The basic bitch: a lifelong struggle with relating to Generic Womanhood

Friday, 14 November 2014


I

In 1999, I smugly recorded in my diary that on non-uniform day at school, I'd been one of only two girls in my form not to wear head to toe sports brands. Aged 14, my favourite outfit consisted of cord flares (Gap; too big as I'd misread the label and looked at the US sizing), a bottle green velvet jacket (Camden Market) and cherry red Dr Marten boots (£30 in the sale. £30). The girls who tended to wear head to toe sports brands and mock my cord flares, were 'trendies': the basics of the late 90s. In 1999, trendies wore Kickers or Fila sweatshirts with bootcut jeans and listened to boy bands and UK garage. I inked Kula Shaker lyrics onto my homework diary in metallic gel pen; they did the same with the lyrics to Sweet Like Chocolate. 

In 2004, I was a student. The trendy, transported into the campus environment, had evolved, and my best friend and I, angsty and awkward, were by now referring to them as 'generics'. Generics wore Miss Sixty jeans and sometimes their boyfriend's sports stash. They had super-straight hair and made a lot of noise in the dining hall. They were your rag reps and your Christmas ball committee and they sniggered behind their hands whenever the Christian Union rep made an announcement about something. They didn't write angry letters to the student magazine when the Union bar ran a Playboy-themed night. They chatted loudly in the corridor about how they were definitely cutting back on carbs. I only had two small potatoes with dinner this evening. Do you think that's ok?

It's 2014 and the trendy who became the generic has now evolved into the 'basic', or the 'basic bitch'. Despite the origins of the term, it's come to to define a particular sort of young white woman. The basic likes Uggs and seasonal beverages and posting dubiously-attributed Marilyn Monroe quotes on Facebook, while watching Sex and the City and scrolling through her 'wedding inspiration' board on Pinterest. Should you wish to find out, Buzzfeed et al can give you examples of what a basic posts on Instagram, the sort of texts she sends, how she treats her boyfriend and what she gets up to on a girls' night out.

The US-centric stereotype doesn't always translate, but the idea of the basic is universal. And as Noreen Malone wrote in this piece for The Cut last month, it's taken off because it 'feels restrained, somehow'.

'You don’t quite have to stoop to calling someone a slut or a halfwit or anything truly cruel. It’s not as implicating as calling someone tacky — the basic woman is so evidently nonthreatening she doesn’t even deserve such a raised pulse. Basic-tagging is coolly lazy. It conveys a graduate seminar’s worth of semiotics in five letters. “So basic,” you think, scrolling through your Facebook feed. “She’s basic,” you offer to a friend, commenting on her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. It was a word we’d been looking for.'

Malone sums it up perfectly when she describes the basic as 'the woman who fails to surprise us'. She buys into what society and capitalism tells us it means to be a woman today. She's unoriginal, and she doesn't care. What's noticeable about the current usage of 'basic' is that it doesn't simply describe unoriginal patterns of consumption; it also describes patterns of thought and modes of expression. Feminists can be 'basic'. Mothers can be 'basic' (witness the rivalry between Mumsnet and Netmums and the stereotypes the former has of the latter). Fashion and lifestyle bloggers who don't necessarily buy in to generic consumerism but actually see themselves as pretty 'alternative' can also be 'basic'.

II

As if you couldn't have guessed it, from my tales of 1999 and 2004, I have to confess to a lifelong struggle with all that is basic. At the age of 14, major aspects of my personality and behaviour were little more than a construction to throw other girls off the scent and give them something to talk about. If they're mocking my clothes and my taste in music, at least they're not mocking the way I look or the fact I don't have a boyfriend. It was only in recent years that it became clear to me exactly what I'd been up to, diverting their mockery at the same time as inwardly marking myself out as better than them. If you grew up being given funny looks by all your popular, incredibly generic peers, if you ever felt like a tortured soul or called yourself 'indie' or wrote in your journal that you were pretty misunderstood, really, you've probably had a lifelong struggle with relating to all that is basic. Sooner than you know it you're 30 years old, and you're still avoiding basics and rolling your eyes when they pop up in your Facebook feed.

