#AzizAnsari7: Unrapeable Unvictims

The following are excerpts from Flirting with Danger: Young Women’s Reflections on Sexuality and Domination, a study of 30 young women carried out by Lynn Phillips in 2000. (You can read the whole thing on Google Books; what you’ll find here is only a small sample of all its fascinating findings and keen thinking from Phillips. I cannot recommend it enough.)

I will not be passing comment, but allowing the participants’ accounts of their experiences and mental processes speak for themselves. This is designed to be a companion piece to #AzizAnsari7: Feminism and Victimhood.

NB. The sample was drawn from the student body of “a small, progressive, liberal arts college that has a reputation for providing a non-traditional, profeminist, politically and intellectually challenging learning environment. Seventy percent of the students are female, and the student body is more diverse than most private colleges in terms of race and social class.”

A note from the author, Phillips:

“To my surprise, although I had carefully steered away from any mention of violence or victimization in my description of the study, twenty-seven of the thirty women (90 percent) described at least one encounter that fit legal definitions of rape, battering, or harassment. Yet also to my surprise, only two women ever used such terms to describe a personal experience, and both of these women went on to describe other violent or coercive personal experiences that they did not consider rape or abuse.

The young women were eager to talk about the pain and mistreatment they had endured, and they were quite willing to use words like “rape,” “battering,” “victimization,” and “abuse” to describe other women’s experiences. These women expressed great concern about violence against women in general. Indeed, several offered rather eloquent analyses of gender and victimization. But when it came to naming what they had gone through personally, women tended to say things like “let’s just call it a bad night” or “things just went really badly.””

 

 

From the interviews:

 

It was violent and hurtful and really scary. But I don’t think I could ever call it rape. Let’s just say that things went badly.”

(Olivia, 22, “heterosexual,” “Caucasian”)

 

Oh, it wasn’t really rape, per se. He was just a real asshole. He was this slick, obnoxious character who was out to prove what a stud he was and how mean he could be. I wouldn’t say I was abused. He just really roughed me up to prove he was some kind of man. He was a total jerk. He is just this vicious guy and I just happened to find him attractive for some reason at the time.”

(Robin, 21, “heterosexual”; asked to describe her race(s), she wrote, “I cannot”)

 

I left home when I was fourteen. I stayed with my teacher, which was really great, but when I look back at it, it was a little weird. He was so cool, though. I mean he took me in and fed me and took care of me. I love him for what he did for me. I wasn’t in love with him. I was more just very grateful. We were like this funny couple, because he was about thirty-five and I was fourteen. He was really sensitive to the fact that I was so young. So we never, I mean, it wasn’t sexual. He was cool about that. I would just undress for him and he would masturbate, or I would jerk him off, or sometimes give him head. But he never laid a hand on me. He knew I was just young. We had to be really careful about going out and everything, because we couldn’t let anybody at school know. They would just think like it was abuse or something, and they would make me go back to my mom or to a shelter. They would have made it into something abusive or illegal. But it wasn’t, because he really protected me. If it wasn’t for him, I would have had it a lot worse.”

(Diana, 21, “bisexual,” “white”)

When Phillips asked whether she ever thought her relationship with her teacher qualified as statutory rape or sexual abuse, Diana answered,

“No. I wasn’t into the sexual part, and he knew that, which is why he never forced intercourse or anything. I think he respected that I was too young. I never really thought of myself as being coerced or anything, I just thought, “This is what I owe him. He takes care of me, and I should do this to make him happy.” If it wasn’t for him, I’d be on the street. Well, maybe that does make it a little coercive. I mean, it was sort of, do that or find somewhere else. It didn’t really occur to me that I had a lot of choice. But he was so good to me, I could never think about it as abuse.”

 

One participant, Cynthia, described an encounter with a man who forced himself on her during a date, ripped her clothes, and then left her by the side of the road. When Phillips asked what she called that experience when thinking about it to herself, she replied,

“I mostly think of it as a really bad night. If you’re asking do I think I was raped, no, I wouldn’t really call it that. I mean, I was forced, yes, and I was hurt, and things didn’t go how I wanted, but I was in the car with him. It was all really complicated. I mean, I was there, I could have chosen not to go. So no, I don’t really call it rape.”

Phillips then asked her how she would define that same experience if it had happened to a friend. Laughing, she responded,

Wow, that is so awesome! If my roommate came home and told me the exact same story had happened to her, I’d tell her, “You call the hotline, you call the police! You’re a victim! That guy raped you and you should report it!” Wow! But, I don’t know. For her it would be rape. For me it was just so complicated.

No, I don’t think of it as abuse or victimization or anything, because even though it may have looked that way with his hand over my mouth and his hurting me and all, I just don’t think I could ever call myself a victim, because I like to think I have it too much together to ever let myself be victimized like that. I went into the whole thing willingly, and even though I got hurt, I figured, well, I wanted to be a grown-up, so this just comes with the territory I guess.”

