The dangers of purity

‘I wish’, someone said to me yesterday, ‘that people who call themselves feminists would stop telling me what I’m not allowed to say’. It turned out she’d been on Facebook, looking at feminists’ reactions to the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the 49-year-old judgment in Roe v Wade. I’d been doing the same thing on Twitter, so I knew exactly what she meant. Though the news prompted a range of responses from feminists, from learned legal analysis of the judgment to practical advice for women living in states where abortion is now a crime, one surprisingly prominent theme in posts and tweets was what words and images we should or (more often) shouldn’t be using.

One predictable bone of contention was the word ‘women’. There were many reminders to use inclusive language, bearing in mind that women weren’t the only people the judgment affected. There were also many statements of the opposite view, that inclusive language was a distraction: the judgment needed to be named for what it was, an attack, specifically, on women’s rights.  

Then there were tweets castigating the authors of other tweets for referring to supporters of the judgment as ‘pro-life’. As critics of it pointed out, that’s their own preferred term, which they worked hard to get others to use because it paints them in a positive light. It’s also, however, a lie, insofar as the only ‘life’ these people are ‘pro’ is the life of the as-yet unborn: the minute an infant leaves the womb it becomes a matter of indifference to the ‘pro-lifer’ whether it has adequate food and shelter, or whether it goes on to be killed in a school shooting, etc., etc. Their political opponents should not play into their hands by using this terminology.

Visual imagery also came under scrutiny. One much-liked and retweeted message took issue with people who were using an image of a wire coat hanger to signal their opposition to the Supreme Court judgment. The coat hanger has a long history of being used as a symbol in the struggle for reproductive rights (it was carried, for instance, at a demonstration in Washington DC in 1969): it’s a reference to the desperate methods women employed to induce abortions before abortion was legalized (as one ob-gyn who was around in those days told the LA Times, coat hangers were only one tool that was used: others included ‘knitting needles and radiator flush’). But people who had added this venerable symbol to their profiles were told off for promoting something so gruesome, stigmatising, outdated and inaccurate. Did they want women to think that the life-endangering coat hanger was their only recourse, when they could and should be using mifepristone and misoprostol? As one commentator observed, ‘a five-pack of pills may not be as striking as the coat hanger, but it’s a far safer and more accurate image to promote’. 

If this kind of thing bothers me, it’s not because I don’t think our communicative choices are a legitimate topic of discussion. I certainly have views on them: I do try to avoid ‘pro-life’ (I prefer ‘anti-abortion’), and for reasons which I’ve discussed in a previous post, I think it’s important to use the word ‘women’ in relation to attacks on reproductive rights (though I also think that in many contexts it should be ‘women and’). But while discussing the implications of your linguistic choices may be a good feminist practice (one that’s helped me clarify my thoughts on many occasions, and has sometimes changed my views more radically), ultimately I don’t think any feminist can claim the authority to tell other feminists what they’re ‘not allowed to say’.

One problem with this kind of policing is that it often owes more to the latest viral hot take than to any deep understanding of the way language and communication work. Consider, for instance, the criticism that the coat hanger image is outdated and inaccurate, and should be replaced, in the interests of accuracy and up-to-dateness, by an image of a pack of pills. This argument implies that the image makes a quasi-factual statement–something like ‘this is what people use to perform illegal abortions’. But of course, that’s not what it does: the coat hanger is a symbol, standing in for the general idea of illegal and unsafe abortion (regardless of the method used). It was chosen for that purpose because it’s gruesome. And symbols like this don’t become ‘outdated’ as times change, they just acquire new layers of meaning. In this case, the combination of the coat hanger’s gruesomeness and its association with the era before Roe vs Wade enables it to convey a point which was made by the dissenting Justices Kagan, Sotomayor and Breyer–that the Supreme Court’s decision takes us back to a less enlightened age. Today’s young women have fewer rights than their grandmothers, and will be forced to fight the same battle an earlier generation fought. The hanger can convey this complex set of meanings because of its history as a political symbol; they would not be conveyed by an image of a pack of pills.

Another problem with this genre of criticism is that it comes across as one-upping and/or talking down. The person who tells you not to use the coat hanger image because it’s ‘inaccurate’ is never saying she herself would mistake it for literal information on what to do to end a pregnancy: she’s always worried about the potential for some other, less smart or less well-informed woman to misinterpret it. She’s also implicitly claiming the moral high ground (‘I care more than you do about those less privileged than myself’)—a move I might find less annoyingly smug if I thought her concerns were justified. Of course, not all the women who might need abortion drugs will know about them (or how to get them without risking arrest): disseminating that information will be an important political task. But it can surely be done without suggesting that some women are too stupid to recognize a political symbol when they see one.  

I’ve been talking about specific examples, but what really troubles me is the strength and pervasiveness of the general phenomenon. Why, in a political emergency, did so many feminists choose to engage in self-righteous point-scoring about words and symbols? And how can this obsession with political and linguistic purity be anything but an obstacle to the concerted action an emergency demands? It’s dividing feminists when they need to stand together (and on an issue where there’s actually a high degree of unity), and deterring others from getting involved (most people are reluctant to speak up if they fear being scolded or shamed for using the wrong words). At times, scrolling through what feels like an endless stream of disapproving comments, I’ve found myself wondering what kind of political messaging (if any) some of these online critics would find acceptable, and whether they have any interest in actually winning political battles.

Too many recent feminist campaigns have been plagued by disputes about ‘problematic’ symbols, from the wearing of the pink pussy hat on women’s marches against Trump to the use of the coat hanger symbol and imagery from The Handmaid’s Tale in protests against the Supreme Court decision. Almost any symbol that ‘works’, in the sense that large numbers of people recognise it, understand it and feel a connection to it, will sooner or later be denounced for being exclusionary, or stigmatising, or appropriating someone else’s historical suffering–in short, for not being ‘pure’. But that kind of purity is an impossible dream, and the quest for it can derail our politics. Though in progressive circles it’s a truism that language matters, there are times when other things are more important.

A tale of two politicians

This week I’ve been thinking about two women politicians who have featured prominently in recent news stories. One is Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far-Right Rassemblement National, who faced Emmanuel Macron—and lost to him—in the second round of the Presidential election last Sunday. The other is Angela Rayner, the Deputy leader of Britain’s Labour Party, who became the subject of a story alleging that she was in the habit of deliberately crossing and uncrossing her legs (like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct) to put Boris Johnson off his stride during their occasional encounters at the weekly Parliamentary ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions.

These were obviously different kinds of stories—one about a real and serious political event, the other a piece of media-confected froth—about two politicians who have little in common beyond their sex. But both tell us something about the situation of women in politics. Regardless of who she is and what she stands for, a female politician’s sex is (still) an issue in ways a man’s is not. She may be able to use this to her own advantage, or it may be used against her by her political opponents, but either way it will be an element of the discourse that she is in some way obliged to negotiate.

I don’t think Le Pen’s failure to become France’s first female President had much, if anything, to do with her femaleness. But I do think her campaign—the most successful of her career so far—showed her awareness of what it takes for a woman leader to be electable. It also underlined a paradox that has often been commented on–that this may actually be easier for women on the Right of the political spectrum. Though conservatives (with a small as well as a large C) have a general problem with female authority, centuries of patriarchy have produced a set of cultural archetypes through which it can be made acceptable—most notably the ‘Iron Lady’ and the fiercely protective Mother, personae which are more appealing to right-wing authoritarians than they are to feminists and other progressive types.

