Call me Madame

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosThis post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

A few days ago, I phoned to arrange a repair to my washing machine. Having got through to the relevant person – a young woman – who could arrange the appointment, I was asked, as question number one, whether I was Miss or Mrs. This question is of course a standard one in this country, where ‘Ms’ has failed to catch on, unlike the position in the United States. As someone who teaches Language and Gender, I am aware that the way you address someone not only reflects the prevalent social structures, but also shapes and perpetuates them. Classifying women from the outset by their marital status is an instance of ‘everyday sexism’, as a certain massively successful web forum is called. Honestly, why should I have to disclose whether I am married or not to someone I have never met and will never meet, just in order to arrange a washing machine repair?

So I gave my standard reply: ‘Ms’. The reply to that was that this was not a title that would allow the relevant form to be completed. Since my (then teenage) son once filled in his title from a drop-down menu as ‘the Right Reverend Monsignor’, it was not clear to me why this form could not offer this third option. Irritated, I said “In that case please use ‘Professor’ “. I don’t like using my ‘rank’ outside academia, but desperate measures were needed. Once again, computer said no. This was an academic title, and so no use on the form. My Chinese horoscope says I am a tree, and trees do not budge. For a few moments it appeared that the washing machine would just have to keep leaking.

To break the deadlock, I launched into my normal little lecture given in such circumstances, about how there was no need for anyone to know my marital status, how this would not be required if I were a man in such a context, and how this was, as another teenager once said, SO unfair. I added that the person taking my details also being a woman, she ought to understand the need for equal treatment.

“Well yes”, she replied, getting tired of this difficult customer, “but it’s been like that ever since ever, so it’s a bit late to change it now”. I pointed out that in other countries, such as France and Germany, they had managed to make the change, and that now in France for official purposes everyone was “Madame” and in Germany everyone was “Frau”, the terms for “Miss” having been abandoned in both countries. I should also have pointed out that the company she was working for, Siemens, was German. On hearing this, her tone changed from one of mild irritation to an interested purr: “Oooh”, she said. “I’d rather like to be called ‘Madame’!”

A mini-triumph for the tree?

Other blog posts by Professor Gardner-Chloros

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Invisible Women

Professor Lynne SegalThis post was contributed by Professor Lynne Segal, Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies in the Department of Psychosocial Studies. It was originally published on the LRB blog.

I heard that the octogenarian Joan Didion was to be the ‘new face’ of the Parisian luxury brand Céline when I was in the middle of commenting on a new monograph by Margaret Gullette called How Not to Shoot Old People. It documents countless grim instances of neglect and contempt for the elderly across a vast ageist spectrum. We oldies live in schizoid times.

Old fashionistas are suddenly all the rage (if hardly plentiful) at Vogueand Dolce & Gabbana. Living longer, old people can be encouraged to consume more, especially by cosmetic and fashion industries promising to keep us looking streamlined and elegant. We may, undesirably, be no longer young, but we can at least dutifully defer to the dictates of fashion. Didion even has the skinny look of a fashion model: hardly an inch of flesh, mere bones on which to hang clothes and accessories.

Meanwhile, social media trolls pour forth hate speech against the elderly. Only occasionally is it directed at those with the resources to resist, such as Mary Beard. Older women in need of care regularly report being treated with impatience or disdain, but only the most scandalous cases of neglect attract public notice. There were mild complaints five years ago when Martin Amis, in the Sunday Times, called for euthanasia booths to deal with the threatening ‘silver tsunami’ of old people who would soon be ‘stinking out’ the streets of London. He said he could ‘imagine a sort of civil war between the old and the young in 10 or 15 years’ time’. His words resonate with the constant hum of alarm – almost panic – about the increasing numbers of elderly people, with our distinctive needs.

The most terrifying images of old age – the witch, hag, harridan – have always had a female face, whether in myth, folktale or horror movie. This can have stark material consequences. Women are twice as likely as men to end up living alone in old age, with no companion to care for them. Their pensions are generally smaller, too, as they are confined to fewer areas of the labour market, paid less, and more likely to have taken time out from their jobs to look after other people. In September 2013, the Labour Party’s Commission on Older Women provided stark evidence of the continuing invisibility of older women in public life. Eighty-two per cent of BBC presenters over the age of 50 are men. More generally, unemployment among women aged between 50 and 64 had increased by 41 per cent cent in the previous two and a half years, compared with 1 per cent overall.

In this dismal landscape, it is pleasing that ‘Fabulous Fashionistas’, older women with a flair for bright, distinctive dressing, were sought out and celebrated on TV last year. They were presented as role models for invisible women everywhere. The programme’s producer, Sue Bourne,confessed it had taken her two years to find the half dozen confidently colourful and stylish older women in the UK, but she’s hoping they are setting a trend. Perhaps Didion will boost that trend: her chic self-presentation mirrors her precise, elegant prose. Didion will never frighten the children, unlike the ‘old woman of skin and bones’ in the playground song, who goes ‘to the closet to get her broom’, and may fatten them up for supper. Didion represents instead the cheery resilience that the government and media look for in those older women who are allowed a certain visibility to tell us all how to grow old gracefully. We must all keep looking healthy and feisty; making few demands on others, and least of all on the public purse.

