Having posted ‘Liverpool X: meditation on an invitation’ (19 11 2013, togetherfornow.wordpress.com) the night before the event, I turned up early the following morning at the main venue, Camp and Furnace.
The theme of the opening session was: Who are we and what makes us different? The plenary speaker was followed by a panel discussion. Contributions (questions, comments, etc.) were then invited from the floor. I thought it was important to raise the questions of the programming, participation, representation and ‘gender balance’ (as it was later referred to) as early in the day as possible. I managed to deliver extracts from the aforementioned statement, before encountering hostile audience reactions.
A woman nearby shouted, “We don’t want to hear this!” Then: “I am bored!” A man in the row behind me called out that I should give the mic to someone else. At this point, the Chair, Rob McDonald (Architect and Reader in Architecture at LJMU) felt pressured to ask me to finish quickly/immediately, which I did.
Something was achieved, in that there were subsequent references by panel members in later sessions to the issue of ‘gender balance’ on the panels and in the programming. I doubt this would have happened if I had not brought up the issue early on. For example, Bill Gleeson, the Business Editor at the Liverpool Post, speaking on the panel discussion, ‘What’s Liverpool for?’, recounted how he has attended numerous different functions and meetings over the years, and at all of these 90% of the attendees are white and male. This, he pointed out, is a problem.
Later, I had several friendly and supportive conversations with other attendees. In addition, two of the organisers (a young woman and a young man) approached me separately. They both agreed the issues I had raised were important and seemed pleased that I had spoken up.
I was told that they had tried very very hard to involve more women as speakers, and they mentioned several names as examples. These women had all declined the invitation to participate as plenary speakers. We shared our disappointment in the conversation.
I must admit, this problem had not occurred to me. I had assumed, as per usual, that too few women had been asked in the first place. They said, “there is a societal problem”. But in the light of this information, on reflection the societal problem reveals itself as more complex than at first glance.
Suitability, availability, willingness.
Women’s refusal to participate in a high profile public event is too easily seen along the familiar lines of: “women (or a n other under-represented and/or stigmatised constituency) don’t apply”. They lack the initiative / confidence / talent, etc.; i.e. classic blame the victim, so society needs look no further into the ‘problem’. As a result the ‘problem’ remains incomprehensible and intractable to those in power / in charge, and definitely the ‘fault’ of those lesser ‘refuseniks’.
I feel an echo here of the evident reluctance of BAME individuals in the City, to participate (at all or in any numbers) in events organised by whiteys, or even events organised by a member of their own community, but open to others too (such as Writing on the Wall [WOW] events). Only Slavery Museum events seem to bring them out in numbers. Part of me understands that historically rooted reluctance (but it also makes me sad). Was this, I wondered, also a clue to this Liverpool X situation?
These organisers had mentioned the problem of finding women in the city region who were “at a suitable level” for the event. This felt like another clue. I pointed out that if that is your fixed criterion, you will simply reproduce the existing problem. To break through, you have to get outside the box marked ‘at the top’, i.e. prominent public position / power / status, and agree a more qualitative basis for those invitations.
For example, artists (especially women artists still) as practitioners, are unlikely to occupy those high status, conventional power positions, and be running organisations (as opposed to projects), yet they may be among the most creative and productive members of local communities, artistic or otherwise.
This will also apply to other constituencies, such as BAME individuals. I later drew attention to the lack of BAME participants (on the panels or in the audience), as another indication of the event’s limitations, in particular when talking about ‘everybody’ and presuming to speak in terms of ‘we’.
As it happened, two women artists spoke from the floor in later sessions. I know them both and I have followed their artistic and community practices for many years. I am both friend and fan.
Nina Edge and Jean Grant both have long track records working in the city (and elsewhere) within and with communities, in addition to their gallery work. Both have the ability to communicate orally with diverse audiences; both are politically conscious human beings / citizens, equality-aware, creative initiators. It occurred to me that each could have given an original, thought-provoking, insightful and relevant panel presentation or plenary. They are experienced workshop facilitators and conference presenters beyond Liverpool, including Europe and the US.
But they are women artists, and while they show no slowdown in their creativity and commitment, they are no longer young. And Nina is (I quote her) “dark” (being of mixed heritage). In this conventional, male-dominated culture, apparently insensitive to issues raised by sexism and gender differentials, ethnicity and racism, and/or ageism, these two talented women may therefore be identified as low status, marginal. An outrage! And although they have both lived in Liverpool for many years, and brought up their offspring here, they are not ‘born and bred’ Liverpudlians, this being a significant, publicly claimed identity in the City, not least in the spheres that framed and underpinned this particular event: the arts, culture, creativity, media, politics, and business.