Le Pen seems to have made a conscious effort to exploit that appeal. Her campaign posters drew attention to her sex by calling her ‘Femme d’état’ (‘stateswoman’), and shortly before the final vote she declared to the voters of Saint-Rémy-sur-Avre (and more importantly, the French media) that she would ‘lead France like the mother of a family, with common sense [and] consistency’. In line with this pledge, her campaign had emphasised cost of living issues and their effect on ordinary families (something that also worked well for Margaret Thatcher, who was fond of comparing the UK economy to a household budget). Of course, Le Pen isn’t really an ordinary housewife and mother; the point is rather that as a woman of a certain age and social type she can plausibly adopt that persona when it suits her. Whereas ‘femme d’état’ invites direct comparison with Macron, ‘mère de famille’ lays claim to qualities he would never be suspected of possessing.

Superficial or cynical as all this may sound, opinion polls suggested it made some difference: many people found the 2022 Le Pen less aggressive and more ‘relatable’ than the 2017 version. Le Pen still didn’t win, but she showed how a female candidate can control the narrative around her femaleness by choosing her own gendered persona from the limited selection on offer and then performing it consistently. This is something women on the Left are often more reluctant to do, both because they believe their sex shouldn’t be an issue and because they’re uncomfortable with the traditional archetypes. But refusing to play the woman card carries the risk that your opponents and/or the media will do it for you, and that you won’t be able to control the results.

That’s essentially what happened to Angela Rayner when the Mail On Sunday (with the assistance and encouragement of Conservative politicians) chose to identify her with another familiar archetype of female power: the Seductress who uses her sexual allure to manipulate men and bend them to her will. Investigations have since suggested that Rayner herself may have been the original source for the Basic Instinct comparison: several witnesses claim she joked about flashing Boris Johnson in an informal exchange among smokers on the terrace of the House of Commons. But she presumably didn’t intend the joke to become a national news story. Once that happened she was forced onto the defensive, describing it as a ‘perverted, desperate smear’.

It did smack of desperation, not least because it wasn’t clear how Boris Johnson benefited from a story which implied that a woman crossing her legs in his vicinity rendered him instantly incapable of thinking about anything else. Didn’t that just reinforce the already widespread perception of him as both easily distracted and an incorrigible lecher? And did it not risk making Rayner look like the better politician, skilfully exploiting her opponent’s known weaknesses?  Well, maybe, but then again no. When a woman is accused of using her sex for political, professional or financial advantage it is always a putdown—a re-statement of the ancient patriarchal principle that women are only good for one thing, and that they use that thing as a weapon because it’s the only kind of firepower they can muster. As one Tory MP told the Mail On Sunday:

She knows she can’t compete with Boris’s Oxford Union debating training, but she has other skills which he lacks.

This snide comment targets Rayner’s class origins as well as her sex: it’s a thinly-veiled way of saying that girls who went to northern comprehensives (and in Rayner’s case left school at 16) can’t cope with the rhetorical demands of a high-profile role in the House of Commons, so they compensate by acting like the slags they are. A similar tactic was used by the right-wing press during the 2015 General Election campaign in an effort to undermine another female politician with working-class roots—the SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. In her case it would have been hard to argue that she couldn’t match the boys’ debating skills, since it was her impressive performance in the TV election debates that had got the Tories rattled; but their media pals still devoted considerable energy to portraying her, verbally and visually, as the archetypal Seductress, or her low-rent sister the Slag.    

Ironically, the accusation ‘she uses her sex because it’s the only weapon she’s got’ is most often resorted to when it’s the only weapon the accuser’s got: faced with a female opponent who is as smart and as skilled as he is, he reaches for a crude sexist insult in the hope she will be humiliated (and depressingly, this tactic has a good chance of working, since there are few women for whom it doesn’t reopen old wounds or play on persistent insecurities). But it’s still remarkable that anyone can get away with deploying the ‘she doesn’t have his rhetorical skills’ argument about, of all people, Boris Johnson. Mail readers may have forgotten some of Johnson’s earlier triumphs of oratory—like the time he called Jeremy Corbyn a ‘big girl’s blouse’—but how could anyone forget the much more recent occasion when he treated the UK’s business leaders to several minutes of waffle about Peppa Pig? It’s hard to imagine a less convincing advertisement for the benefits of an ‘Oxford Union debating training’, but (as so often in matters of language) prejudice apparently still trumps evidence.

The Mail on Sunday story was froth, but while we were all busy frothing about it, another story was blowing up. It had broadly the same theme—sexual (mis)behaviour in Parliament—but in this story the offenders were not women like Angela Rayner, but men like the Tory MP Neil Parish, who had been seen in the debating chamber watching porn on his phone. (He has since resigned, calling the incident ‘a moment of madness’.) The Tories, however, are not alone here. Currently, no fewer than 56 MPs (including representatives of all the main parties) are being investigated following complaints of sexual harassment. Assuming that all or nearly all of these alleged harassers are men, that’s roughly one in every eight male members. These numbers suggest a pervasive culture problem—both a specific problem with the institutional culture of Westminster and a more general problem with Britain’s political culture.

The Angela Rayner story is part of that problem. Though it wasn’t intended to distract us from the ongoing scandal of sexual harassment at Westminster (more likely it was meant to distract us from Partygate and other scandals involving Boris Johnson), what links it to the issue of harassment is the use of sexualised language and behaviour to put women (back) in their place. Whether this is done by harassing them or, as in Rayner’s case, by accusing them of distracting men, the message to women is clear: ‘don’t delude yourself that we think of you as equals: we haven’t forgotten—and won’t let you forget–that sex is what you are and what you’re for’.

It may not be a coincidence that this message has become more strident as the number of women at Westminster has increased. They now make up 35% of all MPs, which is just above the proportion some political theorists have defined as a ‘critical mass’, meaning that women are present in sufficient numbers to make a difference to the overall culture. What proponents of this theory envisaged was a positive cultural shift, but what we are seeing in this case looks more like a backlash: women are now a large enough minority to be seen by some men as a threat to their dominance. On the positive side, though, however, women are pushing back against unacceptable male behaviour. When forty of them met last week to discuss their concerns with the Chief Whip, reports described them as ‘on the brink of mutiny’. They expressed anger not only about the Rayner story and the porn-watching MP (who at the time had not yet been named), but also about the lower-level sexism they experienced on a daily basis: the gratuitous comments on their clothes and appearance, the sniggering from male colleagues when they spoke in debates, the whips who routinely referred to them as ‘girls’.  

I find it interesting that Conservative women have been so vocal on this issue. Not all of them, of course: some of them are handmaids who can always be counted on to defend the indefensible, but others, including senior women like Caroline Nokes, Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May, have been highly critical of the ‘laddish’ turn they feel the party has taken under Johnson. Maybe this is another situation where women of the Right have some advantages over their Leftist sisters. Conservative women don’t, on the whole, aspire to be ‘cool girls’, or to be seen as ‘one of the lads’; they feel no need to display their sex-positive credentials by being relaxed about pornography in the workplace. If a Guardian columnist calls them pearl-clutching prudes, it’s water off a duck’s back: the constituents who elected them don’t care what Owen Jones thinks.

