Abstract: Autobiography or confessional? The title is not plagiarised from the literary offering by a certain Mr. Tim Griggs, but that of a short story that has been languishing in my archives for over ten years, an ironic comment on the requirement in modern Western society for a female to be attached and the difficulties in attaining this state of “bliss”.

Friday, 4 May 2007

Intimate Intrusions: Interview with Professor Liz Kelly

Filed under: — site admin @ 3:57 pm

Escaping from the radiant sunshine and relentless din of the traffic outside, I took refuge in the British Library café, the perfect backdrop for a serious and stimulating conversation where, over a medium latte, I had the great privilege of talking to Professor Liz Kelly of London Metropolitan University, one of Britain’s foremost experts on violence against women.

Portrait of Professor Liz Kelly by Chameleon


Chameleon: Could you tell me a little bit about your background and the research you have been involved in?

LK: I come from a working class family in the north of England; I’m the first woman in my family to go to university and I do find it astonishing that not only did I do that, but I ended up a professor. I never had a career plan about academia and I certainly didn’t have a career plan to be successful in academia. I came to feminism because I was pregnant when I was nineteen – I got pregnant the first time I ever had sex. It was consensual, it wasn’t an issue, but I was still negotiating my way out of Catholicism, and so whilst I’d got as far as abortion was OK for other women, it certainly wasn’t OK for me, so instead of going to university at nineteen, I had my daughter. I don’t regret it now at all because I did something different at university than I would have done and I have a sister who is also a daughter. I feel very lucky that we got to spend her childhood together at a time where I wasn’t trying to do two things at once. What I did was be around her and become a feminist, and those two things were actually quite compatible. How I became a feminist was through going to a meeting of a women’s liberation group – reluctantly – I didn’t think it had anything to do with me, whereas of course, it had everything to do with me and changed my life. I have always been somebody who loves ideas and talking about ideas, but they’re never enough. I want to do something. I want to make a difference, so, within about a year, I was itching to do something with these ideas and someone came to talk about whether we might need to have provision for abused women in the small town that I lived in. It sounds ridiculous now to say this, but we didn’t know; we didn’t know whether there were any women who were experiencing that kind of violence in the town where we lived, so we had to go and ask lots of services whether they ever encountered anybody and in the end we opened the second shelter outside of London in this small town called Norwich. Since then my academic life and my activist life have always centred around issues of violence, but, from the time I did my PhD, I’ve been trying to look at violence against women as a whole, the connections between forms of violence – you can isolate them conceptually, but actually in women’s lived experience they’re not, they have histories of encounters with violence, sometimes with the same perpetrator, sometimes with different ones, and so I have worked with this idea of the continuum, that there is a continuum of kinds of violence on the conceptual level, from the normalised and almost acceptable through to the obviously criminal and lethal, but also a continuum in women’s lives, that some of us are relatively fortunate and that we only encounter the low level kinds of violence. They still teach us lessons in femininity and in the gender order. Then there are other women whose lives are suffused with brutality and who I think struggle to have a sense of personhood in the aftermath of all of that. There are obviously women who are killed, but there are also women who I think take their own lives because they can’t live with the history of what’s happened to them and its meanings and how they feel others see and treat them because of it. So I would say my intellectual and activist life is connected to these issues in a very profound way. It’s connected to all aspects of it, both the normalisation and in certain circumstances glamorisation of violence in popular culture and what that means for all of us, but particularly what it means for young women and men growing up with that cultural discourse, a very strong cultural discourse, through to working with women who have actually killed their abusive partners. For the last almost twenty years, in fact it is twenty years this year, which I find very scary, I’ve worked in a research unit, which I’m now director of, called the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit. We were the only research unit in the UK, and Europe, that looked across all forms of violence against women and also linked it to abuse in childhood. We’re still quite rare in doing that. We’ve worked on domestic violence; we’ve worked on trafficking; we’ve worked on prostitution; we’ve worked on child sexual abuse and in the last eight or ten years we have dedicated ourselves to working on rape. With the death of Sue Lees [author of Carnal Knowledge: Rape on Trial] there was really nobody in the UK, apart from Jennifer Temkin [author of, inter alia, Rape and the Legal Process] working in the legal field, who was actually researching rape. We carried out an analysis for Claire Short before the Labour Party won the election in 1997, in which we demonstrated that – and we didn’t know this at the time – we’d had an unbroken increase in reporting here in the UK, a slight increase in prosecutions, but a virtually static number of convictions and what that means over time is that your conviction rate falls year on year on year and part of what we’ve committed ourselves to doing is not just exposing that, but also trying to explore what’s going on and why that might be the case. We’ve had a number of pieces of research where we’ve tried to look at what we think is going on, also to look at it in terms of Europe, and we’re just about to start a project with colleagues from seven different countries in Europe where we simultaneously track a hundred cases in our own systems and see whether the same things happen at the same points in time or not – that’s exciting.

Chameleon: That sounds really interesting. You talk about low-level violence, how do you define it? Is it wolf whistling in the street when a woman walks past a group of builders?

LK: I meant low-level in the sense that it doesn’t result in a physical injury, or a physical harm. There are, however, harms connected to it which are more social and psychological. They are enactments of masculinity, a particular kind of masculinity, at women’s expense. It also includes things like the presence of pornography in the workplace, the pressure by partners to look at pornography when women don’t want to, a whole series of intimate intrusions, which don’t involve any kind of physical or sexual assault on the body.

Chameleon: Is Susan Brownmiller’s analysis in Against Our Will [Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1976] of rape as a weapon to keep women in line still holds true? Or has any progress away from this been made in the meantime?

LK: I think as a piece of feminist rhetoric – and we need rhetoric – it was actually profound, challenging and remains important. As a sociologist and a researcher, I don’t think it’s sufficient to understand the motivations of men, or why some men don’t. I am increasingly thinking that in critical men’s studies what researchers ought to be doing is looking at why some men don’t buy into hegemonic masculinity, and it’s not just that they are from a subordinated group, it’s that they make conscious choices. Why do they do that? What’s the social context in which they make those choices? What I think is most important about it was what she said afterwards, the fact that some men rape, all men benefit, because all men benefit from the social control that it then exerts on women and women’s behaviour – and they benefit from the male protection myth. At a very complex, often unspoken level, women seek the protection of a male partner to stave off the supposed threat from the predatory stranger. Ironically we know that she’s actually more at risk from the male partner, which is not to say that there aren’t predatory men – there are – but what we know more and more is they’re not the stereotypical stranger. They’re quite smart, clever men, who target women in particular ways, in particular contexts and they’ll have strategies that they adapt, depending on whether they’re in a bar, or at a party, or whatever. I’m interested now in exploring those complexities of male behaviour across the entire spectrum, from the ones who eschew the powers that are invested in them to ones that exercise them as a sense of entitlement and then to the few who, one could say, have some kind of diagnosable mental health issue, who are not actually acting rationally.

Chameleon: When we talk about rape myths, the image is always of the pathological stranger, the man who commits the rape is always cast as a demon or a deviant, but that isn’t always the case, is it? A kind of background violence exists.

LK: It’s very rarely the case, which is not to say that there aren’t some men who fit that stereotype. There are. The trouble is that the media, and to an extent also popular fiction, present them as much more commonplace and every day than they actually are, because they give you the dramatic material that you want in a film or in a book. The fact that the guy next door is an everyday sexist isn’t dramatic enough. Even feminist authors, I think, find it difficult to write the everydayness of a lot of violence and I would say the fiction writers who have done so most powerfully and most consistently are actually African-American women in the US and also some Indian women writing fiction in India. I don’t understand why some of my friends are so preoccupied with reading about serial killers. There’s a very odd engagement with that by some feminists. I wonder whether that means that, inadvertently, we get caught up in some of these mythologies too, even though we know rationally that they distort. But they have a very powerful cultural resonance. Maybe it’s that they symbolically represent the kind of threat that women perceive. I think it’s interesting that we’ve moved away from cultural representations of what the majority of violence is to this extreme. I also think it’s probably a cultural response to the feminist challenge in a way. Our challenge was, sorry, no, these are everyday guys, these are our partners, our fathers, our brothers, our uncles, our work colleagues, the men we sit next to on the Tube, and I think that was a very shocking message. I think there was a point at which in the Eighties a willingness existed to engage with it on some level. Increasingly I feel we are pulling away from that recognition. Because everybody now wants to use the word paedophile. I hate that word, no feminist should ever use it because it literally means “lover of children”. I can’t think of anything more misnamed. But we should also not use it precisely because it distances people from the message we were trying to get across, that it’s not these weird deviant guys, it’s our fathers, our grandfathers, the guy next door, the music teacher, the sports coach, the religious leader. These are the men who abuse and they get away with it precisely because of their normality. The more we focus on these weird guys, I think, the less children are protected.

Chameleon: Because you’re homing in on the one who doesn’t fit in, who’s hanging around the playground, rather than, as you say, the father or the brother who’s sneaking into the bedroom at night and wreaking havoc.

LK: Absolutely, and their advantage is that they have access. Most of the reason these guys can do it and can do it often is that they have regular access and legitimised access to children or women.

Chameleon: They are invisible, whereas the “paedophile” is very visible indeed. If you look at the articles in the Daily Mail, they’re terribly hostile towards and dismissive of feminism. What a surprise! For example they would say that Brownmiller’s contentions in the past were merely that, contentions and that we’ve got equality now, so why don’t we just shut up and get on with life? How do we counteract this kind of argument?

LK: My response to that would be if we had equality, I would shut up, I would be very happy to shut up. I wish I could think that in my lifetime I would have the opportunity to shut up, but everything tells us that we don’t have equality, from the evidence from our most recent Women in Work Commission, which showed that the gender pay gap hasn’t reduced significantly for the last fifteen years, we had a fall, but then it stayed static, to the fact that we have more reported rapes than we have ever had in this country. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there are more rapes, but it certainly doesn’t mean that there are less, and if the Daily Mail is right, then there should be less. I still encounter women, both students and in other places where you can see they don’t have the same sense of entitlement, the same sense of worth as men. I still sit on the Tube and men take up three times as much space as women do.

Chameleon: (Laughs) They spread their legs aggressively.

LK: Absolutely. Space invaders, as somebody calls them. I think it’s those things, things that you notice every day – if we really had equality, they wouldn’t happen. Men wouldn’t need two or three times as much space as women. They might need a little bit more if they are significantly taller, but they don’t need two or three times more.

Chameleon: If people read the Daily Mail and they start getting lulled into complacency by its constant barrage of claims that we’ve achieved equality, how can we then overcome such complacency and the denial of inequality that’s implicit in the articles?

LK: I think we should take the fact there is such a consistent and deliberate engagement as evidence of success. I don’t agree that we should just talk the language of backlash and undermining. It’s not necessary to do that if you don’t think that something is changing and you’re trying to resist change. We should see this as part of the process of change and transformation – our gender order, our patriarchy or whatever we want to call it, is changing and this change is contested. It is contested at all sorts of levels. It’s contested at the level of individual relationships, it’s contested in classrooms and it’s contested in the media. We have to be smarter about how we engage with that. The response of some women is to be really frustrated and angry that it’s happening rather than to engage with it and to make sure that there’s not just one voice. For example, can we find a journalist in the Daily Mail to whom one could feed some different information and who might develop a slightly different voice in the newspaper? You’re not going to absolutely change the political tone of a newspaper, but you can affect some of the content. I don’t do enough of this, I know I don’t, but I do think we have to find smart ways of engaging with these contested areas and we have to do more. Robin Morgan once said that if every feminist wrote a letter a day to the newspapers, or to their political representatives we would be a serious force to be reckoned with and it’s still true. If every day each of us did a small piece of activism about what moved us the most we would see different voices. Not every letter gets published, not every response or little campaign has an impact, but the more there are the more there is a sense that yes, there are these voices of resistance, but they’re not going uncontested. There is still a women’s movement. That’s how you sense that there’s a women’s movement because you sense women engaging in disputation in the public sphere. I think we got pulled into establishing organisations working at more strategic and policy levels and I’m not saying we shouldn’t have done that, we should have done it and we need to continue doing it, but we also need to do the things that seem smaller, not so significant, that actually make those who are not feminists feel that there is a feminist voice. Because otherwise they don’t hear or see it.

Chameleon: Or they get a very distorted notion of what that voice involves with phrases like “screaming sisterhood” or the image of the feminist with three moustaches and who only ever walks around in dungarees and bovver boots.

LK: Yes. I think it would be interesting to find out how far those images actually resonate with people because they are so extreme and so unlike real women whom they must encounter and they must see on some level. What is the rhetorical power of it and how long does it last? Does it last long enough to make them smile when they read that particular piece in a newspaper, but that’s all? Or does it have a deeper de-legitimising message? And how does that operate?

Chameleon: My impression is that they’re trying to undermine feminists and feminism, which I suppose could be looked on as a recognition, however implicit, of the fact that we’ve achieved something.

LK: And that we’re considered to be a threat. It always was thus. I sometimes talk to young women about the fact that we never ever were anywhere close to a majority; we were always a small minority. The question was, did you make enough noise? Did you do things that were newsworthy or challenging, and did we have a message that was interesting? But we were never, never ever I think anywhere close to a majority. You could have polls about particular issues where a majority of women would say they agreed about equal pay, they agreed about childcare, but if you asked them were they a feminist, they would say no. That’s OK. I don’t think we have to have the majority of women saying they’re feminists. We do have to have the majority of women on the same page about the direction that they want to go and the rights that they think women ought to have, as well as supporting, holding on to those rights if they’re threatened. That’s where we need the majority of women. They’re never going to be part of a movement that is so amorphous. That’s not the ambition, the ambition must be that they feel that feminist perspectives speak to them and of them.

Chameleon: We were talking about feminists being perceived as a threat. If you look at what the newspapers are printing now about abortion, using advances in medicine as an excuse to try to erode our right to terminations – to return to the backlash – it does seem like there’s a shift in the offing to try to assault the rights that we’ve managed to obtain through the work of feminist activists in the past. Do you think that’s a misreading of the situation, or do you think that there might be something to it?

LK: I think there’s always an attack on abortion and I think it’s always orchestrated by fundamentalist Christians in unholy alliances with other groups depending. I don’t think they have any chance of succeeding in a European country other than those where women still don’t have the right, such as Poland, for example, or where the right disappeared at that moment of transition. I can’t see, in any Western European country, where the right to abortion has been legislated for that it could be lost. I do think there are ways that inroads can be made into the number of weeks, the hoops that you’ve got to jump through in order to get one, how much of a right it is or how much of a bureaucratised, difficult process it’s made to be, so I think it’s possible for those groups, the Christian Right, to make it more difficult for women to achieve the right, to exercise the right and in so doing prevent some women from having an abortion, because the barriers are made so complex that women who are feeling ambivalent are deterred. Most women feel ambivalent on some levels about having an abortion. It’s not an easy decision; none of us make it without a heavy heart, so the more barriers that are placed there the more this can affect the ambivalence and shift it away from the abortion rather than towards it. So I think they can have an influence in that more subtle way. I don’t think we’re going to lose the right. Instead, the ability to exercise the right can be affected, which is a slightly different thing.

Chameleon: One of the aspects that has been highlighted in recent articles is that doctors are increasingly either invoking their conscience to refuse to perform an abortion, or they just say, “Oh well, there’s no money in it, there’s no prestige in it” or “We doctors are trying to save life, not destroy it”. The resources available for abortions could dry up.

LK: I think that’s a very convenient argument for the Right to make. I’m not sure what I think about this, because on the one hand, I think we ought to be able to require doctors to deliver the health service that they are employed to deliver. On the other hand, I would not want to go to an incredibly committed Catholic doctor and try to get him to give me an abortion, so in terms of my dignity, my integrity I don’t want to have to ask for it from that person. I think the more we move into the subtleties and complexities of the positions, the more we have to move away from absolutes and the more we have to negotiate the balance between the right that I have and that I want to exercise in a way that doesn’t stigmatise me, that doesn’t make me feel bad and what we have the right to demand of people we are paying to deliver a health service. It’s not always obvious which way to make that work. I do think that if you’re going to go into gynaecology you have to be willing to carry out this procedure. If you’re not, then don’t be a gynaecologist. There are lots of other fields of medical expertise that doctors could develop, so again we need to think in a smarter, strategic way about it. I say this because I have a father who is a fundamentalist Catholic and, although I love him very much, we do clash about issues and we have to agree to differ about them. I’m never going to change him; he’s never going to change me, so how do we reach some kind of accommodation where the things that we do share, the connections we do have aren’t destroyed by this other thing. On particular occasions sometimes they are because it’s too fraught. Maybe what we need to be focusing on is how do we let these doctors practice medicine in the ways that they are skilled to do, but don’t let them deny services to women who want them. I would say the same about contraception as well. I would say that if you’re a Catholic who doesn’t believe in contraception then you can’t practice certain kinds of medicine. There are lots of Catholics who square their conscience in their own lives, let alone in anybody else’s, in different ways and not everybody sees that as a point of doctrine, but if you do, how then do you provide appropriate health care?

Chameleon: If we turn to Sue Lees and her wonderful book Carnal Knowledge, she talks about the stranger rape myth [The reference is to the following passages from Carnal Knowledge: Rape on Trial, Revised Edition, London, The Women’s Press, 2002: “One explanation for the drop in the conviction rate seems to lie in the fact that a steadily increasing proportion of reported rapes do not conform to the stereotypical rape scenario of the psychopathological stranger rapist, seizing women in dark streets. A far higher proportion of the women reporting nowadays are, by contrast, raped by men they know, often in their own homes, and these are precisely the cases where it is most difficult to secure a conviction (…) Such acquaintance rapes have increasingly been termed ‘date rape’ by the media. Such a term carries the implication that such rapes are not as serious as ‘stranger rapes’, but there is no evidence to support this. There is, however, evidence that acquaintance rapes can be just as traumatic as stranger rape for the victim” (pxii).
And: “Most of the women were raped by men they knew. Of these, more than half were friends, colleagues, neighbours or casual acquaintances – men with whom they had never had consensual sex. Most assaults appear to have been carefully planned. Men approached the women in a variety of situations, but most commonly in the social setting of a pub, club or party. Many women were taken unsuspectingly to a place where the rapist would not be disturbed. With regard to the men the victim knew well or fairly well, first contact with the victim was most likely to be made in the man or woman’s home (60 per cent), or an inside public place (17 per cent), and least likely to be made on a date (3 per cent). Yet many people believe that a woman who goes to the home or flat of a man on the first date implies she is willing to have sex. Others believe that it is the woman’s fault if she gets herself into the situation where she is likely to be raped”, p11]. These myths are really very tenacious and persistent so how can we overcome the prejudices contained in the misconception that rape, “real rape” or whatever label people want to put on it, has only happened when it involves a stranger that jumps on you from the bushes? What can we do about counteracting that, because to my mind that’s the undercurrent in all of these articles in the Daily Mail when they cast aspersions on the victims. There’s a chronic problem of the justice system not believing the women: when it comes down to her word against his, it always seems to be his word that prevails.

LK: There are two things here. I want to come back to the “her word against his” question, but I suppose I want us to move away from just thinking about these issues in terms of myth to actually thinking about them in terms of how rape has been historically constructed, both legally and in terms of heterosexual ideology. It has been constructed as this narrow range of behaviour in order to protect the more coercive aspects of heterosexuality. We need to take seriously therefore the challenge that we’re actually making. This isn’t just about myths, this is actually about challenging the foundational principle and set of practices that maintain a particular kind of masculinity and maintain certain relations between men and women. That’s why they’re so tenacious, that’s why the beliefs and constructions are so tenacious, because they are at the foundation of intimate relations between men and women. Sometimes we remember this. Sometimes I talk about sexual violence as the fault line of patriarchy and that, in challenging it, we are exposing the ways in which gender relations are coercive, unpleasant and harmful to women. When we do it well, it’s very powerful and very disruptive to the gender order. Sometimes we forget that that’s what we’re doing and almost get caught up in only talking about rape in the criminal sense. I don’t excuse myself from this: there are ways in which doing particular kinds of research, or trying to influence law reform reflect that. You are on a terrain where at some level you have to work with the discourse as it is and attempt to push it further. Underneath, as feminists, our challenge is far deeper, far more profound. On some level the responses in the Daily Mail, from the Right come from a maybe even implicit understanding that that’s actually what’s going on, this is about saying we no longer support male entitlement. You do not have the right to sex, you don’t have the right to take it, you don’t have the right to buy it, sex should be negotiated, it should be communicative and it involves two parties who have the same rights and responsibilities. We’re not there yet, but that’s our challenge. It’s not an inconsiderable challenge and we need to remember that, we need to remember that it questions behaviour that men and boys are taught to take for granted, that they can just behave like that, it’s OK. We are in that sense a threat to privileging this kind of masculinist sexuality. One of the horrible paradoxes and ironies at the moment is that women are being invited to pretend that they can operate like this…

Chameleon: Raunch culture!

LK: …and I think it’s an illusion, but it’s also an invitation, “You can behave like men too, you can have sex with no consequences”. Unfortunately, to have sex in that way means something different still if you’re a woman than it does if you’re a man. I also know young women, young lesbians who want to call themselves bois [See Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, New York, Free Press, 2005, especially, From Womyn to Bois, pp118-138] and think that somehow being sexist about other women shows how cool they are. I find it a kind of paradoxical tragedy in a way. At the same time I don’t think it helps just to be outraged, I think we have to engage in critical conversations with them in the same way that we need to have critical conversations with young men about what does this mean? What kind of relationships do you want? I also want to ask what’s transformative about it?

Chameleon: It simply shores up the old order. It’s just you taking a slice of the privilege without contesting the privilege.

LK: Exactly. It’s some women wanting to claim male privilege in relationships with other women. That’s not very transformative. Business as usual. It’s just that the sex of one of the players has changed.

