Tag Archives: Feminist rants

‘Hell no, I’m Not One of THOSE Girls!’ or: The Battle with Internalized Sexism

3 Apr

In high school, and as long as I can remember, I have been labeled a feminist. Probably not in those words , but capturing the essence of the term or what other people thought this term describes. Which, in high school, was being someone pretty high-strung and slightly annoying, always ready to call others out on sexist stuff (wasn’t too aware of the more subtle forms yet and, I admit, the time I wanted to force the teacher to use the female form instead of the German generic masculinum for the sake of fairness, that might have been a wee bit over the top [Side note: I could never be a teacher. Oh, I would hate these little smartasses]).

In high school, and as long  as I can remember, I have been the good girl. Good student, well-mannered, nice middle-class family, that sort of thing. Being the good girl entailed to absolutely not, under no circumstances, being caught doing “girly” things. Because those were shallow. Brain-dead. Hysteric. Beneath me. For my teenage self, those two categories were not mutually exclusive. For my teenage self, talking down on specific types of women for their sheer “femaleness” went perfectly well together with championing women’s rights. You know, I was entertaining grand thoughts about IMPORTANT stuff. Equal wages, equal political representation, that sort of things. They: come on, they were just so ridiculous, so…girly. Ohhh, well.

When I grew up, there was a very clear divide between two groups and you had to decide which group you wanted to belong to: the girly girls (lots of makeup, lots of boy talk, lots of boy action (or at least, lots of talking about the hypothetical action), dislike for all things to do with school to be exhibited as in a shop window at all times) and the brainy girls (active in school, good grades, dislike for all things related to “shallow” stuff such as fashion, boys, physical appearance to be exhibited as in a shop window at all times). This was a decision to be taken, in my head, not only by myself, but one that by association also stretched to other members of my family. Hell, I remember one evening, I must have been around 12/13, when I asked my mum whether she could, in the future, stop wearing lipstick because the other mothers (read: the other mothers of the right sort of people) also didn’t do that. I can’t remember her reaction, but I’m happy to report, the lipstick stayed on.

For a long time, I thought that this divide was mostly in my head. That I could have been both the flamboyant party girl AND the opinion leader, if I wanted. But I don’t think it’s true. I wouldn’t have been taken serious, being one of “them” in addition to being interested in school stuff. I suppose that this is also a cultural issue of my small town German upbringing. I see less such divide in my friends from other countries or even in my friends who grew up in other, bigger places within the same country. However, the issue underlying the choice my teenage self was unknowingly faced with is a universal one: the issue is internalized sexism, the rejection and the devaluation of stuff considered “girly” by societal consensus. A bit as if it were a contagious illness that one could catch and which’s transmission upon oneself one had to dismiss in the strongest possible terms, as to dispel all suspicious that one is infected: ‘Me??? I’m not one of THOSE girls! See, I’m almost one of you! You can take me and my opinions seriously! They are not clouded by my femaleness, they are not diluted by layers of makeup, I don’t have time for all these superficial things, I promise!

One had to, at all times, uphold the good girl appearance, or else one ran uns the risk of becoming vulnerable, a target for the assumption that one cannot actually be taken seriously, being so colorful in the face, being in such a short skirt, being so emotional, being so girly.

I thought about this recently when I read a quote attributed to Ariel Levy:

“Attacking femaleness, deriding ‘girly’ stuff, rolling your eyes at ‘women’s issues’, declaring yourself a ‘tomboy’ who gets along better with men because women are silly or pretty or whatever – these are expressions of internalized sexism. If that’s the way you feel about your own sex, you’ll be doomed to feel inferior no matter what you achieve in life.”

This is scarily true. It doesn’t mean you should not be a tomboy, if that’s who you are. It doesn’t mean you need to start watching “Love, Actually” when Christmas time comes around and subscribe to People magazine if you are not interested. It doesn’t mean that, as a woman, you mustn’t do “manly” stuff or that “real” women have to do x, y, and z, but not a, b and c. There is no such thing as a “real” woman in the first place. Everyone, do whatever the hell you want! But, if you do or don’t do a certain thing just because being “girly” is associated with being shallow, unprofessional, profane, weak, unimportant, then you’re doing it wrong. Then you are being disloyal not only to other women, but first and foremost to yourself.

Yes, as a woman, you have been born into a world that is made for men. They set the standards, they define what is “normal”, you will always the “other”. But it doesn’t, in any way or form, get better for you or for anyone else with a vagina, if you think you can enhance your position by talking down on things traditionally, narrow-mindedly, wrongly associated with being female.

