How brilliant and hard it is to be a woman in the 21st century
I have always rather liked the quote from Madeleine Albright “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women“. These words came into my mind again last week as I caught up on the media spat that has briefly flared over the novelist Hilary Mantel’s comments about the Duchess of Cambridge. I will declare an interest in this matter from the outset: I think Hilary Mantel is a great writer and believe that ‘Wolf Hall’ will stand as one of the finest novels of the 21st century; I think that the Duchess wears great shoes and is admirably well dressed and gracious under pressure. My point is that one can, as a female inhabitant of 2013, approve of both, they do not need to be mutually exclusive and inherently hostile attitudes.
Unfortunately, however, when it comes to matters relating to women (and women, too often, are their own worst enemies in this), the messages usually come from the media couched in adversarial or utterly misleading terms. Mantel is transformed into a royal bashing harridan in the very papers that prove her point about the media’s preoccupation with Kate’s position as breeder of future monarchs and coat hanger in chief (”Duchess of Cambridge dresses tiny bump in £298 MaxMara wrap dress for official outing… but dazzles with a diamond necklace that costs TEN TIMES as much“).
I remember last summer’s fuss when the media ‘reported’ a speech by the GDST’s CEO, Helen Fraser which I heard first-hand. In this instance, a perfectly sensible and honest assessment that women pursuing careers today need the support of their husband and that therefore women need to be ambitious in matters of relationships too (and who doesn’t want the best for their daughter in this regard?) appeared in the press under headlines such as “School for Husbands.”
This is straightforwardly lazy journalism, but I can’t help but sense a whiff of the patronising in it all, a suggestion that we are continuing to battle with the same old categorisations that we have always done: clever=ugly, beautiful=dumb or manipulative, women’s rights=man-hater, authority=male etc. Indeed, in many ways I am much more pessimistic about the representation of women in the media than when I attended school myself. Victories against specific tabloid vulgarities on page 3 don’t count for much in the face of the over whelming, vicious and predatory coverage of women’s appearances on every page of the Daily Mail, Heat etc. For a girl or young (or older) woman today, the implicit and explicit messages are alarming in the extreme and the great sadness is that so many women seem to be complicit in this reductive process by which we are told that we are all, essentially, skin deep.
I am horrified at the avatars that young women have on Twitter, Facebook etc – a worrying number of poses that are drawn straight from the Rihanna back catalogue of provocation – somehow these girls have arrived at the message that this is the acceptable way to present themselves to the outside world positively.
In the face of this, it is perhaps not surprising that the word ‘feminist’ has become problematic. In a quick poll in today’s assembly I asked the students to put up their hand if they had a positive, negative, or neutral reaction to that word. ‘Positive’ prompted the fewest hands and the ‘neutrals’ had it. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I’d like to reclaim that word as something positively understood about the potential potency of a real sorority – a place where casual assumptions are not made about women by other women and where there is a shared and sophisticated fight back against the corrosive influence of stereotypes. To celebrate women’s capacity and potential is not to criticise men. As Caitlin Moran says in ‘How To Be a Woman’, “I like the look of this world. And I’ve been here for a good while watching. Now here’s how I’d tweak it. Because we’re all in this together.“
It has been a week when the Mantel/Middleton ‘hoo- ha’ was joined by the architect Zara Hadid’s more serious comments about the ‘misogynist behaviour’ and ‘‘the sinister kernel of inequality” in her profession and the associated building trade and when a would-be female F1 driver found herself being asked about doing ‘sexy photoshoots’ on the Today programme. While this is the ‘norm’ and while we see the ongoing evidence of under representation of women in a wider variety of key sectors at senior levels, I make no apology that our school continues to interrogate and challenge the world that RHSB girls graduate into or that it encourages them to think about how brilliant and hard it is to be female in the 21st Century.