Those of us who can't deal with 'basicity' have a tendency to (inwardly) mark ourselves out as 'not like Those Women'; those generic ones over there. In a hangover from our school years, we categorise and separate out. We're more unique, more interesting, more special. Today the tables have turned, and the basic is no longer queen. She may subscribe to all that is on-trend and acceptable for women, but she's no longer cool. What I believe is an uncomfortable truth for many of us as feminists, however, is that decrying basic culture is kind of problematic. We know it, and we do it anyway. Noreen Malone started to explore this and hit the nail on the head when she concluded her piece saying:

'And so the woman who calls another woman basic ends up implicitly endorsing two things she probably wouldn’t sign up for if they were spelled out for her: a male hierarchy of culture, and the belief that the self is an essentially surface-level formation.'

When you're calling another woman basic, you probably haven't got to know her very well. And it's fairly reliant on your perception of what society sees as 'things for women' as inferior. Ouch. I'm not going to pretend I'm the first person to feel conflicted about the popularity of the word. In fact, the thinkpieces about it have been numerous. Anne Helen Petersen, for Buzzfeed, described women being dismissive of all things basic as little more than class anxiety, citing the term's origins as having class connotations and explaining its current usage in the same way:

'Unique taste — and the capacity to avoid the basic — is a privilege. A privilege of location (usually urban), of education (exposure to other cultures and locales), and of parentage (who would introduce and exalt other tastes). To summarize the groundbreaking work of theorist Pierre Bourdieu: We don’t choose our tastes so much as the micro-specifics of our class determine them. To consume and perform online in a basic way is thus to reflect a highly American, capitalist upbringing. Basic girls love the things they do because nearly every part of American commercial media has told them that they should.'

Petersen ends her piece by telling us that mockery of the basic woman is 'troubling' and 'regressive':

'To call someone “basic” is to look into the abyss of continually flattening capitalist dystopia and, instead of articulating and interrogating the fear, transform it into casual misogyny.'

Responding on Thought Catalog, Anna Dorn vehemently disagrees. Calling out basicity, as she sees it, is 'rooted in female empowerment'. She gets the argument that deriding other women as 'basic' for choices they have made in the vacuum of patriarchal society is misogyny, but she doesn't ascribe to it.

'...basic-bashing is not about punishment. It’s about women rising up. It’s about women saying – We can be real people with real thoughts and opinions. We can wear our natural hair. We can be loud and curse and be offensive. We can say fuck heels because they hurt. Basicity is about giving power to the fringes, because basics – the walking embodiment of male subordination – ultimately have all the power.'

She concludes that '...basic-bashers can’t be misogynistic because we don’t stand to benefit from patriarchy.'

III

Both Petersen and Dorn are partially correct. As women, defining ourselves as superior to basics is somewhat rooted in anxieties surrounding consumption and class - even when we write off feminists as 'basic' because their commitment to the cause goes about as far as reading Lena Dunham's autobiography and thinking that a women's magazine running a feature on feminism 'is everything'. But it's not the full story. It's about buying in to expectations that we'll always define ourselves in opposition to some other group of women. Not like those women, thinking this, supporting that and wearing those clothes. Writing off women as friends and sisters because our opinions are superior or because they haven't reached a certain level of consciousness yet, sealing ourselves off and sneering at the Other. Radfems vs libfems vs funfems vs whitefems.

When we differentiate ourselves from all that is basic, we're representing all that is real and diverse and exciting about being a woman on the fringe when it is, indeed, what is generic and safe that has the power. Every woman who's ever felt free to be the person she really is knows that. Generic and safe is the ideal, and when you don't fit the mold you're often made to feel bad about it. Being able to say 'That's not me and I don't care' is liberating. But defining 'basic-bashing' as feminist praxis? 21st century empowerment as declaring that we're not like other girls and effectively writing off those generic specimens of womanhood as people who matter? It's indisputably problematic.

It's here that disagreements over the nature of sisterhood are bound to come in. Feminism doesn't mean liking all other women, or even being able to relate to them, but sneering at other women and calling it empowered shouldn't even come into it. Call it what it is: an extension of the way women have always been socialised to relate to other women, judging them and eyeing them up as competition and fuelling our anxieties about being interesting and clever and real.

Having always written off that which we now call basic, I've felt challenged in recent weeks not to buy into that any longer. Don't like particular women for particular reasons? Fine. Name them. But basic-bashing isn't about women rising up. It's upholding the status quo and shutting women out of potential opportunities to learn, grow, and identify with one another,

Feminist t-shirts, call-outs and commodification

Sunday, 2 November 2014


At the beginning of the year I made a resolution of sorts, to distance myself from the sort of feminism that only actually mentions a feminist campaign or organisation when it's tearing it down. There's nothing wrong with critique and highlighting issues within reason, but by the end of last year I'd become thoroughly bored with performative call-outs as a primary form of engagement. This has had its plus points: for one thing I haven't had to spend most of my precious little free time telling everyone how I'm not here for this sort of feminism and not here for her brand of feminism, thanks very much. And one debate I haven't had to wade into recently has been the one surrounding ELLE's next step on its mission to bring a reinvigorated feminism to the readers of glossy magazines. 