I thought about the women mentioned by the organisers, who had been invited and declined. All ‘originals’, having set up and developed hugely successful and original organisations, projects and businesses. Like Nina and Jean, women who are creative, community-minded, equality-aware, as well as hugely talented in their fields.
These refuseniks have, in their different ways, created new interfaces with Liverpool as a City and its communities, and they have done it in the face of and in spite dominant prejudices (racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia / lesbophobia). Their work has opened up new intellectual, psychological and cultural spaces, as well as organisational and business opportunities. Significantly, their style of working privileges team playing, collaboration, collectivity, etc..
These are women with flair, whose leadership is not just functionally significant, but fosters the talents and opportunities of others in and beyond their own immediate sphere of influence, thereby subtly helping to shift the culture of this still male-dominated city. But perhaps that’s another clue. They have been transforming now / creating the ‘not now’ (to use Roger Hill’s nice term for the future on the first panel discussion) for a good few years. And without interference from men, as any men involved are already part of the social and cultural transformation these women have helped engender / the not now.
Institutional disadvantage, overload, misogyny.
Women in general are time poor (as well as being poorer than their male counterparts, for example because we have not yet achieved ‘equal pay’ in many sectors). Women work multiple shifts (with or without offspring and/or dependents, and/or partners); routinely multi-task across the boundaries of un/paid work / voluntary work / community involvement / families / relationships / careers / campaigns, etc.. Women are much less likely than their male counterparts to have ‘staff’: wives / partners / PAs / assistants / chauffeurs, cleaning or childcare support, etc., to alleviate the multitasking complexity of leadership / co-creativity / domestic partnership / caring / parenting, etc., so obstacles to participating beyond the ‘normal workload’ go beyond time, labour and the diary. (The latter was mentioned by the organisers as an explanation for women’s non participation.)
But the problem of women’s ‘invisibility’ at the top table is not just the problem of numbers: i.e. not enough ‘senior’ / powerful women, etc. to choose from. It’s the problem of cultures: in communities, in workplaces, in organisations, businesses, trade unions, universities, in the City Council, that discourage, disempower, intimidate and undermine women.[i] The experiential reality for women can be as unrewarding, isolating and grim in the conventional workplace, as in the conventional home, if these are environments untouched by equality awareness and feminist values.
At worst, misogynist cultures destabilize and damage, so that women withdraw, pull out, run off (or hunker down, deteriorate and worse). For there is no academic or professional qualification (other than a women’s studies course) that can prepare women for these hostile environments; that can sufficiently equip the girl or woman for the sexual harassment, sustained misogyny and spite[ii] (however it gets dressed up, even in a frock).
And the 30+ years of neoliberalism have intensified this problem, by divorcing social mobility and economic advancement from feminist values; by promoting individualism and competitiveness; by objectifying bodies and commodifying sex as instrumental public performance and spectacle. All at the expense of girls’ and women’s (mental) health and well being, quite apart from our self determination, creative agency and courage.
Nancy Fraser, long term American feminist, has drawn attention to the problem of neoliberalism, not just for women, but its affects on feminist positions. She fears that
“the movement for women’s liberation has become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free- market society. Feminist ideas that once formed part of a radical worldview are increasingly expressed in individualist terms”.[iii]
And she returns her readers to the goal of severing
“the bogus bond between our critique of bureaucracy and free-market fundamentalism by reclaiming the mantle of participatory democracy as a means of strengthening the public powers needed to constrain capital for the sake of justice”. [iv]
The burgeoning across the City of Liverpool of activist groups and community actions in the face of the current ConDem government’s onslaught on the very fabric of our society, indicates a level of local awareness of Fraser’s call to action: that participatory democracy is fundamental to community, recovery and social justice.
Meanwhile, Melissa Kite, contributing editor of the Spectator, urges women MPs, faced with a working environment many describe as “unbearable”[v], not to run away from the problem, but to “man up”.[vi] Faced with male politicians whose behaviour is described as often “childish and offensive”, she bemoans the fact that “female politicians don’t seem to know how to handle them”, implicitly blaming women for their lack of ‘expertise’ in coping with what might more accurately be described as much worse than “childish and offensive” behaviour. (See my observations above and footnote 2 below.)