Didion offers the ironic detachment of a woman able to see through the duplicities and deceptions that any celebration of ageing cloaks, knowing that our culture continues to worship youth, and youth alone. Let’s rejoice that she can ride these contradictions, at least for now. As one young fashion model said, ‘It’s so cool, it hurts.’ Quite.

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Why Remember Shoulder to Shoulder?

This post was written by Dr Janet McCabe, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies, and Vicky Ball, De Montfort University

Helena Bonham-Carter and Carey Mulligan recently marched through the corridors of Parliament agitating for female suffrage. It made the news. Not the protest. But because it was the first time that a commercial film had been shot inside the Palace of Westminster. In recreating what women did in that constitutional space to get the vote 100 years ago Suffragette, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron, brings that historic campaign back into public consciousness. While the struggle for emancipation shaped the political landscape in Britain in the early 1900s and changed irrevocably the position of women in society, it is a story that hardly ever makes it on to our screens; and it has been 40 years since we saw the suffragette movement last dramatized for television.

2014 marks the fortieth anniversary of the BBC miniseries, Shoulder to Shoulder, which focused on the activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia (1898-1918). It consisted of six specially written plays and it came about through the collaboration of three women, the actress Georgia Brown, filmmaker and feminist Midge Mackenzie and TV producer Verity Lambert. A sense of the public service remit pervades the series as Shoulder to Shoulder dramatizes particular events of the early suffrage movement, albeit from a decidedly socialist perspective. Its importance as a landmark BBC drama documenting the history of feminism and the emergent public voice of women is unquestioned. That said, the series seldom gets repeated and has never been released on DVD. This neglect prompts us to ask: why is such a politically important drama about women’s history still buried deep in the BBC archive?

Shoulder to Shoulder first aired on Wednesday 3 April 1974 at 9pm on BBC 2. It seemed an inauspicious start. Competing as it did with the extensively praised documentary series, The World at War, on ITV, and the popular ‘fly-on-the-wall’ series, The Family, on BBC 1. A quirk of scheduling has perhaps contributed to the amnesia, with the suffragette drama squeezed out of our collective TV memories as we recollect instead the ambition of the multi-award winning World War II series (still on television screens somewhere) and one of the first ‘reality’ shows in the history of television, which documented the everyday life of the Wilkins, a working-class family from Reading. What defined these shows at this moment in British television culture when BBC and ITV dominated was a focus on stories rarely told: ordinary people caught up in history; or those who had scarcely been given representation or a public voice on television before.

It is well known that Emmeline Pankhurst was alive to the importance of capturing the media to help shape her political message; and some of the W.S.P.U.’s preoccupations—with the media, penal reform and direct action—chimed in with Britain in the early 1970s. The IRA bombing campaign (with the Price Sisters on hunger strike in Holloway prison—and forcibly fed), industrial strife and economic crisis meant that the series carried more than a whiff of controversy.

Shoulder to shoulderBut maybe it was its feminism that lay at the heart of why Shoulder to Shoulder has been forgotten then and why we should remember it now. At the cast and crew reunion held at Birkbeck last Thursday both Siân Phillips and Angela Down, who play Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst respectively, admitted to knowing little about these women before making the series. While Phillips was politically active and involved in the trade union movement, she had no formal education about the Suffragettes.

She wasn’t alone.

Midge Mackenzie spoke often of how the project grew out of her experience of filming the Golden Jubilee of Women’s Suffrage in 1968, when she discovered the story of how women won the right to vote had been ‘almost successfully erased from the history books. The women who fought for the vote had vanished from our history,’ she wrote. ‘Their writings were long since out of print and their newspapers buried in archives’ (Shoulder to Shoulder 1988; ix). In good documentary fashion Mackenzie filled her book, which one feels was a response to the betrayal she somehow felt at having men write the TV series, with women’s voices—original experiences as expressed in the words of those taking part, from diaries, letters, memoirs, speeches, as well as newspaper reports and the Suffragettes own publications, Votes for Women and The Suffragette.

The series, like the book, focused on the militant campaign; but these Suffragettes were by no means the only campaigners demanding enfranchisement. Shoulder to Shoulder (like all history) is a product of its time and, for example, it doesn’t address the contribution of other dedicated Suffragettes like Countess Markievicz, the first woman elected to Parliament, or Charlotte Despard, an Irish-based campaigner and Sinn Féin activist, for as Irish revolutionaries it probably was not the right time for reassessment as the troubles in northern Ireland still raged. And the non-violent, but constitutionally minded, Suffragists, led by Millicent Fawcett, barely got a look in either. But then committee work and letter writing is far less televisual than the drama of arson campaigns and bruising clashes with the police. What is rescued and recovered is not random, but the fragility of remembering the complexity of our history adds to ignorance and concealment.

