A Women’s Election

It was only a week ago when the world saw the first signs that we were all soon to be freed from the worst president in US history, and one whose rancorous presence has been ubiquitous in mainstream and social media over these past four years. The collective relief is still palatable, some of us describing a visceral experience of feeling lighter, the tensions in our bodies unravelling.

Post-election news coverage ranges far and wide in focus and bias. Stories on the pathetic behaviours of the current president to the speculation of what a Biden presidency will mean have been straddled alongside analyses of the voting tendency of each demographic. For all of that, I think not enough has been said about this election in terms of the role of women. As of 11 November (before all of the votes have been ratified) 53% of voters were women, the same as the 2016 presidential election. But the difference this time is that among these women voters 57% of them voted for Biden/Harris, or to phrase that another way – against Tr**p. In 2016, with a woman presidential candidate, the Democrats only managed 54% of the women’s vote. This difference is more significant still if one considers the higher voter turnout and that millions more women participated and voted against the misogynist-in-chief.

To emphasise this point, I quote from CNN’s Dean Obeidallah:

‘To me the biggest thanks go to the women of America. You gave us hope with the original Women’s March in 2017 the day after Trump’s inauguration. There’s clearly a straight line that runs from that march to the election of Kamala Harris as the first female vice president.’

Unfortunately, other members of the media have treated Harris’s win as a story for the fashion pages instead of the news analysis typically given to male politicians. The most notorious so far (and others will follow) came from the Daily Telegraph, who decided to give their Kamala Harris profile piece to the fashion editor.  Their Twitter headline of the resulting article says it all: “Why Kamala Harris is the modern beauty icon the world needs.”

Many have been outraged by this, rightly noting the sexist undertones. Yet, I don’t think it’s as straightforward as that. Those who criticise the fashion take on the new VP do so in part because they do not take fashion reporting, with a predominately female target audience, as seriously as they do other types of reporting. This point was drummed home this past week when I attended an online panel discussion hosted by the Society of Women Writers and Journalist. There, Helen Lewis, journalist and former deputy editor of The New Statesman, compared football journalism to fashion journalism. While both cover huge, profitable industries, football writing is regarded as ‘authentic’ and fashion writing as ‘frivolous.’

Helen Lewis

Even though the double standards in how women politicians are treated by the media are almost too obvious for discussion, most stories land into a fuzzy feminist zone. Example: The London Times had Kamala Harris in their Times2 section, which houses entertainment, health advice and my beloved puzzles. Their piece was about the white power suit being worn by powerful women. Fashion and politics collided and I found myself not being appalled as powerful women were being showcased. Perhaps such examples reflect the ambiguity liberal society has towards women in politics. That said, I’m still relishing the victory of last week.

A Serial Killer Sister and Nigerian Fiction

In need of some dark comedy? Oynikan Braithwaite’s My Sister, The Serial Killer is, as implied in the title, comic, darkly comic at times. Yet, it’s not just comedy. I see it as dramedy, a character study that explores a sister relationship in a sexist and superficial world.

The narrator, Korede works as a nurse in a hospital in Lagos. She tells us from the start that her stunningly beautiful sister Ayoola is a serial killer. The reader might at first suspect an unreliable narrator faced with Korede’s nonchalance as she sponges up the blood, helping her sister to cover-up her third murder of a boyfriend in ‘self-defence.’ As the story develops, we see the plain but likeable Korede harbouring a crush on Tade, a doctor at the hospital, while Alooya enjoys the attention from social media once her latest boyfriend-victim is assumed to be ‘missing.’ Memories of the other victims mix in with a family saga involving the sisters’ recently deceased father, a brutish man and unfaithful husband. Korede’s dreams of being with Tade are scuppered when Ayoola drops by the hospital, turns heads and effortlessly charms Tade. This love triangle can only go one direction, and the reader fears that once again the gorgeous Ayoola will get away with murder.

Even though the story is set in Nigeria and is authored by a Nigerian writer, for much of my reading I didn’t see it as ‘Nigerian Fiction.’ The story could have taken place in any urban setting in any country. Its themes of sisterhood and womanhood are universal. The characters’ names and references to national food and clothing serve as subtle reminders that we are in Nigeria. One minor exception to this comes from the narrator’s memory of the time a wealthy tribal chief came to the family home with an interest in the beauty named Ayoola. Korede protects her sister and prohibits any possible union between Ayoola and the chief from ever taking place. This mini-story is more of a reflection than a subplot, but does serve as a reminder of the treatment of women in countries like Nigeria.Braithwaite

Braithwaite’s novel might not fit into categories used by literary critics to describe Nigerian fiction. It’s not Colonial, Post-Colonial, Liberation or Nationalism, thematic categories filled by Nigerian male writers and known mostly outside of Africa through the works of Chinua Achebe. I’d like to think Braithwaite’s modern story is not so much about being Nigerian as it is about being human, about familial relations and the objectification of women. Such themes have long been accepted in the blindingly white Western canon without the need to label a work by its nationality.