Labour women, on the other hand—especially those who, like Angela Rayner, are seen as high-fliers and potential future leaders—do have to care, and arguably that makes it more complicated for them to address their own party’s lad culture problem. When the question of Rayner’s role in the creation of the Mail story surfaced, she explained the reports of her ‘laughing and joking’ by pointing out that women confronted with sexism often go along with it to save face, though in reality they’re mortified and disgusted. Many women (me included) will recognise this account of their behaviour–though if it’s true that Rayner joked about her ‘ginger growler’ that sounds more like actively engaging in laddish banter than just passively going along with it. But if you’re serious about challenging sexism, don’t you at some point have to say enough is enough, even if it makes you unpopular?        

Women who worry about the consequences of challenging sexism are not wrong to fear the backlash, but they shouldn’t think appeasement will protect them either. No successful female politician of any party can entirely escape from sexism and misogyny, because the issue isn’t how she behaves, it’s simply that she’s a woman trespassing on what (some) men still consider their turf. Those men will always resent her, and will relieve their feelings by doing and saying things which are meant to remind her where she really belongs. That’s why cartoonists represented Theresa May as a stiletto-heeled dominatrix, and Marine Le Pen has been depicted as a streetwalker in fishnets taking money from Vladimir Putin. But at least the Le Pens of the world can cast themselves in other roles, like the matriarch or the resourceful housewife. I understand why women on the Left reject those female archetypes, but one of the lessons we could learn from this week’s events is that they urgently need to find alternatives.  

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.

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.

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.  

Fighting words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not unprecedented: 2020

No one, you might think, needs an end-of-year round-up to tell them what 2020 was all about. The word-watchers of the English-speaking world all chose pandemic-related terms as their Words of the Year: Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com selected ‘pandemic’ itself, while the American Dialect Society voted for ‘Covid’ and Collins went for ‘lockdown’. Oxford offered not one word but a whole glossary, including ‘coronavirus’, ‘furlough’, ‘superspreader’ and ‘PPE’—an unusual move for a year which they described, using another word that turned up on several WOTY shortlists, as ‘unprecedented’.

But here at Language: a feminist guide it was a rather different story. Of course the pandemic was omnipresent, and I did write a couple of posts that were specifically about it. But most of the language controversies that caught my eye this year were very much not unprecedented.

Many of them were variations on the old and familiar theme of disrespect for women, especially but not only women in positions of authority. Back in February, in the most-read post I published this year, I analysed a particular form of this gendered disrespect, the ‘gentlemanly sexism’ directed by her colleagues towards Lady Brenda Hale, the now-retired President of the Supreme Court. Gentlemanly sexism is—or appears to be—polite, measured and reasonable, but it conceals a deep resentment of women who are too clever, too outspoken and too critical of the arrangements that make the gentlemen’s power seem natural and benign.

That resentment may also be in evidence when powerful men tell women who challenge them to ‘watch their tone’, as the Health Secretary Matt Hancock did in June to the junior shadow health minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan. This tone-criticism is a defensive move, often employed as a distraction when a politician has no substantive answer to the question being posed; in this case it served only to make Matt Hancock look like what he is—over-promoted and out of his depth.  But the 2020 award for self-defeating abuse of a female political opponent should probably go to Rep. Ted Yoho, who called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a bitch outside the Capitol in July, and so provided her with a golden opportunity to demonstrate her own political and rhetorical skills with a hard-hitting speech about sexism to the House.

As the US presidential election campaign hotted up, I turned my attention to another familiar form of gendered disrespect, the interruption of women by men, and the far more punitive treatment of women who interrupt men. Joe Biden’s running-mate Sen. Kamala Harris was very familiar with this double standard: when she questioned former Attorney-General Jeff Sessions in 2017 she was sanctioned by the Chair for her ‘aggressive’ interruptions. In her Vice-Presidential debate with Mike Pence in October it was apparent that she had learned from this experience: she was at pains to present herself as civil and approachable, while also resisting Pence’s attempts to take the floor from her. It was (IMHO) a skilful performance, but it did not prevent her from being criticised as (in one commentator’s words) ‘an insufferable smug power-hungry bitch’.

Another phenomenon Harris encountered during the campaign (and indeed during her debate with Pence, though she waved the moderator’s apology away) was being addressed and referred to as ‘Kamala’ (sometimes mispronounced, or as one Twitter commentator felicitously put it, ‘dispronounced’—i.e., it was deliberate disrespect rather than an ‘innocent’ mistake) when her opponent was ‘Vice-President Pence’. The de-titling of women is a common pattern, but in politics it isn’t always self-evidently an insult. Being known familiarly by a first name or a nickname can sometimes work to a politician’s advantage (think of ‘Maggie’, ‘Boris’, or ‘Bernie’). Outside politics, however, the withholding of women’s titles usually does imply a lack of regard for their authority, status or expertise.

This point was illustrated in December by an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal urging Jill Biden to stop using the professional/academic title ‘Dr’, which according to the 83-year old male writer sounded ‘fraudulent’. Though Biden has made clear that she is not planning to be a traditional, fulltime First Lady, she was clearly being told to get back in her ‘wife of’ box. This year we’ve also seen a series of cases where women scientists, doctors and other healthcare professionals were first-named in media interviews and captions, while the male experts who appeared beside them were ‘doctor’ and ‘professor’. Women who complain about this are often accused—sometimes even by feminists—of being petty and self-regarding: in my post about it I explained why I don’t think that’s the right response.    

You might be thinking: but what about all those articles we read this year which praised women political leaders for the way they were managing the Covid crisis? Didn’t that prove that female authority was finally getting some respect? I did write about this trend, taking the view that a lot of the commentary t was patronising, essentialist fluff. It lumped all kinds of women together (passing swiftly over those who were doing a terrible job, like some US state governors) and praised them in stereotypical terms for their empathy, their rapport with children, and their supposedly natural communication skills. It also glossed over the point that the worst pandemic leaders weren’t just any old men, they were right-wing populist mavericks like Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson, men who couldn’t, at the best of times, manage their way out of a paper bag.

But in any case, it’s not just women in authority who suffer from the gender respect gap. This year I also wrote about the way girls and young women are treated in educational settings—both in universities, where so-called ‘lad culture’ continues to inspire much hand-wringing and little useful action, and in schools, where the verbal and other harassment of girls by boys has prompted a series of reports suggesting that Something Must Be Done, but somehow nothing ever happens because, as one pupil quoted in the latest report remarked, ‘nobody thinks it’s a big deal’. To my mind it’s a very big deal, one of the most important issues we as feminists need to address: we cannot create a culture of equality and respect if we teach our children from the age of 5—not explicitly but implicitly, through the everyday experience of going to school—that boys’ freedom to do and say what they like matters more than girls’ freedom to live and learn without harassment.

