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

Brexit on the Brain

It’s hard not to think about Brexit these days, but harder still not to write about it. With the multitude of issues and possible scenarios, it’s become messy. Hence, I give you some vignettes.

  • The People’s Vote (or second referendum, if you will) seems closer than ever. At least, that’s what a great many politicians and advocacy groups are espousing. With Parliamentarians and the government unable to reach a decision, it would seem wise to turn the decision back to the people.
  • The People’s Vote has never felt further away. The crushing defeat of the Prime Minister’s Brexit Deal, already agreed by the EU, coupled with the inability to oust the PM, boxes weary MPs into a corner of compromise and realpolitik. It also has to be said that poll after poll is showing a swing in favour of remaining in the EU. In order words, a People’s Vote is more than likely going to give us a remain result. And that’s why it won’t happen. There are too many people with money and in positions of power that want Brexit to happen and this is the closest they have ever been. They will do anything to stop a People’s Vote.
  • Ending up with a No Deal Brexit is a misnomer. The no deal is actually a deal. It’s not like trying to buy a new house, ending up without a deal and returning to your own house and life continues as it was before you tried to buy that new house. But with a No Deal Brexit, we are losing something – the house, or possibly just the furniture, or we’ll keep the house, but it gets moved to a bad neighbourhood and gets drastically devalued. I’ll stop the metaphor there – too many Brexit metaphors aloft these days. The point is that we will not return to our lives as they were before – that’s simply not possible.
  • Theresa May insists she’s responding to the wishes of the British people by delivering on Brexit. Of course, we all know that the referendum took place over two years ago and that a great many things have happened since then. We also all know that the Brexit campaign rested on half-truths and some blatant lies, with a dash of fantasy-world negotiations and trade deals. With the realities of Brexit setting in, and poll after poll showing more UK voters want to remain in the EU than want to leave it, how can the PM claim that Brexit is what people want?
  • What has happened to the Liberal Democrats? They have consistently been against Brexit with a party united in this view. Their membership has surged over these past two years and they have made huge gains in local elections and bi-elections. Yet, the national British media gives them scant attention. In recent weeks, I’ve seen Sir Vince Cable (the Lib-Dem leader, in case you’ve understandably forgot) quoted more in the French press than in the British papers. C’est la vie.
  • The PM and other Tories are now saying that 80% of the British people who voted at the last general election voted for parties that promised Brexit in their manifestos. What they are saying is not a lie. Both the Conservative and Labour manifestos promised to deliver on Brexit, and both were vague about what this might entail. But at the last general election Jeremy Corbyn did not win votes on a pro-Brexit platform. He managed to stay away from the topic, focusing on other problems (health care, poverty, fairness), hoping that his supporters were not reading the party manifesto. That was a bet that paid off – while some 70% of Labour voters are against Brexit, they also voted for Corbyn.
  • Some clever number crunchers have calculated that by the middle of January 2019 (about now), if the same people who voted in the referendum in 2016 voted again and even voted the same way, Remain would win. This is because a substantial number of the elderly who voted for Brexit would have died. If you add into this new referendum the young voters who could not vote last time – subtracting out the likelihood that many of them wouldn’t bother to vote, Remain would win by a landslide.
  • One of the concerns raised about a No Deal Brexit or even a bad deal Brexit is the difficulty in getting medicines into the into the UK, for example insulin. Less than 1 percent of insulin used in the UK is made in the UK. Most UK-bought insulin comes from Germany, Denmark and France. Contingency plans and stockpiling are in the works for which I assume Theresa May is thankful. As Type 1 diabetic, she is currently on a regime of four insulin injections per day.
  • Recent weeks have been ‘historical’ – the word worn with overuse. It was indeed historical when the House of Commons voted to hold the government in contempt of Parliament for not revealing the legal advice they received on Brexit. That was a first in British history. It was also historical when the PM’s Brexit deal lost in the House of Commons by a resounding 432 votes to 202 – the largest defeat of a government in over 100 years. I’m reminded of James Joyce’s Ulysses when Stephen Dedalus says,  “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”