Not less serious (just mean)

Not less serious (just mean) [Copyright: TM&Copyright 2003 by Paramount Pictures ]

And not only is it disloyal: it’s dangerous also. It creates a divide between the “good” and the “bad” girls. Between those who are to be taken seriously and those whose opinions can be easily dismissed. Between the “rational” and the “hysteric”. And, between those who behaved prim and proper and those who “had it coming”. In times, in which the whole world discusses whether binge drinking at a party actually equals consent, in times in which it is actually necessary to stage Slut Walks and hammer it into peoples’ heads that the person responsible for a rape is….(drum roll) the rapist and not (surprise!) the victim, for wearing a short dress, for exercising her right to walk public spaces, for previously having fun, this is hazardous.

We want men to care for women’s rights. Because they are not a sideline issue, they are human rights. We want them to see us as equals, we want them to stop being scared of being associated with femaleness because being associated with femaleness is inherently being associated with weakness. Fair enough. Then maybe we should stop showing that we are so afraid of being associated with this femaleness ourselves, that we have to deliberately distance ourselves from it by means of words or actions. And maybe, just maybe, we should stop being afraid of it altogether. Just a suggestion.

The Black List

10 Mar

I recently moved to the UK. As many women before me, I had to get registered with a General Practitioner (GP) in order to get birth control. The joys of having yet another unknown person ask me the most personal questions, giving me unsolicited advice about my personal reproductive choices and even worse, getting acquainted with my vagina are, as also many women will agree, not the joys we daydream about.

The great thing -I was told by the NHS website- is that I could choose my GP as long as it is a practice that is appointed to my postcode. I went into a review for GP practices and was disappointed by the kind of reviews I saw: they all reflected the amount of time they had to wait, whether the secretary was nice, and other banal information.

So here I was, asking myself, how do I choose a vagina friendly GP? And by this I mean, how can I make sure I go to a practice where my choices are met by a respectful, open-minded health operator, that will provide any service I may need in the future without a judgement?

I know what you’re thinking: just say it. Yes, I want to know I go to a GP that will not sabotage me in the future in case I ever need an abortion. No, I’ve never had one and am not planning to ever need one. No, I don’t think I would be terrible if I ever do and actually believe it’s my right.  I do realize abortion is not a right in the UK, this post I believe illustrates greatly some of the issues around abortion in this country.

Maybe it’s not even about knowing I can get one, but making sure I’m not with a GP that in principle believes I shouldn’t get one in any circumstances, or even worse, would on purpose deny me of an abortion, a service I am supposed to be able to get in the UK.

While I was googling away to inform myself on this issue, I  found out that in 2007, nearly a quarter of GPs were refusing to refer women for terminations and a fifth wanted the procedure banned outright. Yesterday, the Independent also raised the issue by reporting that since July 1991, when the abortion pill RU486 was introduced, less than 3,000 women have received it, while more than 60,000 women should have had the option of this non-surgical termination. Less than a half of the NHS hospitals that practice abortions offer the pill. GPs fail to tell their patients they have this option over surgical pregnancy termination.

I’ve been whining about this to friends and they’ve expressed worries from “the other side”. Do I think all GPs should be forced to practice abortions? No, I am a true believer of conscientious objection and think GPs should have a right not to do something against their beliefs. And I believe the NHS system has addressed this and GPs can opt out of providing this service.

But I think: shouldn’t we, women living the UK, have the certainty that we will get a GP that will provide us this service? That’s when the shit hits the wall in some arguments and people suggest I am creating a black list of doctors based on their beliefs, which could create massive discrimination issues. Fair point.

But then, what about us? If we have evidence that GPs are, because of beliefs or any other reason, sabotaging thousand’s of women’s access to a health service, shouldn’t they be accountable for this? After all, once the legal period has passed, that’s it, you’re stuck in a very difficult situation. I briefly thought of the Seinfeld episode “The Pilot”, when Jerry and George write about a show in which a person is convicted with becoming another person’s butler for a while by a judge. Could we then, in such a world, give the baby once it’s born to the GP? Sorry man, you failed to provide me this service, the direct consequence being me having this baby, so here you go: have fun!

As cynical as this may sound, we do have to think about a solution. And I believe the fact that the provision of abortion by NHS personnel is addressed around a GP’s right to opt out, rather than their duty to do so is a critical starting point. If we knew we had GPs that don’t believe in antibiotics and refuse to prescribe them for infections, what would the NHS do? Would they say: don’t worry, you can opt out. Or would they say: the consequence of you not doing this is critical to a person’s health and access to services, so if you won’t do it, you need to tell us now.

I understand that the basic problem is that abortion isn’t a right. And yes, that would fix a lot of problems. But in the meantime…we don’t go around asking if every health service we get is a right in itself, do we? “But doctor, I have a right to chemotherapy when I have cancer”… or “I have a right to painkillers when I’ve hurt myself and am in pain”. Or would we accept a situation in which a person’s died because they didn’t get a blood transfusion in a hospital due to their doctor’s beliefs? We would all be outraged. We consider all these services as part of our right to health and the consequent obligation of this is our State’s obligation to provide us with all it entails. But we are not outraged in this case… not all of us anyway.