Finally on the subject of respect and its absence, in April I published my second most-read post of the year, about the disrespect to which women are routinely subjected as they age out of the category of desirable and compliant sexual objects. It’s been a terrible year for ageism in general–even as I write, I can see the Usual Suspects on Twitter are back on their ‘why not just let the over-60s die so the rest of us can get back to normal’ bullshit–but the way ageism interacts with sexism (and ageist language with sexist language) tells us a lot about what’s valued, and what isn’t, in women of every age.

Another recurring-and-by-no-means-unprecedented theme of the posts I published in 2020 was violence against women, the stories that are commonly told about it and the linguistic formulas that pop up repeatedly in those stories. In January I criticised the BBC’s coverage of two high-profile rape cases; in July I took a closer look at how the press reports physical assaults on women, and at the use of the cliché ‘an isolated incident’ in cases where women are killed by men. Though posts on this topic are never popular, I’ll go on using this blog to criticise the misleading and harmful narratives peddled by the media. They’re not the root cause of male violence, but they do play a major part in shaping most people’s understanding of it, and that in turn plays a part in licensing our present, patently inadequate response to it.

But I didn’t spend all my time accentuating the negative. One of my own favourite posts of 2020, inspired by Jonathon Green’s Sounds and Furies, a history of women and slang, celebrated the linguistic creativity of fishwives, fast young ladies, flappers, fictional schoolgirls, Valley Girls et al. I also had fun writing about that hardy perennial, gender and colour terms, aka ‘Why Real Men Don’t Know Lavender From Mauve’. And I was glad to be able to bring one of last year’s stories—about the campaign to change the entry for ‘woman’ in the Oxford Dictionary—up to date (a revised entry was published in November).

Meanwhile, as the year wore on, I began to suspect that the pandemic was having at least one unexpectedly positive effect–reducing volume of bullshit advice on how women should or shouldn’t speak. Apart from a brief flurry of corporate nonsense on International Women’s Day, we heard relatively little this year from the purveyors of ’empowering’ top tips. On the minus side, this may be only because they’d found a new outlet for their finger-wagging: instead of banging on about ‘just’ and ‘sorry’ they were busy telling women how to look ‘professional’ on Zoom (wear make-up, get a ring light, and make sure your home workspace contains no domestic clutter, whether it’s a pile of laundry or a stray child). Which is also irritatingly sexist, of course, but happily it falls outside this blog’s remit.

There were other subjects which I did feel moved to write about, and even started writing about, but then abandoned for lack of time (both work and basic life-admin take much longer in a pandemic). But I expect I’ll have opportunities to return to them in future: even in ‘unprecedented’ times, the basic problems faced by women tend to stick around. Meanwhile, as always, my thanks and good wishes to everyone who stuck around to read this blog in 2020.

Inclusion beyond English

Last month, somewhat unusually, the English-language media acknowledged that debates on inclusive language are not confined to the English-speaking world. What caught their attention was a story from Germany, where the Interior Ministry had rejected a Bill drafted by the Ministry of Justice. The Bill dealt with insolvency, and made reference to various categories of people including employees, landlords, consumers and debtors. But instead of using masculine forms like ‘Verbraucher’ (consumer) and ‘Schuldner’ (debtor), the draft used the feminine forms ‘Verbraucherin’ and ‘Schuldnerin’. As the New York Times helpfully explained, it was as if the author of an English legal document had used ‘actresses’ to mean ‘actors and actresses’.

The proverbial Martian visitor might wonder why that was a problem. ‘Verbraucherin’ does literally include ‘Verbraucher’, whereas the reverse is not the case (the same is true of many English feminine forms—for instance, ‘shepherdess’ includes ‘shepherd’ and ‘hostess’ includes ‘host’). But humans know the rule is the opposite. In German as in English, ‘actors’ can be used to mean thespians in general, but ‘actresses’ refers exclusively to female members of the profession.

That asymmetry was what bothered the Interior minister Horst Seehofer. He was concerned that the law as drafted might only apply to women, making it unworkable and potentially unconstitutional. Eventually the Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht capitulated, and the Bill was rewritten using the conventional, masculine forms. A spokesperson explained that this had been done to solve a linguistic problem, and was not intended to make a political statement:

The generic feminine for use for male and female people has not yet been linguistically recognized. This applies completely independently of whether a certain social state is desired.

Yet disagreements about the wording of the law were rather obviously political. Support for the use of feminine forms came from left-of-centre politicians like Christine Lambrecht, a Social Democrat, and the Green Party, while opposition came from those on the right, like Horst Seehofen of the Christian Social Union and the extreme right AfD (Alternativ für Deutschland). This is not and never has been a purely linguistic debate, either in Germany or anywhere else.

In Britain, the principle that masculine terms should be interpreted inclusively for legal purposes was formalised in 1850, when Parliament passed an Act of Interpretation stating that ‘Words importing the Masculine Gender shall be deemed and taken to include Females…unless the contrary is expressly provided’. But in practice, as Dennis Baron recounts in his book What’s Your Pronoun? this provision was not applied consistently.

In 1868 the Representation of the People Act superseded an earlier statute which had specified that only a ‘male person’ could register to vote. The new law replaced ‘male person’ with ‘man’, prompting questions about whether it might be ‘taken to include Females’. But when some women put that to the test, the judge unhesitatingly ruled against them, saying

There is no doubt that in many statutes “men” may properly be held to include women, whilst in others it would be ridiculous to suppose that the word was used in any other sense than as designating the male sex.

To the judge it was obvious that ‘man’, in a statute dealing with voting rights, could only have the sex-specific meaning ‘male person’. Yet if ‘man’ appeared in a statute dealing with taxation or crime, it would be just as obvious that the law applied to women too. This difference had nothing to do with grammar, and everything to do with ‘whether a certain social state was desired’.

But in any case, declaring the masculine inclusive by fiat does not, for most language-users, make it so. I once taught a student who recalled that as a child she had been puzzled by the saying ‘a dog is man’s best friend’. Did ‘man’ mean a human, or did it mean, well, a man? Eventually she asked her teacher, who said it meant a human. But she remained unconvinced: even after this conversation, what came into her mind whenever she thought of the saying was an image of a male person with a dog. Numerous experiments have shown that this is typical: supposedly generic or inclusive masculine forms are commonly interpreted as sex-specific.

By the time the student told this story (the late 1980s), many mainstream linguistic authorities—teachers, editors, handbook and style guide writers—had accepted that this was a problem. For English, the solution most of them advocated was a shift to ‘gender neutral’ language. Writers were advised to avoid ‘man’ words by substituting genderless terms (e.g. ‘chair(person)’ for ‘chairman’ and ‘humanity’ for ‘mankind’), and to get around the generic ‘he’ problem by recasting sentences in the plural (e.g. ‘readers must judge for themselves’ rather than ‘the reader must judge for himself’).

I have pointed out before that merely using formally neutral terms does not guarantee that women will be included. But in English, a language whose modern form makes very little use of gender-marking, it is not difficult to produce at least the surface appearance of inclusiveness. In German, by contrast, and many other languages (e.g. French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Polish, Hebrew, Hindi) the same strategies will not work. When all nouns have a gender, and when gender must also be marked on the adjectives and articles (and in some languages, verbs) that go with them, you can’t easily avoid the issue.

