I Call Myself A Feminist

feministTwenty-five essays collected together with a generous helping of quotes from other well-known women, with the particular slant that the essays are all written by women under thirty. It’s an overview of the issues and concerns that continue to motivate activism in the 21st century, as well as an attempt at rehabilitating the word ‘feminism’ from some of the old perjorative connotations of the past. The essays are brief, a few pages each, and they cover a wide variety of topics and perspectives. It’s a fascinating collection, provocative, thoughtful, sometimes funny.

But there are buts. Not one woman writing has a child, although motherhood remains the last great bastion of identity straitjacketing. All are women who have enjoyed early success and made something of their lives – they speak from a position of earned privilege. I found myself appreciating most the essays from a Nigerian woman who had grown up in a traditional and oppressive religion, a woman who worked in a centre for the victims of acid attacks and a female human rights lawyer. A large number of the other essays spoke about behavioural issues – from the difficulty of making the decision to change gender, and the resistance and prejudice one might consequently face, to the irritating tendency of men to hog the armrest in seats on the London tube (exert your right to space, ladies!). Several rightly evoked the appalling reputation of the media – tabloids, magazines, advertising, mostly – for reinforcing stereotypes. But most of these essays left me thinking that whilst Western women have removed the majority of physical constraints on their choices, the real battle remains with the mental chains we so easily place on our own thinking.

I was taught that feminism was about two things. It was about equal access to power – economic, political, social – and the freedom to be oneself, resisting the old insistence that Woman should be helpmate, carer, nurse, selfless angel. It was about creating a structure that offered equal opportunities within which we could all be individual and different. Where we seem to end up now is micromanagement of the behaviour of others, which is highly problematic.

Let’s look at the case for the opposition first. Laura Bates, author of Everyday Sexism writes ‘As feminists we are used to being told what we ‘should’ focus on, or scolded for ‘making a fuss’ about particular topics. Talking about rape or domestic violence is acceptable, but mention street harrassment and you’re ‘getting upset about nothing’ […]There is no reason why we shouldn’t tackle every manifestation of gender inequality, no matter how apparently ‘minor’.

Absolutely! A society free from all discrimination would be a utopia indeed. But there’s a danger that the woman who is harrassed on the street might be led to believe that her plight is equal to the woman who has been half beaten to death by the husband who controls her cash flow. And that wouldn’t be right, would it? Don’t we still need to maintain a sense of perspective? I don’t think that equality means that all crimes committed against women are equal.

There’s a very well-written essay about how important words are and how right it is to police them. One of the examples cited is scientist Tim Hunt’s foolish comments – poor attempts at a joke – about women in his laboratories, which provoked a twitter storm, viral humiliation, and some consequences for the man’s career. The writer is convinced that this was the correct outcome. Yet I say, where was the woman whose courage, generosity and sense of fair play made her stand up at the end of the speech and say: ‘Could you please redefine your position on this issue, because I think what you said may be open to some serious misunderstanding.’ There could have been a proper debate on the spot; it would have been a fabulous example of grace and diplomacy and the exercise of women’s right to speak up for themselves. Why does it feel to me that the thrill of self-righteous indignation held sway here instead? Words are indeed terrifically important, and I would rather use them to educate than crucify. Women have a power of intervention unparalleled in their history. Is twitter shaming the best we can do with it?

We may often regret our male colleagues’ thoughtless, sexist and downright stupid comments. We may well wish that their behaviour would be more respectful and courteous. But if we want to improve social behaviour, we all have to sign up to the same charter. That’s equality. So if women want the right to be outspoken, to be ‘unruly’, to speak our minds and shout down or shame the other, then it has to be okay for men to do the same things. If, as one writer in this book says ‘Women whose behaviour is repulsive and selfish entrance me. They seem far more alive and aware and unapologetic than most would ever dare to be’, then we must accept that men might be entranced by their repulsive and selfish behaviour, and feel more alive for it, too.

