of phrase through which Johnson expresses this ancient but still prevalent form of sexism: his fondness for the word ‘spaff’, for instance, and his penchant for insulting (male) rivals using expressions that imply emasculation, like ‘girly swot’ and ‘big girl’s blouse’.

These expressions are also notable for their childishness and their archaic quality. ‘Big girl’s blouse’ was a popular playground insult when I was at school; ‘girly swot’ sounds like something you might have heard at St Custard’s, the fictional prep school in Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle’s Molesworth books (first published in the 1950s, a decade before Boris Johnson was born). It isn’t, perhaps, immediately obvious why an ambitious 21st century politician would want to sound like a character in a 1950s school story. But arguably this persona has served Johnson well.

This week, as scandals piled up around him, the media reached for the same school-story register to assess what kind of trouble he was in. Anne McElvoy described the situation in the Evening Standard as ‘his most precarious jam yet’. Others were more sanguine: the host of ITV’s Last Word pointed out that he was always ‘getting into scrapes’ (a word that’s been used about him since at least 2007), while the Washington Post also alluded to his ‘Teflon-like ability to survive these sort of scrapes’.  Jams and scrapes are what schoolboys get into, not because they’re incompetent or corrupt, but because of their youthful impulsiveness and propensity for mischief. Applied to Boris Johnson these are trivializing terms: ‘He’s not the Prime Minister, he’s a very naughty boy!’  

Another thing that recurred in media coverage was references to ‘grown-ups’–a category to which 57-year old ‘Boris’ axiomatically does not belong. For Conservatives who support his leadership on the grounds that he wins elections, a much-canvassed solution to his current problems is to put some actual grown-ups into his team. Allegra Stratton, the spokesperson who resigned this week after a recording was leaked of her making joking references to the Downing Street Christmas party that supposedly never happened, was apparently brought in to be one of these grown-ups. But she appears to have struggled with what Anne McElvoy describes in the Standard as ‘a laddish, “don’t give a f***” culture’ among staffers still loyal to her predecessor.  

If this description is accurate, it exemplifies a common pattern in many groups, organisations and even families. It’s accepted that boys will be boys, or ‘lads’, but women are expected to be grown-ups, reining in men’s bad behaviour and imposing order on their chaos. ‘Men are children, women are grown-ups’ is such a mainstream idea, it served as the premise for one of the most popular sitcoms of the 1990s, Men Behaving Badly. And though I don’t dispute that it’s insulting to men, it also creates problems for women, precisely because men are not in fact children, and they often resent being bossed around by women. Managing this contradiction is a difficult balancing act. I once suggested that the Tories’ ideal woman would be Mary Poppins, a nanny whose magic powers allow her to control her charges without appearing too nannyish.

The two women who have led the Conservative party in reality were both quite nannyish, and both of them were resented for it. But they were, incontrovertibly, grown-ups. They did not get into ‘scrapes’; they were not described as ‘shambolic’; they did not appear in public with uncombed hair. They were, as they had to be, serious, disciplined and hard-working. The same could be said of Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton. No female politician could adopt the persona of an overgrown schoolgirl and be indulged by her party, or the media, or the public.     

Another reason why men like Boris Johnson can get away with it is our willingness to see feckless or chaotic men as clever or even brilliant, whereas competent and conscientious women are dismissed as pedestrian plodders. This also has a ‘schoolboy’ connection. When people say of Johnson that he ‘isn’t interested in details’, I’m reminded of an educational theory that was popular when I was young. If girls did well in school, that was not because they were intellectually gifted but because they were good at detail, dutifully memorising and reproducing what they’d been taught (in super-neat handwriting). Boys were lazier and more slapdash, but also more intelligent and less conventional in their thinking.

This was generally presented (and in some quarters still is) as a ‘natural’ sex-difference. But as the feminist scholar Mary Evans points out in her book about life in a 1950s girls’ grammar school, the education system actively cultivated it, in that the curriculum prescribed for girls placed great emphasis on tasks that required attention to detail. At Evans’s school, for instance, pupils spent a year of domestic science lessons smocking a pinafore by hand. She refers to this as ‘education in the thankless task’, arguing that its purpose was not to teach the specific skill of smocking, but rather to inculcate more general attitudes, including a high tolerance for work which demanded prolonged concentration but was also tedious, repetitious and low in status. Since that kind of work was what most girls would end up doing, both in their homes and (if they entered it) the workplace, the school was essentially preparing them for what it saw as the realities of female adult life.

Today there is less sex-differentiation in either education or the middle-class professions. Yet the belief still apparently persists that attention to detail is for women, or the lower-status men who are labelled nerds, geeks and wonks. Alpha-males like Boris Johnson not only don’t but shouldn’t have to waste their superior intelligence on minutiae. Johnson’s frequent holidays and his eagerness to delegate work to others suggest that he also subscribes to the old belief in the effortless superiority of white upper-class men: a gentleman should not be seen to try too hard. We might be tempted to blame this on his patrician education, but in fact the young Johnson’s belief in his own superiority was too much for even his housemaster at Eton, who told his father in a letter that ‘Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility…I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception’.