In these languages, the approach feminists have mostly favoured is not gender neutralisation, as in English, but gender specification (also sometimes called ‘feminisation’ or ‘the visibility strategy’)—using feminine forms alongside masculine ones so that women are explicitly included. One way of doing this is by ‘doubling’, conjoining the two forms with ‘and’, as in the German phrase ‘Studenten und Studentinnen’ (‘students (masc.) and students (fem.)’). In writing an alternative strategy is ‘splitting’, using typographical devices like slashes (‘Student/Innen’) and parentheses (‘Student(inn)en’) to avoid repeating whole words.

Different devices have been favoured in different languages. In Spanish, for instance, doubled forms like ‘amigos y amigas’ (‘friends (masc.) and friends (fem.)’) have sometimes been replaced with the split form ‘amig@s’, since the @ looks like a combination of -o and -a. More recently, as the concept of gender inclusivity has broadened to encompass people who identify as neither men nor women, some writers have adopted the form ‘amigxs’, where X signifies ‘all genders and none’.

In French there are numerous options. One currently much-discussed splitting device is the ‘point médian’, a centrally-positioned dot, as in ‘les étudiant·e·s’ (‘students’), which is sometimes treated as the defining feature of ‘écriture inclusive’ (‘inclusive writing’). But in fact it’s only the latest in a series of conventions which have been used for the same purpose over the years, and which in many cases are still being used: they include parentheses (‘étudiant(e)s’), hyphens (‘étudiant-e-s’), and the ‘point’ (full stop, period) in its normal position (‘étudiant.e.s’). Doubled forms are also possible (‘étudiantes et étudiants’)—some writers order the forms alphabetically while others make a habit of putting the feminine first.

Neighbourhood bar: notice addressing customers (‘client(es)’)

These inclusive writing strategies are more ‘in your face’ than the neutral terms favoured in English, but they’re intended to address the same concerns about male bias. You may have heard that grammatical gender languages are different, and that the gender of a noun in French or German is just an arbitrary formal feature; but if the noun denotes a person or group of people that argument does not stand up. Experiments with speakers of grammatical gender languages have demonstrated the same effect as in English: masculine forms of nouns which refer to people tend to evoke mental images of males.

There’s also evidence that inclusive writing makes a difference. For instance, studies done with children and adolescents have found that if you present them with a grammatically masculine occupational term they will say that men are more likely to succeed in that occupation, but if you present them with paired masculine and feminine terms the male bias is significantly reduced. It isn’t always reduced to zero, because judgments in this area are also influenced by cultural stereotypes. But research suggests that linguistic gender marking can strengthen or weaken our preconceptions.

Facebook post using inclusive split form with full stops: ‘premier.e arrivé.e premier.e servi.e’ (‘first come, first served’ ).

Nevertheless, inclusive writing provokes resistance. If you follow these matters you may be aware that the Académie Française opposes any deviation from the traditional rules. The same is true of its Spanish counterpart, and of most language academies which have had occasion to consider the question. But you may not know that opposing écriture inclusive has become a pet cause of the French political right.

I found this out a few weeks ago, when I was asked to sign a letter responding to a group of language scholars who had denounced inclusive writing. When I asked a friend to explain the context—who were these scholars, and why had they chosen this moment to attack?—she told me they were aligned with the right, and pointed me to the text of a proposed law which some right-wing deputies (including the Front National leader Marine Le Pen) had put before the French National Assembly. This proposal seeks to prohibit the use of écriture inclusive by anyone in receipt of public funds–which would include, among others, academics and school teachers, since they are public employees.

France is not the only place where far right politicians have taken up this cause. In Brazil, following the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, the new right-wing government took action to outlaw any future use of the title she had used while in office—she had styled herself ‘Presidenta’ (fem.) rather than ‘Presidente’ (which in traditional standard Portuguese has no feminine form). And in 2015 a high school teacher’s use of the inclusive form ‘alunxs’ (‘pupils’) sparked a media firestorm in which X-forms were said to promote a ‘gay marxist agenda’.

It’s true, of course, that conservatives have always resisted progressive efforts to change language. But the people I’ve just been talking about are not really conservatives: rather they belong to the radical right, which is populist, nationalist, racist and in some cases outright fascist. On the face of things it isn’t obvious why they would care so much about the arcane details of inclusive language. But in fact it’s an excellent target for their purposes—something they can use to whip up outrage about a whole range of ‘culture war’ issues.

In some places (Brazil is an example) hostility to inclusive language is linked to the recent obsession of both the Catholic Church and right-wing evangelical protestant groups with what they call ‘gender ideology’ or ‘gender theory’, meaning both feminism of a fairly traditional sort (the sort that demands equality and reproductive rights for women) and the newer politics of gender identity. Inclusive language makes a convenient target because it directly symbolises what the religious right objects to: feminised titles like ‘Presidenta’ symbolically reject the supposedly God-given precedence of the male/masculine over the female/feminine, while ‘alunxs’ rejects binary gender distinctions entirely.

In other places the targeting of inclusive language has more to do with nationalism and populism. The preamble to the proposed French law, for instance, declares that ‘the French language is a fundamental element of the character and heritage of France’, and reminds readers that in 1539 François I decreed that French should be the language of law and administration. The relevance of this detail is obscure, since there is no reason why French should not continue to fulfil its historic functions while also being written more inclusively. It’s just a nationalist dogwhistle, framing écriture inclusive as a threat to the status of French and therefore France.

Attacking inclusive language also allows you to take pot-shots at one of the new populists’ favourite targets, ‘the elite’. By which they mean not themselves and their wealthy supporters, but rather the left-leaning intellectual and cultural elite made up of academics, media folk, literary writers and other luminaries of the arts. Associating inclusive language with these high-profile users allows populists to argue that it’s elitist and exclusionary, at best offputting and at worst incomprehensible to people outside the charmed circle.

The elitism issue is one I take seriously. You can’t build a socially diverse mass movement if your language is so abstruse people need a degree in gender studies to decode it. But I don’t think it follows that you should just stick to the language most people are familiar and therefore comfortable with. If that language is male biased, there’s a good feminist argument that you should try to change it for everyone. If that’s your aim, however, a degree of elitism, or ‘vanguardism’, may be unavoidable. The kinds of changes feminists advocate tend to be adopted first by people with a strong ideological commitment to them—a group in which highly educated people are probably overrepresented. But where they lead, others will eventually follow.

I am old enough to remember when English gender-neutral terms like ‘chair’ (for ‘chairman’), ‘police officer’ (not ‘policeman’) and even ‘head teacher’ (rather than ‘headmaster/mistress’) were derided as clumsy, unnatural and ‘politically correct’; today they are unremarkable. Similarly, the photos in this post show French écriture inclusive being used by ordinary people in everyday informal contexts. The fact that an innovation initially encounters resistance does not mean it will never be accepted, and the fact that it started in an elite group does not mean it is inherently ‘elitist’.

The conclusion I draw from the evidence we have is that the benefits of inclusive writing in languages like French and German outweigh the disadvantages. The main disadvantage is aesthetic: doubling and splitting are obtrusive strategies which some find ugly or cumbersome (though so far, research has not supported the claim that they make reading slower and more effortful: it has found that people adjust to them very quickly). It’s also true that they don’t all transfer to the spoken language; but inclusive language norms have always been primarily designed for writing, and particularly for writing institutional documents (like job ads) where inclusiveness may be a legal requirement.

