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127. On Being A Woman

I wrote a piece, 'On being a man,' a few weeks back and many of you responded positively to it, both men and women. This time it's the women's turn... This is not just for women, though, this is also for the men who love us, and would like to know more about what it is like to be a woman. A couple of weeks ago I went to an internal IT seminar at my workplace. It was introduced by the head of IT, a light-hearted and humorous individual, and there were two members of staff seated nearby, both with laptops. He first of all told us about the change in the IT system that was soon to be happening and then he said, 'Now I'd like to introduce you to Tracy who is going to demonstrate the new software to you, and also to her lovely assistant, Stephen.' A titter went round the room. Stephen blushed and appeared to be examining the front of his shirt. My first reaction was to laugh. Then I looked at poor Stephen and how embarrassed he was and I felt sorry. Not just for Stephen, but for all the women before him who have been treated in that same diminishing way, except not as a joke. Of course Stephen was embarrassed, who wouldn't be? He is there to do a job and he is introduced, not for his competence, but for his appearance, as if he is only there for us in the audience to look at and decide whether we fancy him. As I wrote a few weeks back, men are wealthier and more powerful than women, and are physically stronger; on the other hand, they get more disease, have fewer confidants, die younger and are more likely to kill themselves. For women it is the other way round. We have less money and power, but we take better care of our minds and bodies, we have more social support, we suffer less disease and we live longer. We are also able, miraculously, to create life. But there is something that women have to deal with that men do not, and it goes on every minute of every day. Look around and ask who builds our buildings, runs our countries, heads up our industries? Look at who sits on expert panels, whose paintings adorn the walls of our national galleries, which composers' music is played to us, who heads up our churches and synagogues and mosques. Look at our newspapers and notice who they are mostly talking about, who is in authority and who is not. Look at the salaries paid in occupations such as medicine and law, compared to those paid in teaching and nursing. And wonder, what is it like to be part of a group that is so invisible, whose achievements are so undervalued and whose qualities so under-sung? Add to this the myriad of ways in which men casually put women down by using ordinary feminine terms in order to insult each other, such as 'old woman', 'girl', not to mention the 'c' word, and you can begin to see what women are up against. The fact that the joke made by the head of IT could be made at all speaks volumes about how far we have come, of course it does. But the condescension and put downs have not gone, they have just become more subtle and a little less socially acceptable. Just the other day I was walking along the road, feeling very calm and happy, and a man coming the other way suddenly said, 'Cheer up love.' This is an experience I suspect any woman reading this will have had not once, but many times in their lives. It is a situation where, if you complained, you would only reinforce the other's view that you are indeed a miserable old cow and need to cheer up! 'So trivial, for goodness sake, get a life!' This is the kind of thing we have been trained to say to ourselves. But on this occasion, unusually, I took a moment to check the reality of what it was like to be on the receiving end of this remark. Did I invite it? No. Was it pleasant? No. Has a woman ever said this to me? No. Have I ever heard of a grown man being told to cheer up by a stranger in the street? No. Did I feel intruded upon? Yes. Did I feel a little diminished in that moment, and for a short while afterwards? Yes I did. 'The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.' Eliza Doolittle, in Pygmalian by George Bernard Shaw The day after being told to cheer up, I was sitting at the front of an empty bus while the driver joked with another man about women drivers. I find it useful, in evaluating these situations, to imagine what people would think if they witnessed the same behaviour in another situation. So in this case I asked myself, what would people think if a white bus driver was joking to another person about how terrible black people are at driving, with a black person sitting just a few feet away? These are such commonplace experiences for women that most of the time we don't even mention them, and yet how must they affect our psyches, day in and day out? This is an important question because if we don't know, our unconscious sense of ourselves is likely to be a sum of those effects. If we do know, we can make an important decision - whether or not to buy into the attitudes and judgements that underlie them. To do that we need to remind ourselves who the authority is here. Imagine you wanted to understand what it is like to be a short man - would you ask a tall woman? Unlikely. The people who have most insight and understanding about being a short man are undoubtedly short men. The people who have most insight and understanding about being a woman are women. And yet, oddly enough, the messages we receive about women have mostly originated from men. And some of those messages are not at all nice. And not at all true. Most of us would prefer to pretend they are not there. The reason most of us go unconscious in the first place is because the facts of who we are, what we feel and what is going on around us are too unpalatable to face head on.' John C Parkin, author of Fxxx It Therapy So the next time you feel put down because of your gender (or the next time you hear someone putting a woman down), just check the credentials of who is doing the put-down and ask yourself, are they a good judge? If you were wanting someone to give you an honest and objective view would you choose them? If not, why would you buy into their opinion? I do not need another person to tell me whether or not it is ok for a stranger in the street to tell me to cheer up. I need to ask myself whether it is ok. And when I do that I find that it is not. I have read a couple of books recently on the subject of women in modern society, which is probably why I am especially conscious at the moment. Misogynies by Joan Smith is a troubling series of essays on the subject of (some) men's hatred towards women. Compelling, and not for the faint-hearted, it directs our attention to some hard-to-stomach realities. Melissa Benn's recent book, 'What should we tell our daughters?' is a comprehensive treatise on the state of being a woman today, the trials and the triumphs, and her question gave me pause for thought. I have two daughters, what should I tell them about being a woman? It feels important. Well, I shall tell them that I think they embody all that is good about being a woman. That they are nurturing and empathic, sensitive and co-operative, courageous and strong, insightful and principled, warm and funny, and that they are beautiful, inside and out. I shall tell them that they are part of the history of women, that everything they have in their lives has come from others who have acted before them, and that the lives of the women who come after them depend on what they do in their lives; that we are so lucky to have been born now and not a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago; that nevertheless we still live in a society that was created by men, for men, and that women are treated differently to men, and largely less well; that men are important and have great qualities, but that they do not define us. Most importantly I shall tell them that, unlike Eliza in Pygmalian, their value is defined by who they are, who they know themselves to be, and not how they are treated. 'I do not wish women to have power over men: but over themselves.' Mary Shelley Try this:

  1. How are you feeling, having read this article? How do you relate to the things that have been discussed? How are you affected by these issues?

  2. How conscious do you think you are of your experiences and feelings of being a woman, or of being a man relating to women? Are there things you'd rather not think about?

  3. What is wonderful about women, in your view? If you are a woman, what is wonderful about you? What wouldn't you swap?

  4. If you are a woman, and could create the world as you would like it, how would it be different? What would be the values, the rules of behaviour, and the criteria for success in that world? And hey, what would the buildings look like, the newspapers be full of? What would you put on primetime television? What would you pay different workers in society? How would you tax people? What would you want to be taught in schools?

  5. What would you tell your daughters?

'I guess at the end of the day, all women like to be appreciated and treated with respect and kindness' Sofia Vergara, Actor With love Anita