Chameleon: So what should we be doing? Let’s say a feminist mother has a boy and she wants to bring him up to respect women and have a different view of relations between men and women. She can be as careful and honest about trying to bring this boy up in a different way and yet we are embedded in this culture that does everything to undermine such an upbringing.

LK: I think we mustn’t be totally pessimistic because if everything were so totally determined there would be no feminists. Everything is not totally determined and we all know – we might not know very many – but we all know the odd good man here and there, so it is important to work out how they get where they do. One of the things I say at the end of talks to general audiences these days is that we’re never going to change the situation if we continue to excuse the worst of men and not expect the best. I give them an example of what I think the best is, and it’s the example of two sons, friends of mine who are now in their early twenties. Feminist mothers, lesbians, the boys had opportunities to reject conventional assumptions. It’s not been easy or without conflict, but there’s always been an engagement. Both of these young men are found by their mothers, when they come down on Sunday morning, sleeping on the sofa. They’ve got used to what it’s about now, but at first they asked what’s going on. The sons had been out in a mixed group with a young woman. They knew her, but not very well, she was getting really drunk. They didn’t trust their friends not to take advantage of her so they brought her home, she’s asleep in their room and they’re on the sofa. That’s the best [Chameleon smiles warmly in approval]. It ought not to be a shock, you ought not to smile, it ought to be ordinary, but it’s not. Once that’s the norm, then we can shut up [We both laugh]

Chameleon: Germaine Greer wrote an article in 2006 about rape [The reference is to Rape, The Independent on Sunday, 2nd April 2006: “The law of rape is anachronistic, unworkable and should be struck down. Tinkering with it has resulted in a huge expenditure of resources and effort by police forces which have little enough of either, in return for no improvement whatsoever in women’s chances of redress. The fault lies in the very concept of rape itself.
The crime of rape is not committed against the victim, but against the state, the victim is Exhibit A in the case of Regina vs the rapist. As a piece of evidence, the victim must be interrogated and tested in every possible way, because rape is considered to be so grave, second only to murder.
It is not women who have decided that rape is so heinous, but men. The only weapon that counts in rape is the penis, which is conceptualised as devastating. Yet a man can do more harm with his thumb than he can with his thin-skinned penis. But it is his penis that is to him the symbol and instrument of his potency. The notion of rape is the direct expression of male phallocentricity, which women should know better than to accept.
If you talk to raped women, they usually resent all the other insults that accompanied the rape more than the unwanted presence of a penis in the vagina. The forcing of a penis into a mouth, for example, is not rape but sexual assault, yet a victim may resent it more; likewise forcible buggery, ejaculating on to the face or breasts, and so forth. In some cases, what remains in the memory and continues to perturb years after the event are the words a rapist forced his victim to say”.
Her article continues: “There is a solution, but it is not recognised as such by feminists or legislators. That is to abolish the crime of rape altogether, and instead to expand the law of assault to include sexual assault in varying degrees of gravity; so that, for example, mutilating assaults on children would be recognised as many times graver than penetration of a grown woman”]. She thinks that rape legislation as it stands at the moment should be abolished altogether. I guess that when she wrote the piece she wasn’t aware that this had already been done in Canada.

LK: Yes, Germaine is a feminist institution here and she’s sometimes brilliant and so insightful, and sometimes she doesn’t do her homework. She’s not kept pace with what’s happened. What has happened here in terms of sexual offences legislation is actually quite interesting. We’ll come back to that later. She’s making this argument that it should be assault. This was the argument that was made in the 1970s, that somehow the fact that it was a sexual offence made it different and it shouldn’t be different, we should just say it’s a crime of violence because if we say it’s a crime of violence there wouldn’t be a focus on the woman and her behaviour. Feminists in Canada, the United States and in Australia took this very seriously and campaigned to change their law and to have it made into assault, but it was a sexual assault. It’s not the same. They carried out law reforms in which they had gradations of sexual assault in the same way that we have gradations of physical assault. What’s happened is that the stranger attacks are the ones that are prosecuted at level one and the assaults by partners and ex-partners are at level two or three.

Chameleon: It should be the other way around.

LK: This distinction between real rape and not real rape is absolutely encoded in how law operates. That would be my major argument for not doing it because if you actually look at the sociological data – a lot of which they didn’t have then – what we need to remember is that we didn’t understand the dimensions of any of this – fully – in the 1970s. We didn’t know how common all of these forms of violence are, nor did we know then that the vast majority of perpetrators are men whom we know. We didn’t know that. If you look at Susan Brownmiller’s book a lot of it, not all of it, but a lot of it has a presumption that it is a stranger. We have learned and are trying to get the rest of society to catch up with us in a way. I think Germaine’s still in the debate as it was then. If you go in that direction it just solidifies these distinctions that are actually not accurate in terms of experience. If you’re raped by somebody you know it’s more likely to be repeated. Rape isn’t a one-off event in lots of women’s lives, it’s a repeated event. Rapes by ex-partners are second only to strangers in the amount of injuries there are and in the amount of times that a weapon is used. At the level of meaning, there’s an abuse of trust, a betrayal of trust, how could somebody that you did at some point love do that to you? As you say, arguably, if we are going to start talking about seriousness and relative harm, actually it’s reversed. I don’t particularly want to do that, I want to follow what a friend of mine in Bosnia said, which is: “Rape is rape is rape”. She carried on by saying that the only difference in war is that your government wants you to talk about it. When the war’s over they want you to shut up like at every other time. I think we have to say that and I don’t want to lose the word. We decided here we didn’t want to lose sight of the fact that it was a gender-specific crime. Some people would say that we fudged it, I would say we were smart. We’d already recognised male rape in law, so in our new Sex Offences Act, which came in in 2004, rape is defined as something that is done with a penis, so it’s committed by men. They can rape women, they can rape men, they can rape girls, they can rape boys; it’s a gender-specific crime in that it is done with the penis. Some would argue that this reifies the phallus, whereas I would say that we live in a gender order where it is already reified and that’s part of the reason why it means what it means. I don’t think you change that by removing protections and meanings from law and saying, “Oh, it’s not that serious, it’s not that important”. We also created another crime called sexual assault by penetration, which has the same maximum penalty and is about using instruments or fingers, not a penis, basically. Female perpetrators could be found guilty of that offence, but more importantly I think, or as importantly, where you have a regime of sexual assaults by a particular person you can charge them with two offences. They can be charged with rape and they can be charged with sexual assault by penetration. Where a child, for example, doesn’t know whether it was a penis or not, the offender can be charged with sexual assault by penetration. I think we’ve created something quite useful in the complex issue of how charges are made and how you mount a prosecution, but we also wanted to hold onto the word rape and that it’s a gender-specific offence. I will be very happy when it’s no longer necessary to do that, but so long as sex is used as a form of masculine entitlement and power over that’s the reality that we’re in.

Chameleon: It used to be the common sense view that the rapist was somebody who hadn’t had sex for a while so he was boiling over with pent-up biological drives, whereas rape has nothing whatsoever to do with that, it’s got to do with power, domination and humiliation, is that not true?

LK: I think sometimes it’s got to do with precisely that, whilst sometimes it’s just to do with a sense of entitlement. It’s certainly got nothing to do with a biological necessity in the embodied sense. It is to do with men understanding that discourse and using it to justify their behaviour, which is a very powerful element in the construction of a certain kind of masculinity. I would suspect that if we carried out a project to look at why some men think of sex as an entitlement – or not – it’s linked to the extent to which they buy into that construction of male sexuality. Men who don’t, men who are very clear that it’s in their control are looking for mutuality, they are looking for an erotics of mutuality. It doesn’t have to be bland, but it is about mutuality and negotiation. I think we would find that the extent to which men buy into that explanation and that way of thinking about sexuality is then how they come to act through this sense of necessity and entitlement. If we think of rape again as a continuum, there are obviously the ones where it’s planned, the rapists behave like a sexual terrorist in precisely the way that they scout everything out, and have decided exactly what they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it and who they’re going to target. Then you also have the partners who are avenging themselves where rape is a kind of punishment and then you’ve got men who are out on the town, they’ve decided before they went out that they were going to get their end away and they either engage in kinds of flirting with particular women, expecting that to be the outcome, or they target someone – and they do this more and more I would say – who is getting drunk. They may encourage and enable her to get drunk by buying her drinks, or they may just let her pay herself to be relatively out of it. Sometimes they wait until women leave, they follow them home, they might even offer to help them home. Sometimes they just engage with the women before they leave. That isn’t planned so systematically and if for some reason whoever they first decide might be a target appears not to be after all, there’s no obsessiveness about it, they’ll just move on and think, “OK, that didn’t work, who else?” It’s a matter of what’s available and easy where I can find someone who’s just going to let me have sex with them. They don’t think that actually what they’re doing is taking advantage and coercive. They don’t. Again, I think this is one of the paradoxes that we are having to encounter, that women are claiming the right to drink, be drunk – and I’m not saying they shouldn’t – but the paradox of it is that it then can leave you vulnerable in that you are not as in control of yourself. You may not be reading cues that you would do if you weren’t affected by alcohol and men can decide that they’re going to take advantage of that situation. There is a paradox for women in that the world has changed and we’ve changed it to mean that we have more access to public space, that we don’t think that femininity precludes us behaving in these ways, but those powerful constructs of acceptable femininity are still there. They haven’t gone away, so if something happens then they come into play and we then become responsible for what’s happened. There’s a fantastic piece of work by a Swedish researcher called Stina Jeffner – it was her PhD – unfortunately it never got published, but she did this work with young Swedish men and women where she demonstrated that actually alcohol increased men’s space for action, that being drunk meant that they had more possibilities to act, they would be excused, whereas it had precisely the opposite effect for women. It narrowed their space for action, so that if they were drunk they were considered more responsible, not less. In other words it’s not just alcohol, it’s that alcohol has gendered meanings and, unfortunately, possibly gender consequences as well. So it’s not just alcohol, it’s what alcohol means if you’re a man or if you’re a woman.

Chameleon: A double standard. So if something goes wrong and a man rapes a woman and by some miracle it actually gets as far as court, this whole ideology of males being active and females being passive comes into play, certainly for the judge and the jury I would imagine. It seems to me that the world has moved on and we have staked our claim to access to public spaces, yet the old definition of what constitutes a “respectable woman” persists and there is a class element to it as well.

LK: I think there is, I think there definitely is. There are also really complex legal issues at stake. In many European countries, for example, the definition of rape is to do with force. Actually if you’re drunk you are less likely to resist, which is what’s read as the evidence of force. How the crime is constructed in law provides this space for action for men. In England, Scotland, Ireland and Cyprus, it’s defined more in terms of consent. The problem there is that if you’re very drunk and the lawyer asks, “Well, did you or did you not give consent?” and you reply, “I can’t remember”, one of the legal strands has gone. Part of what we were trying to do when the law was reformed was to say that being intoxicated to a certain level meant that you no longer had the capacity to consent. They weren’t prepared to go with that except in instances where someone else administered the alcohol or the drugs to mean that you were incapacitated. We tried to say that that was illogical. It can’t be a matter of who gives you the intoxicant that determines whether you have the capacity to consent or not. If you don’t have the capacity here, and you consume exactly the same here, but you chose to do it, the resulting incapacity is the same. I think many lawyers operate on a formal logic basis and they don’t want to engage with what we want to talk about, the communicative model of sexuality. For us, it isn’t just about rape law, it’s about what kind of sexuality we are interested in creating, and we’re interested in creating one where you do actually communicate with the other person, and one in which you cannot presume the outcome of that communication. Part of what I find revealing and deeply, deeply disturbing is that in all these cases that have come up through the courts here there has been a huge discussion about the woman, binge-drinking and so on, but never, not once that I have seen in either the courts or in the newspapers has the question been asked as to why is it possible for a man, who has never met someone, they don’t have a relationship, this is not a date, on what basis can he presume that it’s OK to have sex with someone when she’s totally drunk and he doesn’t know her? On what basis of human communication is that acceptable? Is it not exploitation? What really disturbs me is that nobody asks that question. It’s taken as given that if a man sees a woman who’s drunk, he’s immediately going to get an erection and going to have sex with her. I think men ought to be writing in and saying “This is offensive”.

Chameleon: Yes, it’s an insult to men – it’s every bit as much an insult to them as it is a gross travesty for women.

LK: We need men who actually pick up on those silences and engage in public discourse about it and say, “Excuse me, that’s not the kind of man I want to be and I don’t think it’s OK to behave like that”.

Chameleon: So presumably you were every bit as dismayed as I was when this Sir Igor Judge said he didn’t want a grid system [the reference is to Steve Doughty’s report in the Daily Mail, 27th March 2007, Labour's rape law plans are thrown into turmoil as top judge declares…It's not always rape if a woman is drunk: “[Sir Igor] said: ‘If, through drink, or for any other reason, the complainant has temporarily lost her capacity to choose whether to have intercourse, she is not consenting. Subject to questions about the defendant’s state of mind, if the intercourse takes place, this would be rape.
‘However, where the complainant has voluntarily consumed even substantial quantities of alcohol, but nevertheless remains capable of choosing whether or not to have intercourse, and in drink agrees to do so, this would not be rape’.
The judge said it would not be right to lay down rules – ’some kind of grid system’ – that say a woman who has reached a set level of drunkenness is incapable of consent.
He added: ‘Experience shows that different individuals have a greater or lesser capacity to cope with alcohol.
‘Provisions intended to protect women from sexual assaults might very well be conflated into a system which would provide patronising interference with the right of autonomous adults to make personal decisions for themselves’”] introduced to the law about capacity to consent, deliberating on one particular case.

LK: It was the case in Wales, wasn’t it? [which gained notoriety when the prosecution dropped it, arguing that his client had been so drunk that she could not remember whether she had given consent] I think you’re always going to get reactionary judges and I also increasingly think – and I don’t want to get into accounts of despair here – but I increasingly ask the question whether adversarial legal systems are equipped to deal with sexual violence. That’s part of the reason for wanting to do this European study, to take a serious look at whether inquisitorial systems fare any better and whether they are less prone to playing on gender stereotypes and constructions of acceptable femininity. This is a very serious question that we need to explore, about whether the adversarial process rewards the playing on stereotypes and blaming women. Actually, we know it does. Jennifer Temkin has interviewed barristers twice now and basically they – the honest ones – admit they’re looking for something, anything, that will question her credibility because then they can say it’s one word against another and we can’t trust her word – they know that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Chameleon: How can they sleep at night? I certainly couldn’t!

LK: I hope they don’t! They justify it through this formal logic, that their job is to give the best defence possible to their client and that it’s the job of the prosecution to prove the case. They justify it through a formal logic rather than an ethics. Jennifer Temkin has said that maybe what we need to start doing is talking about an ethics of defence and of prosecution, an ethics of legal practice because she thinks that’s the only way to move it into a different realm. I think there is a problem about the formalism of the law and I definitely think there is a problem about adversarial systems because I do believe they reward the invocation of prejudice and stereotype. That in a way is where the role of the Daily Mail – to come back to where we began – is actually the most insidious because what it is doing is reinforcing these models of masculinity and femininity in a manner that individuals might not accept in that particular case, but it reawakens them, it makes sure they’re not abandoned, so that when they’re invoked in the court case they retain force. Somebody has done a really interesting study of how speech and rhetoric is used in courtrooms in the US. I don’t think that prosecutors pick up on these things sufficiently because what they say happens is that the defence uses a language of voluntarism all the time in relation to women…

Chameleon: Or passivity – the defendant will say “Oh, her knickers fell to the floor” rather than “I ripped her knickers off” [Here I was adapting from Susan Ehrlich’s superb Representing Rape, Language and Sexual Consent, London, Routledge, 2001, ‘My shirt came off…I gather that I took it off’ The accused’s grammar of non-agency, pp36-61, the source I was fumbling for]

LK: It’s not the defendants that do it, it’s the lawyers; the lawyers give them that construction and the defendants then say, “Yes, that’s what happened”. The agency – and again this is a horrible paradox of feminism, where we’ve wanted to invoke women’s agency, and all the agency in legal cases is focused on the woman and there’s hardly any agency in relation to the man. I think we need to start thinking that way about prostitution too. If we only think about women and we think about female agency – selling sex – you look through it through a particular lens, but if you start looking at the agency of the male buyers and at what does it mean that they feel entitled to do this, what does it mean in terms of gender relations that it’s increasingly legitimised? It’s considered cool because celebrities do it, etc. What does that mean in terms of male agency and masculinity? This is not just about women as actors, it’s actually about gender relations and it’s about what it also means in terms of the larger gender order. We get caught up in looking from only one direction.

Chameleon: If we talk about the moral panic surrounding women and binge-drinking, would you agree that what lies behind this bout of anxiety about women’s drinking habits is a struggle over traditional definitions of “appropriate” feminine behaviour? Is it an attempt to control women’s behaviour?

LK: I think that’s one dimension of it. Another dimension of it is women’s ambivalence about heterosexual relationships and about trying to do femininity differently; drinking is not called Dutch courage for no reason. We all know this, it does act as a kind of relaxant, it enables you to have slightly more confidence. All the research data tells us that a proportion of young women are having sex when they’re drunk that they do regret afterwards. The public lie is that they all then go and report it as rape to the police – no, they don’t. If they did, we’d have a hundred thousand, a million complaints. We don’t: we have thirteen thousand complaints. The amount of unpleasant sex that women experience massively exceeds that, so no they don’t do that. Despite all the suggestions to the contrary, they do have ambivalent sexual encounters that are made both more possible and more forgettable by drinking. There are complicated things going on and young women are trying to re-negotiate, position themselves differently in public and in heterosexual relationships. It’s not simple and it’s not without contradiction. Sometimes alcohol can be a way to paper over the cracks. One of the things I’ve learned as I’ve got older is that when the Right picks something up, there’s normally some grain of truth, or resonance that it’s important for us to understand and engage with. It wouldn’t work as political rhetoric if it didn’t connect to something. It’s actually trying to work out what it connects to and how we might understand that differently, how we might have a different take on what we think is going on, but it’s not that nothing’s going on.

Chameleon: In The Guardian [3rd April 2007] I recently read an article about the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs report saying that women shouldn’t go to pubs and parties on their own. Would it be way too much of an exaggeration to get the feeling at least that this is tantamount to imposing a curfew on women?

LK: There’s a danger of over-interpreting some of this because we have this 24-hour media now where they just try to say something different and they fall back on clichés. That’s not to say we shouldn’t object to it and we shouldn’t expose the illogic of it and the stupidity of it, but I also think we shouldn’t necessarily read it as some kind of coordinated campaign against women. Mostly it’s bogus as well, because most women don’t go to parties on their own. If it wasn’t the case that sometimes you didn’t leave with the same people you came with then you wouldn’t be having a social life anyway – why bother going in the first place if something interesting isn’t going to happen? Everybody knows that from their own lives and one of the things that really irritates me about all of this is when you have journalists writing these things when you know that they will have gone to a party themselves with someone and not left with them. Also I know that many lawyers who defend rapists – and these days, the clients seem to prefer to have female barristers defending them – you know that these lawyers will have got really drunk, staggeringly drunk themselves. You can be in parts of London on a Friday evening and the pubs and wine bars are full of lawyers from particular firms and they get off their face. Something could happen. Their privilege is that they earn enough money to be able to afford a taxi home. None of us know whether in this particular encounter we’re going to be safe or not. They use these tactics against women when actually on some level – I don’t know how they square this – they know that they could have been in that situation themselves.

Chameleon: Going back to the continuum of violence, the argument that women shouldn’t go to parties on their own conveniently overlooks the fact that women constantly modify their behaviour because of the endemic threat of violence. We’re acculturated to believe that there is endemic violence, that we constantly run the risk of it, that we shouldn’t walk home after dark or go home via a safe route and not along the abandoned canal tow path. Women are continually modifying their behaviour aren’t they?

LK: Yes and no! Some young women – and I’ve done it myself at certain periods in my life- have just reacted by saying “No, I refuse to do this, I refuse to be controlled, I want to do this!” I think there are also women who do incredibly risky things because it’s a way of dealing with and challenging their own fear, or maybe their own history of violence. We do different things at different times. For me it has to do with how I’m feeling at the time, if I’m feeling really tired, if I’m preoccupied. I used to live somewhere in London that felt a bit risky and I had about a fifteen minute walk from the Tube station to the flat I stayed in. If I was coming home late and I was feeling preoccupied and I was feeling a bit jumpy, I would get in a cab. Lots of evenings I wouldn’t because I felt OK. My partner teaches self-defence and she says that men can and do read our body language – we read each other’s body language, we know this. That’s not to blame women, but it is to say we monitor our own context, our own sense of well-being, our own sense of safety and I think we adapt – I certainly do and I’m sure lots of other women do too. We adapt to how we are at any particular point in time as well as to the context that we’re in. If it’s a context that you know really well you can read it relatively easily. A lot of sexual assaults seem to happen when women are away or on holiday and it’s actually to do with not being able to read that situation and not having your safety mechanisms able to operate on an almost unconscious level. I suspect predatory men read that too.

Chameleon: I just resent the fact that we feel we have to modify our behaviour just to be able to live a semi-normal life.

LK: Indeed.

Chameleon: Free from the threat of violence, free from the feeling that violence is imminently about to be visited upon you.