But this is no excuse to forget Shoulder to Shoulder. Margaretta Jolly, Reader in Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex, offered a useful intervention at the symposium that followed the screening, when she spoke of using the Suffragettes to ‘measure new feminisms’ and of the importance of passing these stories onto the next generation, however difficult and contested. What the act of recovery from this entanglement of ‘official’ history and personal stories, public speeches and oral testimonies, teach us is that the fight for equality didn’t end with enfranchisement—despite what postfeminism would have us to believe.

Remembering Shoulder to Shoulder isn’t only about reclaiming our stories, but about who has the power to tell them. Even within the production of the series there was a feminist struggle (of sorts) between an ideal and a challenging of power from the margins—Mackenzie, and shattering the glass ceiling and able to change the script but from the inside—Lambert.

Remembering the earlier fight for emancipation happened in the early 1970s at a time when a new feminism was struggling over questions of inequality, images of woman as Other and the culturally awkward position of women within the public sphere and their right to speak. Forty years and we remain preoccupied with similar questions. Reconnecting voices and the experience of women and women’s history across time and space is crucial.

Shoulder to Shoulder thus reminds us why the struggle still matters.

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Women on screen aren’t allowed to grow old erotically

Professor Lynne SegalThis post was contributed by Lynne Segal, Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies in the Department of Psychosocial Studies. It was originally published on The Guardian’s Comment is Free.

Diane Keaton recalled her mother’s advice – “don’t grow old” – as useless, however pertinent for Keaton’s chosen career as an actress. It’s a truism that interesting roles for older actresses are hard to come by. While signs of physical ageing are routinely played down in leading male actors, who regularly take roles as still vigorous and desirable characters (whether heroes or villains), the opposite applies to older actresses, if they are allowed to appear on screen at all.

Are things changing? It was Keaton herself who seemed to herald a shift when she played in the popular 2003 film about love in later life, Something’s Gotta Give. At the time she expressed astonishment at being offered the role of romantic heroine, at 58, despite being partnered by Jack Nicholson, already a decade older. Yet, in Hollywood, the films that portray older women as desirable remain sparse, with Meryl Streep one of the precious few still allowed to play a romantic lead. Meanwhile, when not excluded, one of the notable ways that older actresses make it on to the screen is playing a character with dementia: Judi Dench in Iris (2001), Julie Christie in Away From Her (2006), Streep in The Iron Lady (2011), Emmanuelle Riva in Amour (2012).

However, if cinema remains grim and forbidding territory for older actresses, television is finally starting to offer them more. To be sure, the majority of shows remain youth obsessed, and older women – with The Golden Girls a striking exception – remain perceived as beyond playfulness and sexual passion.

Still, with a third of our population over 50, and 10 million over 65 – and half of them women – the media has had to give a little. Now along comes the second series of the BBC’s Last Tango in Halifax, with its portrait of the late-life romance of two septuagenarians, Celia and Alan. The channel is planning something similar for next year with Grey Mates, involving a friendship network of pensioners, starring Alison Steadman, Stephanie Beacham and Russ Abbot – all in their mid-60s.

Noting the success of Last Tango, I have been pondering what it tells us about attitudes to bodies, old and young. Celia and Alan may be in the throes of romance, but we typically see them, particularly Celia, in her overcoat. The dynamics of their romance are mostly played out in the kitchen or the countryside, with warm smiles and hugs. There is no reference to their sexual concerns, and the bedroom stays off limits. This is all the more striking because their adult children’s affairs mean there is a continuous focus on sex.

Last Tango upholds one of the last taboos around sex, ageing and the body. Intentionally or not, it suggests that though in love, these oldies are past sexual concerns. Yet our culture has little problem presenting older men’s sexual desire. Nor do older men refrain from eagerly proclaiming this, whether in empirical surveys or in their own words. Much of the most esteemed writing by men mourns not the passing of sexual passion, but possible difficulties in its performance. Whether in the work of Ireland’s illustrious poet WB Yeats or America’s celebrated novelist Philip Roth, older men’s chief fear could be summed up as that of a creature sick with desire, but fastened to a dying animal – the threat of penile failure.

Older women’s erotic life, however, is barely registered, save in certain genres of pornography. In the wake of Germaine Greer or agony auntsIrma Kurtz and Virginia Ironside, the most influential women’s voices tackling old age tend to suggest they are contentedly post-sexual, “free at last” from erotic passion.

Given the complexities of desire, I am sceptical about this apparent gender contrast. I see the media’s endless production of eroticised, young female flesh as feeding a sense of shame attached to older women’s bodies. Any eroticisation of our aged female bodies remains taboo and this is one reason older women, in huge numbers (70% of us over-65s) live alone. Tackling our sexual yearnings, or registering our bodies with anything other than disgust, would indeed be radical. I wait to see it.

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Obituary: Post-Feminism

Professor Lynne SegalThis post was contributed by Lynne Segal, Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies in the Department of Psychosocial Studies. This post was originally published by Feminist Times.

Writing an obituary for ‘post-feminism’ is difficult. I never loved, nor even accepted, the creature in the first place. In its different dis/guises, from Girl Power to Tory feminism, it was always a slippery, shape-shifting thing. In life, Mark Twain was declared dead twice over, quipping the first time that his death was exaggerated. In its ongoing life, feminism has been declared dead many times over, keeping its eager obituary writers always busy. Post-feminism should be easier to bury, though perhaps harder to keep safely interred.

