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Women Speak Out in… Birmingham

12 June 2010, Central Library, Chamberlain Square, Birmingham

Next stop for Women Speak Out was Birmingham – tucked away in a corner of the city’s Central Library, we were joined by Katie and Rachael, members of the local feminist group, Birmingham Feminists, to discuss everything from gender identity to what it’s like living in the ‘lap dancing capital of Europe’.  Here are some of the comments we picked up.

We talked about the connections between sexual orientation, gender and biological sex.  In particular we discussed stereotypes, and how people who do not fit in either biological sex challenge our views of male and female.

Stereotypes and assumptions

Rachael: I was 21 or 22 before I realised that people would make assumptions based on me being female.  We break the world down into categories because it’s easier for us that way.

Rachael: Men make you prove your footballing knowledge.

Katie: Maintenance men assume that you know nothing, but my Dad is a builder and I grew up learning things.

Rachael: Minorities do better in tests, in school, if the stereotypes aren’t invoked.  (At this point we discussed Bad Science and physiological effects.)

Are men and women different?

Rachael: It bothers me when I hear that ‘men and women are the same’. Men and women are different. I disagree when people say our identities are formed only via social constructs. Physically we are different – our brains are wired differently.  But that’s not an excuse for men to be more aggressive just because they’re physically bigger, nor for women to be passive because they’re smaller.

Katie: How much of the difference is socialised and how much is natural? Psychological studies in the area of crime have shown that people are born with certain genetic traits, but how they are expressed differs between people. So whilst two people may share aggressive traits, one may express that by being violent, another by being creative. So, whilst men may be more visual, this doesn’t mean we should accept that they will like watching porn, because this can be changed.

Clever women

Rachael: Most of my friends find that men either don’t like clever women, or make a big deal out of it – saying things like “this is Rachel, she’s really intelligent”.

Change

Rachael: Societal change is slow – takes hundreds of years.  But I’m generally against banning things.  Banning is a knee-jerk reaction.

Do you identify as a feminist?

Rachael: I do call myself a feminist, but with qualifiers. For me, it’s about equality, I’m not at the extreme, I’m not comfortable with banning things. I’m more of a humanist.

Katie: Yes, I’m a feminist.  I’m a Me feminist, and I take bits from other feminisms.

Rachael: When you’re younger you see things as black and white, but as you get older you see more shades of grey.

The general election

Katie: I was disappointed by the outcome of the General Election. We had a women-only hustings in Birmingham prior to the election, discussing women’s issues, and some of the answers given were quite gendered. There was a difference in the responses given by the female Green and Labour candidates and the male Lib Dem and UKIP candidates (the Conservative candidate didn’t attend, and the UKIP candidate sent a stand-in).

Rachael: I don’t like the attitude of male politicians who seem to think the laws don’t apply to them.

Role models

Rachael: Erica Berger, the character from the Milliuem books.  Those books contain a lot of strong women, but they also contain a lot of minor characters who just happen to be women, like a policewoman.

Sexual objectification

A large chunk of our discussion was given over to the increased sexual objectification of women in society, touching on prostitution, porn and lap dancing.

Rachael: British people have this obsession with Playboy etc, but we’re not comfortable discussing the reality of sex, chlamydia is on the rise, and there are more cases of HIV/Aids amongst women. Men don’t make a connection between the women who dance for them in lap dancing clubs and the women they actually have relationships with.

Katie: I have personal issues with porn which are separate from my feminism. When a woman says she finds being a lap dancer ‘empowering’, I don’t think I could say that, because the men watching wouldn’t see me as empowered. Same with feminist porn – a woman appearing in it may feel empowered, but is that what the viewer thinks?

Lap dancing

Birmingham is known as the lap dancing capital of Europe based on the number of clubs it has per square mile. It was felt this was difficult to reconcile with the city’s bid to become the UK’s Capital of Culture 2013.

