Difficult Women

Prime Minister Theresa May was once publicly referred to as a ‘bloody difficult woman’ by one of her own MPs, Kenneth Clarke. May revelled in it and used the label to raise her feminist credentials. But the more I read about ‘difficult women,’ the more I think May was undeserving of the accolade. Her brief time at No. 10 Downing Street left many of us wondering about her competence as she fumbled her way through Brexit negotiations that left all sides unhappy.

In Helen Lewis’s book Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, the author looks at the lives of 19th and 20th century women who were judged as difficult women, but who were clearly breaking barriers, often risking their lives and destroying their and their families’ reputations. These stories make Theresa May look like a lightweight, if not a fraud among difficult women.

Among Lewis’s choices are the many little-known suffragettes, who spent years in prison for rioting, and women who weren’t allowed in universities, but having been accepted went anyway – with sympathetic male escorts. Lewis also writes about Marie Stopes, who was a palaeobotanist and campaigner for women’s right, perhaps best known for her book on the female body Married Love (1918), and for being the founder of Britain’s first birth control clinic. To Lewis’s credit, she points out that Stopes wasn’t a complete inspirational heroine. Stopes was a gushing admirer of Adolph Hitler, going so far to send him some of her love poems, and she was a strong advocate for eugenics. Lewis writes about her because she was complicated and because women’s histories tend to be selective in our modern search for feel-good role models and pioneers.

Bringing this topic back into the 21st century, I did a search on ‘difficult woman’ in the News on the Web Corpus of some 14 billion plus words, mostly from written language but including news transcripts. The Kenneth Clarke quote loomed large. Other women referred to as ‘difficult’ were Winnie Mandela, Megan Markle and Patti Smith, along with many people’s mothers. I did another search looking for occurrences of ‘difficult man’ in the news corpus. I expected to find fewer occurrences of ‘difficult man’ than ‘difficult woman,’ but the opposite was true. ‘Difficult man’ occurred 20% more frequently than ‘difficult woman.’ Why is this? I suspect, first of all, it’s because men are more likely than women to appear in the news. Examining the contexts of these occurrences more closely, I noticed that ‘difficult’ was often used to label the woman as if she belongs to a type of woman that didn’t need any further explaining. That’s who she is, and our culture understands what that means. Difficult man often appeared in phrases such as ‘a difficult man to pin down’ and ‘a difficult man to track down’ – the busy, important man – and in sports contexts, ‘a difficult man to mark’ and ‘a difficult man to stop’ – the heroes of the male-dominated sports news (oh, don’t get me started on that one – the lack of coverage of women’s sports).

Writing about this topic probably makes me a difficult woman. With this in mind, I’ll close with a quote from Helen Lewis: ‘Being a feminist unavoidably involves being a killjoy, because it involves puncturing the cosy bubble of consensus. That’s difficult, and it can make you seem difficult for doing it.’

Marie Stopes

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.