Over sixty years ago, commencing the iconic text of second-wave feminismSimone de Beauvoir apologized for reviving a topic that was perhaps dead: ‘Enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism, and perhaps we should say no more about it’. Within days, the ink she spilled sold 22,000 copies and The Second Sex has kept selling ever since. Twenty years later, second-wave feminism could hardly have emerged with more clamour, quickly spreading the message that women’s collective efforts would change the world. ‘Goodbye to All That’, Robyn Morgan declared in 1968, when a group of young women occupied the offices of a radical left publication in New York, joined together to protest the Miss America pageant and founded the radical feminist group W.I.T.C.H. That same year, her fellow American poet Adrienne Rich was similarly celebrating the awesome collectivity of women: ‘A woman in the shape of a monster/ a monster in the shape of a woman/ the skies are full of them’.

No wonder its critics waited impatiently to bury this new force, which did indeed usher in a decade of dramatic legislative, social and cultural change. Wherever it grew, it opened doors previously closed to women. It gave women more control than ever before over our bodies and sexuality, made us – when united – more assertive in the home, the workplace and the world at large, everywhere stressing women’s disadvantage and discrimination, including the frequency of men’s violence against and sexual abuse of women and girls. It was the successful spread of feminism that itself heightened recognition of and conflicts over the divisions between women, with newly emerging voices proclaiming their distinct forms of cultural and economic disadvantage and disparagement.

Finally, the era that would be labeled ‘post-feminism’ kicked off in the 1990s, after economic crises had brought the Right into power in Britain, the USA and beyond: rolling back welfare, attacking unions and other sites of resistance, increasing workplace insecurity, above all, ubiquitously popularizing notions of ‘free choice’ as beneficial for all; collectivity as tedious and constraining when not serving market forces. The speedy rise and fall of the Spice Girls in the late 1990s epitomized this putative ‘postfeminism’. Directly produced by the record-industry, these self-proclaimed ‘feminists’ crystallized the essence of ‘girl-power’, as their ostentatious quest for individual success and their return to conventional ‘feminine’ wiles dominated the airwaves: ‘Wannabe’; ‘Spice Up Your Life’; ‘Never Give Up on the Good Times’.

This lavishly layable Lady– ‘Get Down with Me’; ‘Let Love the Lead the Way’– suggested one form of female-empowerment (however fleeting); Margaret Thatcher personified another. Out the window went gritty resistance to the increasing disruptions and strains caused by shifting gender relations in a world in which, symbolically, and for the most part materially, men still held sway over women. At the very same time, the immense appeal of Bridget Jones Diary, depicting one woman’s search for her man, or the equally popular Carrie Bradshaw, busily recording the affluent, home-buying, successful lives of four female friends dining out in New York in the stylish sit-com Sex and the City, were instances of the same phenomena. Never mind the familiar sexual hazards facing adolescent girls, the resentful failures and uncertainties of many boys and men, the overwork of countless married women, the impoverishment of lone mothers and their children, the heightening global inequalities – these ‘new’ women (real and imagined) had financial independence, sexual freedom, immense consumer choice, while pursuing the affluent men of their dreams.

Some feminist writers, especially those prominent in the media, including Naomi Wolf and Natasha Walter, at first applauded what they saw as a new form of ‘power feminism’, hoping that some women’s growing professional success would increase their ability to empower others. Yet, both were aware of the multiple problems most women still faced, as Walter called for more change to enable all women to find a place ‘in the corridors of power’. Meanwhile, older feminists, myself included, mostly rejected both this ‘new feminism’, while criticizing the very idea of ‘post-feminism’.

Times change, and militant feminism is once more on the move. Young women especially are taking to the streets, writing blogs, organizing conferences, stressing above all the collective power of women, not just to change themselves and enter the corridors of power, but to beat back violence in all its forms, asserting the value of caring and interdependence in pursuit of social transformation. Deploying new forms of communication, activism and aesthetic expression, feminist horizons broaden and deepen. They encompass the economics of globalization, as some women are shuttled around the world to survive, but also include the future of the planet itself, even while attending closely to the immensely differing, often contradictory, details of women’s lives near and far.

As I bury post-feminism, and the absurdity of imagining that any feminism worthy of the name could begin simply from notions of individual ‘free-choice’, self-assertion or glamour (much as we may delight in these things), I am deepening the hole I have been frantically digging for over forty years. Goodbye post-feminism; hello feminism.

Lynne Segal is a feminist writer and activist, and Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies at Birkbeck. Her forthcoming book Out Of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing is published by Verso on 7 September.

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I don’t feel like dancin’

This post was written by Professor Lynne Segal, Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies in Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies.