(Cynthia, 22, “bisexual,” “white”)

 

“I think maybe victimization or rape should be reserved for really bad cases of rape. To say my experience was rape maybe waters down the cases of real victims. It feels, I don’t know, kind of unfeminist. There were a lot of factors why he did what he did to me, so it’s awfully complicated to talk about. The fact that he forced me, it happened within a whole lot of other things. So I don’t think it would be fair to women who are outright attacked to call myself a victim of rape.”

(Evelyn, 21, “heterosexual,” “Caucasian”)

 

“… how can I say it’s rape when I went up there? You know, what was I expecting? It’s true I was really naive, but I feel that it doesn’t really do me any good to explain that to anybody, because it’s like nobody can really understand.”

(Robin, 21, “heterosexual”; asked to describe her race(s), she wrote, “I cannot”)

 

“I don’t think women ever want to be abused. I wouldn’t say I was abused, because I knew this guy might want to have sex. I didn’t think he was going to force it so far, but I did decide to go to his apartment. I chose to be in that situation. I didn’t like it, it was really horrible, but I just should have made a different decision.”

(Louise, 21, “hetero,” “white”)

 

“It was my own fault, in a way, because I was trying to be so grown-up and just assert myself and what I wanted. I played around, I hitchhiked, I picked up men I shouldn’t have. I look back at it now, and I think, “Just who the hell did I think I was?” I mean, I had no business getting into half the situations I was in. I just should have known better. I just should have known, you can’t play with fire without expecting to get burned.”

(Laura, 22, “bisexual,” “bi-racial/West Black Indian, white American”)

 

“I thought it was really cool and I expected we would kind of work up to things and then see what happened. I definitely didn’t expect to have sex with him, not then and there. It didn’t occur to me that he would try to force anything. It was so exciting, and we were kind of drunk and away from home and the whole thing was just so exciting. I didn’t mean to lead him on, but I see it now from his perspective, and I was all over him, and in the beginning I was into it just as much as he was. But I was thinking like, making out, not sex. But I guess I must have been sending out totally mixed signals. I can see how he would have assumed that since I brought him back to my room, and my roommate wasn’t there, and we had been fooling around, I mean it’s understandable that he would have thought we were going all the way. It went too far for me and I was getting scared. I totally tried to stop it, but he was like, “Come on, who are you kidding? You know you want it just as much as me. You know you wanted it all along.” He just didn’t take no for an answer, and we, or maybe I should say he had sex with me, because I was just laying there wishing this wasn’t happening. I look at it as a failure of communication, really. He was young and I sent him mixed signals, so of course he was going to see that as an invitation to have sex. I just should have chilled out and been much more careful about the kinds of signals I was sending out. I should have realized I might be leading him on.”

(Claudia, 21, “heterosexual,” “Caucasian”)

 

“I’ve always told myself that we really just didn’t communicate at all about what we wanted. I should have told him up front that I wasn’t planning to go home with him. But that felt kind of weird. I mean, you don’t exactly flirt with somebody and also tell them right out, you know, I don’t want to have sex at the end of this, even though I probably should have. What I think happened is that he misunderstood, or I just wasn’t clear like I should have been. So he probably thought this was just normal and maybe didn’t know I was scared. And maybe being rough and forceful is just his way of having sex. I mean, who knows, really? For me it was a terrible night and I was scared and hurt. But for him, he probably didn’t mean for it to be like that, exactly. When I pulled back, that probably hit a nerve and he just felt he should force it further. I would say that he probably didn’t mean anything by it, it’s just that we kind of didn’t connect.”

(Diana, 21, “bisexual,” “white”)

 

“I should have been more assertive. I was trying just to get out of the situation as gracefully as possible. I was just trying to make him feel like, I don’t know, like trying to make the best of it by trying to make him come as fast as possible. I sort of told him, like, “Let’s wait,” but he kept going, so I figured I’d just better try to get him off so he would stop. I don’t know, I should have been more assertive when I was trying to tell him I didn’t want to. Maybe my no wasn’t no enough.”

(Robin, 21, “heterosexual”; asked to describe her race(s), she wrote, “I cannot”)

 

“It was horrible. I mean, not just like bad sex, but really like violent. It was practically rape, had I not consented. If I hadn’t consented to him, it would have been rape.”

(Olivia, 22, “heterosexual,” “Caucasian”)

 

“I mean, I was crying and sort of pulling away, and hoping he’d notice I was upset and stop, but I didn’t exactly tell him no. I could have said, “Get the hell off me! I want to go home!” But I didn’t. I just laid there crying and hoping he’d stop. Maybe if I’d said something, who knows? Maybe things would have been different. But as it happened, I never exactly said no to him, so I really just have myself to blame.”