It is definitely a good few years since I first wrote about my discomfort with the commodified 'trendy feminism' campaigns that women's magazines have run, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and commitment, in the last five years or so. Here's one disclaimer: I do appreciate ELLE's commitment to focusing on women's issues in recent years; they've managed to do it better than other women's magazines (putting aside that whole thing with the 'rebrand' of feminism. But I get it. I know they can't exactly take a crap on consumerism; I'm just not going to say I'm comfortable with it). But I haven't been able to force myself to care all that much about the magazine's new partnership with Whistles and the Fawcett Society and, it seems, various attractive famous men (another disclaimer: I own an original Fawcett Society 'This is what a feminist looks like' t-shirt, as I've supported its work for the last eight years). 

It's nothing we haven't been through before. Feminist merchandise at £45 a time (£85 if you want a sweatshirt), unavailable any bigger than a size 16. The publicity opportunities for politicians and celebrities and the 'outrage' that David Cameron wouldn't wear one. We know that there are some redeeming factors - well-known public figures at least claiming to support gender equality; exposure to people who might not otherwise think very much about feminism or think it's something they can be a part of. If it changes anyone's life and makes them a feminist or somewhere, somehow, improves a woman's life, then, I will concede, fair enough. In the spirit of the times, online news outlets have shown us image galleries of people wearing these t-shirts and proclaimed that Benedict Cumberbatch being our ally 'is everything'. So far, so predictable.

Things took an interesting turn on Saturday night, when Twitter got wind of the Mail on Sunday's front-page exposé of exploitative conditions in the factory where the t-shirts have been made. One worker is quoted as saying: ‘How can this T-shirt be a symbol of feminism? These politicians say that they support equality for all, but we are not equal.’ The Fawcett Society was absolutely on the ball with crisis management and quick to issue a statement saying it had been assured by Whistles that the factory producing the t-shirts complied with the highest ethical, sustainable and environmental standards possible. I don't doubt that this was a key consideration for Fawcett, and as we've seen, Whistles and ELLE have subsequently issued statements to the same effect. Ensuring standards are met isn't always easy and the garment industry is a minefield in this respect.

Much has been said about the credentials of all involved in the campaign and in the Mail on Sunday's exposé. Politicians taking part in publicity stunts - how much do they know about how their clothes are made? The investigative journalism tearing down a very public feminist campaign, published by a newspaper with absolutely no previous form for supporting gender equality or migrant workers. What I haven't been able to get behind, though, is the smug trashing of Fawcett, ELLE, and anyone who's supported their campaign and bought a t-shirt. It's a sad state of affairs when the first sign of interest in either ethical working conditions or marginalised women from the Mail comes at the expense of feminism, and the glee with which the whole thing has been reported needs nothing but contempt. What it doesn't need is to be held up, alongside the screengrabbed tweets of Fawcett supporters and well-known names, as 'everything that is wrong with feminism', a stick to beat the same old women about the same old things in the same tedious fashion. Nobody wins.

ELLE and Whistles have received a trashing, despite their best intentions. The Fawcett Society has, as far as I've seen, gained some support for its professional handling of the situation - yet has clearly still received a trashing. The Mail on Sunday has jumped at the opportunity to take part in the same tedious progressive/left/feminism-bashing they've been doing for years. And I'm betting it won't devote much time to covering exploitation of women and migrant workers overseas in the future, because clickbait misogyny and xenophobia will always be much higher on its agenda. Women working in factories in Mauritius are still working in the same conditions. The garment industry won't get an overhaul any time soon - and certainly not thanks to the sort of people on Twitter who, as ever, will keep on posting screenshots of Things Well-Known Feminist Campaigners Have Said and devoting hours at a time to sneering at them. Politicians will continue to display a dubious grasp of what 'improving women's lives' means. No-one will ever mistake David Cameron for a feminist.