This is the problem with all issues surrounding behaviour and identity. We all want people to behave better, and the chances are overwhelming that we will never be able to make them. We use the law against acts of violence and crime. But in the lower reaches of human behaviour, it’s hard to ‘make’ people give up their worse natures. Where did all that PC battling get us? The recognition that it’s unacceptable for people to express ugly predjudice in public places. Excellent! And then we created the internet whose main purpose can seem to be to provide a safe space for all that prejudice to be resurrected under the blissful cover of anonymity. Human nature is aggressive and judgemental. People will find a way to judge.

Believe me, I know how awful it is to be on the receiving end of sexist belittling. When I was nine or ten, the teacher who taught me every day, for every subject, was a man called Mr Wickenden. He regularly said unpleasant things about me in class – I remember him laughing with the other boys and saying I didn’t care about people, I only cared about money and clothes. I was quick-witted as a child, which didn’t go down well in the 70s. Once, doing some maths (my weakness) I struggled to understand the equation on the board; he humiliated me in front of the class until I was in tears (and I did not cry easily). He never treated any of the boys this way; I felt his persecution and it undoubtedly added to my belief that if I wanted to get away with being clever and well-spoken and tidy and good, I would need to make myself invisible.

For many years, this sort of behaviour struck me as completely unacceptable, as something we should legislate against, yes, why not! But as I have grown older, I have changed my mind. What I needed to learn to do was to look Mr Wickenden in the eye and think: you are so completely irrelevant to my sense of self. We are animals underneath it all; we know fear and vulnerability instinctively. What I needed to do was grow up, grow stronger, learn to protect myself without recourse to aggression, practice integrity. In some ways the issue was a sexist one, but in all the ways that mattered, I have come to understand it was developmental. And Mr Wickenden to one side, the worst, most insidious bullies I’ve come across have been female. I needed a strategy to deal with them, too. Thinking the world shouldn’t be cruel, that I shouldn’t have to fight for my right to be different, that I must be able always to do things my way without encountering resistence, even if it horrifies the ideology of the tribe, has actually held back my own growth.

I think that one of the best acts of feminism we can do on an everyday basis is support the women we know. Do something whenever possible to make their lives a little better, a little easier, a little richer. I think we need to expend our best energy on the real victims of the world – those caught up in war, famine, violence, plague and tyranny – and to keep a weather eye on the lesser crimes and make sure we don’t commit them too, in the name of retaliation. And when a first world, non-violent man makes a sexist comment, we might just raise our eyebrows and find him ridiculous; why on earth would we assign such behaviour more power than it truly has?

Stress, Creativity and Dancing Kittens

I didn’t mean to take a break from the blogworld – I was overtaken by events, a busy week which culminated in Mr Litlove coming home early from London one day (unheard of) and going straight to bed (even more unusual) with the flu, and he’s there still. Every time he speaks he coughs – well, it’s not so much a cough as the heaving bark of a walrus with a fifty-fags-a-day habit – so it’s been an exceptionally quiet weekend during which I seem to have been auditioning for the role of under-housemaid in the next series of Downton Abbey, endlessly up and down stairs with trays of food. I’m trying to view this positively, as my own little step workout which will have untold benefits to my thighs.

In the times when the bell to the master’s bedroom hasn’t been ringing, I’ve been reading some interesting books. All too appropriately, I was sent one called Stress Control by Susan Balfour, and whilst I’m still in the early stages of it, it seems to me a lot better so far than the average self-help guide as Balfour tries to go deeper and think harder about what causes stress and how we can tackle it. I was interested in the way she talks about holding onto both personal truths and received wisdom in times of trouble. We have to work hard to hang onto a mental equilibrium and soothe our minds, she argues, and I think that’s true. It really is hard work to prevent the mind rushing off into disaster scenarios, or disappearing down the wurmholes of self-pity, resentment or hopelessness. Whereas of course we do have a store of strengthening realisations that have usually been hard-won from other battles with fate. It’s impossible to say what mantra or truth or acknowledgement will work the trick as it’s such a personal thing. But Balfour suggests that such ‘truths need to be polished up and put on display in our lives…we must be proud of displaying our spiritual wealth.’ And that struck home with me as I know I am often indifferent in stressful situations to the wisdom I’ve gained elsewhere. Or perhaps not indifferent exactly, but too distracted to bother with it.