(Rachel, 21, “heterosexual,” “white”)

 

“It was very alienating. It was a very strange situation, and it was this weird combination of feeling turned on, but feeling repulsed and feeling in a lot of physical pain. He was really big. The intercourse was kind of rough and hard. And the other thing is, I said, “All right, fine,” because I expected him to put the condom on and then [be] inside me, but he didn’t put the condom on. It was before I could even really get back and take the wheel for a minute. But I think that was the point where I really lost control, because all of a sudden he was inside me, and I was like, “Are you going to put the condom on?” And he was like, “Don’t worry, don’t worry.” It was like, shit, you know? It’s so hard to say no and push somebody off you, especially when he’s really big, and plus, I’m in this thing. I don’t want to ruin the magic of this weird moment. So that was the point I remember thinking, “This is not going to be a good day. He’s inside me without a condom.

It was like a kind of weird violent kind of thing. I don’t feel like I could have really said no. I don’t know if I necessarily would call it rape. But I would say that he was so strong and big and on top of me and it was like he was totally in control from the get go. Sometimes I think it was rape and sometimes I don’t know if it was rape. You know, when somebody says to you, “I know nice girls like you don’t have a condom,” but I do, and then having sex with them. I don’t know, because “rape” is such a loaded word, it’s really hard. It’s really scary to think about using it in terms of your own life. I remember times when I felt like I was raped, or I let myself kind of be raped, or kind of taken, but in terms of that incident, I think I was seduced. I don’t know if I’d say I was raped. Number one, because I feel like I want to have enough faith that I have enough strength of character as a person to be able to, if I really didn’t want to, to say no. And it wasn’t that I said no.”

(Melissa, 21, “heterosexual,” “Eastern European-American Jew”)

 

“We would be having sex, again, and I wouldn’t want it, but he was my boyfriend, you know, so I never really felt like I could let him down by saying no. But a lot of the times it hurt me. He wasn’t the most considerate lover. So I would lie there underneath him, crying, while he was doing it. I didn’t feel like I could exactly say no, but I hoped that he would see me crying and just stop, I don’t know, out of guilt or concern or something, even pity. Of course he never did. He’d just keep going, and then afterward, he’d say, “Didn’t you like it?” And I would say, “Yeah, it was good.”

(Wendy, 22, “heterosexual,” “Puerto Rican/Italian”)

 

I guess it’s a hassle always stroking their egos, like you know, “Oh, you’re so great,” and “Oh, I really love what you’re doing,” you know, even when you don’t. But believe me, it’s more of a hassle not to. Because then you have to feel guilty and everything. Because then it’s like you have to take care of the fact that he might feel bad, or inadequate, or something. And it’s just easier to keep them feeling good about themselves. I think maybe the main thing is that I don’t want him to see me as a cold bitch. And if I don’t act like, “Oh, this is really good for me,” then I think men see you as a domineering bitch. So I guess it’s like, men get their needs met directly, but women need to get their needs met indirectly. I guess it sort of sucks, but it’s better than taking the chance of pissing them off. If you piss them off, even if you’re the one who’s getting hurt, you could be in even more trouble. So he could take it out on you that you’re implying he’s a bad lover, and then he could make the pain you were feeling during sex seem like nothing. Some guys just really go ballistic when their male sexual egos are bruised. I just can’t be about taking that chance.”

(Cynthia, 22, “bisexual,” “white”)

 

“I hooked up with this guy and he took me out to dinner and then we sat around talking. And I mean we hadn’t even kissed yet or anything, but he says, “Is this really all you want to do?” like I was a little kid or something. I wasn’t really too sure how I felt about him. I mean, I had just met him that afternoon, but he had taken me to dinner and everything. So I was thinking, “What must he be thinking?” And then I got thinking, “Here I am all alone in my hotel room with this guy and I don’t know a soul in this town, and if I say no and he rapes me because he thinks I led him on, well then, who’s going to believe me, and who’s even going to hear me if I dare to scream?” So I just basically gave him a blow job to satisfy him so that I wouldn’t have to have actual sex with him. I really didn’t want to have sex with him, but I felt like I had to give him something, and that just seemed like the least offensive way to go. Least offensive to me without offending him.”

(Chloe, 22, “heterosexual/bisexual,” “Caucasian”)

 

“I got into this situation where I went up to this guy’s apartment, and we were making out and things, and I didn’t want to have sex, but he did, and it was a long struggle and everything. And he did hit me and stuff, and then I was like, “Okay, fine.” I just, you know, because if I really try to fight him and then I get beat up, what am I going to say to my mother? That was like the main thing in my mind, was like, “Oh no, what if he punches me or cuts me or something? What am I going to say to my mother?” I kept seeing me really feeling different if it would have been another guy. I really wasn’t attracted to him, and I was trying to get attracted to him or like, get turned on, but I couldn’t.”