But in his later, political career Johnson has been able to use his ‘overgrown schoolboy’ persona to insulate him from the kind of criticism he received when he was actually at school. That’s not to say he avoids all criticism, but from his point of view it’s far better to be portrayed as impulsive, ‘shambolic’, a hapless fool or an attention-seeking clown (his recent ‘Peppa Pig’ speech to the CBI has been voted the year’s funniest moment by readers of the Beano) than to be held to account for more serious shortcomings like gross negligence, dishonesty and lack of integrity.

So I really don’t understand why even his critics in the media reproduce the image he has chosen to project by repeatedly using language that reinforces it. Not turning up to COBRA meetings in the middle of a pandemic isn’t like bunking off Latin; holding parties at your workplace during a lockdown when other people aren’t even allowed to visit their dying relatives is not like organising an illicit midnight feast. Stop indulging him–and distracting us–with these references to ‘scrapes’ and ‘jams’. Stop laughing at his stunts, or his ‘gaffes’; stop saying he needs some grown-ups around him. He’s not a naughty schoolboy, he’s the Prime Minister, FFS.

Unspeakable

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.                    

Between children

On the first day of the first full week of the new school year, the BBC reported that cases of ‘sex abuse between children’ had doubled over a period of two years. In 2016-17 the police in England and Wales recorded just under 8000 incidents where both the abuser and the victim were minors; in 2018-19 the figure was over 16,000. During the pandemic the number fell, but there were still more than 10,000 cases recorded in 2020-21. And since these figures include only cases which were reported to the police, they almost certainly understate the true extent of the problem.  

This news would, of course, be shocking whatever words were used to report it; but I couldn’t help being struck by the phrase ‘sex abuse between children’. This formula seems to have originated with the BBC (the statistics were compiled for its long-running current affairs programme Panorama). But it soon became ubiquitous: as so often happens in contemporary news reporting, the language used in the original source got picked up and recycled by other media outlets with minimal or no alteration. The Times’s headline, ‘Sexual abuse between children more than doubles in two years’, was almost identical to the one that appeared on the BBC website (‘Reports of sex abuse between children double in two years’). The Mail Online had an expanded version, ‘Reports of sex abuse between children doubles [sic] in two years to 16,000 cases in England and Wales – with 10% of youngsters accused aged 10 or under’. The Sun was an outlier, diverging from the ‘between children’ formula and going with ‘Reports of children sexually abusing other kids DOUBLE in a year to almost 16,000 cases’.

One thing that’s notable about all these headlines is their use of gender-neutral/inclusive terms like ‘children’, ‘kids’ and ‘youngsters’. That pattern continues in the body of the reports, and in quotes from named sources like the psychologist Rebekah Eglinton, who said that unwanted touching and being pressured to share nude photos had become ‘a part of everyday life for children’. There were also quotes from politicians who affirmed their commitment to ‘keeping children safe’ and ‘creating a safe learning environment for children’.

In most contexts this would be unremarkable—neutral/inclusive terms are the default choice—but in this case it’s striking because the issue under discussion is by no means gender-neutral. In the words of the BBC’s report, ‘a big majority of cases involved boys abusing girls’. Later the report spells out what ‘a big majority’ means: around nine out of ten abusers were boys, while eight out of ten victims were girls (figures which suggest that there must have been as many cases of boys abusing other boys as there were of girls abusing anyone). The framing of sexual abuse as something ‘children’ do to other ‘children’ glosses over this enormous imbalance. Apart from the BBC, most media outlets treated it as an incidental detail: the Times and the Sun each devoted one sentence to the information that most abusers were boys, while the Mail didn’t mention the issue at all.  

But when I first heard ‘sex abuse between children’, what caught my attention wasn’t primarily the word ‘children’. In the headlines, at least, I found the choice of ‘children’ understandable: the point, I assumed, was to flag the topic of the story as cases where both abuser and abused were under 18, as opposed to cases where children are abused by adults. Still, to my ear there was something not quite right about the phrase–and on reflection I concluded that the problem was ‘between’.

My guess is that ‘between’ was chosen for the same reason as ‘children’—to emphasise that the report dealt with cases where both the perpetrators and the victims were minors. More familiar phrases like ‘sexual abuse of children’ wouldn’t have made that clear. But ‘between children’ is jarring, because it tends to imply that what’s being described is in some sense a joint activity. That’s how ‘between’ works in phrases like ‘a quarrel between neighbours’ or ‘a fight between rival gangs’. The activities referred to are inherently adversarial, but they are nevertheless understood to require reciprocity. You can’t quarrel or fight with someone who isn’t also quarrelling or fighting: if your adversary doesn’t reciprocate you’re not having a quarrel or a fight, you’re just ranting at them or beating them up.