Naturally there are pieces of advice that also strike me as unhelpful, such as the suggestion that one way to rise above the muddle of an argument is to throw in some observation from outside it, for instance: ‘Just look at that beautiful sky’, which sounds to me like a good way to vex the other person beyond all reason. Balfour says this is effective with tantruming children, though in my experience a tantrum occurs when you go beyond the point of ordinary distraction being enough to divert escalating trouble. But what do I know? Maybe I’ll try it next time Mr Litlove has a coughing fit.

The mind in all its magnificent trickery was also centrestage in Christopher Bollas’s book, Cracking Up. Bollas is examining the constant freeflow of ideas, images and thoughts that race through the mind mostly unobserved. Like rush hour traffic, these mental elements congregate around experiences that have a particularly intense emotional resonance, though often they may be simple things, scarcely worth the charge they give us on first appearances. So for instance, Bollas describes one of these intense moments when, passing a record shop he notices an advertisement for Philip Glass’s opera, Akhenaten. He isn’t going to go in, but somehow finds that he does after all, his mind swimming in the memories of the evening when he saw the opera and all that happened then. At the same time, the mention of Akhenaten makes him think of his son who became interested in Egyptian history when he was about five, how the two of them talked about the school project he was working on, and this takes him on a chain of thought back to his own Greek ancestors and Bollas’s conflicted feelings about that part of the world. All sorts of lines of thought are generated by this chance encounter with the memory of a piece of music and when he has finally bought the record and carried on with his day he discovers in the library that he has momentarily misplaced his glasses. Of course he has: glasses, Philip Glass, the glass of the shop window, the slippery glass of the surface of his thoughts. He finds his glasses again.

We live in this soup of dynamic, ever-shifting mental elements that become dense and meaningful when we are brought into chance contact with vivid parts of the external world, and which then disperse in all directions, often simultaneously, as they spawn various emotionally-charged trains of thought. Bollas talks about ‘psychic bangs, which create small but complex universes of thought.’ This is effectively the work of free association that goes on all the time inside our minds; its effects are felt in how we react, experience and respond to everything around us, for every encounter is caught in a sticky web of associations. It’s impossible to experience in the moment – or at least the closest we come, I think, is when we are still ‘reading’ only the book is face down on our laps and we are staring into the middle distance – but parts of it can be reconstructed in retrospect. And because this is the source of all creativity, I think the more aware we are of the existence of these deep layers of thought, the more sensitive and creative we are as individuals.

Susan Balfour talks about how essential daydreaming is to keep our minds free and limber, and for Bollas, too, the freedom of the mind to pursue its endless avalanches of unexpected signification is an important part of mental health. I think this is also why the internet exerts such a power of fascination. When we begin with quite a respectable and justifiable reading of an online review of a book that looks interesting, which leads us on to author interviews in the Paris Review, and then the lyrics of a song we’ve been meaning to look up and then before we know what’s happening, we’re watching videos of synchronised dancing kittens, it’s like we’re just following the normal patterns of the mind, so normal that at some point the process becomes unconscious. Which is how you wake up, faintly alarmed, to find those kittens bobbing their heads to MC Hammer. The internet is just a vast externalised daydreaming mind. But ultimately it’s a time wasting distraction, the video equivalent of looking at the beautiful sky outside the window, because it’s not your own associations that are freewheeling in space, but the borrowed associations of other people.