When Phillips asked the participant why she tried to make herself attracted to this man, she explained,

“I was thinking that if I can get turned on, then this will be consensual, like, a good experience. It was like I was trying to manipulate my own mind or something, so that this wouldn’t seem as bad as it really was. I mean, especially for my first experience, I wanted it to be something I wanted, not something that was forced on me. So I tried really hard to make it into something that I wanted, but I couldn’t. I just really couldn’t.”

(Robin, 21, “heterosexual”; asked to describe her race(s), she wrote, “I cannot”)

 

“I kept telling myself, just relax and try to like it. Try to think of something exciting, try to think of someone you would like to be having sex with so you can get aroused and then this won’t really be what it is. If I could just find some way to be turned on, at all, then I would know I was in it and then this wouldn’t be really like rape.”

(Jocelyn, 19, “hetero,” “mutt”)

 

“Sometimes I’ve just slept with men because I have to. They give me money, and I give them sex. It’s totally like prostitution, because I know they really have the power, that I’m being treated like an object to them, a whore that they can do what they want to. But there’s something about money that gives me a power. I would never feel okay about it if I did it for free. If they don’t give me money, then they’re in control of me. If there’s money involved, then I have some control, too. It’s like, they may fuck me, but I set the terms of how I’m going to get fucked. It may not be real power, because they can still fuck me over, but it’s mental power, which helps you control how much damage, or what kind of damage they can do to you.”

(Elaina, 22, “lesbian/bi,” “white”)

 

“It’s important to me, I guess, to present myself like I know what I want, even though I really just go along with whatever the guy is doing.”

(Wendy, 22, “heterosexual,” Puerto Rican/Italian”)

 

“I know a lot of women, like one in three, get raped in their lifetime. But I know it could never happen to me. Not that it couldn’t happen, because it could, I mean, God, it sort of has. But for me, I say it was kind of like rape. For other people, it’s rape. But for me it’s just like it was kind of like rape. Kind of like acquaintance rape, but not really that.”

(Tonya, 18, “straight,” “Jewish/white by race and religion”)

 

“I wasn’t stupid. I knew when I decided to become a slut that I would never be able to cry rape, even if I ever did get raped. I basically gave up any right to say rape, but it was worth it to me. I just wanted to be sexual, and it was worth the price. So when I was seventeen and this guy sort of, well, it would have been rape if it had happened to a “nice girl,” but when that happened, you know, I said to myself, “Well, you knew this could happen when you stepped out there. You can’t turn back the clock now.” I just felt like I was, what is it they say, paying the piper? So I just figured it came with the territory and I couldn’t ever really complain.”

(Theresa, 19, “heterosexual,” “bi-racial”)

 

Similarly, participant Laura decided that she was “not rapeable” because she “always went into things with [her] eyes wide open.

I always know exactly what I’m getting into. I chose to be sexually active, I mean very active, a long time ago. I help myself to what I want, and there are never any surprises. And so when there are surprises, like something I can’t handle, like when I get myself in over my head, I know that this is what I’ve chosen to do, that I am the one that let it happen, you know? And so, even in the times when I haven’t had any control over a situation, you know, like once it starts, I know that I always have control because I’m the one who has chosen this. Well, maybe not chosen this situation exactly, but I’ve made a choice, and nobody can take that away from me. There’s really nothing I can’t handle.”

The time when that guy sort of, like, beat me up over the condom thing, I mean, I was furious, you know? I mean nobody treats me that way. But even though it hurt a lot and everything, I mean, I didn’t really let it bother me too much. I mean, I figure, I made my bed, and I chose to lie in it [laughing]. Wow, how’s that for apropos?”

(Laura, 22, “bisexual,” “bi-racial/West Black Indian, white American”)

 

“They wouldn’t get it. I know they’d be like, “What’d you do, what’d you do?” to bring it on myself. My boyfriend doesn’t understand. He just thinks he would have fought, so I could have fought. So it comes back down on my head. Even though my girlfriends would be supportive, the other people in my life would think I had no right to say “rape” because I should have fought him more. Based on my boyfriend’s reaction, I wouldn’t expect to get support. Far from it.”

(Robin, 21, “heterosexual”; asked to describe her race(s), she wrote, “I cannot”)

 

“They would never say, “This was rape” or “This was abuse.” They’d say, “What were you doing? Why didn’t you stop him? Why do you want to make such a fuss?” It already felt like shit. Why make it worse by sticking your neck out by saying, “I was raped” if you know you’re just going to get rejected? And then why even call it that to yourself if you can’t talk about it to anyone else? That would just make you feel even worse.”

(Elaina, 22, “lesbian/bi,” “white”)

 

 

The one comment I will make is that while the young woman of the Aziz Ansari story seems to have gone through some very similar thought processes as many of these women during her “lousy romantic encounter”, she succeeded afterwards in locating some moral responsibility outside of herself. Of course we can’t know for certain, but it is entirely possible that the #MeToo discourse, and contemporary feminist conversations about affirmative consent, made it possible for her to resist the true rape/true victim, victim mentality and victim blaming narratives that led the young women of the Phillips study to blame themselves even for physically violent sexual assaults and rapes.