So: no victories. Feminism got commodified, celebrities got column inches, activists got called out, and the majority of women in the UK remained completely untouched by whatever it was trying to achieve. Good job, everyone. I'm continuing to support the Fawcett Society because I believe it is a real force for good. I genuinely hope that this whole situation is resolved for the best and that all involved are able to make it clear that they did their utmost to ensure ethical production. But if awareness-raising initiatives can't make a break with consumerism and celebrity PR opportunities, then I can't help thinking that we'll see something similar happen again. The co-option of feminist activism into profits for t-shirt manufacturers has been much discussed in the wake of #YesAllWomen and more recently, FCKH8's 'Potty-mouthed princesses' video. Women in the movement can't prevent this sort of thing from happening, but campaigners can be smarter about how they hope to engage women with feminism.

On equality and power: a post about a post

Thursday, 28 August 2014


This is a post about a post. It is unfortunate; as combative blogging is somewhat looked down upon by much of the Christian blogosphere these days. But if this post makes people disappointed, or saddened, so be it, because there are things that need to be said.

Alastair Roberts has been writing a lot about gender, power and equality recently. I respect Alastair and what he brings to the table, even though I don't agree with many of his conclusions on these particular subjects. He's absolutely right to point out that a narrow definition of feminism based on a shallow sort of 'equality' that favours the privileged - 'equality', for example, that cares a great deal about getting more women in boardrooms but little for women on the breadline. But in saying that "there is an implicit class opposition within equality feminism that is seldom adequately addressed", he is wrong. While it may be seldom addressed by the mainstream media, the examination of liberal feminism and what it offers (or doesn't offer) to the majority of women is a key topic of discussion within the movement and has been for years.

Movement women are very aware of the fact that the idea of "equality" has not so much advanced the lives of all women so much as the lives of a privileged few. At Greenbelt festival last weekend I spoke on feminist activism and made a point of talking about this very problem, highlighting it not as a reason for feminists to be discouraged and dismiss the idea that the movement could have something to offer all women, but as a reason to work for greater inclusion, giving space to the voices of the marginalised.

Yesterday, some of Alastair's comments on equality and power were reposted by Andrew Wilson at the Think Theology blog. The debate that ensued encouraged me to write this, because of how incredibly disappointing I found it that Alastair's words were posted with very little context in what looks very much like complementarian point-scoring to me. What can be taken from the post is a description of the feminist movement as focused on equality of outcome above all with value on the most the privileged, when society could do with more focus on, as described:

"...robust and accessible universal healthcare, better maternity leave and more provision and flexibility for part time workers, equitable wages, secure jobs for their husbands and partners, a strengthening of marriage culture, the deepening and enriching of local community life and its groups and institutions, a society that is more mother and child friendly, action and stigma against domestic abuse and such things as street harassment..."

I don't think that anyone could argue that society could benefit from increased focus on achieving these goals, which is why feminists have been working towards them for decades. And if these things could be more successfully achieved without the banner of feminism to hold them back, I'd be interested to know where the pushback, where the actual work on these issues is coming from outside the movement at present? Is the example being set by the complementarian gatekeepers? Walk the walk on gender issues if you believe it's important; without succumbing to benevolent sexism; without denying women the place to speak from their own experience.

I realise that might be difficult, if you're generally in agreement with statements such as:

"...the entrance of women into new spheres has often led to a weakening of the social power of those spheres, as women are often more vulnerable and easily exploited..." 

and

"In Scripture, this priestly role is often associated not merely with men, but with ‘alpha’ men. The Church is strengthened as a body when it is led by persons with steel backbones, principles, and nerves, persons that can withstand others in more confrontational situations." 

It helps no-one when men's reactions to the absolutely justified pushback against such statements is described as "emotive", "all the shouting", and "brouhaha". Egalitarian and feminist women and their allies as pawns while the gatekeepers believe they're above such displays of emotion and subjectivity. As I mentioned to someone on Twitter earlier today, I do not wish for the experiences of individuals to be paramount at all times and at all costs, but yesterday's post was a prime example of when the experiences and intepretations of individual women are important - women for whom this is not theoretical; women for whom this is their life, their calling, their gifting. While complementarian gatekeepers discuss their theories about what we're good for and what we're allowed to do in closed circles and echo chambers, women are representing more than half of the church, leading, pioneering, keeping on keeping on. And they're doing it regardless of whether these gatekeepers believe a church with women in leadership is an "increasingly impotent institution".

They're also well aware that the majority of Christian women don't aspire to be bishops. When I helped found the Christian Feminist Network, we agreed that one of our aims would be to take the conversation on Christianity and feminism beyond women in church leadership and women bishops, not because we believe it's not important but because we believe Christian feminism is for the mothers, the grandmothers, the CEOs and the entrepreneurs, the women on the breadline and the women who have been abused and the women who don't want to lead from the front but support from alongside. If people like Andrew Wilson were more willing to dialogue with us then they'd know that. But I'm not sure that the activities of grassroots women's groups figure much inside the echo chamber.

