2022: the highs, the lows and the same-old-same-old

2022 was a year when I didn’t do much blogging. That wasn’t because there was nothing to blog about, but more because I had too much other stuff going on. So, as it’s now end-of-year review season, here’s a round-up of some of the events, debates and news stories that caught my attention during the last twelve months.  

In January the Scottish government agreed to pardon those Scots–most of them women–who had been executed for witchcraft several centuries earlier. Some felt this was just a PR exercise, designed to burnish Scotland’s progressive credentials, but it did raise some questions worth reflecting on about how we memorialize past misogyny and whether that makes any difference in the present.

The same can’t be said about the real PR story of the month, an announcement from Mars (the chocolate manufacturer, not the planet): that the characters used to promote M&Ms were getting a makeover which would highlight “their personalities rather than their gender”. What this turned out to mean was replacing one set of gender stereotypes with a different set. The green M&M, for instance, was previously supposed to be the sexy one, but in the revamp she has exchanged her white go-go boots for “cool, laid-back sneakers” to symbolize her “confidence and empowerment, as a strong female”. She will also lose her previous habit of being bitchy to the brown M&M (who is also female, and has also been given new shoes with a lower heel): we’ll see them “together throwing shine rather than shade”. As you’ll have gathered from these quotes, the press release was like a digest of popular neoliberal feminist clichés. But it’s pointless to expect mass-market advertising not to deal in clichés. What’s interesting about this story (like the previous year’s story about the rebranding of Mr Potato Head as “Potato Head”) is what it says about changing fashions in gender stereotyping and gendered language.

Fast forward to April, which was a month of Men in (British) politics Behaving Badly. Actually that was pretty much true for every month of the year, but in April things got particularly bad. There was, for instance, the MP who was seen looking at porn in the House of Commons debating chamber, and who claimed to have landed accidentally on a porn site when he was looking for information about tractors (this understandably convinced nobody, and in the end he resigned). There was also a story in the Mail on Sunday which accused the Labour Deputy Leader Angela Rayner of crossing and uncrossing her legs to distract Boris Johnson during Prime Minister’s Questions. Rayner’s description of this as a “perverted, desperate smear” (though there were some indications that she might unwittingly have inspired the story herself during a bit of casual banter on the House of Commons terrace) brought forth a torrent of misogynist, classist commentary which illustrated exactly why British Parliamentary politics is so offputting to so many women.

June brought the news (not unexpected but still horrendous) that the US Supreme Court had upheld a challenge to its earlier ruling in Roe v. Wade, enabling a large number of states to prohibit abortion completely. If ever there was a moment for deeds not words, and for unity rather than factionalism among supporters of women’s reproductive rights (whatever else they might disagree on), this was surely it; and yet one highly visible response to the crisis involved feminists performatively scolding other feminists online for using “problematic” terms, slogans and symbols. For me this was something of a low point. As much as I believe that language matters, I don’t believe linguistic purism and language policing have ever advanced the feminist cause.

In July the England women’s football team won the European Championship, a feat which has eluded the men’s team, and I started getting inquiries from journalists about their name. One inquirer asked why, if we’re not allowed to call women actresses any more, it’s fine for England’s women footballers to be known as Lionesses. What is the deal with –ess? Good question. Actress is actually a complicated case: unlike, say, authoress and poetess it survived the purge of feminine-marked occupational titles in the 1970s, but some women did reject it, and what has developed since is a kind of status distinction between female actors and actresses (referring to a woman as an actor implies she’s a serious artist rather than, say, a popular soap star). But the more recent acceptance of Lioness as a label for elite footballers suggests that the old feminist view of –ess terms as twee and trivializing may have gone. Perhaps it helps if you know that in the animal world it’s lionesses who rule: they run the pride and do most of the hunting (forget The Lion King, it’s bullshit). But it’s still slightly odd, because if the women are the Lionesses that implies that the men must be the Lions, and in fact you don’t often hear them called that: more typically they’re just “England”. On the more positive side, though, pundits who used to talk about “football” and “women’s football” are now being more careful to say “men’s football”.

