On Solidarity

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I’ve just got back from the Women’s March in Amsterdam and my hands are so cold that it has taken me five minutes to type this sentence. The march was the perfect antidote to what had a been a bleak Friday evening. Nothing will lift the spirits more than seeing over three thousand men, women and children braving the cold in defense of human rights. I met people from London, Tunisia, Kazakhstan, America and France. People from all around the world had come to protest. Despite the cold everyone seemed to be in suitably high spirits, they chanted and sang with enthusiasm as we marched through the Museumplein – the atmosphere was electrifying.

I’ve been on a dozens of rallies and protest marches over the last few years so to me it feels like a very normal, positive and proactive way of expressing your views. All the protests I’ve been on have been very family friendly and completely peaceful (apart from the teacher’s rallies which are noisy affairs because they all have their own whistles.) But there were a few scathing opinions about the women’s marches on social media this morning. There were some people saying the marches were too much/not enough about women’s rights and others/Piers Morgan accused the march of being sexist. Why weren’t we marching for men’s rights? It’s important to remember that Piers Morgan was Editor of the Mirror when they were hacking Nigel Havers’ phone whilst he cared for his terminally ill wife so we mustn’t worry too much about what he thinks of our peaceful protest this is the perfect response:

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These marches weren’t sexist or anti-men – a huge number of men turned up in support. These protests are a response to a President who has no regard or respect for women. The man who boasts about grabbing women “by the pussy” is now the leader of free world – or, if you prefer, Eve Ensler’s title: the predator-in-chief. He leads with Mike Pence,  his Vice President, who plans to “gut” Planned Parenthood services and who said that same-sex relationships were a sign of “societal collapse.” Both men have said they believe there should be a punishment for abortion and already a bill has been passed in Ohio to ban abortions from the time a heartbeat can be detected (which is usually about six weeks.) Yes hundreds of women turned up to vote for Trump but this doesn’t mean other women can’t or shouldn’t protest. The message today was loud and clear: women’s rights and women’s bodies are not up for grabs.

For some people today was an opportunity to have a good old rant about the fact of Trump (my personal highlight was an 8-year-old boy running around shouting, “DONALD TRUMP IS AN IDIOT” at the top of his lungs.) I know how an election can break your heart. I know the anger and pain that follows and how cathartic it is to walk among thousands of like-minded people to stand up for what you believe in. It is not anti-democratic to protest against Trump. By voting him in the victors do not have the right to silence the opposition. People still have the right to a peaceful protest – for now at least.

And ultimately it’s not just women’s rights that are threatened by the rise of the far-right. Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric carried him to the White House. During his campaign he called Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals,” promised to deport 3 million immigrants in his first year and let’s not forget that wall he wants to build around the southern border. His inauguration speech made it abundantly clear that it’s “America First.” (Incidentally  “America First” was also the name of the isolationist, anti-Semitic organisation that urged the United States to appease Hitler and stay out of WWII.) Over the next four years we are going to have to fight to defend internationalism and the rights of immigrants. We’ll protest against walls being put up and bridges being burnt in both America and Europe.

For me the march today was about hope. Last night was bleak –  it felt like we were turning the clock back on years of progress. I couldn’t shift this unsettling feeling that one day I’d be seeing Trump’s inauguration speech on a documentary about the causes of WW3. I went to bed with a heavy heart and trying to work through some dark thoughts. Walking in the sunshine this afternoon with thousands of positive, tolerant and passionate women, men and children reminded me that there are still people who, when threats are made to our rights will step up and defend them. Who won’t allow young girls to grow up accepting that wealthy and powerful men can touch their genitals without consent. Who believe that the only person who should make decisions about a woman’s uterus is the woman herself  – radical I know. I returned home tired and happy and so cold that I couldn’t feel my face. My social media feed was littered with pictures with friends on marches around the world: Washington, Budapest, London, Bangkok and Paris. The marches served as a global display of solidarity and one I am proud to have been part of.

 

The Daft Dad Stereotype Needs To Stop

“The first rule of being a man in modern Britain is you’re not allowed to talk about it.”

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It was a very ordinary Tuesday. I went out to collect my class and one of my favourite parents (yes, we have favourites) came running up to me dragging her daughter behind her. “Sorry Miss Brown, it was Daddy’s turn to get her ready today so surprise, surprise, she hasn’t got her glasses!” This isn’t a one off. I’ve heard dads blamed for, incomplete homework, no book bag and unwashed hair. Of course it could just be the case that there are hundreds of incompetent men out there producing children without the intelligence to look after them but I doubt that’s true. It got me thinking.

