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.

2015 – Who Runs The World? (Girls)

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Despite not being Liz Kendall’s biggest fan, I practically whooped with joy when I read that she’d told a Daily Mail journalist to fuck off for asking about her weight. 2015 was a big year in politics and particularly for women. 2015 was the year that saw Turkey and Saudi Arabia elect record number of female politicians, Hilary Clinton have resounding success in the Presidential debates and The Sun finally succumb to the “No More Page 3” campaign. We’ll quietly ignore the pink bus; it turns out that a vehicle reminiscent to something Barbie might drive is not the way to turn women onto politics.

Now, I understand it’s Boxing Day so in between eating leftovers and watching “Space Jam” no one’s up for reading anything too heavy. For that reason I’ll stick to the much loved list format for this one. So – happy Boxing Day: 9 times women won politics.

1. Corbyn’s Cabinet

Yes, he should have appointed Angela Eagle as his chancellor, but that aside, with the final headcount standing at 16 women and 15 men this is still the first women heavy Shadow cabinet we’ve seen. Although I still think the press missed a trick by not referring to it as The Corbynet…

2. Stella Creasy and the Tampon Tax

There are a number of reasons to love Stella Creasy her but her best moment of the year for me was her argument against the Tampon Tax (and forcing MP Bill Cash to say the word “tampon”)

3. Abby Tomlinson

I make no secret of my admiration of Abby. This year she shot to fame after creating #milifandom to try and counteract the unfair media portrayal of Ed Miliband. Since then Abby’s shown she is a force to be reckoned – she took on the Murdoch press for hounding her extended family and (my favourite ever moment) she stood up to bullying from the ever delightful Louise Mensch.  This is just the start of things to come for Miss Tomlinson; I’m certain we’ll be hearing about her for years to come. Is it too soon to start #Abbyfandom?

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This girl bloody rocks.

4. Kezia Dugdale

Although the rest of the UK may have voted for a sausage fest of a Labour party Scotland elected Kezia Dudale as the new leader of the Scottish Labour Party. Well done Scotland.

5. Nicola Sturgeon

Whilst we’re on the subject of Scotland, you can’t review the year in politics without mentioning “The Most Dangerous Women In Britain.” Whatever you think of her politics there is no denying that Nicola Sturgeon lead an impressive campaign in the run up to the Election. Straight talking, quick witted and feisty as hell Sturgeon made herself the selfie Queen of Scotland, lead her party to a stonking victory winning 56 out of a possible 59 seats and topped the Women’s Hour 2015 Power List.

6. Jess Phillips

Jess Phillips MP hit the headlines a number of times this year. The most controversial incident was when she responded to the suggestion men’s issues should be debated in parliament on International Men’s Day (as there are few opportunities to discuss issues important to men) with:

When I’ve got parity, when women in these buildings have parity, you can have your debate. And that will take an awfully long time”
Whether or not you agree with her, Phillips was unfairly trolled with threats of violence and rape after this incident. Initially she reacted the same way most human beings would: by avoiding the internet but then came back fighting and showed women around the world how to deal with trolls: by promptly reporting and shaming their disgusting behaviour. Excellent work.

7. Mhaira Black

Mhaira Black, the youngest MP elected to the House of Commons, gave a killer maiden speech attacking the Conservative’s austerity programme, “I am the only 20 year  old in the UK that the Chancellor is prepared to help with housing.”

8. Saudi Arabia

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Not famed for their equality agenda, Saudia Arabia took a big leap forward this year by allowing women to vote for the first time ever. 130,000 women registered to vote which falls massively short of the 1.35m men that registered but in a country where women aren’t allowed to drive, this is progress.

 

9. Angela Merkel

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In the face of harsh criticism, Merkel stood firm on her policy to not limit the number of refugees that could enter Germany even though it meant standing alone. This year Germany have welcomed over 250,000 refugees which is over 12 times the number Britain has pledged to take in the next 5 years. Her response to critics that say she is compromising the security of Germany and stretching their resources too thinly? ” Wir schaffen das.”  We will cope.