LK: Some women would say that we can choose not to. Not everybody has that freedom in the same way. I can’t do that, I’ve lived my life working on these issues, I have stories. Certainly when I did my PhD and I interviewed women who lived in the same small town and rural areas that I lived in street names, place names actually had stories attached to them of violence that women had experienced in those places. These were just the few that I knew about, so I can’t ignore it, but I’m not totally controlled by it either. I refuse to be totally controlled by it, but I also can’t pretend that I am not aware of the realities. I think the more you realise that it’s in the everydayness of life that these things happen the less I feel troubled by being in the public sphere, although if I hear steps behind me I am alert to paying attention to who it is. It then becomes about where do you live? Who do you live with? Who do you share your life with? These other kinds of questions. Whom do you choose to trust with certain kinds of intimacies? There are not that many men in my life to whom I feel able to offer that kind of trust. That’s one of the costs and it’s a cost to men. That’s one of the challenges for men of good faith, if they really want to have strong relationships with women and with feminists they are going to have to take responsibility for changing this context.

Chameleon: Why should it always have to be women who have to modify their behaviour, why shouldn’t men have to, frankly, since they are the ones who commit these crimes in most cases?

LK: I think some of them do modify their behaviour, but they are a very small minority, so you’re not that likely to encounter them on your way home [laughs]

Chameleon: Let’s talk a little bit about “date rape” [The following passage from Sue Lees is illuminating: “Another misconception is that so-called ‘date rapes’ are often conceptualised as occurring as a result of men misreading the woman’s signals or not realising that she was not consenting, or that women have sex consensually and then regret it the night after and cry rape. We know that some men claim to misread signals even when the woman has said ‘no’, or in clearly premeditated cases where the rapist has locked the door. Some rapists have a distorted belief system – and even following conviction are in denial, continuing to maintain that the woman wanted it, just in the way that some paedophiles believe children wanted it”, pxii]

LK: Another concept that we should not use, we should get rid of. It comes out of a particular survey carried out in the US by Mary Koss in the late 80s, which was with US women college students, who reported quite a lot of coercive sexuality, including with men with whom they were somehow involved on some level. It doesn’t translate, though, across to other contexts. We tracked 3,500 cases for a piece of work called A Gap or a Chasm? which examines attrition in reported rape cases in England and Wales and I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of cases which were in the context of a date. That wasn’t what acquaintance rapes were; they were much more about men targeting women in bars or at parties. They hadn’t met before that evening, so it was not a date. We started to talk about them and code them as what’s called “Stranger Two”. Stranger One is a total stranger, whilst Stranger Two is someone whom you met within 24 hours of the rape happening. It’s one of those funny little things that you think of as an achievement as a feminist that the Metropolitan Police now use that coding in their data as well. It’s much more accurate. These are not people you know and there wasn’t any presumption of intimacy either – I don’t think there should be even on a date, but that is how that phrase is read, you have a date with someone because of some kind of erotic interest and you want to see whether it’s shared or not. That’s not true of these situations and calling them date rapes means that people misunderstand – it’s not the misreading by men of signals, but our misreading of what was going on through the term “date rape”. I would encourage us to not use it. Get rid of it! There’s a woman called Aileen McColgan who wrote a little book called Taking the Date out of Rape and we should indeed do this.

Chameleon: What about Katie Roiphe’s position in The Morning After? [London, Hamish Hamilton, 1994]

LK: Again, you see, I think this is an interesting issue about research and feminist analysis, because part of what she’s taking issue with, but doing in a very populist way, is drawn from Nigel Gilbert – her book is based on his work even though she doesn’t say so – which comes back to this survey Mary Koss carried out. Part of what they’re taking issue with is that Mary Koss defined as rape incidents that women didn’t define as such. What they neglect to tell us is that the analytical definition that Mary Koss used was the one in the law, so this isn’t even feminists talking about the continuum and saying, “Well, there’s rape and there’s coercive sex and there’s pressurised sex”, which is what I did in my PhD, because I was working with how women defined what happened to them. I was working with the experiential definitions that women use, which is not the same as a legal definition, which is also not the same as an analytical definition that you might use in study. You can use all of those legitimately, they all have a relevance, but to pretend, as Katie Roiphe and Nigel Gilbert do, that the only really valid definition is the experiential one, and because women minimise and don’t label sex that they didn’t want as rape then it’s not, when actually, in terms of the letter of the law, it is. What bothers me about it is I think they are disingenuous in the arguing with these cases. It’s not to deny that there is an issue here about definitions, which definition and why do so many women not call what happens to them rape? It’s a valid issue. We need to talk about it and we need to debate it. It is also valid to talk about under what conditions in research should you define something that someone hasn’t labelled as rape themselves as rape in the research? What does it mean to do that? Absolutely fine question, that’s different from saying these are advocacy numbers, feminists are making it up, they’re drawing the lines to include behaviour that isn’t problematic. That’s not what is happening, but that is the impression that is given. One of the things that I really try to do – we’ve just started an MA in women and child abuse; I don’t think there is one anywhere else in Europe – one of the things we are trying to do is to enable students, many of whom work in women’s services, are activists, to understand the complexity of numbers, what it means to say it this way and what it means to say it that way. Sometimes we can use statistics as advocacy numbers. For example, in our very first piece of research in the unit looking at child sexual abuse we found that one in two young women reported some form of intimate intrusion before reaching the age of eighteen. That did not mean they were all sexually abused by their fathers. It was flashing, it was being pressured to have sex by a boyfriend, a whole range of things and a much, much smaller number of them, I would say probably one in sixty, one in seventy, reported ongoing abuse by an adult male family member. We quote these figures, one in two, one in four, one in whatever as if it means serious ongoing abuse always and it doesn’t. It’s exactly the same with domestic violence figures. Yes, one in two, one in three, one in four in whatever survey in different countries have had an incident at some point in their lives. That’s not the same as the pattern of coercive control, which is what I mean by domestic violence. There are complicated issues about what these measurements mean and we need to be more accurate and more careful when we invoke them, being clear that we do so in an accurate and not an inaccurate way. The figures do say something accurate, but we sometimes stretch that to mean something that it doesn’t.

Chameleon: Or our opponents, let’s say, or the media will pick up on a statistic, if you say, sixty per cent of young women under the age of eighteen have suffered a form of abuse it might be reported on in a way that distorts it. What I’m driving at is that it is not necessarily the fault of the researcher that the media latches on to a figure and takes it out of context to try to discredit the argument behind the figure.

LK: I think that can happen. It’s less likely to happen if we are more careful about how we use the figures, so I wouldn’t say “abuse”, for example because I think people understand abuse in a particular way. If you say “intimate intrusion”, it’s not a term that is commonly used and that has a common understanding. When people hear the word abuse they do think it’s somebody they know and that it takes place more than once. It’s not flashing, for example. Unless we’ve got the space to explain what it is we mean…

Chameleon: The media don’t always give us the space, though, does it?

LK: No, that’s true, but I think we also don’t always want to make the explanation because it’s not such a strong case. Again it’s complicated [laughs]. If they’re picking up on something, it’s powerful and it’s having a resonance it is because something is going on. People do say, “Well, if it’s one in two, why haven’t half my friends told me stories about being raped by their fathers?” Of course, half your friends aren’t going to because it isn’t one in two that are raped by their fathers. There’s a way in which we need to think about how we sometimes invoke statistics, which ends up having the opposite effect. It’s not raising awareness; it’s actually undermining our message because what people think is, “Well, that doesn’t make sense to me, so it can’t be true”. The rejection isn’t just a gesture of bad faith; it’s sometimes that how they understand it isn’t true. For me, it’s a responsibility on us to endeavour – you can’t always do it, but to endeavour not to overclaim and to be clear about what it is that these figures do and don’t mean so that we’re not unintentionally creating a resistance to the message.

Chameleon: What are the worst defects of today’s rape legislation and how can they be remedied?

LK: I don’t think it’s the legislation that’s the problem. Had you asked me that question five years ago, I would have had problems with the legislation. I actually think we reworked our legislation in quite an interesting way and created a whole raft of offences. We removed all the offences that were only homosexual offences, for example. We’ve got a series of offences that are offences against children. We’ve got sexual exploitation offences. We’ve got certain kinds of protection for people with disabilities where they haven’t got capacity to consent. We’ve got offences that are about breach of trust where you are exploiting your position as a worker or a carer. I haven’t seen an evaluation of the legislation yet, but I don’t think the problem lies with the legislation. The problem is with implementation and these narrow understandings of what rape is and isn’t. The problem is that police – not all, but in the majority of cases – start from what we call a culture of scepticism. They’re looking for anything that gives them a reason to not believe, which is not how they approach investigating other crimes. You approach investigating a crime in such a way that, until you have reason to believe otherwise, you think that it has happened and you look for the evidence that supports the account of the complainant. That’s not what happens in rape cases. If we’re talking about myths, one of the massive myths is that a much higher proportion of rape complaints are false compared to other crimes. Why would any woman or man report that they had been sexually assaulted, undergo a forensic medical examination and be treated in the way that too many are treated? I know that it happens, but it mainly happens because of mental health problems. In reality, the majority of complaints are about something that has happened. Whether it qualifies as rape under the law is for the police and the prosecutors and, ultimately, the court to determine. The vast majority of these reports are about something that has happened. We have interviewed police officers who say – and these are specialists who are supposed to be trained – where they say a third, fifty per cent and one even said seventy-five per cent of complaints are false. How can they possibly be carrying out a proper investigation if that’s the place that they begin from? That’s the first thing and the second thing is that because this concept of real rape is so powerful, the whole way in which investigations and evidence is thought about is through a stranger rape model. That’s not how this case is going to play out today, certainly under our new legislation and with DNA. Alice Vachss was a prosecutor in the US and says there are three defences for rape: it didn’t happen, it wasn’t me, she wanted it. DNA and all sorts of other technical advancements mean it’s much less likely that you can say it didn’t happen or it wasn’t me, so basically your defence is she wanted it, she consented. I don’t think that the whole investigative process and how you think about collecting evidence and presenting the case in court is understood through the lens of it’s going to be a consent defence. I would say – and we’ve been saying for a while – that actually they need to rethink the whole way they do this, start again from the very beginning. They know how to do it when you’re talking about a stranger, they know how to do that, but the majority of cases don’t involve a stranger. So start again and think about the whole process that she knows the person and/or they’re going to plead consent. What evidence, then, are you looking for? How are you going to present the case as the prosecution in the court that gives credibility to her account? If all they’re thinking about all the way through is what discredits her they’re never ever going to arrive at a position where they know how to present the story in court that is to her credit. I think it’s about starting at the beginning and rethinking investigation and prosecution. It’s not so much about the legislation; it’s about those processes that enable the legislation to function.

Chameleon: Presumably what you’ve been talking about, the fact that the police almost instinctively disbelieve what the woman says is one of the reasons why the conviction rate is so low.

LK: It’s not instinctive – there’s a book by a woman called Patricia Yancey Martin from the US called Rape Work in which she talks about how institutions almost require that their staff adopt this sceptical attitude and that you need to change it at the institutional level if there’s going to be a different approach. What’s different about women’s services is that, institutionally, they absolutely don’t require scepticism; they almost require the opposite, which is why women experience them so differently – because they enter into a culture of belief. It ought to be possible to create a culture of belief in the police and medicine, which is only suspended when they have strong reasons to do so. We’re talking about ways in which institutions reproduce this scepticism. It’s not about the individuals and their attitudes only, or even especially. It’s actually about how institutions require or reproduce those orientations. That’s what we need to change. We need to change the institutional cultures that support or require this way of doing things.

Chameleon: That brings us back to the feedback loop, as it were, of assumptions within the culture in the broader sense, for example the 2005 Amnesty International survey [One third of the people polled believed that the woman was partly or wholly responsible for being raped is she had behaved flirtatiously. Yvonne Roberts responded in an article in The Independent on Sunday (27th November 2005), Asking for it. Why do so many women think rape is a woman's fault?: “The truth about rape, of course, is that whether women ‘ask’ for it or not, it happens. The ‘justice gap’ is widening. In the 1970s, a third of reported rapes resulted in a conviction. Now, more women are reporting sexual assault, including rape, but the conviction rate has dropped dramatically. In 2003, 11,867 rapes were reported; 1,649 went to trial and only 629 resulted in a conviction. However, there is cause for optimism. The little reported aspect of the Amnesty International survey is that the majority of the public believe only one person is to blame for rape – the rapist”] on rape where so many, dismayingly many, of the respondents still believe that it was the woman’s fault, that she was to blame. I read an eye-catching phrase in a newspaper article somewhere: “Alcohol is the new short skirt”.

LK: It was Julie Bindel who wrote that. She’s good at those.

Chameleon: How can we tackle this persistent attitude that women are somehow “asking for it” no matter what they do?

LK: In no one way. There’s no one way to do this as it is about culture change. It is about changing the discursive construction of everything – not just rape, but femininity and heterosexuality. They’re all connected. I wish I could say – and this is one of the irritating things about being an academic – there never is a simple answer any more because you see how everything is connected to everything else and if you make an inroad here, the something else over here will prevent it from being as effective as it might have been. I just think that we’re here for the long haul and it is about feminists engaging on every level. It matters that popular culture is re-sexualised. It matters that what Angela McRobbie calls the “new sexual contract” – her argument is that, in return for a recognition of equality in the worlds of work and education, there’s been a re-sexualisation and re-subordination of women in the more private, intimate sphere. Then you’ve got Ariel Levy’s raunch culture idea, so we have to engage in critique on that level whilst, simultaneously, trying to change the institutions and the laws, taking educational programmes into schools and youth clubs and at the same time inviting men of good faith to lend their voices too, recognising that at particular points, in certain historical contexts you make progress and then it feels like it’s either halted or you’ve moved back a little bit, or sideways. This isn’t a linear process – it would be a lot easier if it was! [Laughs] It is a bit like shifting sands that we’re having to negotiate. I suppose the most important thing is that there continue to be groups of women who call themselves feminists and who commit themselves to trying to make the world better for women. When I say that I mean I don’t think it’s OK to call yourself a feminist and that just be about your own personal achievement. However much it’s important for women to achieve things, that to me isn’t sufficient to be a feminist, for which you need to be interested in the lot of all women and be doing something to bring about change on that more social level. And to be reflective about women who have less privilege and fewer options than you. And how their situation can sometimes even be made worse by some of the ways that privileged women operate and argue their case. I think there are ways we can be, for example, judgemental of young women that have all sorts of class and maybe also race prejudice in them. That’s not to say there isn’t a conversation to be had about what does it mean that young women dress in particular ways, behave in particular ways in public, accommodate this re-sexualisation. Many conversations and engagements are needed, but in a way that respects that they’re trying to manage contradictions in the same way that others of us do in different contexts.

Chameleon: Let’s move back to the media. Do you think that a programme like The Verdict was a valuable exercise leading to serious debate or did it simply indulge in empty sensationalism, reinforcing already entrenched negative attitudes towards rape victims?

LK: We actually had two TV programmes: one called Consent [Channel Four] that was more like a real jury and The Verdict, which was obviously celebrities. I actually think the programme Consent was very interesting in the sense that we’re not allowed to do research on juries in this country. We’ve got one piece of research by a woman called Vanessa Munro, which has been simulating jury deliberations, but we imagine that we know that these prejudices are circulating. What the programme did was evidentially show us that was absolutely what was happening. It showed us that they brought all their prejudices into the room, they brought all their ideas about acceptable femininity and ways that men are excused bad behaviour and a lot of it wasn’t to do with the facts of the case. It exposed the kind of delusions that the higher echelons of the British judiciary operate under in terms of how they eulogise the jury and the common sense of the jury. I don’t think that was a bad thing and I suspect that we’ll read various student dissertations where they use it as source material. OK, fine. The Verdict, however, was, I think, much more cynical. It wasn’t, I don’t think, a serious attempt at exploration. It was one of these things that happens in TV: somebody leaked the fact that the other channel was going to do this, so they thought, “We’ll trump them, we’ll do it better, we’ll have celebrities”. These are people who perform for the camera. These are people who have agents. These agents know if they adopt X position, it’s going to get reported in newspapers, so I have no sense of how authentic their responses were at all. How much of it was a particular deliberate and constructed performance? We don’t know. I don’t think then that’s as useful, because you don’t know whether what you’ve got is celebrity acting or engagement with this particular account. What I think is interesting in both cases was the extent to which female jurors felt that they couldn’t find the man guilty, but knew that harm had been done and felt totally conflicted by the decision that they reached. I’ll tell you the reason why I thought the Consent programme was particularly good was that at the end, when they reached the verdict of not guilty, as the credits rolled, you were shown the scenario acted out as the woman had recounted it, not how he had recounted it. What it showed you was: this happened, it happened in the way she said it happened, but he was found not guilty. I thought it was a powerful message, a very powerful message. I’m not of the opinion that there should be no fictional representation of these things, but as with what we talked about earlier concerning how lawyers operate, there needs to be a certain ethics about it and I do think one of them made a serious attempt to be ethical and the other did not have that at the foundation of what they were doing. They were making reality TV, celebrity TV. They were not using the medium of television to explore a complicated, serious issue. However, that’s not to say I expect all TV programmes to do things right, but I expect them to make a serious attempt and an ethical attempt. One programme did that and one didn’t.

Chameleon: Now that we have the Internet and you can download every variety of humanly, or inhumanly imaginable, pornography in endless quantities, do you think that the ready availability of pornography has an impact on the number of rapes by fostering a rape mentality?

LK: I don’t know whether it does that or not. I am fairly certain that it has a very bad effect on already damaged men. They can use it to fuel obsessions and hatreds. They are a small number. I think, much more insidiously, it has an impact on what men think heterosexual sex is and how they understand women and women’s engagement with sex. To me, that’s not just about the number of sexual offences we’ve got, it’s about the quality of sexual engagement and encounters between women and men. I think it gives men a weird sense of women’s sexuality; I think it gives them a weird sense of men’s sexuality. I’m not any longer convinced that this is just a reinforcement of one kind of masculinity. I think it can actually make a lot of men feel uneasy and insecure, but they’re not allowed to talk about it. There’s no space to talk about that. So, for example, slightly to one side of this, you have all those Internet sites where they can rate women they’ve paid for sex. The men who try to post on those sites who are ambivalent and who are saying “I’m not sure I really liked it; I thought it would make me feel like this – it didn’t” are discouraged from posting again. These communities of men who are interested in the sex industry, in paying for sex and pornography don’t want other men saying “We’re not sure about this; this feels unsatisfactory”. We are just doing a project at the moment where we’re talking to men who pay for sex. We didn’t expect to have so many of them phoning up to confess, to say how bad they feel about it and how uneasy they feel about it. It doesn’t fit in with a particular feminist construction of predatory men, but actually these men are interesting because there’s a possibility for change there, if we engage in a particular way. I feel the same about porn on the Internet. What bothers me is that, certainly in this country, we have very poor sex education in schools; young people don’t get it as a right, so some might get nothing. Most of what they get is what we call “plumbing and prevention”, it’s not about relationships, it’s not about complexities, it’s not about contradictions and that’s what most of them want to talk about. And so where are they going for sex education? Porn on the net. I think the implications of that are huge for both young men and young women. I don’t know whether what we’re doing is producing a generation of young people for whom sex is solely performance and technicality, something you should do and want and perform at all times and then what kind of sexualities we’re going to be confronting. So for me, I’m much more interested and concerned about its broader cultural meanings and consequences than whether in a particular instance it’s implicated in a sexual assault or not.

Chameleon: Do you think that pornography creates a kind of “background tolerance” of rape through portraying women as “ever ready”, like the battery.

LK: I think certain kinds of pornography legitimise rape and certain kinds of it eroticise rape and if men get caught up in orchestrating their own sexual desires and sexual practices through that, then that’s very problematic, clearly. A significant proportion of it purports to be consensual – fair enough, but what about the representation? Whether it was consensual in the making of it is a different point from the representation depicting consensuality and it’s a particular kind of consensuality, which is about these women who can’t get enough. It’s also about these men who are constantly ready and able and well-endowed. I increasingly am not convinced – I never really was, but I’m not convinced by this argument that, well, it’s just fantasy and everybody knows it’s fantasy because you can see that in the guys who pay for sex. On one level they know that they’re paying for a performance, but on another level they believe it – they’re paying to believe that they’re good at doing sex. They’re paying to believe that they give pleasure, but if you push them a little bit about it, they go, “Well, maybe, but I really think she had a good time”. This idea that we make clear distinctions between fantasy and reality doesn’t work because you’re paying for a fantasy that then allows you to construct your sense of self in a more positive way than before you made that payment. It’s has material consequences in the way you think about yourself, how you perceive yourself to be. How do these men then engage where payment is not an issue, where you have to be a human being, where you have to negotiate, you have to confront the fact that maybe the person isn’t going to find it pleasurable that just because you’re doing something doesn’t mean that somebody else likes it. That’s the complicated part and I think a lot of men find it quite difficult. There’s that horrible thing, chilling, in Pornified by Pamela Paul [New York, Henry Holt, 2005] where some of the young men whom she interviewed are very clear that they’ve become quite obsessive about accessing porn and not certain about it, but some of them are actually saying they prefer sex – and they call it sex, they don’t call it masturbation – through porn than with a real person because they can just get their relief and they don’t have to engage on a communicative or an emotional level. Women have always said that men are less emotionally literate – and that’s putting it nicely – but there is a real possibility that what porn does is reinforce this emotional illiteracy.

Chameleon: They just feel that they couldn’t be bothered with the complications of involvement with a flesh and blood human being rather than this classic, surgically enhanced fantasy creature that bears no relation to the saggy boobs and stretch marks most women are.

LK: And most women are complicated and they’re sometimes bad-tempered, irritable and have expectations of certain kinds of baseline behaviour. There is the question of how it is implicated in particular kinds of sexual assault and there’s no doubt that it is in certain instances, but this deeper implication in the cultural construction of masculinity and femininity is in many ways more significant and possibly even, at a cultural level, more dangerous.

Chameleon: When men purchase the pornography or the sex, as you very rightly said, they’re trying to purchase the ability to overcome their own anxieties or sense of inadequacy, whereas for the women who see these images of media perfection with celebrities, it doesn’t even have to be porn stars, they might feel inadequate, driving them to the surgeons in droves, or to Weight Watchers. Men can overcome their inadequacies whereas women are made to feel more inadequate.