Yesterday's post, with its out-of-context remarks on caring more about the marginalised, "alpha male" leadership and the reasons why women are supposedly unsuited for certain roles was published at an inappropriate time, with the scandal of child abuse in Rotherham making headlines. The scandal of child abuse - an appalling misuse of power carried out on vulnerable young people and ignored by powerful men. An inappropriate time, too, as the saga of noted alpha male Mark Driscoll continues and the sagas of abuse of power by patriarchal church leaders - Bill Gothard, Doug Phillips, pastors involved with Sovereign Grace Ministries - continue to make headlines in the USA. Those who want to uphold the dignity and equality of women without the banner of feminism would do well to walk the walk regarding these incidents. And yet, so often, what we see instead are calls for "grace", or indeed, complete silence, as the echo chamber of privileged and powerful men with little personal interest in those they so enjoy theorising about  - remains immutable.

Talk to us. Listen to us. It's a year now since I made the decision to stop justifying myself to anyone in the name of egalitarianism and feminism, so if that's what you want, look elsewhere. But don't attempt to portray a political movement as irredeemably blinkered to suit your own ends, then act surprised when people aren't happy.

Read more:

#FaithFeminisms - Where we've come from vs where we must go

Thursday, 24 July 2014


Reading so many stories of women coming to find their feminism alongside, or as part of, their faith this week made me realise the details of how it happened for me had become slightly hazy. I've told people the tale so often now: I went to university as a lifelong Anglican who'd never been taught a single thing about gender and religion, but also as one who had also started identifying as evangelical. In the following years, I slowly began to learn that some people didn't believe women could be church leaders, and that they also believed in rigid gender roles. I struggled to feel as if I fit in at church, feeling as if people wanted to cram my personality into a box marked 'Biblical femininity' and do away with all the bits that made me who I was. I'd started to pick up the messages from leafing through books and from coming across blogs aimed at Christian women. Even though I'd grown up far removed from the US evangelical culture of the time, it was starting to affect my life. When I got engaged, more than one person told my husband-to-be that they didn't think I was right for him and advised him to reconsider. I was the young woman who was Too Much, with the wrong sort of upbringing and the wrong sort of ambitions.

What I'd forgotten over the years is how much this hurt. These days I tend to consider myself quite privileged to have come to faith and grown up outside the sort of Christian culture that has caused so much pain to so many. Looking back at my Livejournal (yes, my Livejournal) from the time it's filled with accounts of news stories I found that worried me intensely: The Silver Ring Thing trying to raise its profile in the UK; people I knew starting to talk approvingly about Mark Driscoll; conservative blogs on 'Biblical womanhood' that named as 'selfish', among other things, working outside the home, eating disorders, and 'giving in to PMT'. I worried about what would be expected of me as a married woman, and I didn't know what to do. I knew something wasn't right, but I worried that the problem was me. In 2007 I was writing about asking God to show me where the problem lay. Was I displeasing Him? Was I, as ever, Not Good Enough?

Enter my discovery of egalitarianism, and I know many of you know where that led me. Reading back into my story today has reminded me not to forget the place I came from. Yesterday, I told someone how strongly I feel that as a community of women, as Christians and feminists we must tell our stories, but also move past the incessant going over of those 'moment of realisation' posts, the posts about how yes, indeed, faith and feminism are compatible. They give us warm fuzzy feelings but do they move us forwards? I remember today the women who will be reading through the #FaithFeminisms posts this week with a growing sense of excitement and a sense of sisterhood, the feeling that they're not alone and the problem isn't theirs to 'get over'. I was there once, and then everything changed.

For the rest of us though, when we've been here a while we can be tempted to get tired of it all. At a time when discussions about the feminist movement often seem to be centred on its 'toxic nature', an incessant cycle of call-outs, fall-outs, and the drawing of lines in the sand, it's easy to hold up our hands and step back. Are these our people after all? Aren't they, well, a bit angry? But if we disengage and seek solace in the safety of our own privileges, of evangelical subculture and its respectability, I don't believe we'll be the women we're called to be. It's easy to take the 'I'm all right' route, stay content in our progressive crowd and forget about all those for whom things are very much not all right. Even as more progressive voices make themselves heard, there's still an emphasis on watching our tone, being careful not to be 'divisive' and being careful not to upset conservatives or men. Often, it seems as if the message is: you'll never win them over unless you play it safe and play nice and make sure that men get to take centre stage too. 