‘Sexual abuse between children’ is apparently constructed in the same way, but it doesn’t fit the template, because reciprocity is not part of the meaning of ‘sexual abuse’. You can see this even more clearly if you turn the nouns (back) into verbs. If it’s true that ‘the Jets fought the Sharks’ then it’s also true that ‘they fought [each other]’; but ‘Jack sexually abused Jill’ does not entail that ‘they abused [each other]’. Sexual abuse, by definition, is something one person does to another without their consent, let alone their active involvement. That’s what makes ‘sexual abuse between children’, and indeed any reference to ‘abuse between Xs’, so peculiar.  

As I’ve already said, I don’t think whoever came up with ‘sexual abuse between children’ actually intended to convey the idea of mutuality or reciprocity. It’s more likely they just didn’t notice that implication. But I still think it’s a problem, as is the consistent preference for gender-neutral or inclusive terms. These linguistic choices are part of a larger pattern—one I’ve commented on in several previous posts about the representation of both sexual violence/abuse and sexism/sexual harassment in schools.

In commentary on these issues there’s a persistent tendency to present coercion or exploitation as mutual engagement. One way in which this is often done is by exaggerating girls’ maturity, agency and power. You see this a lot in court cases involving the sexual abuse or exploitation of children by adults, where it is clearly intended to minimise the adult’s culpability. By presenting the girl as an autonomous agent who voluntarily engaged in a relationship with an older man, defence lawyers hope to persuade jurors, judges and/or public opinion that the so-called ‘abuse’ was in reality no such thing: though her age makes it technically illegal to have sex with her, her precocity makes that a victimless crime, and the verdict or punishment should reflect that.

The idea of female precocity can also be invoked in cases where the abuser is a minor rather than an adult. Boys, the argument goes, mature later than girls both sexually and socially, and this is a reason to cut them some slack: they’re not really bad, just clumsy and impulsive (and easily manipulated by more sexually sophisticated girls). Both versions of this discourse represent girls as more grown-up, and more equal in their relations with boys and men, than most really are, or than they tell researchers they feel.

In relation to schools there is also a persistent tendency to frame sexism and sexual harassment in terms of an eternal ‘battle of the sexes’ which ‘naturally’ expresses itself in conflict between boys and girls. In 2015, when the Institute of Physics issued some guidelines for combatting sexism in schools, commentators regretted that this po-faced political correctness might bring an end to (in one Telegraph writer’s words) ‘the days of boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground with terms such as “sissy” and “cupcake”’. Like the ‘between children’ formula, ‘baiting each other’ implies reciprocity: the combatants are by implication positioned as equals, ‘cheerfully’ engaged in the mutual ‘baiting’ which has been a feature of playground culture since time immemorial.

The IoP made it easier than it should have been for the media to take this line. Though its intervention was prompted by concern about the way sexism affects girls, its guidelines made a point of being inclusive, treating sexist insults directed to boys, like ‘sissy’ and ‘man up’, on a par with those directed to girls (most of which are far more degrading than ‘sissy’). Other reports published since 2015 have taken a similar approach: though they invariably report that both verbal and other forms of harassment are experienced far more frequently by girls, they end up paying disproportionate attention to the minority of cases where boys are targeted. Presumably this even-handedness is meant to counter accusations of anti-male bias; but when the evidence shows clearly that sexism in schools affects girls far more commonly and more seriously than boys, a representation which suggests otherwise is itself biased.

The same bias is apparent in comments like the one I quoted earlier from the psychologist who said that unwanted touching and pressure to share nude photos had become ‘part of everyday life for children’. It is overwhelmingly girls for whom those things are ‘part of everyday life’, just as it is girls who make up the great majority of victims in cases of ‘sex abuse between children’ (while boys are an even larger majority of abusers). In both our language and our actions we need to face up to the reality of that difference, and of the power imbalance that underpins it. We will never solve the problem of sexual violence and abuse if we habitually use linguistic formulas that obscure what the problem really is.   