LK: You would say that they can overcome their inadequacies – I would say that’s debateable. It might be that they have a way of appeasing the sense of being inadequate, and who’s to that shopping doesn’t do the same thing for women. That this particular consumer, celebrity culture of the moment is producing extremely insecure femininities and masculinities, neither of which are particularly healthy, neither of which are about any kind of human dignity and, when combined, are not a recipe for engaged heterosexual relations. I think there’s a group of men who use the sex industry in a totally consumerist way and they just bolster their sense of entitlement, privilege and power, but it doesn’t have that effect on all of them. It isn’t uni-dimensional, it’s multi-dimensional and we need to show more interest than we have done in those dimensions.

Chameleon: I’ve noticed an alarming trend whereby women who fail to get their attackers prosecuted in court are subsequently taken to court themselves by the men who raped them and are sometimes being sent to prison for false accusation. How do you react to this?

LK: There are layers to this. There aren’t very many where the case goes to court and that happens. If the case goes to court and there’s an acquittal and the accused wants to do something, they will normally go through civil courts, through damages, suing for libel or whatever. We’ve had a couple of cases like that and there have been a couple of sexual harassment cases that have gone through the civil courts initially. What’s happened in terms of rape cases has been when a case has been dropped because it’s a false accusation that the police have prosecuted for wasting police time. There’s another charge – I can’t remember precisely what it is – that’s slightly more serious as well. There have been a few cases like that. The danger is to think it’s happening all the time. I actually think that probably any such case is reported in the media and the misreading is that there are lots of other ones behind. What’s more significant is that if you have made a previous allegation that didn’t result in a conviction, if you report a subsequent sexual assault that previous allegation will be seen as going to your discredit, so the fact that we have this massive attrition rate, that only one in forty cases now results in a conviction – we’ve got a 5.3% conviction rate – means that we’re creating a generation of women whose subsequent complaints will be discounted. That’s much more significant, but it’s not so obvious. We’ve seen it because we’ve gone and looked in the files and we’ve asked police to tell us why they’ve dropped cases at particular points in time. This information has come out and you can see that it has a significant impact, but that’s more invisible than these high profile cases, although there are many more where that happens than are prosecuted for wasting police time.

Chameleon: You talked earlier about the glamorisation of violence in our culture. I agree that such a glamorisation is taking place – it’s amazing to see some of the films that are released now. They are so stylised that when a woman is punched she doesn’t develop a bruise, her lip doesn’t split and gush with blood. On the one hand, there are lots of women who think that something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Kill Bill, both of which could be said to glamorise violence, tries to do away with the myth that women are wimps, or that women are not resilient – some women look on these fictions as a kind of empowerment. So how should we be looking at the phenomenon of the glamorisation of violence? It is quite nuanced, isn’t it?

LK: There isn’t one answer you see because I do think – I know from myself that I can see representations of women being strong, fighting back, being able to win a fight with a man can involve a sense of enjoying that representation. To me that’s not the same as empowerment. I can enjoy that representation, I can enjoy it as a challenge to the traditional ways women are represented – I can even enjoy the aesthetic of the choreography of the violence. I enjoy it because I know it’s not real, I know it’s a fiction, which gives me permission to engage with it in a particular way. We’re all doing that to some extent. Underneath this is a different issue, one that has frustrated me for a very long time, which is a conflation of victimisation, victim and passivity. Women are victimised, so are people with disabilities, lesbians and gay men, people from ethnic minorities – and those aren’t mutually exclusive categories – victimisation happens. What it means, how you respond to it, whether you take it on as an identity are entirely different questions and are different again from whether you are accorded the status of victim by the justice system. If you are not accorded the status of victim by the justice system you have no right to redress or justice. You see this most clearly in relation to women who are trafficked. If they are not given the status of victim they then become a criminal, who can be deported with no rights, nothing. It can be hugely important and significant, even to the point of being a matter of life and death, whether you are accorded the status of victim. That has nothing to do with how you process what’s happened to you in terms of your own identity. We don’t even use any more “victim” or “survivor”, we talk about “women who have been raped”, “men who have been raped” because that leaves open what kind of identity they may or may not choose. I think some of this happened through a therapeutic turn in the Nineties that was then attributed by people like Katie Roiphe and Camille Paglia to feminism. It wasn’t feminism, or it wasn’t in any activist feminist way – there was a kind of populist feminism that they are also a part of in a different dimension – with all of these self-help books about the journey from victim to survivor. If you look at the research that’s been done on sexual violence, violence against women, but particularly if you look at the service providers, the ones who provide support, a lot of them didn’t – some of them do now – use those words in that way. We saw them as being two sides of the same coin. That being victimised didn’t mean you had no agency. Women resist, physically or in their minds, holding a part of them somewhere, where they think “You’re not having this bit of me”. They resist and fight back by deciding to report, or deciding to tell their friendship group what this person’s done, to expose them. There are all sorts of ways. It does, though, narrow, constrain your space for action at that particular point in time, which is one of the harms of it, that actually you don’t have the possibility to prevent it. It happened. For me, the interventions that we make should be about expanding that space for action again. It’s not that there’s no agency, but it’s that agency is constrained by violence. I find this invocation of victim and victimhood really unhelpful and also entirely inaccurate in terms of what actually happens when women confront violence. You talked about how we manage our fear by doing or not doing certain things. Those are forms of agency. We might resent the fact we have to do them and we might engage in discussion about whether that’s the most appropriate or useful thing to be doing, but it is action. Women who live with domestic violence are managing that situation all the time and a proportion of them are so damaged and so diminished by this intimate domination that their space for action is hardly anything. Those are the women who it’s really difficult to work with because they are terrified of doing anything as everything they’ve ever tried to do didn’t work. It doesn’t mean they were passive and didn’t do anything. It means they live with a nasty bastard controlling man who used every strategy they ever tried to develop as a reason to further abuse. Not all of them are like that, but with some of them, the sophistication of how they undermine every strategy women ever try is actually quite frightening.

Chameleon: It’s cold-blooded, isn’t it?

LK: Yes and I find them more frightening, more disturbing than the ones who use physical assault.

Chameleon: It’s the ruthlessness, the calculatedness of their behaviour, isn’t it?

LK: Absolutely. Absolutely. So I think there’s a whole way in which we as feminists need to revisit these concepts. If I were to point to something I’d do differently I think I wouldn’t abandon the concept of victim like we did. I think I would want to fill it with other meanings, so that it wasn’t seen as a contradiction to agency, but that it limits your agency in particular ways, but it doesn’t mean that you have none. It doesn’t mean that you’re passive and helpless. It means that your space for action has been constrained by the behaviour of another person. I think we have to acknowledge that for women who want to seek justice and want to use the criminal justice system as a means to obtain justice, being accorded the status of victim is very significant and important. It’s a recognition that they’ve been harmed and it’s a route to certain rights.

Chameleon: Some progress has been made, however.

LK: Yes. There is a coalition that we have recently developed here in the UK, the End Violence Against Women Coalition. It’s the first time that all the organisations that work around violence, across the different forms of violence, have come together, groups working on domestic violence, on sexual violence, on FGM, forced marriage, trafficking and prostitution. We are actually part of a network, but more than that, we’re also in a formal alliance with Amnesty International, the Trade Union Congress and the very big women’s organisation called the Women’s Institute. We are committed to trying to get our government to have a coordinated strategic response to violence against women. We have a number of action plans on different forms, but none of them are gendered, they don’t talk about violence against women, they talk about rape, or domestic violence and they’re not linked up, they’re strands of work that are separated. We don’t have a plan of action on violence against women in this country. We don’t have really a commitment to want to do that despite having signed the Beijing Platform for Action. Within that we also want there to be a much greater emphasis on prevention and we want there to be a commitment to increasing service provision, especially protecting the women-only services. I think this is a really interesting development – it’s not without its tensions and difficulties, but it has given us a voice and a strategic position. One of the things that we’ve decided to do is to audit the government every year on whether it’s moving in the directions we’re saying we think we should be moving in. We’ve produced this report called Making the Grade and we’ve done two so far. As a result of the second one our prosecutors have said that they want to develop a violence against women strategy. The police in London have said that they want to, so we’re seeing some departments get the message and say, “Yes, we understand what you’re saying, we want to do better”. The other thing that I think is worth mentioning is that we’ve just had this law come into force called the Gender Equality Duty. We’re about to move to a single equality body and that will mean that we no longer have a specific equality body for women, or for race, or for disability. One of the things that was very clear was that there is a statutory responsibility around race and around disability, but not around gender. What the law states is that every body, at national and at local level – everything from a government ministry to a school – has to have a gender equality scheme, which has to be about how they are going to eliminate gender discrimination and harassment in their institution and they also have to carry out a gender equality audit of any big change in policy, all new law. This is the first time you’ve ever had a legal requirement, so part of what EVAW has been trying to do is to say you must put violence against women in there because one of the things that the duty says is that you should address the most serious inequalities and forms of discrimination in the first instance, so we’re saying, actually violence is one of the most serious. Everybody has to publish their gender equality scheme by Monday [30th April 2007] and then these have to be monitored and rewritten again in three years’ time. I think this is a really interesting approach to trying to put gender and women back on policy agendas, because we have been relatively invisible for a while. It was a very smart move by the women in the Equal Opportunities Commission to agree to enter into a single equality body, but only if we have a gender duty in the same way that we have these other duties.

Chameleon: Thank you so much!

Essential Links:

The End Violence Against Women Coalition

The Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit

Portrait of Professor Liz Kelly by Chameleon

Wednesday, 28 June 2006

Respectability and Resistance: Interview with Professor Beverley Skeggs

Filed under: — site admin @ 8:05 am

In the comfortable armchairs of the first floor café in Paperchase (Tottenham Court Road), fuelled by a tall latte I had the honour of meeting and interviewing one of Britain’s foremost experts on social class, Professor Beverley Skeggs, whose extensive publications form an invaluable resource for any feminist curious about the interplay of gender, culture and symbols in creating, consolidating and contesting identity. No transcript can do justice to Professor Skeggs’ enthusiasm, immediacy, humour and warmth, which made the experience highly pleasurable as well as informative.

Chameleon: Could you tell me about your intellectual background, the projects you have been involved in so far and those you are working on at present?

BS: I began my research by issuing a feminist challenge to all the powerful theories of ideology in the early 1980s, mainly coming from people like Louis Althusser who proposed that people always accept the ideological positions that they’ve been placed in through interpellation, and I wanted to resist that, I knew instinctively it was wrong, having grown up with working class women. I wanted to say not necessarily, maybe people do something else with them. So it was a sort of resistance, both methodologically, I guess, as well, interested in actually seeing what happens and an interest theoretically because it was probably the beginning of my whole seduction by but resistance to these very powerful male, often French, theorists.

I went through a whole journey of finding Marx, whose writing started explaining my life and I loved it. I was sixteen at the time and it was like, wow, doing O-level sociology and it was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. And then coming much later on to much more at university, getting on to Bourdieu, Foucault and I think I had a fantastic university education at York, which opened your eyes to so much more, but never thinking that it explained everything. Always thinking these are fantastic ideas, but we need more and we need to know if they work, because I think the interesting thing about them is that they are incredibly speculative theories and so I always wanted to see, I’m not an empiricist, I just wanted to see how they did work. Could they work? Could they be put into practice?

I know lots of people would argue that you can’t do that, they’re not intended for that purpose, but for me, if you want to see if ideology’s working, you have to look, and you do actually see it in what people say and how they behave. It is interesting that those early theories still are very, very powerful.

The new research that I am doing is with Helen Wood and Nancy Toomin and focuses on reality TV and how reality TV is making class, new class relationships through the telling of the self. How people are being forced to perform, dramatise themselves in very particular ways. It’s a dynamic process. What we argue is that it is not a level playing field; it depends on the resources you have at your disposal to do that self-exposure and self-telling. The participants are being exposed, humiliated, shamed as well, although sometimes also having a great laugh and getting through it, so I’m not saying it’s all really, really bad. As a friend pointed out to me I’m probably the only person in the world who watches all of these, every series, every programme, every one, for the research project. I’ve learned to hate them, but I’ve come back to the concept of ideology as a result.

There’s something going on that is so pernicious about how class is being remade through symbolic value and through morality. People who can’t display themselves as having the right culture, the right way of saying things and the right emotions as well. People are now being opened out more and more and more and they’re expected to emote properly. I am looking at emotion as a value and the making of proper emotions in the making of class.

I love Bourdieu for his analysis of class, for his analysis of cultural capital, but I really don’t think he could handle gender and, even more so, sexuality because his is another kind of typical French explanation of what the powerful do, how the powerful make the world in their own interests and I think it’s much less about how people take that up and what they do with it. The only time – and it really is tragic, I think – he ever really tried to deal with it was in The Weight of the World, which is methodologically disastrous because it is totally unedited, or appears to be unedited. None of the prerequisites for any kind of decent feminist or sociological methodology are in there: How did you elicit these accounts? Why did they say this to you? What’s the discourse behind it? There’s no kind of discursive analysis across the whole, so even when he tries to see what’s happening, he doesn’t, and then, sadly, he died.

I owe him a huge, huge debt, but I think that on gender and sexuality he simply fails to understand ambivalence. There’s the great argument by Emily Martin where she talks about how gender works through ambivalence, not through that ideological positioning, because it’s through so many sites. We may change the way we do gender in one site, but we’re still going to have to do it in another site and, of course, motherhood and the family is usually the one that gets everybody in the end.

My first project was on a further education college and women on caring courses because they couldn’t do anything else. Formations of Class and Gender was a result of that, using Bourdieu, using media theories on the symbolic, but applying them to ethnography. A lot of that book is really informed by early media analysis from Birmingham CCCS, people like David Morley. Throughout my research there has always been an interest in the symbolic and there has always been an interest in the way people use the resources that they have.

Hence, even at an early stage, I was drawn to Pierre Bourdieu because his work is all about symbolic distinction. I still feel that’s the one thing that is missing in lots of feminist theory, actually, the gap between how we live our lives, how things are imposed on us ideologically, if you want to call it that, or by the state, which is then mediated through the symbolic and it is that mediation process that gives people value, or not, that becomes really important to my research.

My critique of Bourdieu is that he doesn’t really explain the processes of revaluation, so that if you’re working class and if you’re female for Bourdieu, you are caught up in a zero sum game. You can’t get access to the proper rules of the game to become truly powerful and any form of misrecognition boils down to your power being misrecognised. For me, he doesn’t give enough credibility to how we make things ourselves with what we have.

I then moved on from that to a project on sexuality, violence and space with Les Moran, a legal theorist, Kare Corteen, a criminologist and Paul Tyler, a literary theorist. We had a great inter-disciplinary team. It was a nice combination and we did argue a lot because people had varying interests. There was me, straight woman, Les, gay man, Paul, who would more identify as queer and Karen lesbian, really different interests being articulated and emerging around sexual politics in terms of queer and gay. Did creating a gay space, Manchester’s gay village, actually promote security for gays and lesbians? Then I included straight women, since lots of straight women had been using that space literally to be safe. To go out and have a good time without all that heterosexual harassment they experienced elsewhere in Manchester and in their own town.

Straight women definitely were there with a presence, they were 13 per cent of the total group, but they were usually in very particular bars. We looked at the alignments that were made between straight women and gay men, lesbians and straight women.

A real issue emerged around femininity, not surprisingly, and so I looked at that in one of the favourite papers that I have written, called The Toilet Paper, in which I analysed what happens in toilets between women. It was about difference of cultural formations in a sense, about who could make alignments and about lifestyle.

The straight women wanted that space in the village. It was a really revealing project in terms of seeing where violence occurred, who was subjected to violence. One of the main findings was that people are subjected to violence when they don’t look right. Straight women would get beaten up on buses going home from the gay village if they looked like a lesbian.

We put a lot of emphasis on visuality, looking at the paradox and ambivalence of the politics around gay visibility. If you think about it, every gay and lesbian political campaign has involved making themselves visible in order to make claims on the state, for example, the current civil partnerships. We looked at the real problems inbuilt into that: once you claim visibility you are more likely to suffer violence because it’s about power, it’s about hegemony and people are going to try to keep you where they want you rather than allowing you to have access to those state resources.

Bourdieu was also extremely useful for that project in terms of taste as the distinctions in the gay village would be around taste. We’d ask “Why do you go there or there?” They’d reply: “Oh, I wouldn’t be seen dead in that bar!”

Bourdieu was not so helpful in understanding sexuality. Because again, sexuality, especially as we’ve learned from queer theorists, is something that is very, very ambivalent – it’s literally playing with the attempt to position and hold people down as sexual in a very particular way, so if you think about the history of sexology, typification, classification, knowing every single practice, queer theorists play with that, they challenge it and really pull it apart.

Instead of being positioned, as Bourdieu would say, symbolically, they actually contest the whole basis of positioning in the first place – there’s a good argument between Judy Butler and Bourdieu about the symbolic, where you can see they are actually quite similar in some respects, but what she deals with is re-signification to some extent, the possibility of re-signification.

In the sexuality project we studied the significance of visibility in politics and the relationship of any queer politics to the state. We looked at how claiming to be abused by violence, which is what happens to a lot of gays and lesbians is something they can use as a resource in terms of saying we need protection, we need looking after and then looking at how campaigns of visibility make people much more vulnerable, which meant that it gave them a stake, but then subjected them to more violence.

There’s a very good study of Dupont Circle in Washington where gay-bashing reached a height because gay men became so publicly visible. Those debates became really significant in terms of who we see, but who we see with what value.

So now my big concern is really value: how are people being valued and who is doing it? In terms of reality TV, the people who are doing it are doing it because they would like a job, and they can’t get the proper documentary jobs in TV. All the people we talked to who are making these programmes always say “I’d much rather be doing a documentary; I’d much rather be doing investigative journalism”. They’re doing them, in other words, because of the changing labour conditions of TV and they’re doing them because they’re cheap and they’re bringing in people because they need to get high audience ratings in order to get the next job.

I’d argue that all the kind of new ways of showing people with value are actually underpinned by an incredible system of labour, which is actually reliant on a whole formation of creative middle-class people confronted with really difficult labour conditions.

That’s what I’m working on at the moment.

Chameleon: So your emphasis is very much on people as creative agents.

BS: Absolutely. I am always being informed by Marx, in that people make history, but not in the conditions of their own choosing. Always. That is the imperative, I think. That’s how we live. It’s a dynamic force. We’re involved in it.

The majority of French theories of the self address how we are done to and how forces work through us. To some extent I believe in that, I believe desire propels us in different ways, you can see the force of certain things that we do in body, but at the same time we are doing things. I think of my Mum in particular. She’s a very stubborn, resistant person who goes “No! I’m not like that, I’m not doing that!” There’s a real refusal, a politics of refusal as a recurrent theme in my research. Probably informed by my experiences of very stroppy aunties and mother.

In reality TV, people are making their own history, but not in the conditions of their own choosing. This sector of television is now massive, absolutely massive. It pervades everything, even Newsnight, the most serious documentary news programme in Britain, has now acquired a reality TV aspect, where they get one of their reporters to go out and see if he can be “green” for a week, environmentally green, and you just think “Oh, God, hold on to your integrity!” but it’s not happening.

Thinking back on my earlier research, I guess class has always been an important concern. I thought when I finished the Formations book [Formations of Class and Gender, London, Sage, 1997] that I probably wouldn’t work on class again and then I started writing Class, Self, Culture [London, Routledge, 2004] which was initially called Visible Classifications.

Then somehow it turned into a book more about the middle classes. I was quite surprised, really. I think it was because I wanted to understand how all the different classification systems are working, through to who can be a good economic subject, who is a good political subject and I slightly shifted my emphasis from respectability to the proper, as a whole legal aspect.

Les Moran, who I worked with, had brought me on to these fantastic feminist legal theorists such as Margaret Davies. They are really interesting on how the proper literally gets produced in law through legal statements and who has to show themselves in front of law. If you’re deemed improper, say you’re a prostitute, which is the key example, you have no legal protection. The law doesn’t work for you.

He put me onto these really fascinating legal ways of thinking through the proper, which extended the material on respectability. That is why I am now interested in how a lot of reality TV is all about having the proper emotions. What we get is this incredible forensic emphasis on people’s faces, so that they are watched to see how they emote and do they emote properly? This is what I am attempting to capture at the moment.

I also think it is a really powerful political opening out, which makes so visible the improper. It makes those who don’t know how to do it in the kind of respectable, bourgeois way look really, really bad. Jerry Springer is the best example of people emoting very, very badly. They punch other people. Violence is the wrong emotion. Part of the fascination is that we don’t usually in real life spend that much time looking at people’s emotions and if they emote too much we look away, we would be embarrassed or whatever else, but we can voyeuristically watch it on TV. We are getting it not only shown, but we’re getting to know exactly what it should be.

I hate reality TV itself, or, to be more precise, I hate some of it, which is so badly formulaic, cheap and nasty and I ask myself “Can’t you find another victim to pick on?” It is pretty banal, but Deleuze argues that what we will never know, in any encounter, is the affect that is produced through the encounter. We won’t understand what is cause, what is effect and it’s always circulating, creating, troubling relationships. What reality TV does is to try to capture all that and say, “If you behave like that, you will produce that bad emotion”. It’s so seductive in that sense. It gives people bad psychology and makes them think that if they use these techniques they can manipulate people. The key programmes here are the motherhood ones, such as Supernanny. Have you seen Supernanny?

Chameleon: No.