It’s Killing Her

There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks about pandemics and epidemics. Let’s consider another epidemic. To quote historian Rebecca Solnit, ‘Violence against women is an epidemic that takes four lives a day in the USA and leaves millions living in terror or facing the torture of rape, beatings, stalkings, and abuse.’  According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the UK, 80 women were killed by a current or ex-partner in the past year – that’s a 27% increase on the previous year.

You’re welcomed to say that the Coronavirus (Covid-19) is a whole different thing altogether.  After all, the Coronavirus is a biological contagion with no known vaccine. Violence against women is a cultural contagion for which there are blindingly obvious cures.

There is another difference which struck me this week. Like many people around the world, I’ve been following the story of the British couple, the Abels, who were ‘quarantined’ on the Diamond Princess and then caught the virus. Before this incident, the Abels were strangers to me. But now, thanks to the Coronavirus, I know them by name – Sally and David Abel.

Aside from a few women celebrities, I cannot think of the name of one woman, previously unknown to me, who has been the victim of violence perpetrated by a man. On occasion these stories appear in the news, especially if a legal case is involved, but not for long before they fade away. Perhaps, it isn’t just the reporting, but the sheer numbers – to quote Stalin, ‘one death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.’

I recently read Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, a revisionist’s history of the well-known killings. On the premise that there’s been vast interest over the decades in identifying the ripper, and there’s been little about his victims. Furthermore, what has been said about these women is by and large inaccurate. For example, they were not all prostitutes. Only one of the five women was a prostitute when she was killed and another had been a prostitute briefly in her past. A point also worth mentioning is that, contrary to popular lore, none of these women had been raped by their killer. Based on police records, Rubenhold concludes that these women were all killed in their sleep and only one of them in her own bed – the others were sleeping rough on the streets of Victorian London. I leave it to you, dear reader, to extrapolate the levels of misogyny going on there.Femicide 2

Since I started with Rebecca Solnit, I’ll conclude with her as well: ‘Even those of us who are not direct victims are impacted by living in a world where such gender violence is both common and normalized or trivialized, where any woman may be harmed because she is a woman.’

 

Dipping into British Herstory

In Bloody Brilliant Women Cathy Newman writes about one of my heroines, Gertrude Bell, with a couple of lively examples exposing male perspectives that has kept Bell out of the history books. In the film version of Michael Ondaatje’s fabulous The English Patient, there is a scene where British soldiers are examining a map, trying to find a way through the mountains. One says, ‘The Bell map shows the way,’ and the other replies, ‘Let’s hope he’s right.’ Newman remarks on this unconscious bias, the assumption that a map maker must be male, behind this scriptwriting. For me, the more astounding point is that this error went unnoticed and unchecked by the script editor and the director’s assistant as well and made it to the screen.

Having read some of Gertrude Bell’s travelogues and letters and having seen an excellent documentary-cum-docudrama about her, Letters from Baghdad , I was pleased by Newman’s find of a letter from Sir Mark Sykes (he of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that carved up parts of the former Ottoman Empire for the likes of Britain, France and Russia). Sykes wrote to his wife describing Bell as ‘a silly chattering windbag of a conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blithering ass.’ No need to deconstruct the misogyny here. Newman follows this quote with a simple ‘Wow!’ An example of the laid back journalistic style used throughout the book.

Newman’s version of herstory covers some familiar territory with Emmeline Parkhurst, Millicent Fawcett and accounts of women impersonating men in order to fight in wars. But it is well worth a read as the book explains the significance of these pioneering women in their pursuit for justice and equality given the socio-political and legal contexts of their time.

As much of my understanding of herstory is of a more international variety, I’m grateful to Newman for introducing me to a few personages that I would have otherwise missed, and who I now feel compelled to read or read about. There’s Dora Russell who championed contraception, recognising that childbearing wasn’t only controlling women’s lives, but also shortening them. Dora is otherwise known as the second wife of Bertrand Russell. And there is Claudia Jones, a journalist and activist, who founded the Notting Hill Carnival. I close with one of Jones’s most quoted remarks: ‘A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom.’