Thinking about this brought me (via my own rhizomatic byways) to the conclusion that while freedom of mind and pleasure is a beneficial thing, stress plus a freewheeling mind often ends up in catastrophising. We’re back to that difficult place where it’s hard to prevent our thoughts from delivering us into dark alleyways where we’ll likely get beaten up. The mind needs strongholds, places of solidity which we can cling to while the turbulent stream of thought tugs at our legs. And maybe, the more as a culture we permit ourselves all sorts of freedoms, the less able we are, paradoxically, to make sensible calculations about the risks we run, the fears we suffer. Perhaps stress – in the moment we are experiencing it – is the place where we have to limit our creativity and value self-discipline instead.

On Rereading

I hardly ever reread a book these days, but I have just finished Anne Tyler’s brilliant novel, Ladder of Years and frankly I could turn around and start it all over again. I first read the novel in 1995, on holiday in Brittany with Mr Litlove and our six-month old baby. Mr Litlove’s favourite game then was to put one of his dinky socks on top of his head and see how long it took him to a) realise and b) remove it (answer: not long, but with just enough hesitation for comedy). Oh how times have changed. I started the book in some trepidation, afraid that it wouldn’t live up to my memory, but it was even better. Now I wonder whether the lure of rereading isn’t actually quite dangerous – why wouldn’t I spend all my time choosing guaranteed pleasure over the potential disappointments and pitfalls of all those unread novels? Well, in part at least because I do possess a lot of unread novels and they represent the triumph of hope. But still, I see I’m reaching a stage where rereading holds a seductive promise.

I thought I’d dig out my old research notes on rereading to see if they could help me gain a bit more insight into its pleasures. Matei Calinescu in his book Rereading, says ‘there are texts that haunt us, that cannot or will not be forgotten, and there are texts that haunt other texts, in the sense that they appear in them as expected or unexpected visitors, and even, some might say, as phantoms or spectres.’ Whilst I was interested in the front end of that sentence, Calinescu is more concerned with the back end. He is mostly talking about what happens when we read experimental or innovative novels, particularly those based on crime fiction. When we read crime fiction, whether we’re aware of it or not, we are experiencing the pleasure of having our expectations met. It’s one of the more ‘rule-driven’ genres, with, for example, the detective as the master reader of clues and suspect’s stories, and the formulaic surprise denouement. Several postmodern authors had a lot of fun with parodies and pastiches of such formulas, and Calinescu is thinking about the sort of ‘rereading’ that goes on as the reader progresses through such a ‘rewrite’, using familiar expectations to both note the places where the narrative goes awry but also recognising what is at stake in such playful distortions.

You could probably apply this concept of rereading to all innovative fiction, which asks the reader to bear an orthodox narrative in mind in order to make sense of the unconventional one by understanding how far, and in what ways, it departs from the original. He’s suggesting that a different kind of attention is required from the reader. Rather than be strapped into the boxcar of your standard story which whisks you off as a pure passenger on a ride, the more experimental fiction requires a kind of textual orienteering, as you study maps of other novels in your head while figuring out where the one in your hands is taking you. It explains, if nothing else, why those innovative novels are a much slower, more careful reading experience: you need to read the ghost of the underlying original as well as the actual story in the present.

Such an activity is not so far removed from the rereading that critics and researchers do, when you study a story over and over. Just reading a novel asks you to succumb to it, to stop thinking about its artificial construction and simply lose yourself in a fictional fantasy. When you read for a second time in a more reflective, analytical way, you’re lifting the lid off the text to see how it works underneath. You want to have a good look at the structure and see why it does one thing and not another, how it makes one argument at the expense of a range of others. I think this is perhaps why for some readers, critical reading is anathema, as much the same thing happens when a story fails to enchant and you are just left staring at cardboard sets and 2-d characters. Disliking a book and analysing a book may fall just too close together for comfort for some people.