I am a feminist. This means I believe in equal rights for men and women. In many ways women still aren’t treated equally to men and I will always speak up against that. However, there are mutterings at the moment of a “crisis of masculinity” that cannot, and should not, be ignored.

Research conducted by the Men’s Health Forum, a charity which aims to tackle male health inequalities, found that men are more likely to take their own lives than women – in fact suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under the age of 35. The research also discovered that, on average, men attain lower at all stages of school, are more likely to be homeless, are less likely to access NHS services when they need to and, as they get older, men have fewer friends than women and feel more isolated.

So what is going on? Men still earn more than women, they dominate politics and business and are less likely to be the victim of sexual assault or domestic violence. There isn’t an expectation on them to sacrifice their careers for family life and, to top it all off, they don’t have to give birth. Yet suicide is the cause of death for 26% of men under the age of 35.

So let’s start at the beginning.

School Days

The problem starts in the first few years. Seven-year-old boys are 7% less likely to reach the expected level in reading and writing than girls. By the end of Primary school, that gap is eight percentage points. It gets wider the older the children get: at 13 it’s 12%; by GCSE, for achievement at grades A* to C in English, the gap is 14 percentage points. So whilst 66% of girls achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C or equivalent, only 56% of boys manage the same. Show me a maintained school that doesn’t have “boys’ writing” on their School Improvement Plan and I’ll show you a school in denial.

One could argue that this is because we have an education system based on an outdated model that measures how many revision notes you can remember and how neat your handwriting is but that is probably being too cynical. Also, I seem to remember the Daily Mail once published a “schools are sexist towards boys” article once so let’s give that argument a wide berth. The reasons boys don’t achieve as highly as girls is a separate article/dissertation in itself (one that I may write in the near future.)

Media Men

Now I am not for a second suggesting that the way men are portrayed is worse than the way women are portrayed but I think there is definitely an issue here. Adverts, in particular, like to present the man as a bit daft, bumbling and almost childlike. Think of any advert that shows a “regular household” and you will see a man struggling to get their heads around childcare, internet providers or electrical goods whilst the women run around sorting out the house, the children and generally saving the day.

Of course the reason this started was to subvert the stereotype of the airhead woman being rescued by the competent, strong man. Whilst I understand where this formula came from I can’t help but feel it is counterproductive in the fight for gender equality. We’ve all agreed it isn’t right to perpetuate unfair, female stereotypes so why don’t we feel the same way about male stereotypes?

A couple of years ago there was a Boots advert that showed two women, full of cold, talking about the busy days they’d had. When they ask about each other’s partners they both explain their partner is tucked up in bed with a cold – bless him. The message is clear: women get on with it whilst men mope about. If that advert was men talking about women it would have been called out as sexist.

From Homer Simpson, to the man who was late to his wife’s prenatal scan because he took a detour to McDonalds or the “Huggies” Dad Test –  advertising love the “dumb Dad.” He is presented as an additional child, creating more work for the Mum. The message is loud and clear: he is surplus to requirement within the household.

Gender Roles

It used to be so simple (albeit unfair.) The man went off to work/kill a mammoth and women would stay at home to cook dinner and clean the cave. Thank God/Father Christmas it changed. Women don’t have to choose between a career or a family, they can have both, either or neither. Inevitably, this fact has had an impact on relationships between men and women too. Women don’t have to rely on men for a roof above their heads/financial support/protection from bears and men cannot assume that the house will be clean and dinner will be on the table when they get home.

This is fantastic and I am so grateful to be born at a time where I can choose whether or not I have children, where I work, where I live and how I spend my money. This does mean that couples, rather than making assumptions, have to have a conscious discussion about the roles they are going to play in their relationships. Are they going to share housework equally? Who will sort bills? Who will do childcare and who will work or will you both do a bit of both? Obviously this issue affects both men and women but are men going to opt for childcare if they are constantly made to feel as though they aren’t doing the job as well as a woman would?

Partners

When I first got together with the Man on the Piccadilly Line people would talk about “training him up” which is a strange way to speak about a human and I’m not sure if any of his friends asked him the same question about me. We’ve allowed this idea that men would be “lost” without women or need us to improve them to take hold. It is unfair, untrue and never said by men about women. It’s the female equivalent of the man that talks about “her indoors” or “the old ball and chain.”

