Feminism, sexism and the realisation that normal is not necessarily the norm

My elder sister helping Dad with demolition

Whilst on holiday in Vietnam a couple of years ago, we visited a military history museum where we were introduced to the propaganda posters which were commonplace across the country throughout the 20th century. Since I was made aware of these artefacts and the abominable story behind them, these bloody posters have popped up everywhere. I can’t seem to escape them, whether it be in cafes we’ve visited a hundred times, books or on the tv, they’re on my radar. I’m not sure whether they’ve just appeared or whether the reality is that they’d always been there. Perhaps I’d chosen not to notice them or that my lack of knowledge inhibited my awareness of such things but now that I’m awake I simply can’t unnotice them.

Growing up, my family didn’t fit societal norms. Mum worked a number of jobs, Dad didn’t work so assumed the household chores (what would have been considered women’s jobs in the 70s and 80s). He was a great cook long before Jamie Oliver, knew his way around a washing machine like the back of his hand and was as impressive as Freddie Mercury with a vacuum cleaner. There wasn’t a list of women’s jobs or men’s jobs in our house, they were just jobs. Dad was also handy when it came to DIY – teaching both myself and my sister to decorate, as well as how to perform general house and car maintenance tasks. I thought that was what everyone did. Additionally, my childhood didn’t follow that of a conventional girl, I didn’t play with dolls or tea sets (though my sister did) – choosing to play sports, Action Man and Star Wars instead. I wasn’t brought up thinking that my life choices were constrained because of my gender. Nothing was off-limits. This was an attitude nurtured throughout my teens into my early twenties and luckily reflected in most of the men (and women) I have both worked with and for.

The aftermath of my first rugby match

This is my normal but sadly it isn’t the norm despite what my personal experience would suggest. Very few of my own experiences have seen me disadvantaged because of my gender. However, with a new, heightened awareness, I can recognise that perhaps I didn’t realise what was happening because sexism wasn’t ever a consideration for me.

I’d class myself as a feminist, not particularly a very good one, but a feminist nonetheless. I’ve been guilty of becoming frustrated with my own sex when, at times, I’ve perceived that women were damning the patriarchy unjustly. I have expressed an impatience when it has been suggested that organisations are guilty of sexist or misogynistic practices simply because it wasn’t in my experience. I have been accused of perpetuating institutionalised sexism against women (although I’m told it’s not my fault). We echo behaviours which are such an integral part of our society that we don’t even notice them – or how we are complicit in them.

I used to dismiss this as rubbish but now I’m not so sure…

A recent conversation highlighted a niggle which I’ve had for a while now. The discussion appears to have opened up the floodgates and I am awash with a heightened awareness that I didn’t have before. In a wider debate, my daughter suggested that she, and other women felt it necessary to wear make-up primarily because of the patriarchal society we live in. I was outraged. She had been brought up in an all-female household and raised to be a strong, independent woman; to hear those words coming from her mouth felt like treason. However, once she had clarified her point (and I’d removed my emotion), her argument was well-considered. Often when we think of patriarchy, we have an image of an all-male hierarchy exercising ideals which are oppressive towards women. The interpretation presented to me was a perspective which I hadn’t before considered, that of a society whose cultural norms are structured on years of historically patriarchal attitudes, in which women themselves not only reinforce but perpetuate. Views which will only dilute with years of challenge through a heightened awareness of why change is necessary.

This isn’t a blog vilifying men for their privilege or blaming them for the imbalance. However, it’s important to recognise that this privilege exists and that we all have a part to play in creating a more equitable society. In Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People about Race we are forced to acknowledge the need to heighten awareness of issues that a position of privilege makes us immune to. Eddo-Lodge has a point – and it’s one which we simply can’t ignore.

Since the conversation with my daughter I’ve revisited my experience on a senior leadership level. Again, my school would not be classed as a reflection of a normal school management structure so I look to the borough-wide meetings I attend where there is a clear imbalance in favour of males at a senior level. This is echoed in the structures of management in a great deal of public services, the private sector even more so. If we look at our Government, the 2017 General Election was a record for women with 208 taking their seat in the Houses of Parliament, only 52 MPs elected were BAME – there are 650 places available, so we still have a long way to go to have a government which is an acturate representation of our society. James Bloodworth in The Myth of Meritocracy argues that we seek to perpetuate our normal so organisations look for people ‘like them’. It’s why a lack of diversity of any kind is dangerous.

For women, it’s not just the lack of opportunities, it’s attitudes and actions. It’s in the patronising tone or the mansplaining, it’s the subconscious choices of the media to favour a man rather than to select the best person to represent an organisation. This recent thread by Ben Bartenstein summarises the accidental ignorance which is prevalent in our society. Again, it’s not about the pitch forks in search of scapegoats, it’s about working towards change. The first step in the journey towards equality is to recognise that an imbalance exists, in this case sexism and institutionalised misogyny. Perhaps in illuminating the issues, I’ve challenged your thinking and you’ll notice more. Perhaps even though it isn’t your experience, you’ll acknowledge that your normal maybe isn’t the norm and you won’t be able to avoid taking a view through different eyes…

4 thoughts on “Feminism, sexism and the realisation that normal is not necessarily the norm

  1. I totally understand that if it’s not my experience then that doesn’t mean it’s no one’s experience. However, I do think that we should consider the flip side too. The makeup for example. I worry that we are in danger of making a woman who wears it freely out of choice think she had to stop wearing I because she now thinks it’s an expression of patriarchal oppression. I worry that the pendulum may swing too far.

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      1. It’s the extent of the free will that I find more of a pertinent consideration. I think there’s a misconception that in civilised western societies we have absolute free will but how much of our thinking is contrived by the influences of media networks?

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