Speakin while female

Remember the summer of 2018, when a woman was allowed to commentate on a men’s football World Cup match, prompting a tsunami of complaints about her ‘shrill’, high-pitched voice? Well, the sport-watching blokes of Britain have been at it again. Halfway through the Tokyo Olympics a man named Digby Jones (in case you’ve never heard of him, he used to run the Confederation of British Industry and was later elevated to the House of Lords) took to Twitter to complain about Alex Scott, the former Arsenal and England footballer who’d been presenting the highlights for the BBC:

Enough! I can’t stand it anymore! Alex Scott spoils a good presentational job on the BBC Olympics Team with her very noticeable inability to pronounce her ‘g’s at the end of a word. Competitors are NOT taking part, Alex, in the fencin, rowin, boxin, kayakin, weightliftin & swimmin

What this tweet draws attention to is something all English-speakers do at least some of the time, whether they’re aware of it or not: pronounce the final consonant in the –ing ending on words like ‘swimming’ with an [n] rather than the [ŋ] Jones thinks it should have. (Neither of these pronunciations contains an actual [g] sound, BTW—though there are some English accents that add one on.) The alternation isn’t totally random: we’re more likely to use the [ŋ] in more formal situations, and the [n], conversely, when we are or want to sound more relaxed (it’s ‘sittin on the dock of the bay’, not ‘sitting’). But the difference between the two pronunciations is also socially meaningful: though virtually everyone uses both, exactly how much we use each of them varies with demographic characteristics like age, ethnicity, gender and social class.

Interestingly, the current social class meaning of so-called ‘g-dropping’ (though that’s a misnomer for the reasons I’ve just explained—and also because speaking is not, in fact, reading from an invisible autocue in the sky) is not the only one it’s ever had. Today it’s understood as a working-class thing, but in the early 20th century it was also associated with the British upper classes, who talked about ‘huntin, shootin and fishin’ (and possibly fencin and rowin, though probably not kayakin and weightliftin). Writers of the time both used the [n] form in the dialogue they gave to upper-class characters (like Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey) and sometimes commented on its use explicitly, in a way that makes clear it was a recognized social stereotype.

Here’s an example from Jan Struther’s 1939 novel Mrs Miniver: the setting is a shooting party at Lord and Lady Chervil’s country house.

‘Now take huntin’…’ ‘Oh, bull-fightin’ — that’s quite a different kettle of fish.…’ Italics bred italics. Dropped g’s fell as thick as confetti.

Then as now, ‘dropped gs’ were considered a deviation from the standard pronunciation. But the tone of the disapproval they attracted was rather different when the g-droppers were aristocrats. Middle-class Mrs Miniver finds the sound of the upper-class voices at Lady Chervil’s table ‘musically unpleasing’, but she doesn’t accuse their owners of being ‘lazy’, ‘illiterate’, or in need of the ‘elocution lessons’ Digby Jones prescribed for Alex Scott.

That’s one way we know criticisms of pronunciation aren’t, as those who make them often claim, a case of ‘it doesn’t matter who says it, I just hate the way it sounds’. It does matter who says it: the things people claim to hate the sound of are almost always things they associate with an out-group, a group they don’t belong to themselves. And while they may, like Mrs Miniver, make mildly disparaging judgments on higher-status speakers, they generally reserve their harshest and most public criticism for those lower down the social hierarchy.  

But in 2020s Britain, as Digby Jones would soon discover, you won’t make yourself universally popular by criticising a young Black working-class Londoner for talking like a young Black working-class Londoner. As well as defending herself (‘I’m from a working-class family in East London, Poplar, Tower Hamlets, & I am PROUD. Proud of the young girl who overcame obstacles and proud of my accent’) Scott had heavyweight supporters ranging from London Mayor Sadiq Khan to former rugby international Will Carling. Jones came out looking like, as one tweep put it, ‘a f**kin snob’.

But before we conclude that British accent prejudice has had its day, let’s not forget a very similar incident that sparked controversy less than a year ago. Last September the former Labour spin-doctor Alistair Campbell tweeted about the Conservative politician Priti Patel: ‘I don’t want a Home Secretary who can’t pronounce a G at the end of a word’. He deleted the tweet after Patel’s Conservative colleague Sajid Javid called it ‘blatant snobbery’, but in my own (basically Left-leaning) part of the Twitterverse, the jibes about Patel’s accent continued. And when the row about Alex Scott blew up, I noticed a few people suggesting her case was different from Patel’s: maybe Patel’s g-dropping was less ‘authentic’ than Scott’s, or maybe Patel had less excuse for it.

Sorry, people of Twitter, but that kind of talk just underlines the point that accent prejudice is a proxy for other kinds of prejudice. You don’t like Priti Patel’s politics, so you want it to be OK to criticise the way she speaks (which IMHO is perfectly ‘authentic’ given where she grew up and went to school–according to Wikipedia, at a girls’ comprehensive in Watford)–while simultaneously maintaining that it’s not OK to criticise when the speaker is someone you approve of.

Of course this is a common reaction, and I can’t claim to be untouched by it myself. Boris Johnson has a way of pronouncing the word ‘to’ (with an elongated and heavily-stressed schwa vowel) that irritates me beyond all reason. Others might feel the urge to punch him when they look at his perpetually uncombed hair; for me what does it is hearing him say ‘to’. I can’t control that reaction, but what I can do, and what I think we all should do, is recognise it for what it is (a projection of my feelings about the person onto the way he speaks), and resist the temptation either to broadcast our prejudices or to invent spurious linguistic justifications for them.