‘Margaret Thatcher is Dead: This lady is not returning!’ is one way of the calmer statements celebrating Thatcher’s demise on my Facebook page. I can’t join the clamour singing ‘Ding dong the witch is dead’, trailing as it does its horrific historical sexism. More sadly, I can’t see anything to celebrate. Whilst this once formidable Tory trailblazer is dead, her ideas are more resurgent than ever. Neither Cameron nor Osborne will ever be damned as a warlocks or necromancers – this rarely happens to men – yet it is thanks to them that Margaret Thatcher dies triumphant. Thatcher’s success, like that of her pal, Ronald Reagan, was that through a combination of shrewdness and luck she could ride the high tide of corporate capital’s determination to increase profits by rolling back all the popular gains of the postwar settlement. She was neoliberalism’s willing tool, rather than something unique, evil or otherwise.

What is truly extraordinary about these times is that while Thatcher’s economic legacy has imploded, her ideological stance – which as she said was always her main agenda – is more viciously enforced than ever. “Markets know better than governments”, was her pivotal mantra, the rest flowed from this. Oh no they do not! You would think we must all have learned this from the catastrophic economic collapse in 2008, when so many banks had to be bailed out by governments, only to be returned as quickly as possible: old bonuses intact; new regulations nonexistent. All too quickly forgotten is the revelation of the cruel absurdity of the economic collapse set in motion by the buccaneers of the finance sector that Thatcher had ‘liberated’ in October 1986, with all the reckless gambling and belief that ‘toxic debt’ was itself a tradable commodity. Or at least, any such knowledge is drowned out by the continued combination of Coalition rhetoric baiting Gordon Brown and the Labour Party, together with relentless media attacks on the ‘undeserving’ poor, or any other scapegoats conjured up to misdirect people’s sense of resentment, fear and insecurity: ‘Crisis: Blame the baby boomers, not the bankers’, was a typically absurd headline in The Times when Irish Banks banks were on the point of collapse at the start of 2010, summarizing the argument by their chief economic analyst, Anatole Kaletsky.

In these topsy-turvy times, any thoughtful, reforming responses to the crisis, no matter how carefully argued and widely supported by fellow economists – such as those put forward by the highly respected American economist, Paul Klugman – are tossed aside in the UK. No reference to Keynesianism or any policies for decreasing the obscene inequality that helped generate the crisis are considered. Instead, after so much mayhem, Thatcher’s worship of market values rules supreme, motivating vicious cuts in welfare and the surreptitious turning over of what remains of the public sector to the private, even as the crisis in market forces and the finance sector continues to deepen, especially in Europe.

Of course there have been impressive flurries of resistance, and for a while in the wake of the Occupy movement, grass-roots dissent was back on the political agenda. Networks of resistance are active around the country, especially in defence of the NHS. Yet those eager to dance on Thatcher’s grave have much thinking to do, when there remains such a lack of connection between protesters and mainstream politics. Indeed, as Paul Mason admits in his book celebrating all the new protest movements around the globe, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, most of the people he interviewed ‘were hostile to the very idea of a unifying theory’. Yet it is surely some sort of compelling counter-ideology and alternative strategy to the ubiquitous rule of market forces that we are desperately in need of if we are ever to safely bury Thatcher. Although the rich few get richer and the rest of us poorer, the left has yet to strike any real chord with the broader public. We know that it was Tony Blair, or ‘Blairism’, which – as Thatcher knew – did so much to entrench her legacy: with his seamless endorsement of market values and public veneration for wealth and celebrity, even as it furthered cynicism about politicians and politics generally. We have headed so far down that stream, it is hard now to turn things around.

It took the extraordinary conditions of the Second World War to create the Labour Party’s comprehensive commitment to welfare, albeit of a conservative and authoritarian kind. The reforms and nationalizations inaugurating the British welfare state, post 1945, were based on the deliberate spread of a consensus that it was economic insecurities and domestic unhappiness that created unhappy societies: ‘many of the maladjustments and neuroses of modern society’, as Bevan explained when Minister of Health, arose directly from poverty and insecurity. When will our politicians say these words again? Any direct action, movement politics or coalitions of resistance we build today has to find ways to influence national government to reaffirm that mind-set, hopefully with more creative agendas than hitherto, before we can bury Thatcher. And since I began with a feminist note, let me also end there. Some women have argued that it was Thatcher who provided the best role model for helping women release their true potential. No she did not. She was the perfect role model for the ever deepening gulf between women, as the privileged few have been able to rise to the very heights of political or corporate power, even as the majority of women, affected at every turn by the rolling back of welfare and the politics of individual success she promoted, are ever more firmly left at the bottom of the heap.

Lynne Segal’s new book Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing will be published by Verso in the Autumn.

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The Gender Agenda in the Business Agenda: of Women’s Empowerment Principles Events and gender equality in marketing

This post was contributed by Dr Wendy Hein, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Management.

How to increase women’s leadership positions and empowerment was central to the recent UN Global Compact Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEP) Event which I attended earlier this month. These principles are an initiative, mainly adopted by private sector organisations, to work towards equality based on seven fundamental guidelines. The conference brought a range of leading companies, policy-makers, non-profit organisations and business educators together. The WEP’s main message for equality is that it ‘means business’. Equality is, in fact, seen to drive growth and potential within organisations. There is a resulting importance in retaining talent and maintaining women within the value creation process, to enable them to reach ‘the top’. This certainly touches on some important issues of contemporary work life. In this particular event, the need to mobilise men to participate in the necessary changes was also heard loud and clear. If we are looking to change existing gender dynamics and structures, we should incorporate those who are occupying ‘top spots’, who tend to be men.