So when a woman like Bari Weiss of the New York Times writes that applying the MeToo hashtag to Grace’s story “trivializes” what the movement “stood for”, I do have to wonder what she thinks the aims of feminism are supposed to be. Justice for just a few powerful women, perhaps?

I would say that the progress from the mentality displayed by the young women quoted above, to that displayed by Grace, is precisely what #MeToo stood for. The movement was always supposed to reveal the prevalence of sexual misconduct, to show up the pattern so that women could identify a systemic problem and begin to combat it rather than blame themselves for it in private.

 

So to all those who like Bari Weiss, Whoopi Goldberg and Ashleigh Banfield told Grace she had only herself to blame: remember Lucretia? The Roman woman who Tarquin raped (at knife point, so the tale goes, on pain of death), who stabbed herself to wipe out the shame? Shakespeare called her Lucrece and noted that her father approved of her suicide. Remember her? Because when you tell women like Grace to turn in upon themselves to locate the problem, you reveal that we haven’t come far since 500 BC.

 

VouetLucrecePostdamMe

 

The Unbeatable Eloquence of Bates

It might seem odd to post a review of Laura Bates’s new book Misogynation: The True Scale of Sexism in the ‘Optimism’ section, but Bates’s work is all about rousing resistance by raising consciousness, and the signature deftness with which she slays anti-feminist rhetoric is truly cheering.

Really this is a review of an event on the topic of her book, rather than the book itself (a collection of previously published essays aimed at ‘joining the dots’ of sexism). And though her writing is good, it’s hearing her speak that is the real Laura Bates experience: she can string together more complex sentences bearing more factual data and incisive arguments with more speed and eloquence than any other public speaker I have ever heard.

Has #MeToo gone too far? Do feminists think wolf-whistling is sexual assault? Read the rest here…

Patrisse Khan-Cullors: When They Call You a Terrorist

A review of a Bristol Festival of Ideas event on the 12th March 2018

The words Black Lives Matter must have reached the ears of most in Britain by now. Comparatively few, however, will know that the global civil rights movement of which they are the name and reigning idea, was founded by three women – two of whom identify as queer. Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, Patrisse Khan-Cullors. That so many of us who are acquainted with their ideas do not know their names is symptomatic of the racialised sexism faced by black women everywhere, but also testament to the particularly democratic nature of the fight that these three founded. ‘We do not want to control it. We want it to spread like wildfire,’ writes Khan-Cullors in her recent book When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, co-written with journalist asha bandele.

Khan-Cullors was with us this week in Bristol to speak about the memoir and the movement. In fact, memory and movement may be said to be the two pillars of the Black Lives Matter approach, for as Khan-Cullors puts it, we need to talk about the trauma that black people have faced and still face, “but we also have to talk about the resistance.”

Thus her book falls into two parts: first, a record of childhoods (hers, and of all the black kids termed “super-predators” by a racist state but “the forgotten generation” by Khan-Cullors) damaged by the repeated message – coming from schools, from police, from the mass incarceration of people in their community – that their lives did not matter. She writes with devastating clarity of the harm done to young people for whom “there is nowhere that they can be or feel safe. No place where there are jobs. No city, no block, where what they know, all they know, is that their lives matter, that they are loved.” She writes of how the state’s staggeringly unjust war on drugs effectively targeted black people over and above whites, and of the “external factors” such as a lack of supports and resources, “including the general sense that their life matters” that “exacerbate chaotic drug use, send people into hell.” …

Read the rest at the Festival of Ideas blog.

Making History, Learning Admiration: An Interview with Dr Naomi Paxton

At the International Women’s Day event orchestrated by Bristol Women’s Voice on Saturday 3rd March, I had the splendid luck to get an interview with suffrage historian (and actress, and comedian, and activist) Dr Naomi Paxton. I was interviewing her for Bristol Women’s Voice, of course, but it felt like a stroke of personal good fortune.

You see, the month of February had seen me delving into women’s suffrage history for a project with the National Trust (and learning more about it in that three-week period than I had in my entire life up to that point, History A level notwithstanding) and I had questions that felt urgent. How was it that I had come out of my Modern History A level with more admiration for David Lloyd George and his welfare reforms than for the women who fought so hard for the vote – for the right to have more say in the welfare of the nation?

So I told Paxton that I was concerned, as an educator as well as a feminist, with how we can better teach the admiration of these women – without it being shouted down as propaganda, which is an accusation that has already been levelled at the National Trust for their ‘Women and Power’ exhibition. She asked me with a shrewd gleam if it hadn’t been propaganda that had led me to admire Lloyd George. Of course I knew that really, but it was so good to have it from the historian’s mouth: we are subjected constantly to a stream of patriarchal propaganda from multiple directions, but this is so normalised as to appear neutral. To teach the admiration of suffragists and suffragettes, in this context, qualifies as resistance or redress.