During July and August we had to watch the Tories choosing a replacement for Boris Johnson, who had finally been forced to resign as Prime Minister. The man who eventually replaced him, Rishi Sunak (let’s draw a veil over the short, unhappy premiership of Liz Truss) favours a less feral brand of masculinity, but his Modern Man credentials still leave something to be desired. In August he responded to a question about what sacrifices he’d had to make to become a prime ministerial contender by saying he’d been “an absolutely appalling husband and father for the last couple of years”. This is a variation on the humblebrag answer to the job interview question “what would you say is your biggest weakness?”–“I’m a bit of a perfectionist/a workaholic”. Presumably it was meant to make Sunak sound reassuringly dedicated to the job but not unaware of his domestic obligations or devoid of human feelings (“of course I love my family, but running the country has to come first”). But in fact it just sounded smug and sexist. If a woman in Sunak’s position described herself as “an appalling wife and mother” she’d be criticized for her negligence, not applauded for her self-awareness.

In September Queen Elizabeth II died, and was posthumously recast as a feminist role-model by commentators around the world. A bit like the green M&M, the late monarch had apparently been a “strong, empowered female” who “paved the way for other women to dedicate themselves fully to their careers”. The fact that, as a Queen Regnant, she was not so much a girlboss as an anomaly within an anachronism, seemed to escape those who churned out this vacuous fluff.   

October brought, as it does in most years, a brief and ineffectual flurry of concern about the extent of sexual harassment and violence in British schools. Among the 3000 girls and young women who participated in Girlguiding UK’s annual survey, around 20 percent reported that they didn’t feel safe in school. The figures for reported rapes and sexual assaults in schools suggest that these anxieties are not unjustified. But most of the harassment girls experience in school is language and communication-based, which is why I’ve blogged about this issue on several previous occasions. It’s another case where words are no substitute for deeds: we’ve had a steady stream of reports and surveys which all say the same thing, and absolutely no concerted action to address the problem on the ground.

In November the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, met her Finnish counterpart Sanna Marin—an unremarkable enough event, you might think, and certainly not one you’d expect to make headlines around the world, except that a reporter at their joint press conference asked what may have been the year’s stupidest sexist question. “A lot of people will be wondering”, he began, inaccurately, “are you two meeting just because you’re similar in age and got a lot of common stuff there?” Marin kept her answer simple: “We’re meeting”, she explained, “because we’re Prime Ministers”. Ardern on the other hand treated the questioner to a mini-lecture on trade relations, full of fascinating facts about what New Zealand buys from Finland (elevators) and what Finland buys from New Zealand (meat and wine). Points to both of them, but will the day ever come when women who run countries are not routinely patronized by media guys who make Alan Partridge look like an intellectual giant?  

In December it was reported that the Cambridge Dictionary, which is designed primarily for foreign learners of English, had updated its entries for woman and man by adding a new sense: “an adult who lives and identifies as female/male though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth”. I expected this to happen, and I expected it to cause controversy, but I didn’t feel moved to weigh in because my own view hasn’t changed since I wrote this post in 2019. It was unpopular then and will doubtless be even more unpopular now, but such is life.

December was also the month when the Taliban barred women from universities in Afghanistan, and when the equally fanatical misogynists who rule Iran cracked down hard on the protests which began in September following the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands if the morality police. It’s hard to feel sanguine about how this uprising will end. But nothing in 2022 was more inspiring than watching these brave and determined women–and the men who are protesting alongside them–shouting “Woman–life–freedom”. Those words cut through the noise and the bullshit: they speak to women everywhere.

So, that was 2022: thanks to everyone who read the few posts I managed to produce, and to all the writers and researchers whose work I drew on. And while I’m not expecting peace, joy and freedom to break out around the world in 2023, I’ll still wish you all the happiest possible new year.

Is this what a feminist looks like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death of a patriarch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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