It’s hard to ignore the evidence that in practice the so-called generic masculine is understood as simply masculine. If inclusive writing can counteract that bias (and there’s some evidence it can), that’s surely a strong argument in its favour. And as an added bonus, by embracing inclusive language you can annoy pedants, conservatives, religious fundamentalists, populists, nationalists and fascists.

Many thanks to Heather Burnett, who contributed not only information and insights from her research, but also the photographs reproduced in this post. Merci! For information on Brazil I’m indebted to Rodrigo Borba. Obrigada! As ever, the opinions are mine and so are any errors.

When Kamala met Mike

Note: all extracts reproduced in this post are taken from the full debate transcript published by USA Today

PAGE: Kamala Harris – Senator Harris, I mean. I’m sorry. 

HARRIS: It’s fine. I’m Kamala.

PAGE: No, no, you’re Senator Harris to me. 

About 14 minutes into last week’s Vice-Presidential debate, the moderator Susan Page apologised for calling the Democratic challenger ‘Kamala Harris’ (first name + last name) rather than ‘Senator Harris’ (title + last name). Harris reassured her: ‘It’s fine. I’m Kamala’. Page (who was herself addressed as ‘Susan’ by both candidates) responded that it wasn’t fine: her role in this formal setting required her both to observe the proper courtesies and to treat the two candidates equally. At no point had she addressed or referred to Harris’s opponent as ‘Mike Pence’. He was always ‘Vice-President Pence’.

Many feminists would agree that it’s not OK to call Harris by her first name while giving Pence a formal title—nor for the media to refer to the two of them in shorthand as ‘Kamala’ and ‘Pence’. I’ve pointed out before that the first-naming and/or de-titling of women in public contexts, when comparable men get last name + title, is a common phenomenon—it’s one manifestation of the ‘gender respect gap’. But as I’ve also pointed out, it’s a bit of a minefield for women with progressive/egalitarian politics. You may recognise the first-naming of women (see also children, domestic servants, and in Jim Crow America, Black people) as a putdown, a case of the familiarity that implies contempt, but you still don’t want to be seen as a self-aggrandising bully insisting that everyone should defer to your exalted status, or as so insecure that you have to stand on ceremony at all times. Was that what prompted Harris’s ‘it’s fine, I’m Kamala’?

In this case there may have been more to it. Like most things we do with language, first-naming takes on different meanings in different contexts. In political contexts, a gesture implying that you don’t stand on ceremony or demand automatic deference from others can signify qualities which many voters regard as virtues—it says you’re authentic, down-to-earth, a woman or man of the people rather than an establishment type motivated purely by personal ambition. Maybe Harris was exploiting that symbolism.

If she was, she wouldn’t be the only woman to do so. In New York City a campaign has just been launched by the Black lawyer and media commentator Maya Wiley using the slogan ‘Maya for Mayor’.  In her campaign video Wiley makes much of her non-establishment credentials: ‘Some will say I don’t sound like past mayors or look like them or think like them, and I say yes, I don’t — that is the point’. Referring to herself as ‘Maya’ underlines that point. Though it’s also true that her name is particularly well suited to the purpose: if you were called Maya and you were hoping to be elected mayor, why wouldn’t your campaign slogan be ‘Maya for Mayor’?

This brings us neatly to an observation made by several people on Twitter, that when we’re talking about the naming of politicians and other public figures, sexism, or indeed sex, is not the only variable in the equation. The media’s preference for ‘Kamala’ over ‘Harris’—but at the same time, for ‘Pence’ rather than ‘Mike’—is also a preference for more over less distinctive names. Mikes (but not Pences) are a dime a dozen; conversely, Kamalas (in the US) are much rarer than people whose last name is Harris.

The distinctiveness principle predicts that there will be a greater tendency to first-name women, because historically women’s given names have been more variable, and thus more likely to be distinctive, than men’s; but it doesn’t apply exclusively to women. It also explains (at least in part) why the current British Prime Minister is so frequently referred to as ‘Boris’—a very unusual name for a white British man—rather than by his more commonplace last name ‘Johnson’.

I say ‘at least in part’ because in Johnson’s case the first-naming also reflects his carefully-cultivated image as an unconventional politician with a larger-than-life personality. But male politicians whose given names are less distinctive have often tried to get some of the positive effects associated with first-naming (sounding more authentic and down-to-earth, or less patrician) by using nicknames or diminutive forms alongside their last names: see ‘Bobby’ Kennedy, ‘Bill’ Clinton and for that matter ‘Joe’ Biden—and on the other side of the US party line, ‘Dick’ Nixon and indeed ‘Mike’ Pence.  

All in all, then, I don’t think feminists need to get too wound up about the first-naming of Kamala Harris. Though there’s probably an element of knee-jerk sexism about it, in context it has other meanings too. In an era of populism, when elected politicians are judged at least as much on criteria relating to their personal authenticity as on criteria relating to their competence, being ‘Kamala’ may do more to help Harris than to hurt her.  

I feel similarly about some of the other features of the debate that prompted indignation on Harris’s behalf. For instance, it was noted that the moderator thanked Mike Pence more than 50 times, whereas she thanked Harris fewer than 30 times. On its own that sounds like more evidence of the respect gap. But when you look at the transcript you soon realise there’s another explanation. Susan Page consistently used the formula ‘thank you’ to fulfil the dual function of acknowledging a debater’s answer and telling them to stop talking because their time was up. She did this with both participants, but more with Pence because he went over his allotted speaking time more frequently. He also ignored more of Page’s interventions, which forced her to repeat herself.

Here’s an extract, from around 24 minutes in, where Page makes three separate attempts to bring Pence’s turn to a close before he finally yields the floor:

PENCE: Joe Biden, 47 years in public service, compared to President Donald Trump, who brought all of that experience four years ago– 

PAGE: Thank you – Thank you, Vice President –

PENCE: – and turned this economy around by cutting taxes, rolling back regulation, unleashing American energy-

PAGE: Thank you – Thank you, Vice President Pence –

PENCE: – fighting for free and fair trade, and all of that is on the line –

PAGE: Thank you, Vice President Pence –

PENCE: – if Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are in the White House.

In this short extract Page produces five ‘thank yous’ addressed to Pence, so it’s not surprising that the overall tally was over 50 (if anything it’s surprising it wasn’t higher).

But it isn’t just because of Page that ‘thank you’ appears so frequently in this transcript. Possibly in an attempt to avoid repeating the extraordinary incivility of the earlier Presidential debate between Trump and Biden, Pence and Harris engaged in repeated exchanges of polite thanks:

PENCE: Senator, I want to thank you and Joe Biden for your expressions and genuine concern. And I also want to congratulate you, as I did on that phone call, on the historic nature of your nomination.

HARRIS: Thank you

PENCE: Well, look, I respect the fact that Joe Biden spent 47 years in public life. I respect your public service as well. 

HARRIS: Thank you.

Both candidates were evidently determined to present at least the appearance of adherence to the rules of civil exchange, to the point where they almost seemed to be competing to see who could produce more politeness tokens. But in one much-commented on respect, Pence clearly deviated from those rules. As well as consistently ignoring the moderator’s instructions to stop talking, he repeatedly attempted to interrupt Harris.

