Missing you. Again. And again.
key words: older white males, gender, heterosexual male desire, male dominance, intercultural voices, diversity.
It is May 2010. I attend a local hustings in north Liverpool, for my ‘new’ constituency (the result of a boundary change).
All the candidates (including the Labour and Tory candidates who fail to turn up) are white and male, as is the Chair for the evening.
So is the small audience. I am the only woman present. At another hustings, in south Liverpool, it is different: 3 white women candidates, 2 white men, and a white male Chair, face a large, mixed and diverse audience.
In north Liverpool, two of the candidates, and a man putting a question from the floor, refer to the ‘working man’ ……… then it’s apologies all round (but hey it’s 2010). Later, I reflect that it is not just that the term ‘working man’ so thoroughly obliterates women as citizens; it also marginalizes, even stigmatises, friends who are variously disabled, on benefits, unemployed, retired and/or holding life together on the home front as parents, carers and/or grandparents. And it reminds me of Cameron, Clegg and Browne’s mantra of ‘hardworking families’ as the only deserving. They mean families like theirs…………. White, affluent, heterosexual couples + kids (but not too many………).
I rush home to catch the second half of BBC1’s 3-part drama, ‘Five Daughters’, based on the lives and investigation into the serial killing of five prostitutes in Ipswich. I wonder, why isn’t everyone else doing the same?
I think I might watch the following programme, which is a local (NW) panel of 3 prospective General Election candidates + audience participation, held in Blackburn. As the programme starts, I get that oh-too-familiar sinking feeling.
The candidates and the Chair are all older white males.
The first speaker from the audience, a retired white male police officer, opines on ‘the problem of immigration’. I switch off in anger, not just frustration: aware of the editorial decisions behind who gets to speak, both on the platform and from the floor, and which issues are foregrounded.
The previous day, I had browsed the latest WOW (Writing on the Wall) programme in anticipation. 2010 sees the Liverpool Festival celebrating its 10th year, presenting two concentrated weeks of cultural / political events, combining local and inter/national presenters / performers. But the stats are dismal:
There are over 45 male performers/presenters, and only 12 women. That’s a rough ratio of 3/4 male to 1/4 female.
14 of the 22 events are all male line-ups. That’s c2/3.
Only 2 events are fronted by women, each by a single individual (Bonnie Greer being the national figure).
There are no all-women line-ups, i.e. groups of women.
The featured faces of performers, that run as a chronological line along the bottom of the programme pages, tracking ten years of WOW (2000-2010), break down as follows. Of 20 faces, 17 are male: 14 older white men + 3 black; only 3 of the 20 faces are women, all white.
In 2003, 3 years after the start of the Festival, the first woman’s face appears; another in 2004; then we wait another 5 years for the wonderful Ann Enright to appear in 2009.
On 22 05 2010, at a Low Carbon Liverpool half day seminar, ‘New Economy: New Business’, a speaker from the floor asks, in apparently genuine bewilderment, why plenary speaker, Miriam Kennet, of the Green Economics Institute, had highlighted the particular importance of gender and women in her (brilliant) opening presentation, for the move towards a low carbon economy, etc.. The questioner is a youngish white male, with a social conscience, working with the School for Social Entrepreneurs, and in the later panel discussion he emphasises his working-class credentials and preoccupations, and makes a very useful contribution. But in his question to Miriam, there is a sense, not just of not understanding, but of objection to the emphasis on gender / women.
After Miriam’s clear and detailed response to his question, I add, from the floor, that in 2010 gender is still the least acknowledged issue, and the area of most resistance, even hostility (compared, for example, to attitudes and action re. racism, homophobia, disability rights). Social class has long been a key area of denial, and I suspect this partly fuels his challenge.
There is no time to go into more detail, for example, that equality is not just a question of equal pay, but that the absence of the latter can be taken as a mark of the unresolved underlying issues of: girls and women coerced and marketed as bodies, as sex; as objects and targets of heterosexual violence at home, on the street, in war zones; and heterosexual male desire as the unregulated driver for ever more profitable practices and industries – whether computer games, lap dancing clubs, sex trafficking, prostitution. And victims of domestic violence and abuse, and women asylum seekers are part of this picture of neglect and violation, as a recent performance by a group of women asylum seekers from Manchester powerfully demonstrated to a stunned Liverpool audience at the CUC.
Back to the significance of ‘Five Daughters’ on BBC1.
This log provides a glimpse of one woman’s sense of persistent affront and marginalisation (to put it politely) over several significant days, which is not exceptional, more routine, for too many women, of all ages, backgrounds, roots and circumstances, not least in this City. This situation is political, not personal.
It is not just about numbers or representation; the issues go way beyond that, for example to the culture of organisations, and the routine conjunction of racism, misogyny, homophobia, class prejudice, ageism and disdain for disability that poison too many organisations and institutions. Yet we also know great strides have been made in many of these areas over the last 40 years in the UK, as a result of people’s activism; and nationally, the New Labour government was instrumental in its development of significant legislation as part of that process. There is much to be pleased about, no question.
Yet for too long, and for too many women, it has been a case of ‘put up and shut up’, or ‘be patient’. I have never warmed to the former as a way of life; and women’s (saintly) patience, while it may have its place, can also be understood as a form of internalised oppression and feminine deference, rather than a social and political strategy through which we channel our creative energies as agents for change on all fronts, ‘private’ and public. Either way, both ‘put up and shut up’ and ‘patience’ leave women stranded. As one male commentator, writing during the General Election, put it: ‘It’s as if feminism never happened’.
But with women near invisible on the public stage of the 2010 General Election, it is not unreasonable to ask: Which political party gives a damn? Which understands the connections between, for example, environmental issues and social justice issues? Between endemic, persistent poverty, social class wounds, prisons piled high with men who have grown up poor, illiterate and violent? And old style male dominance, whether in the home, in business, or in politics?
That the BNP has been routed nationally and locally in these elections counts as a significant achievement for people power: rejecting a version of brute masculinity, widely recognised as a threat to women, children and men of good will; as well as democracy itself. The recent, short-lived rise of the BNP has served to remind people what we as a society abhor; what we will not tolerate. Their agenda, its every detail (the racism, misogyny, homophobia, contempt for working-class people and other vulnerable groups, and its use of intimidation and violence on the streets), all this acted as a warning regarding the fragility of ‘society’, civility, co-existence, if we fail to make our intercultural voices heard.
The political changes of the 2010 elections, locally and nationally, must be seen as the opportunity to tackle these inequalities, disadvantages, human rights issues, and crimes against humanity (as women, members of BME, working-class and LGBTQ communities, and people with disabilities claim that status) with renewed determination and optimism.
With Liverpool City Council no longer in the hands of the Lib Dems, pressure must be exerted and progress made in rebalancing our public life and its organisations and institutions; not just to represent the city-region’s diversity, but to embody it in a process of authentic power-sharing and co-creativity. For this to happen requires our intervention, our partnership, working across and with our differences at every level. Building that rainbow. Believing that nothing less will do.
It is 2010, and I should not still be counting (and weeping or raging) every time I attend a public event or meeting in Liverpool…………….. And thinking, miss you. Oh, how I miss you.
val walsh / 25 05 2010