But what about those books that haunt us and refuse to be forgotten? The closest I could come to anything that struck home was in the distinction made by another critic, Josephine Hilgard between involvement and absorbtion. Now, you may not agree with these particular terms and definitions, but the idea is that ‘emotional involvement’ means pleasure and enjoyment and a vividly engrossing experience, but the reader is aware that they are reading a made-up story. ‘Absorbtion’ takes the immersion that one step further so that the reader ‘partakes in a reading that is equivalent in grace and creative effortlessness to artistic inspiration.’ Hilgard says this means we can speak of ‘inspired readers’ just as we might talk about inspired writers. I wonder whether this kind of rereading, when you love a story so much you can read it again and again until it is a part of your own world, is such an inspired act. The reader can almost live the story, as if dreaming a particularly splendid dream; they take possession of it in some ways.

Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years is a book I could read repeatedly because it is sort of perfect for me in every sentence. The story of a middle-aged wife and mother who just walks away from her family while they are on the beach and keeps going, eventually locating in a different town and starting her life afresh, has no places where I wish things were different, no dull parts or implausible bits. It feels perfectly whole and necessary and I can sense my own desire to be up close to that. The sheer rightness of it all is part of the thrill. Even though it is in many ways an ordinary story, not one with many layers of implicit meaning that I wouldn’t pick up on the first time through. No, the enchantment is for me about a vicarious sharing of the artistic inspiration that went into it, the sense of watching the story unfold without a mishap, so confident in it that I can lose myself to it. The door is open for me to experience this because the novel corresponds so well to my purely personal and subjective feelings about what’s right and real in fiction; it absorbs me completely. Which of course means that my classic reread would not necessarily be anyone else’s. I’m thinking now about which books I really could read over and over again – surely a short list?

The Jury Is Out

The last post and the comments it provoked had me thinking about the way that ideas of motherhood and parenting have changed dramatically over the centuries. The notion of childhood didn’t exist at all before the 17th century, and it took that monumental sulk, Rousseau, to flesh out the concept with his woebegone belief in a halcyon period of freedom and joy before the traumas of adulthood set in. Since then, opinion has gone back and forth over who should care for children, mothers not always qualifying for this role, and how much care should be lavished or not on the child. It’s a vast topic so I thought I would simply let some of the ‘experts’ speak for themselves:


1762   ‘Fix your eyes on Nature, follow the path traced by her. She keeps children at work, she hardens them by all sorts of difficulties, she soon teaches them the meaning of pain and grief. They cut their teeth and are feverish, sharp colics bring on convulsions, they are choked by fits of coughing or troubled by worms, evil humours corrupt the blood, germs of various kinds ferment in it… One half of the children who are born die before their eighth year… This is nature’s law; why try to contradict it? … Experience shows that children delicately nurtured are more likely to die. Accustom them therefore to the hardships they will have to face.’  Rousseau


1829   ‘A great deal in providing for the health and strength of children depends on their being duly and daily washed, when well, in cold water from head to foot. Their cries testify to what degree they dislike this. They squall and twist and kick about at a fine rate, and many mothers, too many, neglect this, partly from reluctance to encounter the squalling, and partly, much too often, from what I will not call idleness, but to which I cannot apply a milder term than neglect. Well and duly performed it is an hour’s good tight work; for besides the bodily labour, which is not very slight when the child gets to be five or six months old, there is the singing to overpower the voice of the child.’  William Cobbett


1886   ‘[A mother] was bound to feel in and for the baby too deeply to carry calm pulses and judgement through the daily routine of “taking care” of that which is a dearer part of herself…. Babies who are entirely tended by their mothers are almost without exception troublesome by reason of their ceaseless exactions.’ Marion Harland


1890   ‘Adaptation to the wants, feelings and nature of the infant – so different in many ways from those of the adult – ought to be made the leading principle of our management… accordingly the child ought as far as possible to be allowed the choice of its own occupations and amusements and to become the chief agent in the development and formation of its own character. In later life, the independent child will show far more promptitude and energy than the ‘puppet’ dominated by parents and trained in moral slavery.’ Andrew Combe