Black Friday

Black Friday didn’t start with Amazon, gift wrapping or 30% off this or that. It didn’t even start, as the story goes, with shopkeepers coming out of the red and into the black due to the hordes of Christmas shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving.

The first Black Friday was on 18 November 1910, and it was in England. This was the day that some 300 women marched on Parliament, furious that Prime Minister Asquith called an election, meaning that Parliament would soon be dissolved and that the Conciliation Bill, giving some women the right to vote, was going to be scuppered. The Conciliation Bill was far from ideal, allowing only women property owners to vote, but it had already passed its first and second readings and was likely to pass into law. This was going to be momentous, a start of things to come on the road to full suffrage for women.

The women who converged on Parliament were angry and loud, but not violent. The violence came from police officers and men in the crowd. Some 30 women were seriously injured and a few days later two women died from what some sources believe d were conditions brought on by the police beatings.

Equally disturbing was the level of sexual violence perpetrated on these women. One suffragette noted: ‘Several times constables and plain-clothes men who were in the crowds passed their arms round me from the back and clutched hold of my breasts in as public a manner as possible, and men in the crowd followed their example… My skirt was lifted up as high as possible, and the constable attempted to lift me off the ground by raising his knee. This he could not do, so he threw me into the crowd and incited the men to treat me as they wished.’ (Source: British Museum)

Black Friday has come to mean an orgy of consumerism, the start of the Christmas shopping season. On the internet it takes place all weekend and in France it’s a week of ‘Black Fridays’. (Obviously, something got misplaced in translation.) So far removed from its original use and so little known to the average English-speaking person, Black Friday serves as a reminder of what we have come to value and what we choose to forget.

black friday

‘Man up’ – Johnson’s Sexist Parlance Continues

This time it’s a phrasal verb that demonstrates Prime Minister Johnson’s fluency in sexist language. While Johnson didn’t invent the phrase to man up, he has borrowed it from the underbelly of popular culture. According to the Google dictionary, it means to ‘be brave or tough enough to deal with an unpleasant situation.’ Yet, the definition is more than that. To man up is one of those expressions that carries its etymology with it – that is, its full meaning is to be brave and tough like a man. Many phrases and words in English (and other languages) linguistically operate in this metaphorical way. We have to break the ice and cherry picking, to name a couple. Unlike these examples, to man up gets its meaning from gender stereotyping, from a world where men are brave and tough and women are the antithesis. It’s a fantasy world that has disregarded women’s work and women’s voices for centuries.

Whenever I see what I think is sexist language or behaviour, I check myself by running the reversal test – I first heard of this back in the early 90s from American feminist Gloria Steinem. It goes like this – replace ‘woman’ with ‘man’ or ‘man’ with ‘woman’ and see what you get. I’ve never heard of ‘woman up.’ Pulling yourself together and acting like a woman is not in our public discourse. Further, whereas the underlying sense of ‘to act like a man’ means to be brave, ‘to act like a woman’ is nearly always used as a slur, saying that someone is emotional or bitchy.

It could be argued that Johnson is merely reflecting in his language the sexism that festers in our society. Maybe Johnson is copying a phrase that has a modern ring about it. But this PM has already leapt farther than that. He recently called Jeremy Corbyn a ‘big girl’s blouse’ when the Labour leader argued against a snap election.  Similarly sophomoric, Johnson referred to former PM David Cameron as a ‘girly swot.’ I find these examples of degradation by feminisation even more disturbing than using man up. These boys’-school-sounding phrases are not found in dictionaries. Both expressions are unique to the Johnson idiolect, no mimicry of popular culture or trying to sound cool involved.

What does that say about the man-child living at 10 Downing Street?

Suzy
Suzy Kassem

While Johnson has not turned his sexism into misogynistic legislation in the way Tr**p has (e.g. removing funding for women’s health in developing countries), I don’t think we should take the PM’s language lightly. To quote poet Suzy Kassem, ‘Never underestimate the power of a single word, and never recklessly throw around words. One wrong word, or misinterpreted word, can change the meaning of an entire sentence – and even start a war. And one right word, or one kind word, can grant you the heavens and open doors.’