So yes, I do think there should be a list. Maybe not a black but a white list. Doctors that are willing to provide this service should enlist and women looking for this service should have a guarantee that the GP they go to will have no problem in giving them what they’re entitled to.

The system still sees this as a favor, an option, something women cannot demand, something for a holy GP to decide in her behalf. That’s the reality, and the consequence of the denial of such a service is as long-term as any can be.

The Personal Might Actually Be Political After All

4 Dec

Anne-Marie Slaughter really likes to talk about the private/public divide these days. After her article  on how illusionary it is for women to be both super moms and super careerists (which might be true, I just don’t understand how this is any different for careerists who are both male and fathers), I just read an article by her on the private life of public persons got me thinking.

She started off by wondering whether Petraeus had an obligation to step down because he betrayed his family and the marriage vows he gave to his wife, indicating a betrayal of intrinsic values which the general public believed he stood for.

Now, I find this a very tricky subject. On the one hand, such claims – that a leader did not live up to a perceived set of moral standards opens the door to all forms of hypocrisy and political exploitation. On the other hand, does it really say nothing about you as a human being that you accept that your partner, to whom you owe your family life, upon discovery of the affair, might be exposed to public humiliation and ridicule?* Yes, I know it is a dangerous terrain with the risk of self-righteousness looming nearby.

I talked about the Petreaeus affair with a Hungarian friend over lunch the other day. Or, more precisely, she started talking about it, invoking it as one of the reasons why she found the US such a weird country. ‘It’s not anyone’s business. It is so different. Here (meaning Hungary) or in France, the guy would receive a pat on the back and would be cheered on’ she said (or something along those lines). Yes, he stepped down because he was no longer sustainable in a position in which it is crucial to not make yourself vulnerable to being blackmailed. But still, the fact that he cheated on his wife and what that means for him as a man with values was discussed in the US (the above-cited article may be cited as proof). 

Again, I do think it is generally a good idea not to judge the personal lives of people and their mistakes unless you know all the circumstances. So that is not the point of this post. But this whole affair (no pun intended) got me thinking of the differences in society and in what is considered private/public that contributes to these differences? For I think my friend was right, this discussion would have been totally different in most parts of Europe. Why is it that we very easily refer to something being private, being their own personal business when it comes to how public figures arrange their family lives, even though we know, we accept that by exposing their own personal mistakes in the public forum, someone else’s life achievements (the building and maintaining of a family life) were also reduced to nothing? 

Countless politicians, CEOs, persons holding similar positions of power do work more or less constantly in their waking life to achieve, maintain, foster, or increase something. Most men in such position have a family. Many women in such position, few as they are in the first place, have not. The reason is that when you are such a high-flying power person and you do want to have a family (and you do accept that your day holds merely the 24 hours it has in stock for everyone else), this is virtually impossible if you do not have a partner who stays at home to manage family and household (yes, there are exceptions. But if you chose a career that demanding that it needs your constant attention, you do inevitably accept to cut back in other parts of your life). You need someone who, out of passion, pragmatic consideration or bowing to expectation dedicates their life to your career and your family. Something that – given history, tradition, and societal expectations – women are far more often inclined to do than men. This alone could make us question the admiration for a specific group of public figures and their life achievements, in which it is traditionally forgotten that none of this happened in a private vacuum and none of this would have been possible without the compromise of someone else. Why do we consider someone a role model for undoubtedly morally valuable or even heroic acts without taking into account whether or not they able to live up to the same moral standards with regards to a person at home who enabled them to have some sort of family life in the first place. Someone in the comments section to AMS’ article mentioned JFK as an example, a person you would probably not have wanted for a friend and most certainly not for a husband. Another example I think about is HanneloreKohl, Helmut Kohl’s wife. After she killed herself in 2001, much had been speculated about the reasons for her suicide, which is mainly attributed to a rare photo allergy that had made her a captive in her own house. However, since then, both of the Kohls’ sons also came forward with accounts of how terribly their father failed as a husband and as a father, being constantly absent and, when physically present, uninterested and condescending. In an interview that Hannelore Kohl gave in 1992 she stated that “after four or five hours of real waiting, one can expect only of a dog that he is still looking forward (to seeing someone) (…) I have learned from our dog “.  Does it not have an implication on our judgement of the person as a decent human being if, notwithstanding any public mighty deeds, he fails so miserably in being there for the persons he loves?