Here’s an example from about half an hour in. Harris has just been invited to respond to Pence’s claim (made in his answer to a question about the economy) that if Biden becomes president he will raise ordinary citizens’ taxes. She says:

HARRIS: Well, I mean, I thought we saw enough of it in last week’s debate, but I think this is supposed to be a debate based on fact and truth. And the truth of the fact is, Joe Biden has been very clear. He will not raise taxes on anybody who makes less than $400,000 a year –

PENCE: He said he’s gonna appeal the Trump tax cuts –

HARRIS: Mr. Vice President I’m speaking.

PENCE: Well –

HARRIS: I’m speaking.

Harris deals with the interruptions using a strategy I discussed in an earlier post—what conversation analysts call ‘doing being interrupted’, i.e. explicitly calling attention to the fact that your speaking rights have been violated. She does this by saying, calmly (since as a woman, and more specifically as a woman of color, she has more to lose than a white man if she gets angry): ‘Mr Vice President I’m speaking….I’m speaking’. (If you want to judge her tone for yourself there’s a video clip of this section embedded in the transcript I linked to at the top of this post.) This is a dual-purpose strategy: even if it is not successful in enabling her to regain the floor immediately, she will still have made the point that Pence took it from her illegitimately. And if she’s canny, that will also help her to play a longer game.

The longer game turned out to be needed, because the initial ‘I’m speaking’ move did not immediately cause Pence to back down. Rather, he pressed his advantage:

PENCE: – it’d be important if you said the truth. Joe Biden said twice in the debate last week that he’s going to repeal the Trump tax cuts. That was tax cuts that gave the average working family $2,000 in a tax break every single year –

HARRIS: That is – That is absolutely not true –

PENCE: – Senator, that’s the math –

HARRIS: – that tax bill – 

PENCE:  Is he only gonna repeal part of the Trump tax cuts?

By getting drawn into this quickfire exchange Harris is letting Pence set the agenda, but it seems she recognises that, and returns to the procedural point that he has muscled in on her turn:  

HARRIS: If you don’t mind letting me finish –

PENCE: Please

HARRIS: We can then have a conversation. Okay?

PENCE: Please

HARRIS: Okay. [continues for 200 words]

At this point the moderator intervenes with one of her admonitory ‘thank yous’; but Harris uses the fact that she was interrupted to make a bid for more time:

PAGE: Thank you, Senator Harris –

HARRIS: – [Trump is in court right now] trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, which means that you will lose protections, if you have pre-existing conditions. And I just, this is very important, Susan 

PAGE: Yes, well we need to give – We need to give Vice President –

HARRIS: – and it’s just –  He interrupted me and I’d like to just finish, please

She goes on to deliver one of her more memorable lines of the night, ignoring further interjections from both Pence and Page:

HARRIS: If you have a pre-existing condition, heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, they’re coming for you.  If you love someone who has a pre existing condition –

PENCE: Nonsense

PAGE: Thank you – Thank you, Senator Harris –

PENCE: That’s nonsense

HARRIS: – they’re coming for you. If you are under the age of 26 on your parents’ coverage, they’re coming for you.

PAGE: Senator Harris, thank you.

HARRIS: You’re welcome

We can’t know if Mike Pence would have shown more respect for a male opponent’s speaking rights, or for the instructions given by a male moderator; but in the current state of US politics (which is even more polarised now than it was four years ago) I’m inclined to agree with those commentators who didn’t think Harris’s sex made much difference—that like his boss confronting Biden, Pence would have tried to steamroller whoever he’d been up against. And the fact is that she also used, albeit somewhat less frequently, strategies like cutting in to contradict him and ignoring instructions to stop speaking. Essentially the two of them played the same game by the same rules (making this encounter different from both Trump vs. Biden and Trump vs. Clinton in 2016). I don’t see much evidence that she was treated less favourably or less respectfully in the debate itself.

What happened after the debate, however, as pundits and the public assessed the two candidates’ performances, is a different story—one which shows, once again, that the biggest problem for women in politics is not how they themselves speak, or even how they are spoken to by their male colleagues, but how they are spoken about in the larger public sphere. The judgments made by commentators on the debate were transparently partisan: Trump supporters declared Pence the winner and Biden supporters insisted that Harris had outshone him. But where negative comments were made, they were clearly differentiated by sex, and in Harris’s case they drew from a bottomless well of sexist/misogynist stereotypes.

One commentator complained that ‘her reactions to Pence, which included smirking and smiling while he was answering most of the questions, were a turn off’ (this perhaps deserves some extra points for perversity, since men more commonly claim to be ‘turned off’ when women don’t smile). An Indian publication ran a piece with the predictably loaded title ‘Why is Kamala Harris so unlikable?’ which went on to say that she ‘reeked of condescension’ and had a ‘maniacal’ laugh (she does laugh, but ‘maniacal’ is quite a stretch–see the embedded clip I mentioned before). This writer also called her a ‘megalomaniac’, and in making that assessment he was far from alone. Harlan Hill, a commentator who has advised Donald Trump, and who tweeted during the debate that Harris was ‘a lying bitch’, said afterwards: ‘I stand by the statement that she’s an insufferable power-hungry smug bitch’.

This is really the crux of the matter. When two politicians are contesting the same position, it might seem logical to assume that they are equally ‘power-hungry’; but men are rarely described in those terms so long as they do not pursue power in extreme and extra-legal ways (e.g. plotting a coup or an assassination, as opposed to simply running for office). A woman, on the other hand, is ‘power-hungry’ (and therefore unlikable, a turn-off, an insufferable bitch, a megalomaniac) if she shows any disposition to seek any power at all. The desire for power, considered natural in men, is inherently incompatible with feminine modesty and submissiveness, and that is the standard women are judged against.

You do not have to be an admirer of Kamala Harris, or any other individual female politician, to understand this attitude as a fundamental obstacle to equality—one that cannot be overcome by exhorting women to speak differently, or to project a more ‘acceptable’ public image. Harris’s efforts to appear approachable (‘It’s fine, I’m Kamala’) did not stop commentators from branding her a power-hungry bitch. If you are, or aspire to be, in politics, and you have the pre-existing condition of being female, then whatever you do, the misogynists are coming for you.

In some democracies today the misogynists’ influence is much diminished; in others, including the US, it has reached new heights in recent years. Voting out the grotesque figure who currently occupies the White House (along with his religious zealot deputy) will not, on its own, be enough to turn that tide, but it’s certainly a good place to start.

She Speaks

Three years ago, to mark the political party conference season, I wrote a post about Great Political Speeches—or rather, Great Male Political Speeches. On most Anglophone lists of the best speeches of all time you will find just one token woman, or if you’re really lucky, two. British list compilers typically select from a field consisting of Elizabeth I, Emmeline Pankhurst and Margaret Thatcher; their US counterparts, who (still) can’t choose a female president, tend to go for Susan B. Anthony or Sojourner Truth.