BS: It is really bad behaviour modification. Everybody has a “naughty corner”, so that if you are confronted with bad behaviour you have to impose a technique and if you impose a technique the child will behave well. It has been so effective that some of the new nursery nurses whom I have been interviewing for our reality TV project say that lots of Mums come into the nursery and ask, “Well, where’s your naughty corner?” You can’t be a good nursery unless you have a naughty corner. Of course the nurses themselves have learned much more complex psychology on their courses. These programmes seem to be particularly effective on motherhood and children. Much less so on other subjects, where there is much more resistance. People see Jerry Springer as a kind of joke really. I don’t think people take it seriously.

Chameleon: Viewers probably believe that the “audience members” are paid actors.

BS: Yes, exactly.

Chameleon: Yet they still seem drawn to it somehow anyway.

BS: It’s the spectacle. It’s just an amazing spectacle in a way of things you don’t normally see. If there’s a fight on the street everybody will look. You’re not used to it. It is similar in that it shows behaviour at the limits.

Chameleon: Would you describe class as a pernicious classificatory system?

BS: Without a doubt. What is really interesting about class, and I am in the process of compiling a big reader on class with the best texts I can find, is that so much effort is put into denying its existence internationally, which signals to me that it must be extremely important. I went to a seminar yesterday at the Institute of Public Policy Research where a new project by Anthony Heath in Oxford was being discussed.

He shows that from 1964 to 2006 almost the same percentage of people identified with either the working class or the middle class. There had been a small shift in the number of people identifying with middle class, but not that massive, if memory serves me well, it was from 38 to 52.

Even though we have experienced 27 years of denial of class in this country, since Thatcher said that there is no such thing as society, that she would destroy any sort of powerful class organisation, which she subsequently did, it’s still there, it is still present. So I think it is both pernicious as an incredible system of classification in every area of life and in Britain in particular through taste. It’s culture in Britain that is the big give away. Language, clothing, the whole visible dimension is the biggest thing. You see that much less in the States. You see it as much in France, actually. Probably even more so, which is why Bourdieu is particularly useful in England. France and England have a sort of culture quotient measure of class, whereas the US and Australia are much more about money, display of money rather than the display of culture.

It is pernicious because it is read on the body. Constantly. Even things like how people sit, their entitlement to space, aurality, noise are really significant. Lots of loud people. There has been all this emphasis on loud, working class women being a source of disruption to the nation, whereas in fact they are only occasionally like that.

Chameleon: On a girls’ night out.

BS: Exactly. All the ways that it works through something else. Through the economy, very clearly, in terms, for example, of who gets jobs and who doesn’t, but also very much through culture, I would argue.

There has been a great deal of research on the shift to culture as a criterion for who is given employment, so that if you used your year after university to pay off your debts through working in McDonald’s that doesn’t go down very well on your CV, whereas if you used it to travel round Libya and set up some sort of voluntary campaign the opposite is the case.

People have been looking at how culture is now making the big difference in employment relationships. Class works at that level in an incredibly pernicious manner, since it is about life chances and resources. You have it working every day.

Valerie Walkerdine has done some very interesting research in which women say, “Class? You can spot it a mile away”. She has been working around that idea. People see it, they read it, they know it and then they behave towards other people accordingly. The most intimate social encounters are being worked through class in the same way as the most global, economic encounters. Its pervasiveness, its ubiquity operates in so many different ways, mediating our social relationships, our cultural relationships, our emotional statements.

In the course of putting together the reader I have seen how you can chart all these movements towards denial and then you can chart all the movement back that proves that it is there in another way and you can see it happening at significant moments.

Certain sociological theories, such as those put forward by Ulrich Beck, and Giddens on the architecture of New Labour, speculate about social changes with absolutely no evidence. They completely mirror the policies that are put into effect to bring neo-liberalism into government. It is totally separated from class.

There is an alliance between social theorists and governments, which is slightly worrying if you think of Clinton and Blair and of the impact of neo-liberalism in this country now. Choice in education? Well, who can choose? Who has the knowledge? Who can move house? All this choice rhetoric is so powerful. I see the power of class working through these different ways in which people put a lot of effort into denying class, the ultimate symbol of the fact that it really does exist. That denial can always be rebutted from so many different directions.

Chameleon: There was an article on the front page of The Independent the other day about the “old school tie” phenomenon. A higher proportion of people who work in the media now than was the case in the past come from fee-paying schools, that mobility is on the wane and the situation is worse now than it was 40 years ago. How do you respond to this?

[The Independent, 15th June 2006, Richard Garner and Ben Russell, Stranglehold, in which the salient passage was as follows: “(…) of the leading 100 media opinion-formers, 54 per cent came from private schools, compared with 49 per cent 20 years ago. Thirty-three per cent of the remainder came from selective grammar schools – while only 14 per cent were from comprehensive schools, which cater for 90 per cent of all pupils.

The report on the legal profession shows that almost 70 per cent of barristers from leading chambers were educated at private schools. And in the House of Commons, 42 per cent of those holding government office or shadowing ministers are former pupils of private schools. Just 7 per cent of all pupils are educated in the private sector”]

BS: It’s incredible, isn’t it? Most social mobility is downwards, from the middle class into the working class through marriage. It’s absolutely astonishing. We have all these rhetorical statements about choice, freedom, individualism and then we have this fixing of people into positions, huge spatial apartheid as well in this country and in France again. Huge investment into some areas and total neglect of others.

Chameleon: Another contributory factor to that social apartheid that you mention is people moving out of neighbourhoods and how they deteriorate subsequently.

BS: Or displacement, like where I live – posh people moving in. What happens to the people who live there and who now can’t afford to buy houses in the area if they could ever have afforded to buy houses? There are twin movements: movement out and displacement from within. There is an excellent article by Neil Smith, a geographer [New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy, Antipode, 2000], where he looks at gentrification as a very powerful strategy of displacement, a Western if not global strategy.

Chameleon: Would it be fair to say that feminism has overlooked class as a conceptual tool?

BS: There have been some fantastic women out there doing the work and I’d like to say “Respect” to them. Terry Lovell from Warwick, Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman, if you can read that book without crying…it’s phenomenal. Valerie Walkerdine who is writing about run-down steel plants in Wales at the moment; Steph Lawler up in Durham; Diane Reay who is doing some brilliant work on education…There have been people fighting their own corner. The problem was with publishers.

Some key people in sociology, in history and psychology were trying to be fashionable and thought “Are we meant to be doing postmodernism now?” You couldn’t get things published.

To get Formations published, for example, was an absolute nightmare. They didn’t want “class” in the title. Initially they wanted it to be called Feminist Cultural Theory. It began as an ethnography of working class women and they didn’t want ethnography because, apparently, nobody likes small-scale local study, which it isn’t. I fought for a year to get that title and I lost two publishers. It was a real struggle. I only got it published in the end because my friend’s partner is on the editorial board at Sage.

Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman was in history and was written under a different, autobiographical, creative writing heading.

It was really difficult to make a space. You have to think about who is teaching in academia and who wants to know about this subject. As I argue in Formations and still maintain, a lot of the men who invested in class just wanted someone else to do the revolution for them. When nobody did, they got a bit pissed off and said “I’ll find something new now”. I think that’s still going on.

Again, some have really stuck to it, like Alex Callinicos, great. The rest of them just think “Well, class isn’t that important now, I’m doing something else”. And it’s because they could. They could do something else.

It has been tough for a lot of feminists working on class, but it has also been really tough for feminists working on race. There used to be a moment when Sara Ahmed and I were at Lancaster and every time we had a guest speaker she’d ask them a race question and I’d ask them a class question and at one point I said, “Why don’t we just swap, we’ll alternate!”

Different feminists who are not following the mainstream have found it really difficult to get places in academia, to be accepted as credible. Feminists who are working on class never ever ever claimed it as an identity politics. It was more a form of analysis, which also made it even harder in a way.

I think that for a lot of black feminists they could have an identity politics, they needed one; I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. They had to use it as their battering ram, whereas I think the problem for class was that it had a place, through the almost hegemonic power of Marxism in sociology, history, English, across the board.

It then seemed to be superseded by a fashionable new postmodernism and so all the feminists are trying to hang on to it, but what it made them do was really, really rework it, so if you look at all the feminists who are working on class, I’d argue, they’re all pretty interesting, because they had to move away from that very traditional productivist, economy-based approach. They’ve had to understand how gender works and you can’t do class without gender.

Chameleon: So it isn’t true that feminism has neglected a conceptual engagement with class. Or is it more that feminism has been trying to emphasise what women have in common to facilitate the formation of a coalition in order to promote political action and that feminists have thus de-emphasised class deliberately?

BS: It’s a hard one. If you look at who were the people who could publicly present feminism, some of them did come from that kind of background in the nasty debates – those socialist, Marxist, feminist debates were quite hard and heavy, so there was an attempt for a moment to make a Utopia. You need the politics of hope in order to have a future.

Exactly what you’re describing was occurring, but you’re never going to be able to get away from that because at the time it was happening there were events like the miner’s strike going on. You can’t deny issues that are literally forming women’s lives.

We do see a movement of women into academia, middle class and working class women who have got into academia and who are making a space. At the same time, however, it is who they take with them, whose interests they want to promote.

The problem with identity politics – I remember being in a seminar when somebody objected “You can’t say that because you’re not queer, you can’t say that because you’re not black!” Let’s have an analysis, not just a position.

It’s a tricky one. Feminism is about competing groups to an extent trying to put their theories and their issues on the agenda. There was a moment when you would say that socialist feminists and radical feminists and others were all trying to make a mark, so I don’t think it was a conspiracy. There weren’t enough people around who were doing or were interested in class. As a result it took much, much longer.

Also there has always been an interest in pretending it doesn’t exist. There’s that great book by Andrew Sayer where he looks at why his middle class students don’t want to talk about class. It is a really important and problematic issue that f you’re born middle class, you’re born with privilege and you don’t want to walk around going “Oh, I’m really privileged!” You want to say, “Oh, I want to be equal and I want to be nice and I want to care about everybody”. So class makes people think about the privileges that they have and that they can’t do much about.

People would like to deny the existence of class. The way it has been formulated as a white project almost. It’s possible because of visibility, but that’s changing now.

Whereas I think for black feminists there’s always been a kind of middle class liberal discourse of multiculturalism and “Let’s patronise the natives” kind of thing. That enables different issues to be taken up. I think Sara Ahmed would say quite clearly that there were issues of tokenistic acceptance, whereas white working class culture has never offered the middle classes much, they’ve never wanted it, they’ve literally measured themselves against it.

Chameleon: The defining moment of middle class identity is to point disapprovingly to the working class and say “We are not that!”

BS: Absolutely. We can see that happening so much at the moment. For example, the chav phenomenon. Chavs, the most hated objects in Britain.

Now why is all this hate coming out at the moment? That’s what I’m fascinated by.

I started writing a paper on hate. A criminologist, David Garland, charts the differences in the legal systems, showing the shift from re-education to retribution in the law at present so that the people who are being criminalised cannot be saved. They are just bad people.

I think the whole chav phenomenon where you get this obsession –it was the Oxford English Dictionary new word for 2004 – if you do a web search you will find so much – chav books, chav town, how to spot a chav, chav babies, honestly, there’s masses.

Why is there this middle class obsession with visualising, knowing and degrading the working class? Part of the argument is because we all live in proximity and a lot of the stuff has come from London where you do get groups in proximity.

So if you have the gentrifying middle classes moving into working class areas, who’s going to be the problem? The ones who are visible.

There’s a lovely argument somewhere that because of the massive incidence of break-up in marriages and increase in the number of divorces, children are being moved all the time between different spaces, a major concern for middle class parents is the protection of the child and what the working classes do in the areas that the middle classes have moved into is make that space more dangerous.

That danger then gets reproduced in the professions where these people are represented.

Even Ferdinand Mount who was Margaret Thatcher’s ex-right hand man agrees. He has never witnessed such a nasty cultural attitude towards the working class. He differs from me because he thinks they should be written off, but the real question is why so much hatred? Why this middle class obsession?

Again we come back to the argument which states that what is denied alongside that which is obsessed about so much reveals a real fear and concern. That to me is how class relations are being structured at the moment. Through hate.

I get told off by a lot of colleagues for saying that: “You’re just saying that it is class war again and we’ve tried to get over that!”

There’s a whole politics of niceness, so that if you say something like the middle class hate the working class you’re really being nasty yourself.

Chameleon: How can incorporating class conceptually be of benefit to feminism?

BS: It’s a form of analysis.

If you think about what feminism is trying to explain, if you want to explain, say, the body or embodiment, corporeality and the like, you have to think how that is worked through race, class and sexuality, not just gender. For me, you can’t do class without gender and sexuality and, hopefully, race, which I keep trying to put in.

Anything that makes you more rigorous in terms of trying to understand is beneficial.

When I did the project on sexuality having done gender and class I wondered how it fitted in. What it does is throw your analysis. Incorporating sexuality made me think about how to approach ambivalence, whereas before I could see everything slotting in, I could see class and gender as systems of power, being put into effect. But when you see sexuality, you see competing interests, you see differences, you see different spatialisations, you see the gender differences within it and I just think it makes you a better theorist.

It makes you think about things more. You may not get it right, but at least you are thinking. It’s like, how the hell do I understand this now? That’s the key to it, really. That’s what you should be asking. The only reason we have theories is to try to explain things. You have to improve your theories, not that I’m there yet, but pushing in that direction.

Chameleon: What do you think that the feminist research agenda on class should comprise?

BS: Marx! [Laughs]

If you go back to reading Marx, he’s such a funny writer, he can make you laugh. He is the Gothic imaginary, really.

I think it should really include how resources are unequally distributed in so many different ways: economically, politically, culturally.

For me, a policy agenda would be how do we actually change those?

A feminist analysis would need to re-value the incredibly negative valuations that we have currently. I still remember moments – a friend of mine who was a student at the time says when I went to teach in York University in the Women’s Studies Department and I walked in that I was just the wrong sort of feminist. I had long permed hair, I had a shortish skirt on and I was wearing bright red lipstick. This was in the early 1980s and she said, “Oh my God, we looked at you and we thought, she can’t be in this classroom!” I think I had learned that that was the wrong thing to be, but I was still in the “Don’t tell me what to do!” frame of mind, “This is my cultural capital, this is what I’ve got! I’m going to feel ridiculous in anything else”.

It’s to do with accepting that women who have different forms of cultural competence are not necessarily bad or stupid. My friend Helen, who I work on the research project with, has got a really strong Wolverhampton accent. She tells me she walks into a room and she can feel everybody just going, “Ah [sighs], who’s that silly woman? She doesn’t belong in here”.

I think that’s both feminist and non-feminist. There’s a whole bourgeois [ideology of the] proper that both makes you feel excluded, outside and it’s not just about personal feelings, but is doing this continually, is repeating it.

A feminist project should really think about which persons are valued and why and what is good or bad about that. The writing off of loads of working class feminists because they wore lipstick is just not on because that is what you grew up with. That is not the issue. People can’t get jobs; that’s the issue.

Chameleon: A rhetorical question: Women suffer disproportionately from the burden of class discrimination, don’t they?

BS: They certainly do! Take a look at all the debates about domestic labour now. Women are going out to work, they’re doing full-time jobs and then they’re still doing the bulk of domestic labour. There’s a massive disparity there.

There has been a huge increase in immigrant servicing of the middle classes.

It could be argued that a whole range of domestic servants are being recreated. Within this, it is illegal work, they’re not getting pensions, they’re not getting National Insurance; they are literally employed because they are not legal.

To my mind that’s an enormous issue.

There has been an increase in some kinds of unionisation, but part-time work tends not to be unionised.

Nurseries, all those really basic feminist concerns about work, childcare, healthcare, welfare, they’re all still huge to my mind.

Even though it looks like I am working on TV, for me those are really, really significant and should always be on the feminist agenda. There are some great people working on these out there, but again they don’t belong to a known group. Niki Charles at Warwick, for example, has been working on domestic servants.

Chameleon: We talked about chavs a few moments ago and the other category that seems to be cropping up in moral panics about binge-drinking is the ladettes…

BS: Actually ladettes were a precursor to chavs to some extent. They came from the New Lad movement in the 1980s and one of the reality TV programmes is called From Ladette to Lady.

In it they take a group of eight self-identified ladettes, hard drinking, hard-partying women, who often take their clothes off and are having lots of sex – they’re just having a good time, really – and they try to turn them into ladies through etiquette training at a private girls’ school.

It’s really hilarious, because partly they get absorbed in the whole process, but again the whole ladette phenomenon was an attempt not to be proper – it’s about the burning out of a very particular sort of Laura Ashley femininity that was no longer appropriate for women who were all going to have to go out and work and who were being taught through Thatcherism, neo-liberalism and individualism that they could be strong.

What it does is almost deal with the changes that are going on around femininity, so these women are very badly behaved.

Chris Griffin at Bath is doing a really interesting study on binge-drinking where she looks at the incredible codes of loyalty amongst these ladettes when they go out, so if one of them gets unconscious they will always look after her, make sure she’s got a coat, if she takes a coat out!

The moral panic around it centres on thinking what the trouble for the nation is – whereas the trouble for the nation is child poverty, but let’s not focus on that! Or the trouble for the nation is that there’s a war that nobody wants to be part of, so let’s latch onto a figure that can be a common object of contempt. So I’d say straightforwardly political, but you can see a group of women trying to carve out a very different way of being.

Chameleon: Is the moral panic motivated by some wish to constrain women, to restrain them? Because one of the distinguishing characteristics of ladettes, according to the press, is precisely their lack of restraint.

BS: Absolutely, but that’s why I think they’re having such a good time.

OK, in feminist terms there are some problems with the fact that they often end up without their clothes on sprawled in the street, it’s not called dignity, really, is it?

If you look at them they are without restraint. There’s always been a big problem in understanding women who cannot be governed. The police are scared – these are ungovernable women to an extent.

The thing is, they’re going to grow up and grow out of it. It’s not really that much of an issue because your body can’t take that much alcohol for that long. So they’ll do it, they’ll grow out of it, it’s not going to be the same sort of health problem as gout or the men’s club drinkers.

For me it is an obvious and really cheap form of journalism – that’s what really gets up my nose at the moment – it’s easy and it’s cheap and nobody’s making any effort to know why this is happening or what’s going on. Instead it’s let’s find a figure of fun and humiliation and let’s dwell on that and say it’s a national problem.

There’s a whole complicity around reconstructing the proper again, reconstructing the restrained.

I’d argue that, historically, it’s that battle between restraint and non-restraint that creates an incredible class struggle and attempts to control the working class are usually met with quite phenomenal resistance culturally and morally. The attempt to control women morally has always been challenged. The way I see it, these women are issuing the challenge and then they get turned into a social problem. As we know, however, they will live through this.

Chameleon: Tell me about respectability…

BS: It’s so powerful! Writing Formations, which seems like a long while ago now, I see it everywhere, all these reality TV programmes are about trying to produce some sort of respectability, fitting into the family, The Apprentice, fitting into work, becoming the best capitalist in the world; they’re all about becoming respectable in various ways.

It’s about cleaning, mothering, caring and respectability.

What I try to get to in Formations was about how these women try to do respectability differently. For them, respectability was a strategy of having value and I don’t think that what they were doing was identical to middle class respectability because they challenged a lot of that respectability, for example in mothering. They didn’t like that way middle class mothers sent their children away to school.

These women were trying to carve out their own respectability. Partly that is fitting in, partly that is conceding that respectability is something that should be achieved, but partly it’s an attempt to revalue what respectability is.

Chameleon: What is it?

BS [laughs]: Being proper.

Chameleon: What’s that?

BS: Not being excessive, being clean, again, depending on which position you are reading it from in terms of childcare, giving an incredible amount of attention to your child – or not! – depending on which class position, at the extremes.

One of the keys is not being sexually excessive, absolutely restrained and constrained in terms of sexuality.

So, sexuality, hygiene; manners and deportment are key to it as well, not being too obvious, too loud and too vulgar, which are characteristics that have always been attributed to working class women. It is a range of different practices that are all based around femininity, a particular working of femininity, it is a very class and gender-specific amalgamation.

Chameleon: That latter point reminds me of Bartky’s disciplinary practices. Would you say that femininity as a discourse or as an ideology is calibrated in such a way as to ensure it is unattainable for working class women?

BS: Absolutely. It was never for them. It was about the bourgeois wife who stayed at home, could pay attention to herself, didn’t have to clean the floors herself, never for them. Working class women were associated more with masculinity.

If you look at all the writings by Arthur Mumby, who was obsessed with his cleaner, about her big hands and her dirty legs.

What you find is black women and white working class women much more associated with masculinity: they were hard, they laboured, they even had dignity at work, women miners and the like, so it was never about them.

What I think is interesting is that when they do what is seen as femininity it’s often highly sexualised because they were positioned as sexual in a way that middle class women couldn’t be.

That’s why I think Sex in the City is so important. It’s when middle-class women start claiming a sexuality, but it’s not valued as bad, or pathological or excessive because there is so much other cultural capital to offset that sexuality, where working class women don’t, they have sexuality and they do it. It’s like they will make use of it.

Again, that’s why thinking through sexuality, class and gender is quite important. They can do it in really non-restrained, non-respectable ways. They are subject to the same disciplinary practices that Bartky describes, but I think they do them in very different ways. And they often refuse. They refuse the restraint.

Chameleon: You touched upon femininity and the body. Obviously what you said about being demure is part of it, but would you agree that, for example, being “too big” also forms part of a class distinction as a different aspect of physicality, restraint of fleshly excess?

BS: Again you see it, it was in Formations and it is repeated in all the research we are doing at the moment, where people talk about women “letting themselves go”. If that isn’t beyond disciplinarity, what is?

I did write an article in Sociology [The Making of Class and Gender through Visualising Moral Subject Formation, Sociology, 2005, vol. 39 (5), pp965-982] which says that if you drink, if you have sex, if you eat and if you’re loud you are the evil object of the nation because everything is meant to be restrained. The body that displays, with pleasure almost, its lack of constraint is the most dangerous body as in it’s not doing exactly what’s expected of it. It’s absolutely key.