I’ve never heard any of my male friends say, “Yeah she’s putting on weight. I’ve told her she needs to get rid of her tummy so she’s joined a gym. I’ve bought her some new clothes to try and replace those god awful cardigans she wears.” (I’m a big fan of a cardigan.) Yet it’s a common theme women trying to “improve” their partner and not in a “helping them achieve their dreams” sort of way. In a “wear this, eat this and be a bit more like this” sort of way. It’s not by ANY means all, or even most, women but it’s enough.

Surely when you commit to a relationship you are committing to love that person for who they are not for who you hope you will be able to train them to be. By marrying me, The Man on the Piccadilly Line knows that every couple of months he will probably get a phone call asking if he’ll be home soon because I’ve locked myself out. He knows that if we get lost it will be he, and he alone, that has to get us found as my sense of direction and map reading skills resemble those of a snail. He also knows that I will leave my hair straighteners on at least three times a month. Equally, I know that most of our holidays will be taken by train, I will occasionally find the freezer emptied of food and replaced with bags of ice for a DIY air-conditioning experiment and I will sometimes lose him to a novel he’s writing, the World Cup or Battlestar Galactica marathons. I’m sure you could try and train the person you love to be more like version you have in your head but you won’t be particularly successful and it will make you both miserable.

Yet comments like this are so common they’ve almost become acceptable in some female circles. You can talk about your partner’s appearance, annoying habits and make derogatory comments about their intelligence, organisational skills or competencies. (Disclaimer: obviously we are allowed to moan with our friends.) I just worry that for some people there is a sense of achievement in promoting how incapable your partner is in comparison to you. It is possible this stems from some women feeling it is justified. After all, women have had more than their fair share of this sort of treatment, this just resets the balance, right?

I am a feminist. This means I will always fight for equality between the sexes. I’m not saying that men deserve to be held up on a pedestal and neither am I denying that women still suffer at the of hands inequality far more than men do. But let’s be vigilant. The fight for equality is not won by indulging lazy stereotyping.

Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone.

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Vivienne Durham hit the headlines this week for arguing that school girls should be warned that they “can’t have it all” and will need to choose between a family or a career. As you can imagine I have a few issues with this. Before I go into this it is probably worth noting that Vivienne Durham won the Tatler Award for “Best Head of A Public School” last year so she clearly knows her stuff (in the eyes of a fashion and lifestyle magazine.) Anyway, here’s what the award-winning Head Teacher had to say:

“I’m sorry, I’m not a feminist. I believe there is a glass ceiling – if we tell them there isn’t one, we are telling them a lie.”

I’m going to put aside the fact that Durham expects women to have to choose between childcare or a career, and not men, as there are a plethora of posts and articles about this and I think you can unpack that argument for yourselves. If you are really struggling – Google it.

My concern is Durham’s claim that she is: “not a feminist.” Not. A. Feminist. So I assume she went for the job of Head Teacher of a girls’ school to make sure those girls were taught to “know their place” in society? Or maybe Durham just doesn’t think it’s important that women can own things, or choose who they have sex with. When you break down what being a feminist means into its simplest terms, is Durham honestly saying she does not believe in equality between men and women? Even if that is her view, what on earth makes her think that’s an appropriate message to pass on to impressionable teenage girls?

Sadly, regarding the choices women have to make, a lot of what Durham said is actually true for many women. A recent Gender Equality report by Mervyn Davies has set a new target for FTSE 100 firms to have 33% female board members by 2020. Just 1/3 of the board has to be women. Not half, not a majority (heaven forbid) just a measly 33%.  The report found that, at present, there are more women on FTSE 100 boards than ever before but that still only makes up 26%.

Only 190 of our 650 MPs are female and women are still more likely to earn less than their male counterparts. We are also more likely to be victims of sexual assault and domestic violence – and we’re a country in which the women’s movement has been relatively successful especially when you compare us to somewhere like Afghanistan, which was recently named the most dangerous country for women to live in.

So Durham has a point and she was right to raise her pupils’ awareness of the issues they will have to confront as adults. However, she IS a teacher and the golden rule of inspiring future generations is – you’re equipping them with the skills to go and create a better, more equal society. So yes, tell the girls you teach about the glass ceiling but only whilst at the same time helping them create the sharpest, heaviest tool to smash through it. Durham’s message seems to be: “this is the status quo girls, accept it” – which is fucking shameful.

I often tell the children I teach that I don’t want them to follow in my generation’s footsteps I want them to be even better. I hope the pupils I teach will grow up smarter, wiser and with critical faculties far superior to my own and I hope the society they create will be fairer. If I did not want these things for my pupils or I did not believe them to be possible, I could not, and would not, be a teacher.