I believe what we're called to do instead is bring the very best aspects of our faith to the feminist table. Foster understanding, demonstrate love, and stand against injustice. Demonstrate true sisterhood. Don't be tempted by performative social justice activism that prioritises call-outs, ideological purity, and ejecting people from the fold over recognising people's humanity and discussing problematic behaviour in a productive way. We feel saddened by the performative gatekeeping of Christianity, with its 'farewells' and smackdowns. Let our feminism not fall prey to the same problems. This week I've seen people better known by the mainstream movement and from outside the movement altogether exclaim how open and welcoming they've found #FaithFeminisms. I've always found this to be the case and I hope they're values we hold on to.

I've met some of the very best people I know thanks to being a young woman with an internet connection and a lot of thoughts and feelings about faith and feminism. At the beginning, it seemed that patriarchal Christianity had the monopoly on the popular books and the websites I was seeing and the messages I was getting. Today, women I am proud to call my friends have published books on egalitarianism and feminism. I've been involved in networks of women working together and supporting each other as we navigate what it means to practice faith and feminism. I'm a founder member of one of them. I'm involved in a group that's trying to get another one off the ground. Once we felt silenced, now there is a definite voice that has the power to speak to the church and to the secular feminist movement. And we can build on this by coming alongside each other and doing what, as Christians, we're supposed to work at doing best: creating real and productive community - those that support, those that organise, those that lead - no longer voices in the wilderness but a movement for change.

This post is part of #FaithFeminisms week. Do read the amazing posts that have been written by other women.

Kirstie Allsopp, classism, and a distinct lack of choice

Tuesday, 3 June 2014



It was obvious what was going to happen yesterday when the media started putting its own spin on Kirstie Allsopp's comments made in an interview with Bryony Gordon for the Telegraph, coming up with headlines such as "Kirstie Allsopp tells young women: ditch university and have a baby at 27". As everyone who bothered to read the original article knows, that's not the extent of what she said - but why let that get in the way of calling her stupid, accusing her of wanting to take women back to the 1950s, and telling her where to stick her overprivileged expectations about home ownership and marriage?

According to the law of how women talk about lifestyle choices and how it's played out in the media, Allsopp has, of course, been positioned as some sort of spokesperson for womankind, judging everyone who doesn't want to live their life the way she thinks they should. And in their reactions to her comments, many of those who don't agree with her have fallen into the trap that's so obviously laid for us all, every single time some vaguely high-profile woman has something to say about women's lives. Yesterday's 'debate' became a defence of education and careers (and why not? No-one's going to deny that they're important things to defend), against the spectre of smug, twee, wealthy motherhood and financial dependency on men.

No-one likes to feel patronised, especially by someone they perceive to be out of touch with what most women think and want. I don't think it's correct to say that women are unaware of fertility issues, or that they are never talked about. There's enough discussion of it about for us to know roughly at what point conceiving a child does begin to become much more of a struggle - if, indeed, we were all that fertile to begin with. But the fact is, even as most women know what they'd do about becoming a mother, in an ideal world, and even as they laugh at scaremongering headlines about 'career women leaving it too late', the years pass by quickly - years of trying to find a suitable partner, trying to save money, trying to get a job, or a better job, or a job you actually like.

What Allsopp did touch on - which I believe is important here - is the pressure on middle-class women to have the various aspects of their lives sorted out and adhering to an ideal before children get factored in. The degree, the wedding, the 'life experiences', the career, the foot on the property ladder. It was noticeable yesterday just how many people I witnessed saying "But NO-ONE can afford to buy a house/have a baby in their 20s!" And it's certainly true that for many people, saving up for a house deposit is a terrifying thought. Wondering how to pay the bills while on maternity leave or afford to pay childcare is a terrifying thought. But it's also true that many, many people become parents in their 20s (and earlier). Many, many people who aren't privileged and whose parents haven't bought them a flat somehow manage to become parents and just get on with it. Yesterday's 'debate' had a particularly narrowly-focused and classist side to it - one that needs to look beyond non-debates over the 'right time' to have children or go to university or get married and question instead the way UK society places expectation on women about the 'right' way to live their lives in a country that makes it so difficult for them to do so, sneering at both those who choose not to go along with it and those who are happy about having achieved it.