Measuring talent, value and work

Yet, more fundamental challenges of how we measure talent, what we perceive as ‘value’, what constitutes ‘work’, or of the cultures that some companies are built on remained implicit. The language in the above paragraph already reflects a culture of organisations that exist from the ‘top’; that are competitive and fast-paced. Rather than seeking to integrate women into organisations that often represent masculine values, and asking them to embrace these, is there not more that women can and should do? Also, when it comes to women’s working lives, all too often it is not just about ‘business’, but also about the ‘personal’. Men’s private lives can certainly play a role at work, but particularly when it comes to maternity and motherhood, women’s families and their commitment to a home life often enter the work arena. Considering the blurring of these lives, and a call for companies to support women and men at work, shouldn’t there also be further support of home life in a similarly equal way? Shouldn’t a mother, father or partner be as valued as the worker? Then we also come to think of those who do not have a job, either in any of these great companies, or those who do not work – what kind of support can they hope for? And if you were thinking of organisations in the UK, change the context into emerging and developing countries – what support do women and men have there for receiving an education, getting work and managing a ‘home’? It just shows how our society can be perceived to value and privilege those who are in ‘producing’ positions – but is being a mother or father not some type of ‘job’ or ‘production’?

The intersection of work culture and private lives

From my own perspective as a marketing and consumer researcher, I find the issues of work cultures and organisations meeting private lives all the more interesting. As we become involved in programmes and projects through our roles as business researchers and educators, we recognise that marketing is one area where the public blurs with the private, business with the personal, and production with consumption. Think about it: the marketing industry has its own cultures – whether we are looking at marketing departments within certain companies, marketing entrepreneurs or advertising agency culture. Marketing ‘produces’, and in very gendered ways. This becomes even clearer through initiatives such as those by Kat Gordon that seek to create a contrast to the well-documented male ‘locker room’ ad agency cultures. Kat is founder of the “3% Conference” (3% being the number of female creative directors in advertising agencies) and founder of the marketing agency ‘Maternal Instinct’, which specialises in marketing for mothers, by women. She has built her reputation on understanding female consumers (who some would argue form the majority of consumers), based on her experience that marketing for these consumers is often produced by men.

Marketing as an educational tool

Now, think about this: most ads that tell women how to be beautiful (‘you’re worth it’), successful, slim, attractive, or taking care of family, house and home, are made by men. On the other hand, these men also tell other men how to shave, how to ‘fool the missus’ into believing they are vacuuming the house (when really they are in the pub), and how a regular teenager can be chased by a herd of super-model women. Of course, I am exaggerating and these are not all the images that advertising and popular culture produces… but, there are quite a few of them. Considering the number of ads and messages that we are exposed to on a daily basis marketing is placed in quite a powerful position to educate mass audiences on gender. This then is another characteristic of marketing – it does not just address the workers of one company or organisation, but can spread much wider. Wouldn’t you think that gender equality plays a more central role here? Then again, what does gender equality mean in marketing?

We started this excursion from the marketing producer side, but clearly marketing also plays a role on the consumer side. Women and men struggle on a daily basis to live their lives through and around stereotypes often perpetuated by marketing discourse, popular culture, and social structures influenced by these. Marketing pervades our public and private lives. It tells us how to be good/bad mothers, good/bad partners, good/bad men and women, often through a creation of norms based on inclusion and exclusion. Doesn’t this clash with our understanding of equality?

Gender in management education

It is surprising to see then how some companies have focused their efforts on creating gender equality as part of internal structures or policies, when our surroundings and homes are often filled with images, discourses and practices that are frequently far from equal. What’s more, if we understand the centrality of gender in business and management (as advocated by UN principles), it is also surprising to see how often gender is (not) taught as part of management education. This however, we can change.

As part of a group of academics from across the globe who cover different business and management disciplines, I am involved in collating material, research, experiences and perspectives on gender education, in my case within the marketing discipline. To view the growing repository of teaching material that members of the PRME working group on gender equality have put together, please visit this site. This work is open to ideas, support and external contributions, so please feel free to share stories, practices (both from marketing producers and educators) or resources.

We hope this initiative leads to a re-thinking of business and management schools, and to placing gender in a more central place across all of its  these disciplines. We also hope to inspire both women and men to challenge existing structures they may encounter in their work AND home lives, and to create new images, discourses and practices that can be gender aware.

Let’s not let this gender agenda fade, for the sake of both women and men, home and work lives, in emerging and developed countries. Whether it’s business or personal, men’s or women’s day, this is too important for all of us to ignore.

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Beyond Citizenship? International Women’s Day: the gender agenda

This post was contributed by Sasha Roseneil, Professor of Sociology and Social Theory and Director of the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

International Women’s Day is the moment each year to reflect on the ongoing struggle against the inequalities and oppressions that mean that women continue to be less than fully equal citizens. It is an occasion to stand back and think about how far we’ve come, what remains to be achieved, and how we formulate our demands for the future.