Let alone admiration, her schooling hadn’t covered women’s suffrage at all. “I did the Tudors, and then I changed schools and did the Tudors again – so I knew quite a lot about the Tudors but nothing about women’s suffrage.” She discovered that history through theatre: through the discovery of suffrage plays. When I asked if she thought it ought to be taught in schools she said, rather generously I thought, that she was sure “every historian is clamouring for their bit of history,” but added that “as a latecomer to this whole story I would have loved to have learned it earlier, yes, and I would love to have learned more.”

This is a big part of the problem, I realised, as I listened to her speak: what we do tend to learn about the suffrage movement is so selective that it creates a partial and distorted image. We tend to learn about the WSPU, or Suffragettes, who were not the largest but only the most militant suffrage society – “perhaps because it’s the most voyeuristically pleasing to find out about” – but we rarely get to see “the wider picture”: it started long before 1903, and it wasn’t all militant campaigning, even for the militant societies. Neither do we get to see what Paxton calls “the wider point”: that “it was never all about a vote – it was about equal pay and better rape conviction rates and anti-vivisection”… and parental rights for women, better conditions for workers, and any number of reforms to “wider society”.

“Without being conspiracy theorists about it,” says Paxton, “I think there’s a sense that people want to consign it to a neat package.” To focus on the vote alone, and on the dramatic clashes between state and suffragettes, is “to consign the suffrage movement to a part of history that feels very ‘done’ … and that allows you to steer attention away from the other subjects that are still relevant and problematic now.”

Yes: when you consider that the fight for women’s suffrage was a fight for better conditions for working class women, for single mothers, for children, for married women, for widows, for prostitutes, for women of all professions, for entry into professions from which women were excluded, not to mention animal welfare and all kinds of social reform – and when you look at the extraordinary opposition to the movement – then it becomes harder to deny the great urgency behind the campaign, or to consign its significance to the past. “Those things are all still very relevant now, and maybe that’s not the best advertisement for our society and how far we’ve moved. Yes women have got the vote, but actually have all these other things moved forward? Do we have equal representation, do we have equal pay, do we have an end to violence against women and girls, do we have equality of opportunity for all? No. That’s hugely problematic, and obviously posting up those things is hugely important.”

Indeed. I had imagined that I couldn’t possibly feel my feminist convictions more intensely – until I began looking into this history and realised what a deprivation it had been not to have known about it before. As Paxton puts it, once you begin investigating one aspect of women’s history you end up asking yourself “‘why am I not learning about women inventors, why am I not learning about women explorers, why are the only women here painted to be very much extraordinary rather than ordinary – why are we not learning about women more widely in our history?’”

Which is why all this noise about the centenary of votes for some women is absolutely vital.

“This year’s really exciting because it gives us a chance to talk about the diversity of the campaign,” says Paxton. Especially now that the film Suffragette has been “done” (“a lot of the major issues have been dealt with: forceful feeding, militancy, and Emily Wilding Davison – tick”), we have the opportunity to explore “the stories that are less violent, or less extraordinary, and that relate more to how people live their lives now. These are the stories that say, ‘Why might you get involved, why might I have got involved? Are you involved in activism; what would make you become involved in activism – and if you did, how would that manifest in your day-to-day life, within your social circles, within your family circles?’ Those are the things that are really important, I think, about learning suffrage history.”

This gives me the occasion to ask her about her own activism: how it manifests in her life – and how much it can change anyone’s day-to-day.

“Oh, hugely,” she says without a moment’s hesitation. Paxton is on the steering committee for a lobbying group called 50:50 Parliament (for which she also actively campaigns); she’s a trustee for a group called Not Buying It, which campaigns against sexualised images of women in the media; she has been involved in London’s Reclaim the Night, in Bechdel Theatre and with Women@Rada (working on gender equality in the field of performance); she’s an associate artist of Scary Little Girls, a feminist production hub; she performs feminist comedy in character as ‘Ada Campe,’ and at present she is working as Research Assistant at Parliament with the Vote 100 team and others on a joint project called ‘What Difference Did the War Make? World War One and Votes for Women’, which you can take a look at online.

Parliament’s Vote 100 project will culminate in a fascinating exhibition this summer called ‘Voice and Vote’, exploring at “how women have interacted with politics and politicians on the Parliamentary estate throughout the past two centuries”. The exhibition will demonstrate, for instance, how the spaces to which women were confined (thrillingly named ‘The Ventilator’, ‘The Cage’, and ‘The Tomb’) created physical as well as symbolic obstacles to their participation in politics. It also looks at how women’s participation in Parliamentarian spaces has changed them. Some online exhibitions from the project are already available: have a look!