Let's leave aside, for a moment, the fact that becoming a mother at a young age so often gets you labelled as a 'scrounger', a 'waste of potential', or a statistic for the right to sneer at, and the fact that being a relatively young middle-class stay at home mother gets you labelled as 'smug' and 'irritating', and being a childfree woman in your 30s gets you labelled as 'sad' or 'selfish' - because these things are important, but they're not the most difficult things.

Not when a particular 'route' of university followed by the career ladder followed by 'settling down' when you're financially secure and have 'really lived your life' is the 'desired' one. Not when the cost of attending university has skyrocketed and the housing market in London and the south-east is ridiculous and there's so much competition for jobs that people despair of ever getting the job they want or feeling financially secure at all. Not when maternity discrimination is rife, maternity leave difficult to imagine for those in difficult financial circumstances, and childcare here is the second most expensive in Europe. Not when the burden of care and everything child-related is still seen as a woman's domain. Not when the voices of women who have had children at a young age, and working class women who have never had the luxury of expecting to get all their ducks in a row before making big decisions about their lives go unheard, as feminists who are quick to sneer at the idea of having children in their 20s without thinking how that looks to their sisters who already have children and are doing just fine. For all the cries of "Shut up Kirstie, can't you see it's all about choice?!" it's evident that most of the time, it's really, emphatically, not.

Yesterday wasn't the first time in the last couple of years that I've been reminded of this piece on women in Iceland that appeared in the Guardian in 2011. I remember being struck at the time by the idea that being a young mum at university could be seen as totally normal, rather than a 'challenge' or something worthy of a newspaper feature as it might be in the UK. Writes Kira Cochrane:

"Parents here talk strongly of community support, of collective care for children, and there is no sense that motherhood precludes work or study, which effectively changes the whole structure of women's lives."

One woman, who we're told had her first child at the age of 19, is quoted saying: "You are not forced to organise your life in the 'college-work-maybe children later' way". Another woman explains how couples in Iceland don't tend to think of parenthood in 'How many children can we afford?' terms. And with full-time childcare, at the time of publication, costing single mothers £70 and couples £118 a month (as opposed to an average cost of more than £700 a month for full-time working couples in the UK - much higher in London), you can see why. Feminists do enough shouting about the perceived egalitarian joys of Scandinavia and I'm aware that no country is perfect. The fact remains that women in the UK find themselves supposedly liberated yet also restricted by what we've constructed as the 'right' way to do things, the 'right' way to live the capitalist dream and the 'right' way to experience life. For many, it's a bind and an enormous source of anxiety. For many more, it's unattainable and unrealistic, and by doing things their way they end up being derided and devalued by Kirstie Allsopp's cheerleaders and detractors alike.

Rereading the second wave - Susan Brownmiller

Thursday, 22 May 2014


“I can attest that in New York City during the late sixties and early seventies, nothing was more exciting, or more intellectually stimulating, than to sit in a room with a bunch of women who were working to uncover their collective truths.”

My contribution to the New Statesman's series on rereading second wave feminism in the light of the so-called 'fourth wave' was published last week. It's now a couple of months since I read Susan Brownmiller's In Our Time - her memoir of the women's liberation movement, spanning the late 1960s to the middle of the 1980s - and felt that it has much to offer today's activists on the subject of conflict and infighting - particularly those who have, in the last couple of years, felt alienated from the movement and 'put off' by the very fact that feminists don't seem to agree on a lot of things and spend a fair amount of time getting angry about it. 

The number of pieces written and time spent talking about 'call-out culture', 'toxic feminism', or whatever we're currently calling 'feminists publicly disagreeing about stuff' means that it can become the sole focus for many people. It's sometimes cited as the main problem with today's feminist movement, a 21st century phenomenon. But while the internet has added a new dimension to activist infighting, In Our Time reminds us that the struggles - who has power, who should speak for the movement, what it means when women achieve a public profile and platform, and which issues should be our main focus - have existed for decades, and that our aim should be to work through them rather than letting them define us, becoming the obstacle that cannot be overcome and the sticking point that stops women participating. In Our Time is a fantastic memoir of the achievements of the second wave of feminism and the way its activists brought issues into the public consciousness for the very first time. Times may have changed, but there is much to inspire us and much we can learn from.