For feminists there’s an extra reason to be wary of this kind of criticism. It’s not a coincidence that the two examples of accent-shaming I’ve discussed both targeted high-profile women. As Katie Edwards recalled in a piece about the Alex Scott affair,

When I first started presenting radio I discovered pretty quickly that while it’s all right for Alan Titchmarsh to be ‘nobbut a lad’ as a broadcaster, women with regional accents have a trickier time of it.

She’s right: the policing of nonstandard pronunciation, and other linguistic behaviours which are popularly associated with working-class speakers—for instance, swearing and using slang—is even more intense for female speakers than for male ones. Working-class speech has ‘rough and tough’ connotations, and is therefore perceived as ‘masculine’; in women it attracts not only the usual class-based criticisms, but also the sex-specific judgment that it’s ‘unladylike’. Regardless of her social class, a respectable woman is supposed to act like a ‘lady’; being ‘well-spoken’, as people say in Britain, is part of that. The Yorkshire-accented Katie Edwards was once described as having ‘no decorum’; Faima Bakar has written about the way Black women get told they shouldn’t ‘talk street’ because ‘it’s just not attractive’.

The idea that women should be ‘well-spoken’ is yet another item on the already long list of requirements (like not being shrill, strident or aggressive) that create a hostile environment for female speakers. In the case of Priti Patel that might seem like poetic justice. But when we condone the weaponizing of linguistic prejudice against a woman, whoever she is and whatever we think of her, we make it easier for the same weapons to go on being used against us all.  

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.

Death of a patriarch

Not long ago I quoted Robin Lakoff’s observation that looking closely at the details of language-use can reveal, or bring into sharper focus, beliefs and attitudes that usually go unnoticed. I’ve been reminded of that again this week, following the announcement of the death of the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip.

Since he was approaching his 100th birthday, this event was not unexpected; the government and the media had made a detailed plan (code-named ‘Operation Forth Bridge’) which they could put into action whenever it happened. So, what we are now reading and hearing—all the news reports and tributes and retrospective features about his life—is not the result of some hasty bodge-job. Much of this material was compiled well in advance, by people who had plenty of time to consider what they were going to say. I was expecting the coverage to be a lot of things I haven’t personally got much time for: royalist (obviously), obsequious (naturally), nationalistic (inevitably). But I’ll admit I was not expecting it to be quite so… patriarchal.

When I say ‘patriarchal’, I mean that in a very basic and literal sense. I’m not just talking about the presentation of the Prince as a model of aristocratic masculinity, a man who had served in World War II, who spoke with the bluntness of a former naval officer, who sent his son to a school that prescribed cold showers and stiff upper lips, etc., etc. I’m talking about the fact that commentary on his life has been organised, to a remarkable extent, around the proposition—not directly stated, but apparently still taken for granted—that it is natural and desirable for men to rule over women and children, in any social unit from the family to the nation-state. That proposition has shaped the outlines of the story we have been told—the story of a man who was outranked by his wife,  and who (understandably) found that demeaning; and also of the wife herself, a Good Woman who understood the problem and made every effort to mitigate it.  

In case you think I’m just making this up, let’s have a look at some textual evidence.

The first thing that’s striking about the coverage is that many news reports announcing Philip’s death chose headlines that specifically drew attention to his subordinate position. In Italy the Corriere della Sera had ‘Goodbye to Philip, always one step behind the Queen’. This wasn’t the only occurrence of the ‘step behind’ formula: he was also compared, by Andrew Marr, to ‘an Indian bride’ walking two steps behind (not surprisingly this comment was criticised for ignorance/casual racism, but I’m mentioning it in the context of this discussion because it’s such a clear pointer to the underlying idea that Philip was feminised, or emasculated, by his role). Another phrase used by several newspapers was ‘in the shadow of’, as in the Spanish daily El Pais’s headline ‘Muere el Principe que vivió 70 años a la sombra de Isabel II’ (‘the prince dies who lived for 70 years in the shadow of Elizabeth II’). Some reports combined these formulas: the Bangladeshi Daily Star, for instance, informed readers that Philip ‘lived in the shadow of the woman he married at Westminster Abbey in 1947 and always walked a step behind the queen’.

To assess the significance of these choices, we need to ask if the same phrases would be equally likely to appear in reports on the death of a queen consort, the wife of a surviving male monarch. That’s hard to test empirically because it’s rare, at least in recent British history, for a male monarch to be widowed (the last four kings all died before their wives). But it would be odd to describe a queen consort as living in her husband’s shadow, because that’s exactly where important men’s wives are expected to live. Being outranked and overshadowed by one’s spouse is the unmarked case for women; for men it is marked, and that’s what makes it headline material.