The team have also been involved with putting together a ‘MOOC’ (Massive Open Online Course) called ‘Beyond the Ballot: Women’s Rights and Suffrage from 1866 to Today.’ (You can take it for free! I for one am certainly joining the 11,000 who have signed up.) There has been a lot of positive feedback from learners already.

Paxton concludes this list of things she’s doing for the cause of women’s rights and representation with a sincere “and one can do more; but I absolutely try to use my powers for good.”

Trying to imagine how exactly one could do more, I ask her what she might say to women interested in getting into activism, or just setting out: where can they start?

“Oh, well, welcome!” she says, as if really pleased. “Thanks, come and join, and you can start wherever you are. Part of it is finding your own language and articulating your thoughts and your experiences and your ideas; you don’t necessarily have to be the most articulate or have the most knowledge, but find out where you are and work within what you know – and then just try to find out more about the things that you are interested in. Really it’s about becoming articulate in your own way and expressing your ideas and not being intimidated. If there’s a campaign that you don’t see, perhaps start it, or talk about it.

Go to WoW festivals. (I’ve been to so many of them and they’re hugely exciting.) Look at websites. Read books. Research history: if that’s family history, that’s great; if that’s suffrage history, that’s great; if that’s the history of the last five years that you can read on blogs online then do that. Yes, welcome, and start from where you are: there’s no gold standard to be met. It’s about feeling that you have something to contribute – and if that’s three minutes a month, then that’s three minutes more than there were before. Everybody’s voice is important, everyone should have equality of opportunity to participate in creating change for the future – and in representing people who are not always represented. So if you don’t hear your voice there, get it there somehow.”

Before we parted ways I couldn’t refrain from asking her what had come out of the research project: what difference did the war make? This was one of the questions that had a personal urgency for me. That it was the war rather than the campaign which secured votes for women (that the Suffragettes needn’t have bothered making all that unladylike fuss, in short) was the truism repeated by my A level teacher, the same I’ve heard repeated by so many others since then, as though all their teachers had repeated it too… I confessed to Paxton that I felt the argument of the war was used to dismiss the intelligence, the courage and importance of the women’s political campaigning.

“Exactly, yes,” she said, “and it’s really not the case that they got it because they worked hard in the war. It’s just not true.” Politicians at the time stated clearly that “it wasn’t a reward for war work” but a right that ought to be extended to women anyway. And it certainly was no reward, “because some of the women who were most heavily involved in some of the heaviest war work were not enfranchised by the war” – the majority of the Munitionettes and women who worked in the Auxiliary Corps, for instance, were under 30.

There were a number of complex factors, she says, but of crucial importance were the fact that the franchise had to be revised anyway for the men who had been excluded from it by the war (fighting away from home so long they didn’t meet the property qualification); the change in Prime Minister from anti-suffrage Asquith to relatively sympathetic Lloyd George; and – last in this list but certainly not least – the continued campaigning of every single suffrage society other than the WSPU. A deputation of more than 80 women from 33 suffrage societies pushed to have the matter tabled at the 1917 Speakers Conference which was held to discuss the franchise, and which afterwards made recommendations to Parliament. Then it was down to the Commons to decide, and when it came to it Lloyd George did not send out the government whips to push MPs to vote for women’s suffrage. In short, as Paxton puts it, “it could very easily not have happened.”

So there was nothing inevitable about women getting the vote: it had had to be fought for; the fight had mattered. And it matters to us, to know that now: it reveals how much those women shaped our world – teaching us to admire them – and it reminds us how much power we have to shape it for those who will come after us. Which teaches us to admire each other and ourselves.

Having thus soothed my heart, which had so wanted a historian to tell me I could take pride in the world-shaping powers of those women, Paxton left me with this parting advice:

“Read Suffrage newspapers! If you want to find out more, if you want to learn what happened in your area, you want to know a little bit more about the diversity of the campaign – and you have access to the internet – read the suffrage newspapers because they will just open up a whole world. … If you read just one issue you will realise how diverse and representative the campaign was. They are reporting about all the things that happen across the UK, they are reporting about working class women, about women in other countries, they’re reporting about what’s happening in parliament… you’ll see.” She flatly denies the frequently-levelled accusation that the movement was not inclusive. “People want to find fault: ‘where are the men, where are the working class women?’ And they are there, they are absolutely there,” she says.

“And do the MOOC, because it’s free!”

 

 

You can read the suffrage newspapers for free, on Google Newspapers: it has Votes For Women – initially the WSPU newspaper, later was taken over by the United Suffragists – The Common Cause, the NUWSS newspaper, and The Vote, the Women’s Freedom League paper, listed under the title The Globe.

Find out more about Paxton’s comedy as well as her research, and enjoy her highly readable blog, at http://www.naomipaxton.co.uk/.