I think it’s really funny, I’m going to see my Mum and Dad tomorrow. You can guarantee the first thing when I get off the train, my Mum will say to me is “Oh my God, look at the state of your hair!” and “Aren’t you getting fat?” But it’s as if me being in London is a sign of me getting out of control. That’s the focus of being out of control. Very powerful.

What I love the most with a group of women we are working with at the moment, big women who are proudly displaying their bodies is that they’re not covering themselves up, they are proud of their bodies. I think that’s a really important thing. It’s saying, “I’m not going to be restrained or controlled and I’m not going to accept your values”.

Whereas I looked at respectability in the past, I’m looking at refusal now. At those who refuse to be constrained, they’re not going to do it. They use a variety of strategies. Drinking is one of them. They do take over town centres, they can be very loud and noisy and scary. I think, good on them really, a public space for them when they’re not usually allowed a public space.

Chameleon: Historically, women have always been secluded, indoors.

BS: And constrained by violence, the violence of being in particular areas. For me, part of them taking over space is basically a refusal to be subjected to violence of various kinds and I think that’s great.

Chameleon: A trendy buzzword these days is “post-feminism”…

BS: I hate it. It makes me want to vomit. I see it as part of neo liberal politics focused on individualism. Some young women have learned to become a ladette or something and that’s it, that’s the limit to feminism.

Call me a dinosaur, but for me it’s actually imperative that we keep a feminist politics on the agenda. Nurseries, work, unions, new slave labour, sex trafficking, all those major issues demand a feminist politics.

It’s not post-feminist. Women are being abused down the road for a pound an hour. That calls for a feminist response.

Chameleon: You quote Sennett’s “hidden pain of class”. Could you say a few words about that hidden pain?

BS: I think it’s hidden, but absolutely ubiquitous. A bit like the example that I gave of my friend, and I have certainly experienced it. You walk into a place and you know you have no value and I think that is where class is lived, painfully, nearly every day.

You can just see it. You can see judgement, you can see the exclusions and you can see you have no value.

There’s a woman, Lady Sovereign, who is defined as the chav pop singer. She’s only 16, really good, really clever. She’s like young, white Miss Dynamite with really urban, political songs. She talks about being really hurt by being labelled chav because it was consolidating negative value so that wherever she went, her style of clothing, everybody could read her as having no value.

That is the pain: you enter a space and you know you have to prove that you have value without just taking it for granted that people will listen to you, take you seriously and accept you. Not everybody gets accepted everywhere and I’m not arguing that it’s straightforward, but it’s that kind of pain all the time, really.

Like when you walk into a shop. There’s an example in Formations of the women who felt they couldn’t walk into posh shops like a department store because they knew they were being read as potential thieves. You can see that all the time where I live. If a person comes in with their tracksuit on, looking like the stereotypical chav you see the store detectives almost following them around. You learn.

And if you think that process can happen a hundred times a day, wherever you go, it works very painfully.

Chameleon: So does that mean that the fashion you wear acts as a distinguishing badge of lower-classness?

BS: Yes. And if you want to be what you grew up with – if you grew up with a lot of investment in fashion, maybe sexually explicit clothes, or maybe tracksuits – everything that is part of your cultural heritage and that has value for you in your local setting devalues you outside of it.

That’s why there is so much effort to fix people back in place: you have a place, it’s spatial, stay there! You don’t belong.

Again, when we were doing the sexuality research the working class white boys who’d been accused of homophobic violence all expressed real resentment that the city had been taken over and they couldn’t go into it any more. OK, they are really nasty little evil gits who’ve been beating people up, but there’s an expression of their exclusion in that statement.

Again the issue is complex. It involves thinking about the impetus. Why would you want to beat somebody up for being gay? Thinking about all the different reasons for that, masculinity, whatever else, but exclusion as well. It is going to create a self-perpetuating cycle: people get excluded, they want to enter the areas they have been excluded from, some people are going to be subjected to the process, they are going to be forced back into restricted space, they are going to get criminalised.

There’s a huge moral agenda in Britain around ASBOs, keeping people in their place, literally, keeping them at home sometimes.

Chameleon: That reminds me of something the right-wing press is fond of harping on about, the “loss of deference”! Then there’s someone like Lynn Truss complaining about the coarsening of public interactions. Is this all a symptom of middle class malaise?

BS: I don’t know. It does fascinate me. Whoever assumed anybody would be deferential to them? From which position is that being spoken?

I can understand it with teachers and doctors and so on, they should enjoy some authority because they actually possess knowledge that is useful to people.

Where it is coming from is really weird.

The swearing issue is quite funny. I was having a big argument about this the other night because I first heard really, really violent swearing when I went to university. I’d never heard it much before because of investment in respectability.

Again it gets located with one class when, in fact, as far as I’m concerned it was the upper middle classes that were the most prolific.

Why does it get stuck to one class? In whose interests, the classic Marxist question, is this happening? It’s the middle class trying to reclaim its authority.

Again, one of the big class struggles is about authority. Not accepting middle class judgement.

So when social workers come into people’s houses, the hatred of social workers is phenomenal. Because you’re not going to accept the middle class judgement that you should behave in a particular way. It is absolutely antithetical to the way you were brought up.

Chameleon: Yet the Government seems to be devising more and more ways to interfere in people’s lives.

BS: And generating more and more resentment. I’m going to start a project on the Government’s new “Respect Agenda”. It’s unbelievable! They ask questions like: If somebody swore, would you tell them to shut up? No, of course you wouldn’t, you’d get beaten up. It’s so out of touch with what’s going on. They’ve created this incredible hatred and violence and they then berate people for not responding to respect. Dear me, how could they do this?

Chameleon: What can we do about it?

BS: We need some sort of political organisation to represent the working class. It’s gone. That’s what’s the really worrying thing. And it’s not about interests, it’s literally about inequality. The lack of concern about inequality is what really, really worries me.

I was just listening to The Money Programme on Radio Four and the presenter made one comment, along the lines of “For those of you who have money that you don’t really need”. I was outraged! This is so wrong! You shouldn’t have money if you don’t need it. According to that statement it is just fine to accrue money that is completely pointless, you don’t need it. While other people are living on eighty quid a week. It’s wrong.

We’ve lost our sense of fairness to some extent. That’s what’s gone, not deference. Fairness. Caring. I probably sound like a really old person, going, “Oh, you know, we used to care about people in our day!” You have to have a kind of ethical caring.

Chameleon: Talk to me about Vicky Pollard.

BS: Little Britain. The absolute epitome of “Let’s make somebody a complete and total joke!” I always think it’s fascinating how all these alternative, “clever”, white, middle class comedy programmes, and there’s a whole tradition of them, usually have an excessive character and excessive in so many ways. Harry Enfield had Wayne and Waynetta.

This tradition consists of a laugh at excess.

Now the thing about Little Britain is that it’s all about excess in various ways, “I’m the only gay in the village; I’m a lady”, so she is not out of place, but what’s key is that Vicky Pollard fits in with Government rhetoric, when Peter Mandelson made his speech, which was really embarrassing, where he tries to pretend, he tries to speak from the problem of the working class in Britain and he ends up looking ridiculously stupid, when he says, “We are the scroungers, we are the breeding, overeating whatever people”. I reproduce the full speech in Class, Self, Culture.

What Little Britain does is feed into all those chav representations, ladette representations, government representations, media representations.

When they’re doing their “I’m a lady”, it’s quite funny; when they’re doing their “I’m the only gay in the village”, it’s quite funny, but when they’re doing the chav piece it just feeds into every other representation of the large, noisy, badly behaved, non-restrained.

[The reference is to p88, the excerpt from the speech reads as follows: “‘We are people who are used to being represented as problematic. We are the long-term, benefit-claiming, working-class poor, living through another period of cultural contempt. We are losers, no hopers, low life, scroungers. Our culture is yob culture’”]

Chameleon: And it is dished up with this veneer of “post-modern” irony and “sophistication”.

BS: Absolutely, where nobody is responsible for anything.

We’ve seen that in all the lad magazines like Loaded, you know, “Get your tits out, it’s irony”. No, it’s not, it’s actually offensive. I think most people have cottoned on to that now.

Lots of people I know are very cynical about irony. Irony is political power and always has been. It has been used in really good ways, but now seems to be used to reproduce entire discourses. So you can have reproductive and non-reproductive irony.

Chameleon: How can we counteract such denigrating stereotypes? Or is it impossible given the power of the media?

BS: This is the really big problem, but my answer is partly that it is so powerful and because it is now in alliance with Government rhetoric as well as in alliance with what employers want it is an almost concerted attempt to carry out this symbolic devaluing.

My only tiny bit of hope is that in these reality TV programmes, for instance, when people are set up as idiots, trivial, feminine, whatever, sometimes the dignity of their performances wins through and they’re shown to be really nice people who are thoughtful and caring.

There was one programme, it was called Poor Little Rich Girl, in which they set up a Liverpudlian, therefore loud and with all the Liverpool signifiers of being working class, a Page Three model, signifying excessive sexuality, another working class women, a cleaner, but who had no kind of money or presence and didn’t value herself in any way, but what was interesting is that they both came across as really lovely women. They care about the family, they think about other people, they are considerate; they’ll do horrific things if they have to. Sometimes that breaks through. They actually break the value system.

Chameleon: Is that a bit like Jade Goody from Big Brother?

BS: Jade’s a bit like a comedy item. She’s been reincorporated. Jordan and Jade kind of go hand in hand as the stupidly excessive – there’s something to do with motherhood going on in there because they have both been good mothers.

A lot of the reincorporation is about motherhood. It stops them going out behaving like absolute mad people.

It’s as if you get figures of comedic or clowning status that appear in British history. I worry about Jade and Jordan because they didn’t do that revaluing themselves.

Partly the Jade thing was in response to a really nasty campaign in The Sun when a lot of women really responded to the misogyny of it. She was picked on. She was the evil fat pig, that’s what she was called and, as I say, a lot of women responded to the misogyny of it. I think she’s complex in that respect. Motherhood has been really good for her, even though she’s been a single Mum.

Chameleon: If we’ve got these stories in the media, they reinforce people’s sense of helplessness or being trapped. Representations are obviously powerful, but what are the limits of representations?

BS: It’s a bit like race. If people know somebody who’s working class and who’s loyal, or whatever else, they can get beyond it. It’s the people who don’t have such friends who are less likely to.

If you think that most of our policies revolve around spatial apartheid, people are going to be kept away from each other except for figures of fear and figures in the media, so I think there’s a real problem in terms of who doesn’t get to know other people.

If you think that most of our policies revolve around spatial apartheid, people are going to be kept away from each other except for figures of fear and figures in the media, so I think there’s a real problem in terms of who doesn’t get to know other people.
But as for the representations that are aimed at devaluing those who are the object of them I think the latter challenge them. So you get Lady Sovereign singing, I don’t think it’s called “I’m a chav and I don’t care”, but it’s in that kind of vein. “Don’t label me, look at you, you uptight so-and-so!” There’s a real response and it’s been like the old music hall stuff, a real response to middle class authority, an attack on constraint, restraint, morality and the like, saying “You’re the really, really boring ones, get a life!”. There’s a real refusal and the “Get a life!” statement going on. I’d say from my recent research with new groups of young working class women.

Portrait of Professor Beverley Skeggs by Chameleon

Text and photograph © Chameleon 2006. No part of this interview may be reproduced without written authorisation, which may be obtained via e-mail (see profile page).

Sunday, 20 February 2005


Filed under: — site admin @ 5:45 pm

“It is still to this ideology of lived experience – exhumation of the real in its fundamental banality, in its radical authenticity –that the American TV verité experiment attempted on the Loud family in 1971 refers (…).
More interesting is the illusion of filming the Louds as if TV weren’t there. The producer’s triumph was to say: “They lived as if we were not there”. An absurd, paradoxical formula – neither true nor false: utopian. The ‘as if we were not there’ being equal to ‘as if you were there’. It is this utopia, this paradox that fascinated the twenty million viewers, much more than did the ‘perverse’ pleasure of violating someone else’s privacy. In the ‘verité’ experience it is not a question of secrecy or perversion, but of a sort of frisson of the real, of an aesthetics of the hyperreal, a frisson of vertiginous and phoney exactitude, a frisson of simultaneous distancing and magnification, of distortion of scale, of an excessive transparency. The pleasure of an excess of meaning, when the bar of the sign falls below the usual waterline of meaning: the nonsignifier is exalted by the camera angle. There one sees what the real never was (but “as if you were there”), without the distance that gives us perspectival space and depth vision (but ‘more real than nature’). Pleasure in the microscopic simulation that allows the real to pass into the hyperreal”
Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1994 (original 1981), p28

“Fame used to be the royal road to individual immortality. It has been replaced by notoriety, which is an object of consumption rather than oeuvre, something laboriously produced. Like all objects of consumption in a society of consumers, notoriety is designed to bring instantly obtainable and fast-exhausted satisfaction. A society of consumers is also a civilization of spare parts and disposables, in which the art of repair and preservation is redundant and has been all but forgotten. Notoriety is disposable as much as it is instant. So is the experience of immortality; and since the experience stands now for what was meant to be experienced, immortality which is neither instant nor disposable is well-nigh impossible to conceive of. Nor is it much in demand.
In the race for notoriety, the once-upon-a-time sole bidders for fame – the scientists, the artists, the inventors, the political leaders – have no advantage over pop stars and film stars, pulp-fiction writers, models, goal-scorers, serial killers or recidivist divorcees. All need to compete on the same terms and the success of each is measured by the same criteria of the number of copies sold or TV time and ratings. This rebounds on the fashion in which their activity is perceived and they themselves perceive it: in the allocation of scholarly or artistic prestige, momentary but frequent appearances on mass-rating TV shows count for more than years of unspectacular research or assiduous experimentation” (Zygmunt Bauman, Is there life after immortality? In The Individualized Society, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2001, pp246-7).

Reality TV, the cheapest means of filling in gaps in the broadcasting schedule, holds out the promise of instant celebrity without merit or accomplishment (and in this sense entices us with the same promise of escape as the lottery, wealth without effort. Public indignation and resentment when Fortune proves her fickleness by showering her favours on delinquents who then squander the proceeds misses the point). Bauman’s eloquent summary reveals the (ironically) transitory nature of the reward: “In its new rendition, immortality is not something to be earned the hard way, through lifelong effort; it is, rather, something to be enjoyed on the spot, without giving much thought to the consequences – without asking how really eternal that instantly relished ‘immortality’ will prove to be” (Bauman, Faith and instant gratification, in The Individualized Society, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2001, p159). Vulgarity attracts attention and front-page exposure, whilst the mind-boggling banality of the spectacle deters me from tuning in. The awareness that the supposedly authentic is fake does not deter Jerry Springer’s audience from cheering or booing the actor-antagonists in the carefully choreographed fisticuffs. Our appetite for objects of derision is as insatiable as our craving for objects of worship.

At the same time, however, programmes following the daily routine of ordinary citizens (not cooped up in the artificial surroundings of the Big Brother house and encouraged to excess in pursuit of the prize) confirm the validity of our drab anonymity, reassure us that our humble contributions, although unnoticed, are nevertheless worthwhile.

The present medium combines the instantaneity afforded by technology, spontaneity and the immediacy of the just-experienced and partially assimilated recording of events typical of the diary-as-future-autobiographical-source with the restlessness and lack of discipline (quotes can be of self-indulgent length, no painstakingly researched apparatus or literature review must precede the substance) of the electronic missive. No tyranny of editors, no formalised contractual relationships, a wide potential readership: the slaking of the impulse with a single click. No whispers of shame in a dimmed prefigurement of the coffin, no heavy curtain or grille to feign anonymity, yet it represents as much of a distillation as any form of writing, denying its artifice with a self-conscious blush, the concentrated essence of thousands of plucked and decaying petals in a few drops of rose water. A substitute conversation.

We are trapped in hideous, flesh-bound mortality. In order to exist we must destroy, fuelled by death we breathe, the ineluctable curse of consumption, elevated to a giddy virtue.

Defectiveness and dependency, twin demons of our social order (the latter more reprehensible for supposedly involving an element of choice). Only the elderly or the deranged seek contact with strangers outside demarcated settings (pubs, clubs, spaces for commercially dominated socialising) and beyond the unavoidable transactions of the checkout or the medical check-up, unable to endure the despair of isolation (the intrusions of the predatory not necessarily attributable to the same motive). A woman on the bus, her scuffed shoes, tracksuit bottoms, flimsy anorak insufficient to keep out the chill, wisps of undyed hair and home-knitted woolly hat conveying an unmistakeable impression of neglect, smiled at me as I hauled myself aboard. She had left her medication in the drawer, she announced to the driver who, with his twenty-one years of dealing with passengers, was too kind to completely ignore her. Unsolicited friendliness must always be treated with suspicion, the guard never lowered. We no longer cherish interaction for the sake of interaction itself; any interruption to our schedule is an irritation, deference reserved for our superiors, any extraneous intercourse a duty, an encumbrance. So we continue, distracted by the buzzing of mobiles, the whirr of the fan in the computer, transfixed by the flickering images transmitted to channel after channel to dull our minds, disempowered atoms, complacently acquiescing to our fate.

The sharp scent of rivulets of urine in the underpass, the trail of blood along the pavement.

Tuesday, 8 February 2005


Filed under: — site admin @ 12:14 pm

“The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘illegitimate’ as:
1. not authorized by law; irregular, improper;
2. not born in lawful wedlock, bastard;
3. not correctly deduced or inferred.

And it defines ‘bastard’ as:
1. (child) born out of wedlock or of adultery, illegitimate;
2. (of things) authorized, hybrid, counterfeit.

The same dictionary says that bastard is derived from Old French ba(s)t, which means baggage generally and particularly a kind of pack-saddle which could be used as a rough bed by a muleteer or other traveller, plus the ending – ard, a suffix which commonly forms derogatory nouns, such as ‘sluggard’, ‘drunkard’. Ba(s)t is also the root of ‘batman’, which originally meant ‘luggage-man’, i.e., a servant in charge of an army officer’s luggage”
Jenny Teichman: Illegitimacy: A Philosophical Examination, Blackwell, Oxford, 1982, p1

“The term ‘working class’ belongs to the imagery of a society in which the tasks and functions of the better-off and the worse-off are divided – different but complementary. ‘Working class’ evokes an image of a class of people who have a role to play in the life of a society, who make a useful contribution to that society as a whole and expect to be rewarded accordingly.
The term ‘lower class’ belongs to the imagery of social mobility – of a society in which people are on the move and each position is but momentary and in principle amenable to change. ‘Lower class’ evokes an image of a class of people who stand or are cast at the bottom of a ladder which they may yet climb, and so exit from their present inferiority.
The term ‘underclass’ belongs to the imagery of a society which is not all-embracing and comprehensive, which is smaller than the sum of its parts. ‘Underclass’ evokes an image of a class of people who are beyond classes and outside hierarchy, with neither chance nor need of readmission; people without role, making no useful contribution to the lives of the rest, and in principle beyond redemption”
Zygmunt Bauman: Work, Consumerism and the New Poor, Open University Press, Buckingham, 1998, p66

“The British media have consistently reviled the single mother. The campaign against her has been led by, but is by no means confined to, the right-wing tabloid press. She is portrayed as promiscuous, obscenely fertile, man-hating, sitting in her council flat raising a generation of criminals for the future. She is a sponger. She takes from the state and gives nothing. The single mother and the maternally correct mother are media opposites but together they illustrate perfectly the link between economics, morality and maternity. A well-off woman abandoning work to stay at home is regarded as virtuous, in a poor woman it is a crime”
Aminatta Forna, Mother of All Myths: How Society Moulds and Constrains Mothers, Harper Collins Publishers, London, 1998, pp109-110.

Jenny Teichman’s sensitive account of the phenomenon of illegitimacy opens with a consideration of the derogatory label familiar to legitimate and illegitimate alike: “’Bastard’ has a bad aura, almost like an obscenity or a curse, but ‘illegitimate’ is not completely neutral. It seems probable that ‘illegitimate’ first came into general use as a euphemism, and, like certain other euphemisms, it has gradually collected some of the overtones of the word it replaced” (op. cit., p3).

In spite of increasing numbers of cohabiting couples and single parent as well as other non-conventional family units, a faint yet undeniable hint of disgrace stubbornly clings, like cigarette smoke in the hair when you exit the pub: “It is true that many of the legal disabilities have been reduced in many of the countries of Western Europe and that ostracism is quite out of date in progressive circles, but it would be parochial indeed to suppose that the stigma and disadvantages have everywhere been totally abolished. There is also the question of whether the stigma of illegitimacy can be totally abolished, and even, supposing it can, of whether it ought to be.
The fact that quite a large number of people are born out of wedlock and the fact that this usually entails some disadvantage (or even positive suffering) are enough to show that illegitimacy has importance – importance, that is to say, in the sense of being of human concern, like crime, or poverty, or transplant surgery. But its importance (in the sense of its point) is not revealed by these facts. The point of the legitimate/illegitimate distinction is not to cause suffering; rather, it has to do with certain widespread human aims connected with the regulation of sexual activities and of population” (pp4-5).

The persistence of the distinction can be attributed to its fulfilling a social function: “The control that human being exercise over the reproductive activity of their own species is not aimed only at control of numbers. It is rarely overtly aimed at ‘improving the stock’. The main aims of control include the organization of people into families, kin-groups and tribes; the support of children; and the preservation of a real or imagined racial or religious group identity. Marriage itself is a kind of reproduction regulator; indeed, it could be called a form of birth control, since marriage law of any kind effectively prevents some people from reproducing while encouraging others” (p5).