For Prince Philip, unlike the female consorts who preceded him and those who will follow, being relegated to the shadows was a problem; indeed, it was the problem that defined him. In the words of the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins, ‘Philip’s life was…lived in perpetual limbo, his every move, every remark, every glance reflecting on his wife. He enjoyed none of the scope extended to various predecessors [like William of Orange and Prince Albert]’. ‘The frustration’ adds Jenkins, ‘must have been intense’. This frustration is clearly a function of Philip’s maleness: if a woman in his position were to complain (as he once did) that she was ‘nothing but a bloody amoeba’, she would be met with a mixture of incomprehension and accusations of being a jumped-up, power-crazed harpy. Royal wives are expected to content themselves with smiling, looking pretty, accepting bouquets and providing heirs: those who do threaten to overshadow their husbands do not, on the whole, remain royal wives.  

The second notable thing is the emphasis commentators have given to the idea that while the Queen may have outranked her husband in public, behind the scenes their roles were reversed—or to put it another way, their marriage was based on the ‘normal’ patriarchal arrangement whereby wives defer to husbands, not vice-versa. Perhaps the bluntest statement to that effect appeared in Italy’s La Repubblica, which described Philip as ‘l’unico che poteva permettersi di dire alla sovrana: “Stai zitta”’ (‘the only one who was allowed to tell the sovereign to shut up’). For this the paper did get some pushback on social media. But it wasn’t unique: the Guardian said that Philip ‘allowed’ the Queen to take the lead in public, while the LA Times assured us that he was ‘the undisputed master of the royal household’. Sky News noted that ‘the Queen wore the Crown—but when it came to family, Prince Philip wore the trousers’. Ah yes, the Crown and Trousers, that beloved 1950s pub where women couldn’t get served at the bar or set foot in the saloon…I remember it well, and apparently so does a royal correspondent who’s probably about half my age.

If the Prince ruled the roost at home, perhaps he was really the power behind the throne, and his place in the shadows, always a step behind, was just a carefully nurtured illusion. A number of papers reminded us that for decades the Queen began every address to the nation with ‘My husband and I’, as if to underline his indispensable status as ‘her closest advisor and confidant’. And the idea that he was indispensable, if not actually in charge, might explain an otherwise puzzling piece of fluff put out by Reuters under the headline Despite loss of husband, little sign Queen Elizabeth will abdicate. That ‘despite’ clause is a classic, encouraging the inference that we would naturally expect her to consider abdicating at this juncture—that the death of her husband would be an appropriate moment for her to ‘relinquish the throne in favour of her son and heir Prince Charles’. (Time, perhaps, to draw a line under the anomaly represented by a female monarch, who is only ever there because her predecessor had no sons.)

In reality, as the piece goes on to acknowledge, there is no reason to think the Queen has any intention of abdicating, ‘despite the huge hole in her life that Philip’s death leaves’. It isn’t explained why she, or indeed anyone, would decide to deal with a ‘huge hole in her life’ by making another huge hole in it. But apart from the thought that a woman in her 90s should not be clinging on to power when a man is waiting for his turn (once again, although I can’t test it, I doubt this would ever be the response to a reigning King’s loss of his wife), the idea that it’s time for her to go may be related to another theme which has been quite noticeable in the coverage of Prince Philip’s death, the portrayal of him as ‘the love of her life’ (vice-versa has been rarer, presumably on the old romantic/Romantic principle that only women are ruled by their hearts). ‘He was her King’, said Bild, metaphorically bestowing on him the title he was not permitted in reality, because kings have higher status than queens. Perhaps the commentators think that, like Queen Victoria after Prince Albert died, she will be (or should be) too grief-stricken to carry on.

Does any of this really matter, though? Would we not expect media coverage of such an anachronistic institution to be, itself, anachronistic? Yes, and in many respects it has been: in its solemnity, its deference, its assumption that mourning dead royals is the same kind of shared national preoccupation it was in 1903, and its total disregard for the realities of the digital age (the BBC shut down one of its television channels entirely for a day while showing the same royal-themed programming simultaneously on the other two; meanwhile on the other gazillion channels, life went on as usual). All this seemed, to many people, weirdly old-fashioned, as if we’d suddenly gone back 50 or 100 years in time (the BBC even set up a webpage specifically for complaints about the excessiveness of its coverage).

But I don’t think the patriarchal presuppositions I’ve been discussing are in the same category. Nobody needed to have it spelled out why Prince Philip’s position was so difficult and ‘frustrating’ (something that will never be said about the future Queen Camilla); journalists my own age or younger reached unselfconsciously for formulas like ‘wore the trousers’ and ‘in her shadow’. The Times was able to report that Prince Charles had ‘step[ped] up to fill his father’s shoes as male head of family’ (because of course every family must have a man at its head). The assumptions behind all this did not strike most people as weird. And that, depressingly, is because they aren’t.