1896   ‘Let no mother condemn herself to be a common or ordinary ‘cow’ unless she has a real desire to nurse…Women have not the stamina they once possessed: and I myself know of no greater misery than nursing a child, the physical collapse caused by which is often at the bottom of the drinking habits of which we hear so much.’ Mrs Panton


1896   ‘The dreams that a young mother is supposed to dream over the cradle of her new-born baby are about as real as her supposedly passionate desire for children. She dreams principally about herself, she longs to be out of bondage. A little indignant at the manner in which the child engrosses everyone’s time and attention, the while she is abjectly terrified that everyone who touches it will do it a mischief… wondering how many more minutes it is going to live. She even wishes she never got married… These thoughts may not be noble, but they are universal, and therefore the girl who feels them agitating her breast need not write herself down as a monster – the phase will soon pass.’ Mrs Panton


1928   ‘The sensible way to bring up children is to treat them as young adults. Dress them, bathe them with care and circumspection. Let your behaviour always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them. Never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extremely good job of a difficult task. Try it out. In a week’s time you will find how easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time kindly. You will be ashamed of the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it.’ J B Watson


1934   ‘Truby King babies are fed four-hourly from birth, with few exceptions, and they do not have any night feeds. A Truby King baby has as much fresh air and sunshine as possible, and the right amount of sleep…. After he has gone through his regular morning performance of bathing and being ‘held out’, and has had his breakfast, he sleeps all morning. If he wakes a little before his 2pm meal, all that one knows about it is a suddenly glimpsed chubby little leg or foot waved energetically from his cot for inspection, or a vigorous jerking of his pram.’ Mary Truby King


1951   ‘[T]he child needs to feel he is an object of pleasure and pride to his mother; the mother needs to feel an expansion of her own personality in the personality of the child: each needs to feel closely identified with the other… The provision of mothering cannot be considered in terms of hours per day but only in terms of the enjoyment of each other’s company which mother and child obtain….such enjoyment and close indication of feeling is only possible for either party if the relationship is continuous….The provision of constant attention day and night, seven days a week and 365 days a year, is possible only for a woman who derives profound satisfaction from seeing her child grow from babyhood, through the many phases of childhood, to become an independent man or woman, and knows that it is her care which has made this possible.’ John Bowlby


1982   ‘Many women from [the upper class] and much further down the social scale, when faced with the necessity of caring for their own children, as they mostly were after WW2, had mixed feelings of fear and excitement tied with remnants of their own childhood and the idealized views of mother which they had developed in the nursery… Once she was actually caught up in the business of childrearing as a 24 hours a day, seven days a week occupation, she was likely to deal with this by idealizing it even more. For by that time she had discovered that rearing children was not easy at all, that machines could only help with washing and cleaning, not with unrelenting exposure to babies and children, continual interruptions or the constant necessity for watchfulness and attention. The only thing for many mothers to do at that stage was to idealize it still further or else have a nervous breakdown.’ Ann Daly


1994   ‘The grieving of a baby who loses her one and only special person – her lone mother who dies, for example, or the lifelong foster mother from whom she is removed – is agonising to see because we know we are looking at genuine tragedy. But the pain of separations we arrange and connive at every time we change caregivers or leave a baby in the day care centre that has new staff – again – or with an agency babysitter she has never seen, may not be as different as we assume.’ Penelope Leach


1996   ‘[T]he historical construction of intensive mothering demonstrates that its early blooming was directly connected to the ideological separation of public and private spheres, a separation according to which the values of intimate and family life stood as an explicit rejection of the values of economic and political life….The relationship between mother and child continues to symbolize, realistically or not, opposition to social relations based on the competitive pursuit of individual gain in a system of impersonal contractual relations. In pursuing a moral concern to establish lasting human connection grounded in unremunerated obligations and commitments, modern-day mothers, to varying degrees, participate in this implicit rejection of the ethos of rationalised market society.’ Sharon Hays