Rachael: The location of lap dancing clubs in Birmingham is far more prominent than in say, Manchester. Here they’re right along the high street, along Broad Street (the main nightclub area), and there’s a lot of them.

Katie: I’m not really saying that lap-dancing should be behind closed doors, but I do think you shouldn’t be bombarded by it, so you can think clearly…

Rachael: It’s possible to put lap-dancing clubs out of town or in less obvious places.  While I’m not endorsing Spearmint Rhino, they have a more discreet club than the many clubs on Broad Street.

The problem isn’t just with lap dancing clubs on the night time streets of Birmingham – a lot of nightclubs and bars also promote the sexual humiliation and objectification of women.

Katie: Other bars start doing similar nights, like Ann Summers themes.  One of the sports pubs’ student nights had a game where they plied female students with free alcohol, got them to stand on a table, blindfolded them, put a bin-liner over them and asked them to take their clothes off under the bin bag.  It was only when the blindfold was taken off that the women realised the bin-liner was clear, and that everyone in the pub had been watching them strip.  No amount of free drinks is worth that.  The University managed to get that game banned.

Even at the alternative music clubs, things have got worse in the last few years, with women encouraged to appear as sex objects, but somehow this is seen as alright, because they also have tattoos and piercings, it’s seen as ‘alternative’.

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What do you think?

What are your thoughts on what we discussed? We’d love to get your comments and views – Women Speak Out is a chance to find out what issues are on women’s minds and what’s affecting you. You could leave your comments below, fill in our survey-style comment boxes, or take our quick poll.  The poll changes every month, so come back and try it again soon!

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Women Speak Out in… London

29 May 2010, Royal Festival Hall café, South Bank, London

On a typically rainy Bank Holiday weekend, we held our first Women Speak Out discussion in London. Sally, Anne & Christine joined Jessica & Michelle in the Royal Festival Hall café to talk about the issues affecting them as women. As this was our first event, we weren’t sure what to expect.  However, we got a good discussion going in our group of women.  Here’s some of what we talked about:

Work inside the home

We started off discussing how women are still expected to undertake most of the household duties and childcare even when they also work outside the home – and how feminism has more to do on this issue.

Sally: Feminism’s drive for women to climb the career ladder hasn’t made jobs such as cleaning, cooking and childcare go away – someone still needs to do them. More needs to be done to elevate the status of childrearing, but because feminism treats this as inferior, that means no one – woman or man – wants to do it. But why does feminism value the masculine? To increase the value of something, don’t get women to do something, get men to do it.

Anne: It’s important that society supports the attitude that household duties and childrearing should be shared equally between men and women and fathers should take just as much responsibility for the care of their children than the mother is expected to.

Work outside the home

Our discussion also highlighted how certain types of work outside the home are also gendered, which has an impact on both women and men.

Sally: A woman wanting to become an MP or a lawyer or a man wanting to be a nurse or teacher has to jump over a psychological fence and make a decision to step out of the ordinary.

Christine: I’m not so worried about men taking on traditional female roles in the workplace – they can handle it. Even in female-dominated professions, men still hold the higher positions.

Michelle: Working as a secretary makes me conscious of being a woman – the work I’m expected to do and the dynamics between me and my boss encourage me to fulfil a stereotypical feminine role. You’re the housewife of the office.

Women in politics

Sally: Politics needs to be made more accessible.  How many people are going to choose a career where they’re away from home four nights a week?  How many mothers or fathers want that?

Jessica: The biggest obstacle to ordinary women becoming MPs isn’t the working hours, but the campaign to get elected.  It takes vast amounts of time, huge support and money.  And you’re not always fighting a winnable seat.

Equal pay & employment rights

Our discussion on work then turned to equal pay and employment rights. Anne brought up the recent Birmingham City Council equal pay case where female employees were getting paid less than men for comparable work. Jessica asked whether legislation is enough to ensure equal pay for women?

Michelle: Mandatory pay audits for companies would mean the onus wouldn’t be on the woman to speak up about discrimination in pay.