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.

What I Learnt At The Labour Women’s Conference

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I spend a lot of time talking, thinking and writing about politics. I follow it the way others follow football, X-Factor or Great British Bake Off. So it is no understatement to say the Women’s Conference last week was one of my best days of 2015. It was a real privilege to meet so many inspirational, like-minded women. A week has passed and my post-conference buzz has just about worn off. So here is what I learnt the day on the day my Twitter feed came to life:

1) No Name Calling


For some party members coming face-to-face with a Corbyn voter must feel like bumping into an ex: stressful, painful and incredibly awkward. Equally for others, those that voted Kendall represent Labour betraying their roots. These tensions have been bubbling all Summer and came to ahead with the election of Jeremy Corbyn earlier this month. Whilst Mr Corbyn himself doesn’t do personal attacks, some of his supporters most definitely do. Twitter is littered with insults and abusive messages being flung back and forth. I was worried how this would manifest at a whole party event. Would the Corbynites be pelting Kendall’s 4.5% with cake? Would Cooper supporters heckle Burnham voters in the open mic session? 


It is with a huge amount of relief that I can report that there was no evidence of tension at the Women’s Conference. If anything, it was a hugely supportive and respectful environment which was particularly welcome of newcomers. In her address to the conference, Harriet Harman called for mutual respect and support between new members and
longstanding members. This very much set the tone for the rest of the day and all of my encounters were very positve. Paloma Faith’s “Never Tear Us Apart” was pretty much played on a loop all day in case any of use were unsure of the key message. 

2) We need to get politics into schools


I wish I could remember the person that first raised this issue in the open mic session because it really resonated with me. How do we engage young people in politics? How do we convince them that it is not about men in grey suits shouting things at one another but about them and their lives? Obviously this isn’t ALL teenagers. With the work of Abby Tomlinson, Stella Creasy, the rise of Corbyn and role of social media in politics, more young people have been inspired to get involved. But we need to do more. We need to get politics into schools. I’ve been thinking this might be something I want to work on in the next few years: stepping out of teaching and creating a program that takes politics into Primary schools. 


I ran a mock election with my Year 3 class last year – they had to create their own manifestos that addressed: immigration, tax, education, health and justice. These children were 7 years old but they understood these concepts and their ideas blew me away (although I’m not suggesting the government introduced an “I’m Sorry” tax for criminals like one group of children suggested.) I hear too many people say they “don’t know enough” to get involved with politics. I want the next generation to know that by having job, paying tax, using the NHS or going to school they absolutely DO know enough to have an opinion on how the country should be run. 


3) That the women in our party are amazing

The conference confirmed something I already know: there are some incredible women in politics at the moment and the conference was a fantastic opportunity to meet women working at both a local and nation level (can I post my selfie with Yvette Cooper yet?) Labour has more female MPs than the other main parties put together but there is still more work to do. Stella Creasy raised the issue of the lack of woman in some CLPs and asked the party to consider how they will address this. I joined the Labour Women’s Network on the day – they provide training and support for women running for public office which is fantastic but I only found out about it last week and I consider myself far more engaged in politics than the average person. 


4) Men allowed


A few people have asked my why there is a Women’s Conference and it’s a very good question. Some members of the Conservative Party (well, mainly Louise Mensch) have used the Women’s Conference to accuse Labour of segregation and sexism. I found out on the day that men ARE invited to attend the conference and it’s called the Women’s Conference because it deals with issues that affect women not because only women can attend. Obviously women’s issues are dealt with in the main conference too but I do wonder if in time the two will just merge.


5) Our party is amazing


Jess Phillips described the feeling as “warm and fuzzy” and that’s exactly how I felt as I took the long train diverted train journey back to London on Sunday. For better or worse our party is entering a new era and it is essential that we stay united. The Labour Party aren’t perfect but I feel so proud of everything we have achieved to date: introduction of the minimum wage, paid maternity leave, the NHS, the welfare state and so many things that we now take for granted. All of these things were fought for at one point and it was our party that fought for them. That is reason to feel very proud.