I am sexist. No two ways about it. But then, whether we realise it or not most people are. Let me give you a recent example. I am a massive rugby fan – and I am desperately trying to get my 4 year old boy to watch the game and hopefully start playing. At the start of the recent world cup I rushed out to buy him an England rugby top (I know, I should have bought him a disposable one). I was so excited because I had a photograph with him from 4 years earlier wearing an England rugby baby-grow. Of course it never occurred to me at the time to buy a baby-grow for my 4 month old daughter. So yes, I can be sexist.
Now the challenges in terms of tackling sexism in our culture and structures are immense – and certainly too deep for me to consider all of them in a blog. We should never lose sight of the fact that when looked at from pretty much any perspective you care to imagine those who have lost the most from this are women and girls. Both historically and presently the greatest challenge is to the rights of women. We can look at this is in terms of access to senior positions and positions of authority, in terms of equal pay or in terms of job opportunities as the liberal feminist tradition would have us do. We can look in terms of domestic violence, domestic servitude, caring and family role expectations as being a more important indicator if we choose – and there is certainly still a great deal of work to be done here.
I make no apologies for focussing almost exclusively on western ideas here by the way. I simply do not have enough information or understanding to apply this more widely. Whilst I admit that like most people I was delighted that Saudi Arabia has now allowed women to not only vote but stand as candidates in elections, I am too far removed to really be able to understand and involve myself, other than to be amazed that we still don’t have universal suffrage in every country. Having said that Saudi Arabia is a country so intrinsically corrupt and evil that it will work with the likes of David Cameron, so you can’t really be surprised by anything rotten there.
The reason for telling you this was that I noticed a couple of really interesting episodes over the last week or so. The first one was rather innocuous in seeming, however I think perhaps underlines some of the challenges that we face (and partly gives me an excuse when I sometimes behave in a sexist way – ie without realising it until later). I attended my son’s nativity play and in order to ensure everyone could take part the stable was a little bit crowded. I am not sure the original writers had time to put 60 different roles in there. What really stood out for me (as well as enjoying the antics of 4 year olds on stage) was the role assignment. There were 8 angels and 8 shepherds – split perfectly down gender lines (yes, I know, only on a purely “cis-“ basis). Now, from a historical accuracy point of view it may well have been that only men were allowed to be shepherds 2000 years ago in Judea. I don’t know, I am not a history buff but I would imagine there could be some truth to that. But certainly angels, if they had gender at all, would be both male and female.
What is worrying about this is, whilst we are a fairly affluent and liberal part of Liverpool I believe that these roles were assigned by the school. Is it sexism? Was it even considered? The school has an almost entirely female teaching staff. Surely one of them has hard of gender equality. Maybe I have completely misunderstood – maybe this is liberal feminism in action “Right, the angels are the most powerful creatures in the story – therefore we will keep all of those roles for women. After all if we can set aside roles solely for women that’ll upset hegemony”. However, I very much doubt that.
In a very dissimilar setting but very much aligned topic I attended the local meeting of Momentum for Merseyside. Now, as a socialist who has not been inculcated I am still getting to grips with everybody calling each other “comrade”. Whilst I can understand the importance of this in 18th Century Paris I am less certain it is required in 21st Century Liverpool. It must be remembered that Momentum is a proto-organisation at the moment, and that is because of the way it developed – almost organically. Nobody expected that they would have to find something to do with so many activists when Jeremy Corbyn started his leadership campaign. I actually wear it as a badge of honour that Tom Watson called us a “bit of a rabble”. We are, and we need to organise. The proposal for Momentum Merseyside was that as well as committee positions (which there was a general view on splitting 50:50 between female only and open to all positions or co-holding in a similar fashion) there would be 2 delegates from each CLP / Borough in the area – matching the Labour party set up in that area. The proposal was (similar I guess to the angels above) that for every delegation there should be one female only position and one open to all position.
Whilst this was originally slated to be mandated a motion was put forward that this should be a recommendation only following by a member of one of the constituency parties who wanted the right to choose as their delegates, if they so wished, men to either role. For me, this was a fantastic moment for the little corner of the organisation in the North West. After some fairly impassioned speeches on the matter, the motion was passed – and this gave 2 things really. Firstly, it allowed each CLP to make their own decision – removing a top-down paternalistic drive to be shaped a certain way. Secondly it showed that the new organisation was going to be democratic and open in the way it decided things. Once the motion was carried there was clear acceptance of it in the room. I hope that this is a clear indication that Momentum is going to be a truly democratic organisation – perhaps we are already showing a level of maturity that other organisations don’t.
What brought the nativity play role selection and the Momentum meeting together was the idea that we still have a long way to go to achieve gender/role equality, but perhaps the real focus of our efforts should be on the structures that entrench traditional gender roles and values rather than the focus on positions and hierarchical authority. After all, what did Margaret Thatcher ever do for women? Whether this is through looking at advertising on TV where for every woman in a bikini being seen as simply an object for sexual gratification to every father shown up as a useless man-sized child reliant on his wife, or nativity roles for 4 year olds, we simply need to do better. It is a really worrying state of affairs when Saudi Arabia are moving faster in terms of gender roles and equal rights than we are.