Don’t drop the doc: Jill Biden and performative outrage

Last week The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by Joseph Epstein headed ‘Is there a doctor in the White House? Not if you need an MD’ . This header suggested that what followed would be a rehash of the perennial debate on whether ‘Dr’ should be reserved exclusively for medics (cue 300 indignant tweets from academics reminding us that the title was given to the learned when medicine was still the province of barbers and quacks); but while that was certainly in the mix, it turned out to be buried in a steaming pile of sexist condescension aimed at a high-profile, topical target. In case anyone hasn’t seen it, here’s the opening paragraph:

Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the “Dr.” before your name? “Dr. Jill Biden” sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic. Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title “Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.” A wise man once said that no one should call himself “Dr.” unless he has delivered a child. Think about it, Dr. Jill, and forthwith drop the doc.

Whether women who have doctorates should be permitted to use the title ‘Dr’ is also a perennial question. British feminists may recall the case of the historian Fern Riddell, who was deluged with abuse on social media in 2018 after she expressed the view that she, and other academic experts consulted by the media, should be given their professional titles. Accused of lacking humility, Riddell created the hashtag #ImmodestWomen.

Joseph Epstein, similarly, thinks Jill Biden should ‘drop the doc’. Addressing her as ‘Mrs Biden’, ‘Jill’ and ‘kiddo’, he informs her that her title sounds ‘fraudulent’, though he evidently knows it isn’t, because his next move is to suggest that her degree, an Ed.D from the University of Delaware, is academically worthless. (This disparaging assessment is itself an indirect manifestation of sexism: in the US, more women earn doctoral degrees in education than in any other discipline.) Only then do we get the ‘leave Dr for the medics’ argument, which he attributes—of course—to a ‘wise man’ (though a wiser man might have chosen a different procedure as his litmus test for Dr-worthiness, given how many millions of children throughout history have been delivered without the assistance of an MD).

Epstein’s piece attracted numerous complaints, and two days later the Wall Street Journal responded by suggesting that a campaign had been orchestrated by (Joe) Biden’s media team. The criticism, it noted, had only really taken off following a tweet from Biden press spokesman Michael LaRosa, who called the article ‘a disgusting and sexist attack’. ‘If you had any respect for women at all’, he added, ‘you would remove this repugnant display of chauvinism from your paper and apologize to [Jill Biden]’. The Journal’s line was that the Biden team had seized on this ‘relatively minor issue’ as an opportunity to score culture-war points through a display of performative outrage. Though it came from a different ideological direction, this bullying of the press, it said, was uncomfortably reminiscent of Trump.  

Does this response stand up to scrutiny? I’d say, yes and no. I do think Michael LaRosa’s tweet was an instance of ‘performative outrage’: he must have known that any self-respecting newspaper would resist, on principle, calls from a member of the president-elect’s staff to take down or apologise for an article that criticised the president-elect’s wife. I also have some sympathy for the Journal’s own interpretation of the offending piece: ‘Mr. Epstein criticized the habit of people with Ph.D.s or other doctorates calling themselves “Dr.” as highfalutin, using Jill Biden as Exhibit A’. In other words, the point of it wasn’t (just) to attack Jill Biden. If you can drag your eyes away from the appalling first paragraph, that isn’t an unreasonable summary.

That is not to say, however, that Epstein’s criticism of Jill Biden was incidental or peripheral. It was the peg for his op-ed, which would otherwise have been just a generic rant about falling academic standards and professorial self-aggrandisement that could have been written at any time in the last 60 years. It certainly wouldn’t have generated the kind of controversy which drives lots of extra traffic to a newspaper’s website. In a media economy where outrage pays dividends, the performative outrage of the Biden team was a gift to the Journal, and its complaint about orchestrated bullying was just more performative outrage. And amid all this outrage, we began to lose sight of what’s actually at stake when women are accused of being over-invested in titles like ‘Dr’.

I don’t want to lose sight of that issue, especially since I’ve now seen several feminists online suggesting that even if Epstein made it in a gratuitously insulting way, he actually had a point. Is it not absurdly self-important of Jill Biden to insist on being referred to as ‘Dr’ in any context other than the strictly academic?

I understand where that view comes from—as I’ve written before, the question of titles is one a lot of feminists are conflicted about. On one hand we believe women should be treated with the same respect as men, but on the other we are uncomfortable with the overt marking of status differentials. Many of us (including me, as I admitted in my earlier post) choose not to challenge people who first-name us or call us ‘Ms X’ while addressing our male colleagues as ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’, because we don’t want to be seen as elitist, old-fashioned, vain, insecure or unapproachable.

But there are also good arguments for the opposite approach. After I blogged about #ImmodestWomen, I heard from a number of women with PhDs who said they used ‘Dr’ outside their professional lives—for instance, when filling in forms at the dentist’s surgery or booking flights online—not because they expected their status to get them better service, but because it liberated them from the eternal question ‘is that Miss or Mrs?’ A man with a doctorate who chooses to go by ‘Mr’ rather than ‘Dr’ in private life is not in danger of being treated as someone’s appendage: for women it’s a different matter.

