The other day I was at a boys’ public school where the descendant of a Suffragette was promoting her latest book. There were several hundred in the audience. A little way into the talk, just after the largely female gathering had laughed on cue about the burning down of a local cricket pavilion a hundred years ago, we were invited to ask questions. I enquired what the speaker would say to those who believed there had been a sanitising narrative around the subject of the Suffragettes, that they were in fact a group of women who used the terrorist tactics of bombing and burning with little regard to the possibility of casualties, and the fact that nobody was actually killed was more due to luck than judgement.
You could, of course, have heard a pin drop. Although the mild-mannered activist was caught somewhat off-guard, she gave a long and careful response. It was essentially that war had nearly always brought collateral damage and it is something that men have always done and been prepared to do. Two wrongs making a right, then. I said if that was her defence of the methods, then I accepted her position, but I felt it was important that people did at least stop being ignorant of the use of such things as nail bombs and sulphuric acid in the context of the Suffragette story. Bombs Not Words as much as Deeds Not Words.
Some of the audience were clearly indignant that somebody had got in who was not quite on message and were getting a bit restless. I think there might have been some hissing. Another question was invited, and a man asked about the theory that it was the First World War that was really instrumental in getting women the vote. At this point, the speaker was looking a little weary, and after she repudiated this suggestion, she said how dismayed she was that the first two questions were so negative, but she would push on anyway into the next section of her talk. It was clear that further questions needed to be of the right sort.
What followed was to be about women’s journey to equality in the years since: where we had got to and how far there was still yet to go. Some of this would involve having a chat to our neighbours in pairs about anything so far, and some would mean raising between one and three fingers on our hands to indicate our views on, for example, women’s equality in the workplace. Some reactionary (the wrong sort though) for this latter task put up her hand showing five fingers, indicating that women had indeed pretty much got there in view of the fact that the country has had two female prime ministers. There was a sharp intake of breath in some quarters. The woman was told by someone that they didn’t count: Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May had done little for the women’s movement. Next question.
One woman came to the speaker’s rescue. She said that whilst applying for a teaching appointment several decades ago, she was politely asked by her interviewers how she felt she would cope with the pressure and responsibility of the position, given that she had a three-week-old baby. When she assured them that she would be perfectly fine, she was offered the position. At this point she apparently told the interviewers it was a very good job they had offered her the position otherwise she would have had them straight into an industrial tribunal. The audience broke out into happy, approving applause at this juncture, and there was certainly some whooping from teenage girls who had come along with their mothers. Half an hour later, on the way to the car park, I talked to one woman in her fifties who spoke of her sadness at missing her daughter’s babyhood. ‘I was a good feminist,’ she told me. ‘I did what I was supposed to do, which was to go back to work as soon as possible. It wasn’t right though. I so wish I’d done things very differently.’ She added that her 28-year-old daughter had just had a baby and that she was determined not to do what her feminist mother had done in making the return to work the priority, a move which now haunted her. Imagine articulating that to the above-mentioned audience.
The most unsettling part of the talk, however, came when a female teacher at the boys’ school said that, in relation to the misery of body image issues so promulgated by social media and the advertising industry, teenage boys and young men were suffering very much too. Anxiety and depression problems in the young were not exclusively female. This was courteously acknowledged by the speaker, but she gently asserted her opinion that the problem was significantly worse for girls and young women. Next. A young woman then asked the speaker how far she agreed that things were now really exciting for women given the advent of the #MeToo movement (cheer), especially with the whole Kavanaugh and Trump thing (boo) that had been going on. She agreed a lot.
#MeToo may be vulnerable though. According to a BBC item fairly recently, it is a movement that has divided women. Not only is there no consensus about its objectives (should these be about workplace harassment, or a wider drive to equality and what is to happen when accusations turn out to be false?) but there is a generational split. Older feminists object to the focus on women’s victimhood. If these are the internal tensions that may do for #MeToo, there are external ones as well. Essentially, if the movement persists with its central dogma that it is only girls and women who really matter, it will at some point have had its day. It cannot continue to push such a narrative. People who are treated badly, are discriminated against, find themselves the victims of crime, suffer anxiety and depression, take their own lives, all matter. And they matter equally. Wouldn’t it be good if we could just take gender out of this arena? It would also do something about the regrettable atmosphere of suspicion and unease between men and women that is being driven by the #MeToo victimhood narrative.
I’d gone to listen to the descendant of a Suffragette. I left the auditorium reflecting that gender equality matters only when feminists say it matters, namely when it fits the story. Dare to mention that teenage boys and young men suffer from mental health problems too and it’ll be la-la-la fingers in the ears. Not listening. Not part of the story.