"Brownmiller came to see these disagreements and denouncements as par for the course in the women’s movement. “You have to believe that the Sturm und Drang are worth it,” she writes - and it seems she did, very much so, until the last gasps of the second wave in the 1980s. Weakened by the ‘pornography wars’, the decade’s family values-obsessed mentality and economic necessity of getting a job and ‘settling down’, with the women’s bookshops, the feminist press and utopian dreams in decline, the movement’s militancy petered out. In Our Time’s challenge for feminists today is to encourage us to keep the balance – effecting change despite robust disagreement. The aim of feminism should not be the creation of a synthetic sisterhood focused on little more than affirmation and making women feel good about every choice they make. Neither should it be the constant assumption of bad faith on the part of women who are still learning, doing the best they can, and sometimes getting it wrong – the idea that trashing other women is progress."


Image: John Olson, from here

Book review - Women in Waiting: prejudice at the heart of the church

Thursday, 13 March 2014


Those of you following the progress of legislation concerning women bishops will know that these are exciting times. After a disappointing vote in 2012, many are feeling more optimistic about the situation - and there have been many opportunities to speak about hopes for the future this week as the church has celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first women priests being ordained.

Having finished Julia Ogilvy's Women in Waiting: Prejudice at the heart of the church last week, I'd set this evening aside to write my review. After reading the Tuesday's coverage of the 20th anniversary of women's ordination, and even having a bit of a moist-eyed moment at my desk after seeing Kate Bottley's tweet marking the day, I was made aware, over breakfast today, of an old interview with Wayne Grudem that people were once again talking about.

I'd never read the full interview before, although I've seen some of its content reproduced to illustrate Grudem's position on women teaching and writing books that interpret scripture (a man doing so is 'teaching with authority', a woman doing the same is 'giving her viewpoint'). What I hadn't previously been aware of was his intriguing explanation of the problems that arise in churches and denominations where women are ordained:

"... anyone who lives in a pattern of constant disobedience to the word of God--if a woman does this, she is opening herself up to the danger of the withdrawal of God’s hand of protection and blessing on her life."

He continues:

"Judy Brown is one example that I mention. [She] contributed a chapter to [the book] Discovering Biblical Equality. She was an Assemblies of God pastor or maybe Foursquare, I’m not sure. And she actually, sadly, is in prison in Virginia for attempted murder. It’s tragic."

The problem with Judy Brown, claims Grudem, was her commitment to promoting women's ordination. As a result of her departure from faithfulness to God, she's now in prison. I've never been keen on giving airtime to Grudem on gender, but on reading the interview with him I was struck by the contrast to the stories of the twelve women contained within Women in Waiting. Twelve women, all of them in favour of women's ordination, many of them ordained themselves and holding positions of varying seniority in the church. Theologians, writers, and advocates for women. Twelve women who felt called to vocations where they knew they would face opposition, who have seen enormous changes in attitudes since they started their careers and who know there is still much to be done.

This is not a challenging book; if you're looking for a hashing-out of the arguments for and against women in church leadership, you'll need to look elsewhere - but this is no bad thing. The book's purpose is to tell the stories of just some of the women who have helped pave the way for a greater acceptance of women in ministry and a greater awareness of the damage done by patriarchy. Almost all of them spoke to the author about hostile attitudes from colleagues, but Women in Waiting is by no means a book full of stories about feeling hard done by and miserable. It's actually an inspiring reminder - full of wisdom - of what God can do through those who are willing to serve Him. The women interviewed have worked incredibly hard, knowing that they are fulfilling their calling, and were full of positivity about their achievements and the church, despite some of the painful, lonely and frustrating situations they had been through. It was also encouraging to read, in the case of those who are married, how supportive and affirming their husbands have been.

I wasn't familiar with all of the women profiled in the book and so it was wonderful to learn more about them. I was particularly moved by the interview with Lucy Winkett because it left me with such a strong sense of her wisdom and love for the church and its people. I was reminded, as I read Elaine Storkey's chapter, why I was so inspired by her the first time I saw her speak and why she continues to be ones of my heroes. I was very interested to read the differing perspectives of Katharine Jefferts Schori and Chilton Knudsen from the USA, and found myself nodding my head righteously as I read Helena Kennedy on the cases of abused women that she's been involved in.

Ever since I started attending events where the place of women in the church has been discussed, I've been struck by overheard snatches of conversation, but the confessions of young women getting up in front of a group and saying:

'I feel called but I need to know that it's what God wants for me as a woman. Am I allowed? Is it what scripture says?'

Women in Waiting would be an ideal read for any women mulling over this question, not because it will provide all the answers, but because I think it clearly shows that being a pioneer in the church is what God wants for many women, and that they've been gifted accordingly.

Further reading:

 

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