So, is it really a sign of a more liberal society of Europe when we refrain from discussing our leaders’ judgements with regards to their private lives? Or is it an indication of some boys-will-be-boys-attitude coupled with an internalisation of traditional gender roles that assign women the role of an auxiliary and make their lives and how they live them matter less than their partner’s. The answer to that question does not mean that a public person who is highly competent and exceptionally skilled and generally amazing at his or her job should step down for any sexual or emotional mishap (unless you are the CIA director, I’m afraid). But it should be clear that they did not get there in a private vacuum and when they depend on the understanding and support of the people close to them in order to climb the career ladder, how they relate to these persons in private cannot be totally disregarded in the evaluation and definition of their success.

* (By the way, family here means people who are a couple, with or without kids. I don’t feel confident making vast assumptions about gay families with kids and high-flying careers and the issues they have to deal with (subtract everyday gender crap and the expectations it brings, insert everyday homophobia its effects), so I won’t write about them. Whether two people are married or not does not matter as I do not believe that any vow makes any relationship more legitimate or stable or sacred).

Speaking of abortion

24 Sep


Well, maybe we weren’t…But have you heard about the one about the right to an abortion in the UK?

I know, I know, abortions are permitted in the UK under the Abortion Act 1967 – I know. Although the Act might have been considered liberal at the time it was introduced, the law on abortion in the UK is starting to look a little shabby around the edges now. First point to note, the Abortion Act doesn’t apply to the whole of the UK. Abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland. Case law has recognised the exception to allow an abortion where necessary to protect the mother’s life or to prevent real and serious adverse effect to her physical and mental health. But otherwise it’s a criminal offence. Sentiments on this still run high, as noted by recent comments from the politician next in line for the post ofhealth minister that women who suffer a sexual assault must not be exempt from the strict laws banning abortion in Northern Ireland.

So, in England, Wales and Scotland then, under the Abortion Act before 24 weeks women do not have a “right” to an abortion. An abortion is permitted, but not a right, where continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family. Also, not one, but two registered medical practitioners have to sign off on. Extremely bureaucratically restrictive, as well as substantively restricting the right. As well, it’s different again in Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.

As this isn’t a right, acts outside this restrictive perimeter would be against the law and therefore illegal. And there’s a group of crimes on the statute book that you could be charged if you do try to end your pregnancy, such as sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act or the Infant Life (Preservation) 1929. These crimes are not a relic of statute long forgotten and never used. Granted, they aren’t used often, but when they are oh how they show what a cracked and warped regime it is. Last week, one woman was jailed for 8 years under section 58 of the OAPA. Eight years for taking drugs at 39 weeks pregnant to induce early labour. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the judgement, not least the remarks of the judge, which are available here, as well as the extensive prison sentence handed down. Shan’t repeat them here, you can read them yourself. But do read them if you have the chance. His remarks do highlight the problems with the UK law as it stands: that by having an incomplete and qualified right to abortion under UK law and not reforming the criminal law so it is archaic with no recognition of the social and mental issues so clearly at play, women will be the subject of these out-dated and inappropriate views where they do not have a place. I’m still flabbergasted myself.

Although pregnant women in the UK cannot choose to subject their own bodies to a specific treatment in this respect, they do have the right to refuse treatment, recognised strongly in St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust v S [1998] 3 All ER 673 (CA):

Although human, and protected by the law in a number of different ways … an unborn child is not a separate person from its mother. Its need for medical assistance does not prevail over her rights. She is entitled not to be forced to submit to an invasion of her body against her will, whether her own life or that of her unborn child depends on it. Her right is not reduced or diminished merely because her decision to exercise it may appear morally repugnant.”

It’s also interesting to compare this to Sweden. There, women have a right to an abortion up to 18 weeks in the pregnancy, unless it would be a danger to the mother’s life. After 18 weeks, abortion is allowed only if permitted by Socialstyrelsen (the National Board of Health and Welfare). It can only be permitted if there are very strong reasons for an abortion and can’t if there is reason to believe the foetus could survive on its own. Socialstyrelsen guidance on this points to 22 weeks, but this is limit is not specified in the legislation. Before the end of the 18 weeks, if a doctor decides that an abortion would be a danger to the mother’s health, this decision must immediately be subjected to a decision by Socialstyrelsen. In practice, this mean the doctor doesn’t have the power to deny the woman’s right on their own; that decision is subject to a further decision by Socialstyrelsen which must be in agreement to deny the woman the right. At any time, if there is a serious danger to woman’s life and health, Socialstyrelsen can give permission regardless of how many weeks into the pregnancy. According to a government inquiry in 2005, a woman who has an illegal abortion cannot be criminally punished.

We could go on forever discussing the differences and best ways to legislate a woman’s right to an abortion. But really, is criminalising the mother the best way to deal with the fact that she resorted to such methods on her own physical person to end her pregnancy? Surely someone can see the gap here! But the very depressing thing is that with the state of UK politics at the moment, the law we have is probably the best we’ll see in a long time – the risk of trying to change it risks abandoning any right at all.

If you didn’t hear the one about abortion in the UK, it makes a mockery of women’s rights.

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