Of course, it’s not surprising if the female speechmakers of the past can’t compete with the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. In addition to being gifted orators, these men were leaders of global stature, speaking at key historical moments on subjects of grave import. Until recently very few women, however gifted, were in a position to tick any of those boxes. But even today, as the Labour MP Yvette Cooper says in the introduction to her recent anthology of women’s speeches She Speaks: The Power of Women’s Voices, ‘public speaking can still feel like a man’s world’. Though women are no longer banned from the podium, they still have to contend with various ancient sexist prejudices.

By way of illustration, Cooper quotes the introduction to an anthology of great speeches produced in the 1990s, where the editors offer three justifications for the near-absence of women. The first is the point I’ve just made myself, that women were historically excluded from the ‘great stages’. The second is that women ‘wanted no part in the macho game of domination by speech’ (really? In that case why did they spend much of the 19th century fighting for their right to speak in public without being denounced as unnatural and immoral?) But it’s the third justification that really grates: ‘women’s voices are not made by nature for oratory. They are not deep enough’. Though Cooper rightly calls it ‘ludicrous’, the prejudice against female voices is still alive and well: witness the complaints about Hillary Clinton’s ‘shrillness’ during the 2016 presidential campaign, and the outrage provoked by the BBC’s decision to let a woman commentate on the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

But in any case, these justifications begin from a false premise. They’re answers to the question ‘why haven’t women made speeches?’, when in fact women have made speeches: there’s a tradition of female oratory that goes back at least to the early 19th century. By the 1990s it wasn’t even true that there were no women speaking from ‘the great stages’. The anthology Cooper criticises was published, as she points out, in the same year Hillary Clinton made her ‘women’s rights are human rights’ speech in Beijing, and Benazir Bhutto addressed the UN as the first woman elected head of an Islamic state.

She Speaks is Cooper’s attempt to redress the balance. Her introduction makes clear that what inspired the project wasn’t just her irritation with male-dominated anthologies, but also her concern about recent developments in our public discourse. Whether it’s the casual misogyny of populist leaders like Donald Trump or the rape and death threats which any woman with a public platform can now expect to receive (Cooper reminds us that her colleague Jo Cox MP was murdered by a man who took exception to her views), she believes that women are being silenced, and she wants to encourage them to resist. ‘The women in this book wouldn’t stay quiet’, she writes. ‘Their words live on after their speeches and will live on after they have gone’.

So, who are the women in this book? There are 35 in all: about half of them are British, including political leaders (Boudica, Elizabeth I, Prime Ministers Thatcher and May), politicians (Eleanor Rathbone, Barbara Castle, Diane Abbott, Harriet Harman, Jo Cox, Cooper herself) and campaigners (Josephine Butler, Emmeline Pankhurst, Alison Drake, Emma Watson). Another fairly well-represented category is non-British female heads of state like Benazir Bhutto, Angela Merkel, Julia Gillard (yes, the ‘misogyny speech’) and Jacinda Ardern. 

Predictably, the largest single group of non-Brits are American: political figures (Sojourner Truth, Michelle Obama, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), writers (Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde) and performers (Lupita Nyong’o, Ellen DeGeneres). There are also two young activists with global profiles (Malala Yousefzai and Greta Thunberg), two Nobel laureates (one a physicist, the other the first African to win the Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai), a disability activist, a trans activist and a Holocaust survivor; there’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s celebrated ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ TED talk, and a speech by Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women’s Association. The sequence is chronological, and in each case we get some contextualising discussion followed by the (sometimes abridged) text of the speech itself.

As exemplars of Great Speechmaking I’d say Cooper’s selections are a mixed bag.  I did feel that quite a lot of her choices were based less on the quality of the speeches themselves than on her view of the speaker and/or her life-story as inspiring. I thought that was a pity: since great male speeches are usually remembered for both reasons, it risks recycling the conventional wisdom that women lack men’s rhetorical skills.

This problem was most evident in the British politicians’ speeches. Cooper’s own contribution, urging Parliament to do for refugees fleeing war in Syria what Britain had done for those fleeing Nazism in the 1940s, is one of the better examples, rhetorically speaking. Apart from the two Tory Prime Ministers, her other choices are all women of her own party, many of them her colleagues and friends; she obviously admires them as people and as politicians, but they aren’t all great political speakers. In current British politics I don’t think there are many outstanding speakers of either sex; but I was surprised Cooper passed over one senior female politician who really does stand out for her rhetorical skills: the SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Among the non-British politicians, I was most impressed by Jacinda Ardern (speaking after the terrorist attack on a mosque in Christchurch) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: both have the ability to fit their words to the occasion in a way that seems not merely apt, but uplifting. Michelle Obama’s 2016 Democratic Convention speech also gets high marks: it’s one of the few that contains a genuinely memorable line (‘when they go low, we go high’).

This example points to a perennial problem with anthologies of speeches: some of the qualities that make a speech great may be lost in the transition to print. In 2017 I praised Michelle Obama for the way she connected with her audience; her speech is still pretty good on the page, but it was her embodied presence and her rapport with the people in the hall that made it so compelling in its original, oral form.

Another case where some of the original magic has been lost in transcription is Julia Gillard’s famous ‘misogyny’ speech. If you watch her performance on video it’s electrifying, but as a text it’s surprisingly flat: the first part is still memorable, but the energy of the rest of it was more in the righteously angry delivery than in the language itself. (I do like this musical setting, however.) Similarly with Malala Yusefzai and Greta Thunberg: both hold your attention when they speak, but the written version of Malala’s ‘Education First’ speech to the UN is a more highly-crafted text, and thus more rewarding to read.

The biggest revelation, for me, was Kavita Krishnan excoriating the authorities after the gang-rape of Jyoti Singh on a Delhi bus. It’s a remarkable feminist speech–as Yvette Cooper says, both impassioned and forensic. It uses plain language in the service of a sophisticated argument, a skill which is all too rare. Here’s part of the last section by way of illustration:

Women have a right to freedom. And that freedom without fear is what we need to protect, to guard and respect.

I am saying this because I feel that the word ‘safety’ with regard to women has been used far too much (…)

Women know what ‘safety’ refers to.

It means—you behave yourself. You get back into the house. You don’t dress in a particular way. Do not live by your freedom, and this means that you are safe.

A whole range of patriarchal laws and institutions tell us what to do in the guise of keeping us ‘safe’. We reject this entire notion. We don’t want it.

The Delhi police is running an ad campaign… [with] a Hindi film actor exhorting people, ‘Be a man, join me in protecting women’. I want to ask, what about the brother who cuts his sister’s head off when she dares to marry into a different community? Is he not playing the role of a male protector too?

This machismo is not any solution to the problem of violence against women; it is, in fact, the root of the problem. This is what we need to understand.

For all that we live in a multimedia age, speeches like this one, delivered to the crowd at a protest, show that our oldest political communication technology has not lost its power. And it’s important that women can harness that power on equal terms with men. 

Of course, just celebrating female speakers doesn’t remove either the structural barriers or the cultural prejudices that still prevent or deter women from speaking publicly; efforts to address those issues must continue. But we should also remember that, as the saying goes, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. Girls and women need to know that people like them not only can speak, but have spoken— powerfully, persuasively and movingly—on all kinds of subjects and in all kinds of situations. That’s where anthologies of women’s speeches have a part to play; I might quibble with some of Yvette Cooper’s choices, but her aim is one I think feminists should applaud.