Since the late 18th century, the prospect of full and equal citizenship has animated generations of feminists. Yet citizenship is a troubling proposition for feminism because whilst it promises inclusion it always also enacts exclusion. Citizenship simultaneously creates insiders and outsiders – citizens and aliens, as well as good citizens and bad citizens. And whilst feminists have fought for a say in the running of states – as voters, workers, politicians and activists – feminism has also always been a process of exposing the limitations, restrictions and violence enacted by states through their constructions of citizenship. This paradox has intensified in recent years, as the notion of citizenship has become a buzzword in politics and academia, particularly in a Europe increasingly concerned with questions of borders and membership.

On the one hand, feminists have expanded the concept of citizenship beyond the classical concern with political citizenship, to articulate demands for wider social, cultural and economic change. The notion of intimate citizenship, for instance, has been developed to refer to the goal of ensuring that every person should be free to develop her own identity and sense of self, and the close personal relationships that matter to her, with the respect, recognition and support of the state and society. And the idea of economic citizenship refers to the right to work in the occupation of one’s choice, in a non-discriminatory job market, to earn wages adequate to support self and family and to access adequate social benefits when work is not possible. Both these concepts enable us to think more clearly about the extent to which feminist claims for full and equal citizenship have been realised. They help us to see the many successes of 20th century feminism in remaking citizenship for women. So, as well as opening up access to formal politics, women’s movements have meant that social benefits and welfare provision for women were established, economic participation and financial independence became possible, and self-determination and freedom of choice in intimate and sexual life were radically extended.

But, on the other hand, feminists continue to draw attention to the lived realities of those who are still not caught in the warm embrace of a full and equal citizenship – those suffering gendered violence and sexual abuse, the disabled and the dependent, members of minoritised, racialised and sexually excluded groups, illegal aliens and the “sans papiers”, the poor and precariously positioned, gender non-conformists and many others. From this perspective, feminism needs to ask whether the incompleteness of the victories of second wave feminism actually marks the limits of what is possible under the auspices of “citizenship”?

Perhaps there are fundamental flaws in citizenship as a feminist objective, tied as it is to the liberal individual and to the nation-state? Can the inherent vulnerability of the human body, and our fundamental human interdependence, ever be truly recognised and supported when citizenship adheres to the individual? Can the differences between peoples, and the singularity of each individual, really thrive under the universalistic intentions of citizenship?

This paradoxical situation produces a “can’t live with it, can’t live without it” relationship with the ideal of citizenship for feminism. And as with any attachment that seems to offer so much, that tantalises and teases, but that continues to fail to give us what we really want, we should ask ourselves whether we should hang on in there, trying to make the relationship work, or whether we should let go and move on? Is citizenship still an idea worth fighting for, or should we find a different language to express our yearnings for equality and our desire to belong?

Sasha Roseneil is editor of ‘Beyond Citizenship? Feminism and the Transformation of Belonging’, a new book exploring the current state and history of feminist politics (to be published by Palgrave Macmillan, March 2013), and co-editor of “Remaking Citizenship in Multicultural Europe: women’s movements, gender and diversity” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

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The tricky task of achieving life/work balance

On Monday 25 February Birkbeck held an Athena SWAN mentoring event, primarily aimed at women working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith, Professorial Research Fellow in the Department of Psychological Sciences, shares her advice, gained over her 36-year career as an academic in Switzerland, Holland and the UK .

 

My experience with mentoring young scientists has been that most females focus on how to balance career with having children, and less often on how to advance their careers, yet of course they should do both. By contrast, males tend to focus mainly on career advancement, rarely raising the problem of balance with family life, yet they too should do both.

The two-body problem

Academics often have academic partners, although the problems are just as difficult when one partner’s career is outside academia.  One lesson I have learnt is that one must discuss everything beforehand.  Don’t wait until the problems arise and resentment creeps in.  Be objective, realising in advance that one of you may get a superb offer in a place where the other cannot find something suitable.  What will happen if that arises?  Whose career will have precedence (certainly not automatically the man’s!)?  How will you find compromises that meet both your needs to some extent, even if not to perfection?  Whose career is more transportable?  All these issues must be faced in advance, without which debates end up in resentment for one party and guilt for the other…. often resulting in a doomed relationship.  You have to ask yourself, which is more important: career or relationship, even if both are important.  The solution isn’t to pretend the issue won’t arise!