 

Throwaway Thoughts on Politics and Religion

They say you should never talk politics or religion in polite company. As blogs are the antithesis of polite company, I can share a passage that struck me from Alan Johnson’s memoir In My Life:

‘Mine is a privileged generation. Not only have we prospered from the postwar rise in living standards, the creation of the NHS, significant advances in science and technology, the virtual eradication of diseases such as polio and diphtheria and the absence of world wars, we have also witnessed a transformation in public attitudes away from the casual barbarity of previous decades towards ethnic minorities, the disabled, the mentally ill, homosexuals and single mothers. Ironically, as the country has become less Christian in its adherence to religion, it has become more Christian in its way of life.’

This sound observation is one that we can see in other countries in recent decades, where the inverse has happened and more religious governments have stripped away peoples’ freedoms and equalities. I’m thinking about countries like Iran, which I remember being more liberal and women having more rights before the revolution and the religious state that followed.

Yet, the correlation between the dwindling numbers engaged in formal religions and the increase in liberalism isn’t as straightforward as this or as Alan Johnson would like us to believe. The advances in science and technology, which Johnson mentions,  and the accessibility of education, which he doesn’t,  are more likely contributors to marginalising religion while at the same time replacing intolerance and discrimination with acceptance and equality. When Nelson Mandela said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world,’ he was talking about making the world fairer and less impoverished.

Where Johnson writes of a ‘more Christian in its way of life,’ he is referring more generally to society and the laws that protect ethnic minorities, the disabled etc. I accept this generalisation, but at the same time I despair at all of the present-day laws that work to the detriment of women. (Dear Reader, please read Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, if you haven’t already.)

To be fair to Alan Johnson, what I have quoted was probably not intended to be dissected like this. A passage of deep thought in an otherwise light romp through the former politician’s childhood, these lines give the book more weight and texture. Perhaps too, I don’t want to be too hard on any writer who names each volume of his memoir after a Beatles song.

Malala
Malala’s version of the Mandela quote.

Coming to Terms with Invisible Women

I’m currently reading Caroline Criado Perez’s wonderful book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. She addresses many issues convincingly, such as the way drivers’ seats in cars are made and safety tested with men in mind and the amount of medical research that uses male as the default, leaving women’s health and medicine in the Middle Ages.  Statistics and studies are blended with entertaining – though often infuriating – anecdotes.

But I do have a bone to pick. After discussing the male-voice bias in voice recognition databases, raising some good points, Perez tackles corpora of written texts, which she notes are used by translators, CV-scanning software and web search algorithms. She failed to mention that these corpora were compiled by linguists, who are the main users of these databases for language research.  Because she has missed this point, her own research using corpora comes up short. This is what she did:

‘Searching the BNC [British National Corpus] (100 million words from a wide range of late twentieth century texts) I found that female pronouns consistently appear at around half the rate of male pronouns. The  520-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) also has a 2:1 male to female pronoun ratio despite including texts as recent as 2015.’

From this, Perez criticises the ‘gap-ridden corpora’ for giving ‘the impression the world is actually dominated by men.’

As someone who has used both corpora, I have a problem here. Representativeness is always taken into account when drawing data from these large corpora.  It is as much as part of the discussion as the results of the research itself. If I were looking at gendered pronoun use, I would first isolate my search to newspapers only, where I would expect the ratio of male to female pronouns to be even higher than what Perez found looking at all text types. Newspapers are not only written mostly by men, but report and comment on the world around us – its predominantly male politicians and public figures. And then there are the sports pages, where women’s sports struggle to get even a tenth of the column inches given to men’s sports. That is, newspapers, one of the main sources in the BNC, skew the figures. It might be more accurate to say that the world of news print is ‘actually dominated by men.’

Furthermore, corpus research is not just about frequency – it’s also about the context these search terms appear in. For example, a search on the word ‘hysterical’ will show that it is often in the context of ‘she’ or some women mentioned by name. This for me is more telling than the frequency of ‘she’ in printed texts. There is so much more to learn about gendered pronouns in a more rigorous search. The conclusions could reflect the biases in our societies more than the biases in the collection of data.

hysterical
Taken from a quick search on Webcorp of internet texts.

 

Okay, I’ve had my linguist’s rant and I don’t wish to labour the point. Many of the studies in this book – and it is an avalanche of studies – are thoroughly considered against other studies, often revealing gaps in data, where sex difference hasn’t been taken into account, or where it has, women have been deliberately and shamefully excluded.

Pronoun Problems

Schools in Brighton have begun issuing gender pronoun badges in an attempt to support trans students. The badges read: ‘My pronouns are she/her/hers,’ ‘My pronouns are he/him/his,’ ‘My pronouns are they/them/theirs.’  Hang on a minute. How can ‘my’ a singular pronoun match up with plural pronouns ‘they/them/theirs’? I have seen this number-agreement abomination a couple of times recently but only in publications of the sort that still want to spell ‘woman’ as ‘womyn.’  It was easy to ignore ‘I interviewed them’ instead of ‘I interviewed her’ thinking this trend would fade. But putting ‘My…they…’ on a badge – that’s another matter.

