Not long ago a young woman called Caroline Criado-Perez started a campaign to have the author Jane Austen represented on UK bank notes. We’ve never had many women (except the Queen) pictured on our money and so she had a good point. And when it was decided that Jane Austen would be one of those luminaries featured on our bank notes Caroline and lots of people in this country, including me, were delighted. Sadly however, not everyone felt that way and Caroline soon started to get malicious and abusive tweets sent to her Twitter account. At first she ignored them but then they took a sinister turn, threatening to rape or even kill her. Sometimes she was getting as many as fifty such tweets per hour. She called the police.
Eventually a 21 year old man was arrested. But that wasn’t the end of the affair. Labour MP Stella Creasy who had been quick to come to Caroline’s defence also received threats to rape and/or kill her and just two days ago four female journalists were also threatened with death. Why on earth is this happening? And why is it happening in a country that prides itself on its societal and legislative standards regarding equality?
We’re all sadly very much accustomed to seeing stories about girls being mutilated or murdered just because they are girls or because someone thinks they might be sexually ‘bad’ in some third world countries. We all howl, rightly, with indignation about female genital mutilation (FGM) which is practiced in some African and Middle Eastern countries. But we’re ‘allowed’ (for want of a better word) to be feminists here in Europe and so putting your head above the parapet, as Caroline did, on behalf of women shouldn’t be an issue. But clearly it is.
I am old enough to remember the days of what some perceived as ‘strident’ feminism. As a child I watched footage of women burning their bras on TV and as a young woman I knew and supported the women only protested against nuclear weapons at Greenham Common. One of my friends spent years camping out at that site where the women were ultimately rewarded with victory in 1992 when the US airforce scrapped its plans to deploy CRUSE missiles at Greenham Common. But the women involved had to put up with a lot of abuse. They were called ‘harpies’ and ‘whores’ and more often than not ‘unnatural’ to boot. The subtext was of course that women shouldn’t protest because it wasn’t their ‘place’. But then where is the place women are supposed to be, exactly?
A recent report from Pakistan stated that a tribal elder had decreed that women couldn’t go shopping during Ramadan because the sight of their, entirely covered, bodies might make the men have unclean thoughts. And yet aren’t women, as domestic goddesses supposed to do things like shopping? Isn’t it a bit effeminate for a man to be seen out with a bag full of rice and potatoes? Or is this a case of it’s actually alright for men to do anything and everything they want to do whenever it suits them?
I think it is and I think that what these recent disgusting incidents we’ve seen here in the UK illustrate is that misogyny is such a deep rooted feeling amongst a lot of men that it is always ready to bubble up at the slightest excuse. That women can produce life was mysterious and still is amazing to humans. While men are generally stronger than women, women can withstand an ordeal that would probably kill most men AND produce a baby at the end of it. What is more, and what is so ‘dangerous’ about women however, is that they can be impregnated by any fertile man and so in order to know that a child belongs to a certain man he has to ‘own’ her in some way. Hence in laws deriving from both religious and civil authorities, we have rules governing the comportment of women – laws covering access to the world outside the home, dress codes, health, reproduction. Traditionally women who transgressed these laws were either killed or cast out, labelled as ‘whores’ or ‘witches’ or both. Later, in the 1970s, a lot of early feminists reclaimed such words and used them as positives in their campaigns for equal pay, proper maternity rights and freedom from domestic abuse for British women. But to be a ‘bad’ girl, in the eyes of what appears to be a considerable number of British men, remains a very negative thing. As long as we shut up and don’t draw attention to ourselves (unless we are partially clothed, clearly sexually compliant and 22) we can be safely left alone to go about our business. However if we start to make a fuss…
It’s difficult to think of a woman who was more outwardly uncontentious than Jane Austen. But then was she? Jane was clever and that was and is clearly her downfall. A proto-feminist like Jane can’t be featured on our bank notes! Good God the woman wrote BOOKS for heaven’s sake! Oh, hang on, so do I…
No, I haven’t, so far, suffered from this sort of very public misogyny. Although I have had my fair share of being metaphorically patted on the head and I have been called a ‘whore’, a ‘witch’ and an ‘old bag’ according to my age and circumstances at the time. Not that I am particularly relevant here, well no more than any other woman. Sadly it seems that via what is a wonderful medium in many ways, social networking, a vast undercurrent of misogyny seems to have been unearthed. Ugly and mediaeval with it’s threats to rape ‘recalcitrant’ women, it reveals a side of British culture we all assumed was all but dead. But we were wrong as these latest incidents have shown. And that is why we must, whoever we are and wherever we live, always be vigilant. Misogyny is a prejudice as old as time and so it isn’t just going to disappear in the odd millennium or so. But then have women ever really left the feminist barricades since we became ‘equal’?
Not if they had any sense. No.