She accurately identifies the problem as residing in attitudes absorbed from culture and rooted in economic imperatives: “Whatever means are used to control population and however complex the aim, the existence of a system of regulation and control must of necessity generate the concept of ‘a child which ought not to have been born’. (…) The traditional idea in our own society (…) is economic, as it were, so that ‘a child which ought not to have been born’ is, in the consciousness of people in the West, a child which will have no one to care for it and protect it, an ‘unwanted child’, a child who will become a burden to the state and the taxpayer and, in all probability, a misery to itself; in other words, a child with no legal claim on a breadwinning (male) parent – an illegitimate child” (pp7-8).

Now that women have been fully admitted to the labour market the lack of a provider argument becomes redundant: the precondition for genuine gender equality is provision of adequate childcare at an affordable price, however. Moreover, the safety net provided by the benefits system means that it is erroneous to conclude that a child born to a single mother is unwanted. Society has been completely restructured to cater for the generation of wealth in the context of industrialization and has perpetuated a sexual division of labour, which consigned women to the domestic sphere performing indispensable though unremunerated and consequently low status housekeeping and child-rearing tasks. The nuclear family, so beloved of moralists and self-appointed authorities most closely corresponded to the organisational ideal. Anything falling short of this image of harmony and bliss was branded aberrant. Today, by contrast, Donor Insemination programmes enable women to start families without direct male participation or involvement (beyond anonymously supplying a sperm sample to the relevant clinic). In the words of Amanda Riley-Jones, in her article in the Guardian from 10th June 2000: “Increasing numbers of heterosexual women in their thirties are deciding to do without a man, and are choosing to have children on their own. Women who don’t find Mr. Right no longer have to settle for Mr. You’ll Have To Do, nor ‘accidentally’ get pregnant by a lover to commit. They no longer accept that, if they cannot find a suitable partner, they’ll never have children, either” and “The relationship has been reduced to a biological transaction. With no emotional trauma, deceit or messy sexual shenanigans, it is a kind of immaculate conception”.

Teichman is aware of the need to situate ideas in their social context: “A proper analysis of the notion of illegitimacy – that is, of the distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy – requires not only a description of ideas and language but also a description of the human institutions which generate the ideas and give rise to the relevant meanings. The institutions which give rise to the legitimate/illegitimate distinction, and which thus create the logic of those ideas, are both specialized and manifold. In other words, the logic of these ideas is created by several different human institutions which act together, as it were. And the notion or distinction itself can be regarded as an institution, one that rests on other institutions and has its own point or purpose within a system of human arrangements.
It will be agreed by all that illegitimacy is not a natural attribute; it is not like featherlessness or fecundity. Rather, it is a status, like kingship or slavery or bankruptcy” (op. cit., p10).

In summary:
“The legitimate/illegitimate distinction is situated at a multi-dimensional interface of human institutions and natural facts about human beings. These institutions and natural facts are: sex-reproduction-birth control; kinship-lineage-identity and names; inheritance-property-law; legality-morality-religion. The interest of the distinction consists precisely in the fact that it is situated at this interface” (p10).

Not every member of a society is, however, able or willing to comply with its prescriptions: “The role of outsider, which merges with that of the tolerated eccentric, can be quite enjoyable in a tolerant, civilized community, but in an intolerant society ostracism and persecution of outsiders can be very severe and hardly enjoyable for the victim. Positively choosing to oppose, or to remain in opposition to, the community at large needs courage in most places; hence those who do this often have strong moral or religious convictions which they intend to abide by, come what may. Other outsiders are outsiders because they have taken a risk or because they have been elected to the role by a community which has a need to persecute: in those cases, of course, no positive choice is involved.
Outsiders fulfil a useful and, arguably, a necessary role on the edges of societies. (…) The outsider strengthens the herd instinct of the insiders by being an object lesson; he reinforces the cohesion that holds the community together. Every group needs such reinforcing now and then (…). Because outsiders hold groups together by being object lessons, it is ideologically necessary that outsiders should be, or at least should appear to be, unhappy, and this is part of the reason why outsiders have to be persecuted. Another part of the reason is that the persecution is itself a group activity in which individual insiders can demonstrate their loyalty to the group and its mores. This can be seen at all levels of social life: for example, by ostracizing illegitimate individuals and unmarried mothers, one demonstrates one’s own legitimacy and one’s loyalty to the sexual and property laws of the community; conversely, by stating that all references to illegitimacy are mere shibboleths, one demonstrates one’s loyalty to the ideals of the permissive society” (pp12-3).

Compare this with Bauman’s sketch of the human endeavour to construct cosmos out of chaos: “The norm is the projection of the model of order upon human conduct. The norm tells what it means to behave in an orderly fashion in a well-ordered society; it translates, so to speak, the concept of order into the language of human choices. If any order is a choice, so is the norm; but the choice of a certain kind of order limits the choice of tolerable behaviour patterns. It privileges certain kinds of conduct as normal, while casting all other kinds as abnormal. ‘Abnormal’ stands for any departure from the favoured pattern; it can extend into ‘deviation’, an extreme form of abnormality. Deviation will trigger therapeutic or penal intervention if the conduct in question does not just disagree with the preferred pattern, but transcends the boundary of tolerable choices. The distinction between mere abnormality and the much more sinister deviation is never clearly drawn and as a rule is hotly contested, as is the question of the limits to tolerance, being the attitude which defines the difference between them” (op. cit., p84).

As he points out the penalties for failing to conform are severe: “(…) the excluded themselves are charged with the guilt of their exclusion; the perspectives of order and norm alike apportion the blame in advance, decide the issue of (…) (suffering) versus (…) (doing) a priori against the excluded. It is the actions of the excluded marked for exclusion – wrong actions – that brings the plight of exclusion upon them. In the process of exclusion, the excluded themselves are the agency, the active side. Being excluded is thus represented as an outcome of social suicide, not social execution. It is the fault of the excluded that they did nothing, or not enough, to escape exclusion; perhaps they even invited their fate, making the exclusion into a foregone conclusion. Excluding them is not just an exercise in house-cleaning, but an ethical act, the apportioning of right deserts, an act of justice; those who decide and execute the exclusion can feel righteous, as becomes the defenders of law and order and the guardians of the values and standards of decency.
What these perspectives leave out of sight and prevent from being considered is the possibility that, far from bearing responsibility for their own sorry fate, the excluded might be at the receiving end of forces they have been given no chance of resisting, let alone controlling. It is possible that some among the excluded have ‘breached the order’ because of what they are or have been made. They are excluded because of traits they possess but did not choose to have, not because of what they have done but because ‘people like them’ do not fit into someone else’s sense of order. Others among the excluded may not be ‘up to the norm’ not because of a lack of will, but due to the lack of resources without which living up to the norm is simply not possible – resources other people have, but they do not; resources which are in short supply and therefore cannot be had by all in sufficient measure” (p85).

These arguments are worth bearing in mind when analysing Percy Kammerer’s book The Unmarried Mother, which Teichman briefly examines and which was based on research carried out in the USA between 1915 and 1917 and published in 1918 as a Criminal Science Monograph. 500 cases, 69 of which dealt with in some detail: “The sources were, in fact, mainly the records of private charitable organizations, and Kammerer was astute enough to realize that his research would not have much application to women who were well-off enough not to need help from a private charity or the state” (p13). Methodologically flawed (in Teichman’s words he “completely fails to generate any satisfactory or even probabilistic laws”, p13), its interest lies chiefly in the list of causal factors of single motherhood, which are highly telling in terms of gauging the extent to which attitudes towards single mothers have or have not changed:
“1. Bad Home Conditions;
2. Bad Environment;
3. Bad Companions (these turn out in the main to be men who make promises of marriage and then run off, and married men who pretend to be single);
4. Early Sex Experience;
5. Mental Abnormality;
6. Sexual Suggestibility;
7. Heredity;
8. Recreational Disadvantages;
9. Educational Disadvantages;
10. Physical Abnormality;
11. Abnormal Sexualism;
12. Mental Conflict;
13. Sexual Suggestibility by One Individual (presumably, falling in love);
14. Assault, Rape, Incest”.

The punishments for falling foul of the rules were so dire that Kammerer automatically disregarded rational choice as an option, leaving (congenital) feeble-mindedness, moral degeneracy, wilful disobedience or culpable negligence as the only possible explanations. The men were never punished for their transgressions, presumably because they were absent, having done a runner, leaving the unfortunate young mothers carrying the baby, literally and metaphorically. The latter were simultaneously pitied and reviled as naïve or exceptionally gullible. Teichman quite rightly disagrees with Kammerer’s conclusions: “It [illegitimacy] does have causes – its formal causes are the institutions which generate the legitimate/illegitimate distinction, and its immediate causes are almost as multifarious as human motives and loves and hates. All research which tries to explain illegitimacy proves in the end that its immediate causes are multitudinous” (p22).

Although the statute which made fornication a punishable offence in England was repealed in 1834 (cf. Teichman, p21), the taint of sinfulness has not been expunged from our consciousness. The concept of illegitimacy is inseparable from that of marriage. Teichman was more than alert to the difficulties of defining marriage cross-culturally: “A universal definition, a single, simple set of necessary or sufficient conditions, is perhaps impossible, but a definition or description which consists of a list of criteria (including functional criteria), most or some of which must be present before an institution qualifies as a marriage, obviously is possible. A definition of this kind will generate a distinction between central, or typical, or core cases on the one hand and borderline cases on the other; but this is not a defect of the definition, merely a consequence of the character of the concept defined” (p23).

Nevertheless certain constants could be observed: “(…) all modern states reserve the right to define which unions are legal marriages and which are not. Furthermore, whatever form the marriage institution takes, it always involves changes in the legal and social status of the marriage partners and in the kinship relations of their respective family groups. Marriage creates rights and duties of a legal or quasi-legal nature, and it also creates affinities, i.e. kinship based not on blood but extant ‘in law’. Legitimacy and illegitimacy, therefore, being related to marriage, are also associated with the legal system. Here we come across more difficulties. There is no such thing as the legal system, since the world contains many legal systems, and most legal systems are anyway not static. Law making in the modern world is a continuous process, and modern legal systems are almost like living organisms; they change gradually all the time. Hence the best that can be done in describing the legal meaning of legitimacy and illegitimacy is to describe the place of these notions inside one system of law, while marking from time to time such divergences between that system and others which seem interesting” (p24). Teichman therefore decided to focus on English law.

At the end of her historical survey of illegitimacy-related jurisprudence in England, Teichman states: “The legal right of women to own and inherit property, and to use the money which they themselves earn, has grown symbiotically with their legal right to share in the custody and guardianship of their children. It is obvious why this should be so. On the one hand, the individual who gives birth to a child plainly has as much natural right to its custody as the individual who begets the child; on the other hand, however, there is no point in making this natural right into a legal right if other laws prevent the parent from spending money and owning property, for the rearing of children is a task which requires a considerable amount of money and cannot be undertaken by people who are permanently penniless.
The law is still changing, and so are customs governing family life. Nowadays (1981) judges in England seem to work on the assumption that the mother is the best person to have custody of a child, and more mothers are given custody at divorce than fathers. Changes having to do with social security payments, mortgages and rights in the family home have placed women in a stronger position than formerly” (p51).

One particular case, Re D, an infant (All England Law Reports, Court of Appeal, Volume II, 1959), demonstrated that support for alleviating the suffering endured as the result of illegitimate birth was not forthcoming from the legal establishment: “(…) one judge refused to allow an unmarried mother to adopt her own child on the ground that to permit such adoptions would be to destroy the distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy” (pp72-3). Teichman then sets out the provisions of the 1950 Adoption Act: “’An adoption order may be made authorizing the adoption of an infant by the father or the mother of the infant either alone or jointly with his or her spouse’. The same Act makes rules for affiliation orders, and one of these rules says that no affiliation order may be made against a putative father in favour of an adoptive parent unless the adoptive parent is the child’s natural mother. It seems clear, therefore, that the Act permits the legal adoption of an illegitimate child by its own mother” (p73). D’s mother applied for an adoption order in her own favour. The response: “The county court judge refused to make an order. In his view, he said, the 1950 Act was not intended to be used for the purpose of removing the stigma of illegitimacy, and the removal of stigma was not a sufficient reason for, nor an advantage to be gained from, the proposed adoption. Surely, he argued, it could not be anything but contrary to the public interest to make it easier to remove the stigma of illegitimacy – especially if unmarried mothers were themselves permitted to remove the stigma by adopting their own infants! (In this, incidentally, he was upholding a very widespread social rule, namely, the rule that only a man can legitimate a child). The judge said: ‘An adoption order, if granted in this case, would no doubt become common form and illegitimacy would automatically be abolished in this country’” (pp73-4).

Lord Denning presided over the appeal. He noted “that the natural father was a married man living with his wife (so that legitimation by subsequent marriage was ruled out), and that the mother had never tried to make him financially responsible for the child. She had secure employment and was able to support the child by herself. Her employer was a reasonably wealthy woman, who took an interest in the welfare of the mother and child. Lord Denning decided that these things showed that the mother was a fit person to care for the child and to have custody of it, and was likely to continue to be so” (p74).

He disagreed with the grounds cited for refusal: “‘The Judge seemed to think that by making an adoption order a child is rendered legitimate. That is not the case. Illegitimacy and adoption are entirely different matters. The child still remains illegitimate but being adopted it becomes in law for all purposes the child of its mother and suffers none of the disabilities which attach to illegitimacy’” (pp74-5). Moreover, he refused to concede any special advantages to the natural mother as regards adoption.

Such a move would have been too radical: in order to uphold the superior status of marriage, he had to introduce another concept (fitness) to prevent a flood of applications being lodged by single mothers. As Teichman remarks: “This point illustrates one of the main differences between the rights of the father of a legitimate child and the rights of the mother of an illegitimate child. The parental rights of the father of a legitimate child do not depend on his first showing that he is a fit person to have custody of a child; the onus of proof is on those who would show that he is not suitable. Although unmarried mothers are now customarily permitted and encouraged to keep their children when they are born, in cases of dispute it would seem that in law the onus of proof lies upon the mother to show that she is at least as suitable a person to adopt as another potential adopter. By definition this cannot arise in the case of the father of a legitimate child, since he legitimizes the child not be adopting it but by marrying its mother or by being already married to her” (p75).

Teichman then turns her attention to the estate of matrimony: “In our society the institution which we call marriage has four main functions or characteristics:
1. Marriage sanctions sexual intercourse. (…)
2. Marriage sanctions reproduction. The children of married partners are legitimate; their existence is sanctioned, correct. They belong to a family and to a lineage, and they are generally entitled to bear a name which shows which family and lineage they belong to.
3. Marriage is an economic and domestic arrangement designed for the support and maintenance of children.
4. Marriage is an economic and domestic arrangement – in fact, a mutual support system – designed for the maintenance of the marriage partners themselves. Its most notable feature, when regarded from this point of view, is division of labour” (p77).

Hence: “(…) a legitimate child should be defined as one born as the result not of any sanctioned sexual act but of a sexual act which is sanctioned precisely because it accords with the rules governing reproduction. From this we can derive a slightly more exact definition of illegitimacy, as follows: an illegitimate child is a child whose conception and birth did not conform to the institutional rules which, in its parents’ community, govern reproduction. These institutional rules, by and large, are what constitute marriage” (p80).

In the chapter entitled The Disabilities of Illegitimacy, Teichman surveys the treatment meted out to unwed mothers and their progeny. The very names of the institutions where the impecunious among them were shut away reek of the expiation of crime: “The first home specifically for unmarried mothers in England was opened in London in 1805. It was called the Dalston Refuge. Later came the London Female Penitentiary in 1807, the School of Discipline for Destitute Girls in 1825, the Oxford Female Penitentiary in 1839 and the British Penitent Female Refuge in 1840. Various authorities, such as the magistrates or, in the University cities, the Proctors, had the power to incarcerate girls in some of these ‘homes’; others were true refuges, in that entry was voluntary” (pp110-1).

The unenviable fate of the child was inextricably linked with that of the shunned mother: “The social disabilities of an illegitimate child are connected with those suffered by his mother. In the past, even the recent past – indeed, until about 1960 – the shame of being an unmarried mother was the worst possible shame a woman could suffer. The disgrace spread to all her immediate kin, who were expected to purge their shame by expelling the guilty woman from the family or by hiding her away somewhere. Secrecy about illegitimate birth was absolutely mandatory in normal families, as was shown by the custom of arranging for the baby to be born in a distant town or even a foreign country.
Moralizing has gradually gone out of fashion, but the psychologist tends to take over where the moralist leaves off. His punitive attitudes are less open than those of the moralist, hidden not only from the client but also from the psychologist himself. Unmarried mothers, and single mothers generally, are told by psychological experts that homes without a ‘male presence’ cause neurosis and homosexuality in children. Such experts frequently occupy positions of considerable authority – like priests in the Middle Ages – and no doubt succeed in terrifying many women” (p120). Nowadays, “doing badly at school” and “mortgaging their futures” are the dire threats issued to extract adherence (and allegiance) to the norm.

Having worked her way through various responses to the problem (the French Revolution and the Law of 12 Brumaire; the Bolshevik solution; reforms in Britain, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden), Teichman gives her assessment:
“If we look at the attempts to abolish the status of bastardy (…) we may notice two separate theories about how to do it. There is, first, the idea that the difference between legitimacy and illegitimacy can be done away with by making every biological father responsible for the maintenance of his child, whether or not he is married to its mother. However, for this idea to work there have to be rules for determining paternity; fathers cannot be made responsible in law for the upkeep of children unless it can be established who a child’s father is. Marriage is, at present, the institution which enables everyone to know who a child’s father is in the majority of cases. It is also the institution which, paradigmatically, generates the distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy. If marriage is abolished or becomes a minority cult, new rules for the determining of paternity will have to be invented. The difficulty, of course, is to invent a set of rules for determining paternity which will not automatically generate a new distinction analogous to the present distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy.
This problem, together with the fact that marriage law and property law are always connected, has led people to the second, left-wing theory. In its extreme form (…), this theory claims that the care of all children should be the direct responsibility of the state. (…) Attacks like this on ‘the family’ ignore the fact that most real children prefer not to be raised in orphanages, foundling homes or boarding schools. Instead of introducing or reintroducing baby farms of one kind or another, it would be better to examine the different varieties of family possible. For there is no such thing as ‘the’ family, but rather several different ways of organising sexual, social and economic relationships within kin groups.” (pp172-3).

In passing she raises a valuable point too often overlooked: “Changes in the status of women and enormous increases in taxation and welfare legislation mean that the legitimate child too is supported partly by its parents and partly by the state, for even the children of wealthy parents are eligible for free or subsidized health care, free or subsidized education and so on” (p173).

She asks: “Does the state, does the community have any right to interfere in matters relating to reproduction? It seems to me that it must have rights in this area because it has duties, and a duty to do such-and-such implies a right to do such-and-such. (…) Children are supported not only by their families but also by social arrangements that provide education and hospitals and tax rebates, and social security payments and soup kitchens and, more generally, by community respect for the integrity of the elementary family – how else, in a sophisticated society, could life go on? But the duties of the community and of the state are not open-ended. It is anyway inevitable that limits will be drawn and that a distinction will be made between licit and illicit reproduction. This has always been the case, and the only question is whether the ways in which the limits and enforced are consonant with human welfare and with justice and with a rational view of the duties of the state.
Marriage laws and inheritance laws provide a framework which enables human beings to produce and successfully rear the members of the next generation. If mating and reproduction were entirely random, and if communities took no interest whatsoever in family formation and child rearing, the existence of civilization, and possibly even that of the race, would be jeopardized. (…) On the other hand, the marriage institution per se, however perfect, is not apt for dealing with all the problems and evils connected with sex and reproduction” (p183).

In effect, by heaping recriminations on single mothers and depriving them of benefits, society is passing judgement to the effect that as a category they are undesirable and irresponsible. Of course, as noted, this applies only to those who are financially dependent on the state. To my mind, such an approach constitutes pure discrimination, which I find completely unacceptable. If the government is anxious about footing the social security bill, it should have the courage to spit it out and not dress up its reluctance to raise taxes in the moth-eaten garb of morality. The bean-counter mentality reduces all humanity to relative economic clout, to crude purchasing power – assigning no intrinsic value to life. In a context where ministers lament the falling birth rate, admonishing women to go forth and multiply and issuing dire warnings about the sustainability of the pensions system, the government should be welcoming all births instead of praising the fertility of some and condemning that of others. Instead of spending money on sink estates and quickening the resolve of the underprivileged to improve their lot through education (by abolishing loans and restoring grants for example) or vocational training, it prefers the softer option of consigning their inhabitants to the social scrapheap. Marriage means little more to me than a mutual support arrangement, its seductive appeal the reassurance of a certificate, a token recognised in law, of commitment. It does not provide a guarantee against infidelity or the waning of affection. I would favour the erasure of illegitimacy from the statute books as well as of the accompanying stigma since I refuse to accept that one human being is intrinsically more valuable than another simply because its mother wears or once wore a wedding ring. In the current context the legitimate/illegitimate distinction only causes distress (teasing in the playground the most innocuous manifestation of collective disapproval). The impediments to financial independence for women have been (albeit imperfectly as the endless stream of complaints brought before industrial tribunals show) removed and with them the last pretext for denying women the choice of motherhood. Official reluctance to abolish it merely corroborates that it is deemed to perform a useful punitive/deterrent function.