Sidebar – really, when it comes to language, like any self-respecting linguist, I’m a descriptivist and not a prescriptivist. Language is not about correct versus incorrect. I describe language – warts and all, changes and fashions – language is constantly growing and developing. And I love it for those reasons.

At the risk of sounding like a prescriptivist, referring to a single individual as ‘they’ rubs me the wrong way. I don’t see it as being inclusive as much as I see it as annoying and potentially confusing. I appreciate the sentiment of not wanting to be identified by ones birth gender if you are transitioning, but messing with number agreement seems a linguistic step too far.

Ideally, one could follow the principles of number agreement and refer to oneself gender-neutrally as ‘it.’ No, of course not. In English, ‘it’ is the table, the chair, the concept and a multitude of other things. People are offended if they are referred to as ‘it’ – they don’t even refer to their pets as ‘it.’

Is it just number agreement or do I have a subconscious dislike of ‘they’? It is something of a weasel word, used without specific meaning for all of those people out there, used by armchair commentators, used by racists.

Language aside for a moment, this badging business has another problem built into it, or should I say ‘them’? When I was a child if someone had offered me a badge, I would have gone for the ‘My pronouns are he/him/his,’ not because I wanted to change my sex (such options weren’t on the table in those days), but simply because I didn’t want to be treated like a girl. I loved baseball, science fiction and chess. I preferred go-carts and photography over dolls and make-up. My badge would have been making a point about equality. Given the ubiquity of sexism these days, I could imagine young women feeling the same way today.

These days, I find myself more disposed to the ideas of gender hybridity, fluidity and neutrality.  This might not suit everyone, but I think in a liberal society, we have to respect our differences. As for language, I’d be quite happy to get rid of ‘he’ and ‘she’ altogether. That would leave us with ‘I,’ ‘you,’ ‘we,’ ‘it’ and – oh, dear – ‘they.’

Paola 1972 001
Me, aged 10, on my go-cart.

Magical Realism, Women Writers and Brexit

I was not not not going to write about Brexit this week. I started out a few days ago writing on Jesmyn Ward’s moving novel Sing Unburied Sing. This was going to be about women writers of magical realism in honour of International Women’s Day – okay, a few days late as that was 8 March, but I was in Italy, where everything runs late.

Ward’s novel is set in post-Hurricane-Katrina Mississippi and is about a culture trapped in poverty that spirals into drug abuse, violence, imprisonment and broken families brought together by older generations raising their grandchildren. This grim narrative is lifted by tender moments between the children and between the grandfather and his grandson and by the writing itself. Often poetic in its descriptions, the story abounds with metaphors that run throughout its telling. I was also carried along in what was otherwise bleak by imaginative scenes that would place this work in the category of magical realism. At least for me. I haven’t seen this novel treated as magical realism in any review.

What is magical realism then? In literature (it’s also found in other art forms) it refers to fiction that is set in the real world, but has some magical or fable-like elements to it. It differs from Sci-Fi and Fantasy by being in a highly plausible world and one that the reader recognises, such as modern-day America. The magical elements in such fiction are understood by the characters to be real – that is not in dreams or hallucinations. Some well-known examples are the novels and short stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Franz Kafka and Salmon Rushdie’s’ Midnight’s Children.

Any online list on authors of magical realism tends to be a rather Y-chromosome affair. The exceptions are the odd book written by women writers, such as Allende’s House of the Spirits and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. There are plenty of women writers missing from these lists, including Ursula K Le Guin, who tends to be seen only for Fantasy, and Louise Erdrich, who gets lumped into Native American Literature.

Maybe these are just categories of interest to publishers and literary scholars, and ultimately they have nothing to do with enjoying such books. I accept that view. Yet, I wonder if magical realism has become a less-used category of writing because of the way modern readers are viewing the world around them. This is where Brexit reared its head. We live in an age of alternative truths and facticide, where magical thinking has become normalised.

Perhaps there is a danger in writing about magical realism while Parliament was once again voting against the government’s proposed Brexit deal. It appears as if a recurring dream, full of fanciful ideas and characters openly contradicting themselves with speeches of the sort found in Kafka’s The Castle. But we all know that these scenes are not from dreams or hallucinations.Brexit - next steps