Integrating family and career

Many young academics desire a child.  It is often assumed that a busy career means a single child.  In a newspaper article many years ago, Katherine Whitehorn raised the question “one child or many?” and concluded that, if you are a busy professional, it may be better – albeit counterintuitive – to have several children!  She reasoned that a singleton waits desperately for mum (or dad) to come home, whereas several children just muck in together and barely notice their parent is away.  What about maternity leave?  Fortunately, since I was a mother, maternity (and paternity) leave has vastly improved, so you could devote yourself entirely to the new arrival. This is clearly your right, but is it such a good idea?  My advice is that, if you intend to pursue your career, then don’t cut off completely during the maternity leave.  Save a special time each day to check email, read the latest article, jot down notes for your next article or research project.  You are going to have to juggle both once you return to work, so start practising gently now.  Remember that the smaller the baby the more s/he sleeps, so take your baby to special lectures or a conference.  Feed the baby just before it starts and hopefully s/he’ll sleep right through.  Do sit on an aisle seat, though, in case s/he starts screaming!!   And, once you’re back fulltime at work, agree with your partner in advance on how you will both decide who will come home anytime the baby is sick – not automatically the mother!

Focus your research

When you had no home responsibilities, it may have been fine to dabble in numerous research projects, but once there are family responsibilities, it is essential to focus your research. Try to arrange to teach on courses that are related to your research so that your reading serves both.

Avoiding guilt

Remind yourself frequently that you cannot be superwoman!  Keep an eye on your health and remember that sleep isn’t only a time of rest, but that parts of the brain are more active during sleep than wakefulness and that sleep is critical for the consolidation of memory.  Avoid guilt, and learn to say “No” to requests to take on extra tasks.  Protect yourself at this time of your career; you can be an avid volunteer in the future.  Tell yourself that it’s OK to use day-care and, when you drop off your child, leave with a confident stride.  Babies pick up on their parents’ doubts.  Do ask for help when you need it.  You don’t have to prove you can do it all alone.

You never stop being a mum…

A personal ending:  I thought that when my daughters left the nest, had their own careers and families, I could simply get on with my career without a second thought… Alas no!  Now the potential guilt raises its head again:  how do I juggle expected grandmother duties (I have seven) with the pressures of my academic career?  Rest assured, I have no regrets… having children, grandchildren and a busy career have fulfilled my life.

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Valentine’s Day

This post was contributed by Professor Lynne Segal, Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies in the Department of Psychosocial Studies.

Not again? Are you home alone on Valentine’s day, feeling yourself like a miserable old ghost, excluded from the feast of love? If so, you could join up with the ‘one-billion-rising’, the global feminist campaign which, in the footsteps of Eve Ensler seventeen years ago, turned Valentine’s Day into V-Day. Women and men everywhere are being urged to take a stand against violence against women, so often perpetrated through sexual assault. Here the V stands for Victory over men’s Violence against Women. It is a victory that is to be achieved through, among other things, everybody learning to love, instead of hating and abusing, the Vagina. It’s a crucial movement, with rape culture still endemic around the world.

But let me return to my opening question, the thought of being home alone on Valentine’s Day. Are we unlovable if tonight we find ourselves undatable, living alone, outside any couple? Of course not! We all know that there are so many different kinds of love, some might even reflect, like Jeanette Winterson this time last year, that all our relationships are based on love of different kinds: ‘If we could try to experience love as a quality – like compassion or courage – and focus less on love as an event, something that happens, then love would belong to us, rather than being dependent on us belonging to someone’.

In his conversation, In Praise of Love, the philosopher Alain Badiou echoes some of Winterson’s thoughts, though reinstating the couple as the site of ‘love’. Disdaining what he sees, rather oddly, as the ‘risk-free’ commercialization of love in internet dating, Badiou affirms the truth of ‘love’ in the movement from the chance encounter to the challenging commitment of an enduring recognition and acceptance of ‘difference’ between two people, as each negotiates a shared encounter with the world, no longer ‘from the perspective of the One, but from the perspective of the Two’.

Love may indeed be best seen as a quality of commitment, acceptance and enduring negotiation. However there is surely a little more to add when Winterson or Badiou object, as many do, to the commodification of the trade in ‘love’ nowadays, exemplified by those roses and chocolates on Valentine’s Day. This is because, even when free from the taint of commercialism, love is always shadowed by various forms of envy, dread of abandonment, and more, on the one hand; constraint and fears of suffocation, on the other.

This underbelly of love persists, whether we see ‘love’ as a type of event (the expression of desire, the occurrence of sexual activity, the declaration of strong affection); or alternatively, as a quality of lasting attachment and care (trying to be always dependable, supportive, comforting, responsive, in sharing one’s life with another). In a brief meditation on the risks of love the philosopher Judith Butler agrees, when she writes, ‘love is not a state, a feeling, a disposition, but an exchange, uneven, fraught with history, with ghosts, with longings that are more or less legible to those who try to see one another with their own faulty vision.’ The archetypal bond of love, that of a child for its mother, conveys it all; soon enough the child will be caught between need and flight, even as the mother was perhaps once caught between fear and flight at the initial total dependence of the infant on her ceaseless ministrations.

We could all love each other more, even that passing stranger, and the world be a better, indeed unrecognizable, place. But who dares ask for love without fear of rejection? It is the horror of the pitying smugness of the securely (or insecurely) coupled that single people experience, especially on Valentine’s Day. Now where exactly can I find those billion people rising, tonight?

Listen to a podcast from the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosopy’s lecture series ‘The Importance of Being Human’ (2011). Professor Lynne Segal and Professor Stephen Frosh discuss : Is love possible?

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