Anne: But we would still need to be cautious. Organisations find the loopholes and exploit their workers.  The fact that men and women often do different jobs masks the inequality.

Anne also pointed out how many women in the workplace are affected by working on rolling temporary contracts which prevent them from gaining full employment rights and how the male domination of trade unions also prevents women’s progress in the workplace.

Anne: In trade unions, there’s an attitude of the ‘boys looking after the boys’ and workers’ rights are fought on the assumption that people work full-time, but a lot of women work part-time hours. Also, women are less able than men to attend union meetings to make their views heard.

Childhood gender socialisation

Another main area of discussion was the all-pervasiveness and impact of gender stereotyping in childhood. From the toys we are encouraged to buy our children, to the subjects they study at school, it was felt there is still a blue corner designated boy and a pink corner girl. But how comfortable are we with breaking down these stereotypes?

Sally: Feminism has made it acceptable for women to be engineers and play with boys’ toys. But something that is feminised isn’t valued, it’s seen as inferior. I think feminism maintains women as ‘other’ by doing this. There’s nothing wrong with buying a sewing machine for your young niece – but we should also give them to boys.

As a writer of children’s books, Sally is conscious of how she portrays gender in her books.

Sally: I write my characters so they are realistic. So a female character may enjoy riding her bike, but still also reads Jacqueline Wilson and wears barrettes in her hair.

Education

Thinking about how gender stereotypes are reinforced in school, when Anne was at school, girls didn’t study physics or chemistry, only biology.

Anne: Feminism should be about confidence and feeling comfortable.  If you’re one of the only women in a science class then you’re going to feel different.  We had to fight to be taught physics and chemistry.

It wasn’t until later on that Anne discovered her aptitude for the ‘hard sciences’ and undertook a chemistry and physics degree. It was noted that today more women are entering university, and taking science and engineering degrees, but are not always going into careers in these areas.

Anne: Women still need to push to enter certain male-dominated areas. I eventually went into teaching. My other options were nursing and secretarial work, and teaching at least offered me some autonomy.

Feeling afraid

How gender stereotyping affects women’s confidence and ability to go out and do things by themselves was another issue that concerned our group.

Anne: There are many women who do not do things through fear.  It makes you unequal if you won’t leave the house.  Fear restricts your work opportunities.  If you’re too frightened to go into a restaurant or a hotel alone then you can’t always participate in the working world.  The media is always talking about women being attacked, and women won’t feel safe until the media stop telling them to be afraid.

Being female…

Sally: I’m aware of being a woman.  Gender governs how people think.  If you’re writing a story about a boy who plays football then it’s simple – he just goes to the park for a kick-about with his friends.  But if you’re writing a story about a girl who plays football then you also have to think about how it fits in with society.  Who does she play with?  Where does she play?  What do other characters in the story think about it?

Christine: Sometimes you want to escape from being a woman, or being a black person, or being anything.

Jessica: I often don’t remember I’m a woman until I look in the mirror.  I just don’t think about gender that often.

Is now a good time to be a woman?

Sally: Now is not a good time to be a member of any minority – although there have been far worse times.  Women are often presented as a minority despite the fact that there are more are us!

Anne: I feel I’m in a minority. I don’t see myself being represented as a woman; for example, look at the government. It’s important we have women represented across the board.

Christine: It isn’t a good time to be a woman, but opportunities are shrinking for everybody, considering the economic recession.

Jessica: The white, male, middle-class model is still the norm and women are marked as ‘other’ against it.

Christine: It’s more of a problem when women and other minority groups believe in this norm, not just the norm itself.

Our discussion kept coming back to how gender stereotypes and assumptions still largely underpin and affect women’s lives. Yet, what can we do to change this?

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What do you think?

What are your thoughts on what we discussed? We’d love to get your comments and views – Women Speak Out is a chance to find out what issues are on women’s minds and what’s affecting you. You could leave your comments below, fill in our survey-style comment boxes, or take our quick poll.  The poll changes every month, so come back and try it again soon!