In Jill Biden’s case, anyone who thinks she should use ‘Dr’ only for academic purposes is essentially saying that for all other purposes she should be ‘Mrs’, i.e. defined by her status as a wife. I don’t, of course, know Jill Biden, but it seems fairly clear that she resists being defined in that way. She’s the first US president’s wife in history who has declined to make First Ladyhood her fulltime occupation, instead declaring that she will continue to teach at a community college in Virginia. It’s at least plausible that her preference for the title ‘Dr’ has less to do with intellectual self-importance than with symbolising her commitment to maintaining some measure of independence.

The other thing we should remember before we criticise women like Jill Biden is that even in their professional lives women are frequently denied professional titles. This manifestation of what in an earlier post I called ‘the gender respect gap’ is the subject of many anecdotal complaints among women in academia, and it has been documented systematically in medicine. A study which looked at doctors introducing other doctors at ‘Grand Rounds’ discovered that men introducing women only referred to them as ‘Dr X’ in 49% of cases, whereas the figure for men introducing men was over 70%–and women almost always used the title when introducing colleagues of both sexes.

The media are also regular offenders, persistently addressing or referring to male guest experts as ‘Dr This’ and ‘Professor That’ while their female counterparts are first-named. In this Year of the Plague, when scientists and medics have been constantly on our screens, there has been ample opportunity to witness this tendency in action. Here’s a case in point:

The two people in this image are Donna Kinnair, Chief Executive of the Royal College of Nursing, and Hugh Pennington, a virologist. The caption gives each of them an institutional affiliation, but only Pennington gets the title ‘Professor’. Which would be one thing if he were the only professor in the room, but in fact Donna Kinnair is a professor too. She’s also a DBE: a fully accurate caption would have called her ‘Professor Dame Donna Kinnair’.

This example is particularly bad because it involves captioning, which there is time to check, as opposed to being an error made inadvertently in a live interview. I say ‘error’ because in most cases I don’t believe the media intend to treat men and women differently; I think it’s more likely to be a product of unconscious bias. Or in this particular case, intersecting biases: Kinnair is a woman, she’s Black, and her field is nursing, and all those things are at odds with our cultural prototype of a professor. The older white man beside her, by contrast, fits the prototype perfectly.  

Maybe Donna Kinnair thinks there are more important things to worry about than whether the captioners gave her the correct title, and if so we might think that’s to her credit. But there’s more to the problem of gendered disrespect than just the feelings of the individual women on the receiving end. Every time we tolerate the titling of a male expert and the non-titling of the female expert alongside him, we are effectively reinforcing the beliefs that are the root of the problem—for instance, that professors look like Hugh Pennington and not like Donna Kinnair. And that has knock-on effects. If it’s true that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’, then there’s a reason to insist that women’s status should be made explicit which is not just about flattery or self-regard.

I don’t think the answer is performative outrage (in hindsight I regret having performed my own outrage about Joseph Epstein’s piece on Twitter). If the aim is to change things, as opposed to just getting people briefly riled up about them, a better strategy might be quiet, dogged, civilly phrased complaint. ‘Dear TV programme producer, I noticed tonight that your captions identified the two experts in your Covid-19 item as Professor Hugh Pennington and Donna Kinnair. Perhaps you were not aware that Donna Kinnair is also a Professor. I’d like to suggest that in future you adopt a general policy of checking these captions to ensure they provide viewers with accurate information about each guest’s expert credentials’.  

Of course, it’s harder to call out bias when you yourself are at the sharp end, and when the disrespect is coming from your colleagues or your students. That does feel petty and it can feel self-regarding. We all have to choose our battles, and if a woman chooses not to fight this one she’ll get no argument from me—except for the one I’ve made here, and in other posts on this subject, that the granting or withholding of respect titles is not the trivial concern it’s often made out to be. If it’s so trivial, why do so many men become so enraged when a woman expresses the desire to be known as ‘Dr X’?  What impels them to respond with such extraordinary condescension (‘humility, Dr Riddell!’ ‘Mrs Biden—Jill—Kiddo: a bit of advice’)?

At some level I think these men must see the move women like Riddell and Biden are making as an attack on the ‘natural’ (aka patriarchal) order in which men rank above women, and women should defer to men. Hostility towards women who insist on professional titles may also reflect the (conscious or unconscious) belief that whatever else women may do, their most important roles are still the traditional ones of wife and mother. Women who decline to take their husbands’ last names when they marry elicit similarly hostile reactions, and for the same reason. They aren’t just defying convention, they’re challenging assumptions that patriarchy takes for granted. That’s why the gesture isn’t trivial; and that’s why it deserves feminists’ support.