On Admiring Women: IWD 2018

Despite the attack of the Beast from the East, women of all descriptions (and some men!) flocked to Bristol City Hall on Saturday 3rd March to partake in the International Women’s Day events orchestrated by Bristol Women’s Voice.

Sadly there were a handful of scheduled speakers who couldn’t get to us across the snow-bound country, including well-known suffrage historian Elizabeth Crawford and the women who were to lead the African Voice Forum Discussion –but the wonderful thing is that there were so many brilliant women on the programme that it easily took the hit.

I’m relatively new to Bristol, didn’t know anyone at the event and had sort of expected to spend the day weaving between the impenetrable faces of strangers; only it wasn’t like that at all. We collected in the foyer where Burning Brass, a collective of women drummers and horn players were very successfully turning even ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ into a rousing feminist anthem, and smiles of complicity met me whichever way I looked. I’m not generally given to waxing lyrical about ‘good vibes’, but I will say that a palpable atmosphere of cheerful co-operation seemed to unite the many women of diverse backgrounds and generations. I had been greeted at the entrance by a girl young enough to be my daughter and then fell into conversation with a woman old enough to be my grandmother: this felt precious. And the speakers were approachable in a way I hadn’t expected: suffrage historian, activist and comedian Dr Naomi Paxton granted me such a warm and stirring interview (read it here!) that I was left feeling like I’d been given a pep talk.

With all the will in the world I couldn’t wrangle being in three places at once but I did manage to take in a workshop on domestic abuse awareness by brilliant Bristol charity Next Link; some of Elizabeth Crawford’s talk on suffrage propaganda – read by Paxton; a panel on The Women Who Built Bristol by Jane Duffus; a talk on modern slavery and human trafficking from Unseen; a discussion on the concept of ‘Honour’ with the young people of Integrate UK (who work with other young people on issues around FGM and honour-based violence); and a final panel on fighting gender-based violence in Bristol.

One highlight I’d like to share is Next Link’s simple brainstorming activity on the possible ‘losses’ and ‘gains’ of leaving an abusive relationship, which provides a powerful rebuttal to the judgmental – and common – question ‘why didn’t she leave?’ The list of losses that we drew up together in the workshop was painfully long with items such as ‘the person you love’, ‘your home’, and ‘dreams’. The list of gains, though equally long, featured benefits that would have to be hard-won: ‘recovering mental health’, ‘self-esteem’, ‘new friends,’ ‘a healthy relationship one day.’ As someone who has had to leave the man I love to escape his escalating violence – the hardest thing I’ve ever done – and who met with painful incomprehension and judgment from those who thought it should be easy, it was balm to my heart to witness Next Link raising awareness of what is an all-too-common reality.

I didn’t get to attend the Wonderful Women Awards ceremony (BWV celebrating Bristol women who have been nominated for their contributions to the community), but as I sat, an eager beaver in the front row of the final panel of the day, with Charlotte Gage of Bristol Zero Tolerance (working against gender-based violence), Melissa Blackburn, CEO of Unchosen (working against modern slavery) and Alex Raikes of SARI (working against racist and now gender-based hate crime) – as well as Cheryl Morgan (who runs trans awareness courses) in the front row beside me – I was handing out the awards inside my own head. I had heard so many women speak that day about the work they were doing to make change and improve lives: hard-headed and warm-hearted women; women fighting, women leading. It seemed suddenly as though women were the ones turning the machinery of the world: driving it forwards.

That’s why we need International Women’s Day, I realise, and Women’s History Month, and as much noise as possible about the centenary of votes for (some) women, not to mention noise about the work that women are doing now across so many fields. We need to draw attention to the achievements of women, not as some kind of back-patting exercise but as remedial education. We are learning machines, we humans, collecting great banks of data and storing countless connections; but the dominant culture that most of us learn in does not teach us to associate women with courage, with hard-headed organising, with authority, with leadership. We’re deprived of the histories, of the news stories, even of the films and fictions that would teach us to connect the idea of ‘woman’ with the idea of ‘greatness.’

But just a day like this Saturday goes some way to redressing the deficit. So do books like The Women Who Built Bristol by Jane Duffus, which offers an A-Z of ‘250 inspiring women, three sheroic dogs and one heartbroken barmaid from Easton’ who had an impact on Bristol between 1184 and 2018. (In fact, reading books by women writers only is a good idea: I’ve been doing that for two years and it has had an enormous impact on the way I see the world.)

During the panel on The Women Who Built Bristol Duffus asked her panellists, who were also contributors to the book, what it meant to them to have these histories collected in print. I listened to Dr Naomi Paxton and Dr Finn Mackay agree that it was inspiring and that we can learn a lot from the strategies of the women activists who have gone before us. All true. But for me the book and their clear voices ringing out from the stage had, like all the events that day, one greater significance: they were lessons in admiring women.