Sarah Stennett, amongst other things, the boss of Turn First Artists, an organization that supports and manages artists in the music industry, is “a successful woman in a sexist business”.[vii] Sony Records Chair, Rob Stringer, describes Turn First Artists as “the alpha-female music company”.[viii] Stennett is well aware of the difficulties the industry presents for women: “In this business, sexism is rife”.[ix] She “adds cautiously” that it is no worse than any others.[x] And, confirming Gleeson’s observation at Liverpool X (cited above), states:
“Once you get into the higher echelons of any business, women are absent.”[xi]
Re-watching BBC4’s Queens of Rock,[xii] the early footage of Marianne Faithfull and Dusty Springfield provides evidence of how the music industry and society treated, shaped and exploited these singers in the early stages of their careers: as girlie / ‘sexy’ / dolls, meant to epitomize full-on (heterosexual) “femininity”. And retrospectively, we (and they) have asked: At what cost? Both women came to take control of their identities, selves, careers, and as older women have created barnstorming creative legacies, shaped by their talent and knowledge as musicians, as well as their intelligence and experience as women (including grief and disarray along the way). Not to mention the stamina required for their journeys.
Beyond mono-culture: creativity, diversity, equality.
To return to the Liverpool X event: perhaps it was, rightly, identified as a men’s project, not just because of the percentage of men involved from the off, but because its familiar language, themes and pre-occupations (re. being edgy, radical, different, progressive) are those of Liverpool men involved in the arts, media, culture, politics, who count themselves as edgy, radical, different, etc..
And there may be generational factors too, as some of these men hark back to earlier, more ‘radical’, more ‘subversive’ times. So nostalgia may also have played its part in the emphasis in 2013 on “What shall we tell the world about ourselves that’s relevant and original?”[xiii] Sounds a bit parent/child to me: a plea for approval from big daddy. . . ?
But between 10 00 and c17 00, when I left, (5 hours before the last session), there was little sign of caring about the internal, more local conversation, across the city region, between different locales, communities, constituencies, interest groups: the conversations and actions that forge, bind and sustain us as a mini-society, a distinctive community that embodies a sense of belonging and relevance beyond both historical differences, divisions and power differentials, as well as the various newly established ‘Quarters’ of our increasingly tourist-oriented city centre.
Perhaps too, the conference format itself, with ‘star’ / celebrity plenary speakers and panels of ‘experts’, is the wrong shaped bottle for any new cultural and political wine? Too hierarchical, too monocultural, too conventional, and seriously undernourished by the diversity of the City itself.
Sarah Stennett (who grew up in Liverpool), stating the obvious (but no less important for that) observes, in relation to her own professional roles: “People fulfill their potential when they’re not scared and feel supported”.[xiv] And it seems that increasingly women realize that that supportive, creative environment is to be found with (mainly) other women, for example, in feminist-inspired women’s groups, organisations, projects.
Stennett’s words leave us asking why would any woman choose to enter a working environment she knows will throw rocks in her path because she is a woman? At the same time, we do not want to vacate major fields of professional, community and artistic involvement, and leave men in control. If a woman has a choice of something better, she will surely steer clear of non-facilitative, undermining work environments, where she cannot be herself or fulfill her potential. If she does not have that choice (and most do not), then she needs around her as many supportive sisters and pro-feminist men as possible, to help her ride the storm of life, work, career, etc.. To be relevant, and part of the solution, Liverpool X needs to address some of these issues in any future events.
val walsh / 04 12 2013
[i] See ‘Sexism in activism. What’s the problem?’ (10 10 2013) and ‘Thinking through and beyond “sexism”: Reflections on the challenge for the “Left” (and willing others).’ (14 10 2012) In essays section, togetherfornow.wordpress.com
[ii] See Louise Morley (1999) Organising Feminisms: The Micropolitics of the Academy. Basingstoke & London: Macmillan Press.
[iii] Nancy Fraser (14 10 2013) ‘How women became the architects of neoliberalism.’ The Guardian. And Fraser (2013) Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis. Verso Books.
[iv] Fraser (14 10 2013).
[v] Cited Melissa kite (29 11 2013) Man up, women MPs’. The Guardian.
[vii] Caroline Sullivan (02 12 2013) ‘Interview. Sarah Stennett. It’s a very scary business for solo artists.’ The Guardian.
[xii] 29 11 2013.
[xiii] See Liverpool X programme notes.
[xiv] Stennett, ibid..