Update

Women Speak Out is now underway & we held our first discussion on Saturday in London – a post on that will appear soon.

In the meantime, we have firmed up plans for discussions in a few other cities, including Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham & Bristol. Go here for full details.

If you would like to take part in any of these discussions, or would like further info, then please get in touch by leaving a comment below.

And if you would like us to come to your city, then do please also get in touch!

An example…

We’ll be posting comments from women we meet.  Here’s an example of the style we’re going to use. 

On Women and Feminism

Jessica: My feminism is about fighting the stereotype of what it means to be a woman.

So many aspects of life assume that the default position is male. Society says that male is normal, and female is something different. Well, I don’t want to hear about women’s news and I don’t want a computer or a car designed specially for women. Women are not this strange, other, alien race. Women are normal.

The statistical differences between men and women are insignificant compared to the differences between individuals. I would like to live in a world free of gender. No one except my doctor and my lover really needs to know whether I’m male or female.

Most of the time I don’t feel like a woman. I feel like an individual who happens to be female.

Michelle: To me, feminism is about freedom for women; freedom from having to live up to sexist stereotypes which tell us what a ‘woman’ is and does.

These stereotypes encourage women to conform to certain ideals and roles e.g. we are still expected to make more of our beauty than our brains and deemed to be more ‘natural’ at caring for others, and so mothers usually end up doing most of the childcare even if they also work outside of the home. We need to relieve women of these pressures, so we are free to be who we really are and to do what we really want. 

I also think it’s necessary for feminism to tackle the other ways in which women may experience discrimination, aside from that based on their sex and also arising, for example, from their race, class, ability, sexuality, religion, culture etc so as to achieve freedom from all discrimination for all women.

On Women and Politics

Jessica: There aren’t enough women in politics. It’s not because women aren’t good enough. It’s much more subtle than that. The political system has been the preserve of white, middle-class and aristocratic men for so long that it’s difficult for anyone else to be heard. We have some brilliant role-models, some pioneering women, but until the political stereotypes are consigned to history then we need to keep trying.

I’m not just interested in “women’s politics” about families and schools. That’s important, but so is foreign policy. So is economic policy. So is crime and tax and health and pensions and immigration and transport. Don’t assume that because I’m a woman I don’t think about those issues.

Michelle: Mainstream UK politics is still too white, male and middle-class and I can understand why a lot of people are apathetic towards politics, as despite what the three main party leaders say, there isn’t much hope of seeing real change from any of them.

And I think quite substantial change is needed within electoral politics to get more women involved and more policies which will benefit women. For example, the male-dominated culture of Parliament, with its jeering form of ‘debate’, and the fact it spends more money on fighting wars than on education, needs to change.  

But until then, I still think it’s important that women are politically engaged and use their vote. The political system has brought some gains for women’s rights over the past few decades, and the more we use our vote and voices the more profound our gains could be.

What is Women Speak Out?

Jessica and Michelle will be visiting cities across England this summer to meet up with women to discuss their thoughts on feminism, politics, and the issues that matter to them.

We currently have trips to London, Birmingham and Leeds planned where we will hold café discussions with women to get their views on a variety of topics.

Given that 2010 is a General Election year, now is the time to find out what’s on women’s minds.  This blog will document the discussions we have in each city, recording women’s views and mapping the nature of feminism across the country at this politically significant time.

Where did the idea for Women Speak Out come from?

Women Speak Out was inspired by the book Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism by Nona Willis Aronowitz and Emma Bee Bernstein, a document of a road trip they took across the US to get young women’s thoughts on feminism.

Reading it prompted the question, ‘What would a UK Girldrive look like?’ Given the re-emergence of feminist movement in the country over the past few years, and amidst a recession and other upheavals in politics generally, we feel it is a particularly pertinent time to gather women’s thoughts on feminism and the issues that affect them.

How can I get in touch?

If you would like to take part in Women Speak Out, or would like further info, please leave a comment below.


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