Martine Spensky’s Producers of Legitimacy, Homes for Unmarried Mothers in the 1950s, (in Carol Smart (ed.): Regulating Womanhood: Historical Essays on Marriage, Motherhood and Sexuality, Routledge, London, 1992, pp100-118) furnishes us with the neatest general summary of the social origins of the stigma attaching to unmarried motherhood (she apologises for its ahistorical, oversimplified nature, which glosses over periodical fluctuations in the position of lone mothers). Unvarnished and objective, it lays bare the all the mystifications of romantic love and religion stripped away: “Until very recently, unmarried mothers were treated as the delinquents of gender relations. In a patriarchal society where power is in the hands of the fathers, a society where blood ties and property are privileged, it is important that fathers be sure of their paternity before they pass their names and property on to their sons. Their daughters are given to other families in order to produce sons. Until the end of the seventeenth century and even later, the father was thought to be the only biological producer of the child, while the mother was only considered to be a nurturing receptacle. The possible introduction of a stranger into the well-to-do family was considered to be a felony to which the wife was the accomplice. Before women were able to control their reproduction – and even later, to a certain extent – gender relations were articulated around the control of women’s bodies in order to ensure male reproduction. Women had to remain virgins till their wedding night, after which it was their marital duty to allow their husbands – and no one else – to have sex with them whenever they wished. Marriage gave women the status of respectability and some limited – but real – legal protection as dependants. The second best for women with regard to respectability was not to marry but to stay at home with their parents and look after them in their old age. They were supposed to remain virgins all their lives. Women’s bodies were not their own. Men owned them on a private basis to ensure the continuation of their lineage through marriage, and collectively through the organisation of prostitution which provided them with non-procreative pleasure. The women who did not fall into the category of wives (private women) necessarily fell into the category of prostitutes (public women) who were not supposed to procreate.
The sexual division of labour reinforced the private/public dichotomy. In traditional society where a home-based economy was the norm, the sexual division of labour was not as clear cut as it became later, since all the people living under the same roof produced under the supervision of the head of the family. Women carried out the tasks linked to reproduction in addition to their reproductive work but the two spheres were not completely separate. With the advent of the wage system, the two spheres drifted apart, at least as far as representations and culture were concerned. In this system, reproduction and production were assigned different locations. Work was defined as paid work and work with no pay was considered non-work. Men were meant to work in production. They depended on their wages. Women were meant to deal only with reproduction. They depended on the age of the man they lived with, whether they themselves were in paid employment or not. Women’s low wages enforced their dependency on men. Therefore, the ideal family, in ideological terms, was – and still is – composed of a heterosexual couple, preferably married, raising children. The father is the head of the family. He gives his name to his wife and children and has access to the resources which he distributes according to his goodwill (and his abilities), sometimes very grudgingly.
This organisation of gender relations put the unmarried mother in a very awkward position. She had not kept her body intact until wedlock, she was not in a private and legitimate relationship and was consequently suspected of being a public woman: a prostitute. She availed herself of a body that did not belong to her, which was tantamount to stealing. She started a female lineage which was obviously illegitimate since only male lineages can be legitimate. The law called her child ‘filius nullius’ (nobody’s child) as late as 1968.
It was also referred to as unwanted as if all legitimate children had been wanted. Society certainly did not want illegitimate children. The unmarried mother’s life was – is – difficult as she depended on no man for her survival and had to be content with her wage, a woman’s wage at that, which was not meant to keep a family. Since she was in the labour market full time, she was considered a ‘bad mother’ because English culture, which is the cradle of child psychology and psychoanalysis, has constructed motherhood as a full time occupation. A good mother is supposed to devote herself entirely to her child” (pp101-2).

Another merit of Spensky’s study is that, albeit in similar broad brushstrokes, she relates differences in treatment meted out to class: “”It is obvious that the poor, who did not have any property, were more tolerant of unmarried mothers even if they were not as indifferent as has sometimes been claimed. Illegitimacy did not give a bad name to the family nor threaten property rights, which usually go together. However, the upkeep of a fatherless child, especially when the mother was young, fell to maternal grandparents, putting the latter in a very difficult economic situation. The mother was often kept at home and the child was considered to be an additional financial burden. When the family could not afford it, she was thrown out of the house, more for economic than moral reasons. The middle-class unmarried mother was more harshly punished and was almost systematically thrown out, at least as long as she had not dumped the child somewhere and could not come back without anyone knowing it. Middle-class parents watched over their daughters’ sexuality, hoping other parents would do the same so that they could pass their name and property to their legitimate and biological grandchildren. Their sons were encouraged to play around with lower class girls, considered to be bolder, while waiting for the ‘intact’ bride of his own class who would beget legitimate children. The illegitimate children he might have visited upon the lower-class girl were not considered his by his family” (p103).

Moving on to explore attitudes, Spensky traces the corrosive influence of decades of effort by zealous middle-class moral campaigners following the 1834 Poor Law, which rendered the working class less willing to turn a blind eye to sexual “deviance” once the social capital of “respectability” had been accepted by them as a compensation for their lack of material wealth (cf. p105). Prudery became rife and repudiation the norm: “Until the Second World War, unmarried motherhood had been considered as being the result of the seduction of an overcredulous girl, who was particularly weak in character, ignorant or mentally defective” (p106). Immediately after the war, however, matters did not improve: “The pathologisation of unmarried motherhood was gradually constructed during the 1950s. It had started with the child needing a ‘loving environment’. The mother would secure this environment, provided she depended on someone else for her material subsistence. Hence the healthy mother was one who was satisfied merely with being the healthy ‘environment’ for her child and having secured a husband before she had a baby. Consequently, the unmarried mother could not be very healthy” (p109).

The advent of the welfare state, far from eliminating prejudice against single mothers, exacerbated their plight in many ways for reasons made clear by Bauman in his brilliant statement of the underlying philosophy of the new social contract: “The concept of the ‘welfare state’ conveys the idea that it is the duty and the obligation of the state to guarantee the ‘welfare’ (that is, something more than sheer survival: survival with dignity, as understood in a given society at a given time) of all its subjects. The concept imposed upon the state-run and state-financed institutions the responsibilities implied by a wider idea of public welfare – that of a collective guarantee of individual dignified survival. Public welfare could be seen as a form of collective insurance drawn jointly and extended over every individual member of the collectivity; an insurance policy which promised compensations proportionate to the scale of individual need, not to the size of individually-paid premiums. The principle of public welfare in its pure form is equality in need, which overrides inequality in the ability to pay. The idea of the welfare state charges state organs with the responsibility for implementing this principle of public welfare.
On the one hand, the advocates of a collective guarantee of individual welfare recognized the normality of life supported by work; they pointed out however that the norm is far from being universally upheld because of the lack of permanent employment for all, and that to make the precepts of the work ethic realistic one needs to bail out those who fall by the board. One needs to see the temporarily unemployed through hard times, keeping them ready to ‘behave normally’, i.e. to enter employment, once the economy recovers and jobs are again available. By this argument, the welfare state is needed to uphold the power of the work ethic as the norm and the measure of social health, while helping to minimize the adverse effects of the difficulties involved in that norm’s constant and universal implementation.
On the other hand, by proclaiming that decent and dignified life should be assured at all times and to all members of the polity ‘as a right’, regardless of their own contribution to common wealth, the idea of public welfare allowed (explicitly or implicitly) for the possibility of separating livelihood from the ‘socially useful’, productive contributions deemed to be possible solely in employment, and by the same token sapped the work ethic’s most sacrosanct and least questioned premise. It rendered the right to dignified life as a matter of political citizenship, rather than economic performance” (op. cit., pp45-6).

Means testing social security payments, purveyed as a guarantee of fairness, entailed certain less widely heralded consequences: “The overall effect of means testing is division instead of integration; exclusion instead of inclusion. The new, smaller community of taxpayers constitutes itself by using its political muscle to constitute the category of deficient citizens, and then pulling its own ranks together in a determined effort to marginalize that category and punish it for failing to live up to the standards advertised as the trademark of the constituting and self-constituting core. (…) The receivers of what now bears an uncanny resemblance to extorted pay-outs must be feckless, so that the majority can ascribe its own good fortune to thriftiness, and they must be failures, so that the majority can treat its own kind of life as a success story” (Bauman, op. cit., p50).

Those forced to survive on benefits came to be demonised: “Today, the work ethic is instrumental in bringing the idea of ‘dependency’ into disrepute. Dependency is, increasingly, a dirty word. The welfare state is accused of cultivating dependency, of raising it to the level of self-perpetuating culture, and this is a crowning argument for dismantling it. Moral responsibility is the first victim of this holy war against dependency, as dependency of the ‘Other’ is but a mirror image of one’s own responsibility, the starting point of any moral relationship and the founding assumption of all moral action. While denigrating dependency of the poor as sin, the work ethic in its present rendition brings most relief to the moral scruples of the affluent” (Bauman, op. cit., p80).

Returning then to single mothers, the 1942 Beveridge Report did little to ameliorate their standing within society. In Spensky’s words: “On an ideological level the new welfare state had marginalised unmarried mothers, possibly more than the Poor Law had done, by setting up two different systems of redistribution of wealth of which one, based on the insurance principle, was dignified while the other, based on assistance, was not. Unless they were in the labour market and had access to child-care facilities, unmarried mothers either accepted the undignified means-tested assistance in order to keep their child, or went into a home which organised adoption for them. They were making shift with the only options open to them. Both could, with some reason, be regarded as punitive” (op. cit., p117).

In a powerful indictment of negative portrayals of single mothers in contemporary culture, Aminatta Forna skilfully dissects the tissue of hypocrisy and political rhetoric surrounding single motherhood: “Women are criticized for abandoning their traditional duties, while the truth is that women today carry a greater part of the burden of caring for children than ever before, with no corresponding policy changes to support them” (op. cit., p15).

It is the subversive quality of single motherhood that elicits censure: “Nothing provokes the fear that motherhood, as we know it, is under threat more than the new reproductive technologies that have made mothers of older women, lesbians, even virgins. Such births, because they appear neither ‘natural’ nor ‘traditional’, are a blatant challenge to an accepted view of what motherhood should be. The policy-makers’ answer, which is to try to limit these women’s access to the science, says it all. Technology has dramatically challenged the most basic assumptions around mothering. Take the simple verbs ‘to mother’ and ‘to father’. How they are defined reveals an abundance of meaning. ‘To father’ just means to beget, an act of procreation; but ‘to mother’ means to nurture, to rear, to feed, to soothe and to protect. Today, techniques enabling human egg retrieval and donation mean that women, just like men, can be the biological parents of children they never see and to whom they do not give birth” (pp15-6).

When the picture painted became slightly more nuanced, the hostility abated: “In the mid-1970s there was a brief period of public sympathy which coincided with changes in welfare rules to benefit single parents. The good-will was generated by a campaign which drew attention to the fact that many single mothers were widows or women abandoned by their husbands. Single (never-married) women accounted for a very small number of lone mothers and their dilemma was explained by campaigners in terms of lack of proper contraceptive advice and availability. The introduction of free contraceptives appeared to change nothing, however. As the numbers of women raising children alone grew and with them the benefits bill, that mantle of sympathy lapsed and the single mum resumed her mantle of media bogey. It is illuminating to note that, while the issue of single mothers has generated thousands upon thousands of articles, leaders and comments in Britain and the USA, despite similar increases in the number of lone parent families in many European countries, the topic has received scant coverage” (p110).

Under the extended reign of the Tories compassion slowly evaporated: “At the Conservative Party conference in 1992, Peter Lilley the new Secretary of State for Social Security referred to ‘young ladies who get pregnant to jump the housing list’” (p110). In fact, Lilley was merely echoing Redwood. As Polly Toynbee reminds us in her perceptive piece in the Guardian Is this what John Redwood meant by family values? (30th July 2003), Redwood, then Secretary of State for Wales “made his name by leading his party’s charge into the valley of family values, marriage and vengeance against single parents”. She accurately recalls the frenzy of hostility he was instrumental in stirring up: “He launched the assault (…) with a visit to St. Mellons, a poor estate in Cardiff, vilifying the lone parents there. (…) For he never acknowledged that single motherhood descends on women of all ages and conditions – married or not – for many reasons, as indeed do unplanned babies (ask the Prime Minister). Redwood’s campaign of blame against single mothers was opportunistic and cruel: now the public can see it was also hypocritical. [Toynbee’s article was occasioned by the news that he had abandoned his wife and children to take up with a thrice-married former model].
They were nasty days. John Redwood’s notorious visit to St. Mellons branded it forever as a den of female vice. St. Mellons was a place, Redwood said, where there was ‘no presumption in favour of creating a loving family background’. Subsequently he said that ‘the assumption is that the illegitimate child is a passport to a council flat”. The single mother is ‘married to the state’. If the father cannot be found, grandparents should be made to pay or adoption be considered. The welfare state was offering ‘incentives to entice young women to become mothers before their time’. ‘Single mothers are costing 4p on the standard rate of income tax’”. These fulminations have been etched into the public awareness to the extent that the queue-jumping accusation is the first connotation that springs to mind in conjunction with single motherhood.

Forna continues: “The fact is that the whole responsibility for children in our society falls on women and many men either will not or cannot take responsibility for their offspring. This cannot be totally separated from the way the benefits system works, whom it pays and whom it prioritizes. Since the days when women who gave birth outside marriage were hidden away in mental institutions, the lone mother has been a politicized figure, the embodiment of a threat to the family, to patriarchy and to conservative motherhood. (…) The present debate focuses on lone mothers and welfare costs. But the truth is that payments to single parents still account for only a fraction of total government spending.
We hold up the beauty of motherhood to all women, but when poor women reach for it we scorn them and strike them down. We talk only of the bond, love and sharing between mother and child and confine fathers to the role of breadwinner. When the women cannot find working men, do not see the point in marrying and have their babies alone we are horrified. We pretend we are shocked, we wonder at their motivations. Their real and only crime is to become mothers when their circumstances dictate they can never be the kind of mother of whom the majority of us will approve” (p117).

Anxious to avoid alienating the voters who had defected from the Tories to propel him into power Tony Blair adopted a tough stance: “In 1997 one of the first acts of Tony Blair’s New Labour government was to push through changes which would cut extra benefits to single mothers against the wishes of many of their own backbenchers. The job was given to Harriet Harman, the new social security secretary, who in opposition had vociferously argued against planned cuts by the Tories. One of the successes of New Labour was to retrieve and claim the Family as a political banner from the shambles of Tory sleaze. Today, in that context, motherhood has become a fixture in the landscape of politics, and attacking single mothers has become a legitimate and commonplace pursuit.
Images of mothers are created by popular culture to reflect and sometimes to manipulate a set of values about what constitutes exemplary mothering. Behind each individual depiction, good or bad, lies the model of the perfect mother. Private decisions about work, relationships, fertility and behaviour become public property because women are mothers. The mothers who are the subject of press stories are judged by that standard, and so are women in the general populace who do not or cannot fulfil society’s expectations regarding what a mother should be. They are all found guilty” (Forna, op. cit., p118).

Forna is highly critical of the prevailing view of children as a liability rather than an asset to society: “In Britain and America, parents in general and mothers in particular have never agitated as a political category because they do not see themselves, and are encouraged not to see themselves, as being owed any particular rights as a group. Doubtless, of course, most modern parents are simply too strung out to agitate about anything. Because our society sees children as an individual asset, we do not collectively value children as much as we could or should, or as much as they are valued elsewhere. That is one of many reasons why we have chosen to denigrate motherhood, because as a job it is seen as unimportant. Yet we also idealize the role because, after all, somebody’s got to do it, and the new reverence for motherhood is an expression of the fear that the commitment of a mother to her child is just about all we have left of the family.
Many of the problems of modern family life are the fault of politicians who have omitted to respond to natural and inevitable social changes. Policy-makers in Britain have allowed commitments to the extended family to lapse and disappear, while failing to replace those support systems with state systems. Instead, governments have in the past exploited the notion of ‘family values’ in order to shift the blame and release themselves from taking proper responsibility. This has been easily achieved by drawing on traditional notions of motherhood and making those ideas the centrepiece of the ‘family values’ campaign” (p232).

Germaine Greer concurs with Forna’s argument concerning the chronic undervaluing of children in today’s Britain: “Cracker-barrel psychologists tell us that mothers become mothers out of carelessness or selfishness or narcissism or because they want something to love” (The Whole Woman, Doubleday, London, 1999, p198).

Not surprisingly, work no matter how menial, repetitive and badly paid is depicted as the great panacea: “One of the first projects of Blair’s new government in June 1997 was to shift lone parents ‘from welfare to work’ as soon as possible.
The irony is that payments to lone parents were originally devised to keep mothers at home with their children, where they were rightfully thought to belong, and to replace the lost male wage. As a result, Britain today has one of the lowest rates of employment for lone parents and one of the highest rates of poverty. Benefits for single parents were originally intended for divorced and widowed women, women who were once financially dependent on a man and whose style of mothering conformed to the picture of proper maternal behaviour. The sea-change in political ideology towards lone mothers has been produced by the small but growing number of never-married women who have become mothers. Even though today it would be politically unfeasible to introduce morality clauses, that is what recent policy changes are in effect” (Forna, pp232-3).

That the calls amount to little more than lip-service and caving in to pressure to be seen to be taking action is betrayed by the lack of flanking measures: “Despite the fact that the entry of mothers into the workforce is currently being used to justify telling lone mothers to get jobs, government after government has declined to support other working mothers in any way whatsoever. Consequently, despite the large proportions of mothers who work, the conflict between work and motherhood has not ended” (Forna, pp233-4).

Helen Wilkinson in the Guardian, 26th March, 2002 (The mother load) on a report drawn up by the Institute of Fiscal Studies on the employability (or otherwise) of mothers outside the home also highlights the chronic shortage of other initiatives that would enhance the chances of successfully integrating lone mothers into the workforce: “The problem is especially acute for single mothers (61% of single mothers do not work) and it does not resolve itself when children are old enough to go to school. There is no sudden increase in the employment of mothers with school-age children.
The childcare gap is a significant constraint on the ability of mothers to return to the labour market. About one quarter of non-working mothers report that they would like to work but are prevented from doing so by having to look after children. One in 10 mothers working part-time say that they would increase their hours if affordable and accessible childcare was available. Partly because of these problems, the majority of working families depend on some informal care from family, friends and neighbours”.

Similarly, Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian on 17th September 1999 (in an article entitled Poor Lone Parents), comments on one vital initiative that had escaped policy-maker’s attention within the framework of a move to entice adults back into education: “But one enormous group of people who desperately need another chance has been left out until now – the 1m single parents who live on social security. They ought to be the very first target group, the easiest to reach, some destined for university before pregnancy intervened, others seeking a new life after failed marriages. The New Deal for Lone Parents is designed to encourage them to take jobs, calling them in for compulsory interviews to tell them about the new earnings top-up they can get in low paid work, plus money for childcare.
But what if they want to go to college to improve their skills, which may well be their only chance of getting out off benefits altogether? It is almost impossible. They lose their income support and fall on to the student loans system like any unencumbered 18-year-old, with only a little extra for their children. They can stay on income support if they want, but only so long as they do nothing at all. They lose the income support if they want to get educated. You might think the government would consider financing them to take a degree as the best possible self-interested investment, since it will almost certainly lead them to getting a job that takes them out of state dependency permanently”.
Formidable obstacles: “If a mother wants higher education, she has to take out a loan for £13,200 to cover her three-year course. That loan will be regarded not as a debt but as straightforward income, so she will lose all income support payments. The chances are she will have to run up other debts as well to make ends meet. She will not get the new childcare tax credits that go to mothers who work. She is unlikely to take and evening job to eke out her loan. By losing her income support, she will lose free school meals, housing and other benefits. While she is a student, assuming she has to pay £40 a week for childcare, One Parent Families estimate she and her child would have to live on just £42.75.
When she graduates and takes a job, she will start having to pay back the student loan once she earns £10,000 a year, just like any other young graduate, regardless of her children. That means that the Chancellor’s promise that every working family in the land will get a minimum income of at least £200 a week would not apply to her, because her student loan would be deducted. One Parent Families calculates that a newly graduated single mother setting out on her first job at £10,000 a year would end up with just £162 a week”.

Toynbee’s verdict: “The New Deal for Lone Parents prods mothers towards work, but apparently only into less skilled jobs. Mothers are offered some education – but only up to NVQ level 2, nothing more. They don’t get the same education chances offered to other new dealers who can take foundation courses for university, A-level equivalents. Does the government think single mothers are ineducable? Excluding them from higher education is a very short-sighted policy. As working families’ tax credit gets more generous, the state will go on topping up many low earners forever, those who will never escape a life in and out of insecure, low paid work. Why not encourage anyone they can to get better qualifications to lift them into independence?”

A recent interview with Margaret Hodge, Minister for Children, published in the Independent on 15th November, 2004 (which describes her in the following terms: “Mrs. Hodge has been fighting for more than 25 years to get child care on the agenda, since she entered politics as a Labour councillor as a break from ‘the boredom of nappy-changing’”), serves to underline that single mothers are unlikely to receive a sympathetic hearing from her: “At the risk of infuriating her feminist allies, she says single motherhood is ‘a bad thing’ and it is best for children if their birth parents stay together. ‘Children prosper best when they have a father [as well],’ she says. ‘They need the role models of a mother and a father. It’s not condemning it, but if you think what’s best for a child it’s a relationship with both their birth parents. It is jolly hard work bringing up a child on your own’”.

Another piece in the Independent from 2nd February, 2005 on research done by the Equal Opportunities Commission makes for depressing reading, a nudge lest we delude ourselves that equal opportunities in the workplace have already become a matter of course: “Up to 30,000 working women are forced out of their jobs each year because of pregnancy discrimination”. It continues: “New and expectant mothers said that they had been denied promotion and bonuses, had faced verbal abuse and had been stopped from attending training courses”.
And: “One in five [of a sample of 1,000] said they had lost out financially and one in 20 disclosed they were put under pressure to hand in their notice when they announced they were expecting a baby. Seven per cent said that they were sacked, made redundant or left their jobs because they faced discrimination”.
Debbie Coulter, deputy general secretary of the GMB general union is quoted as saying: “‘It [pregnancy] is too often viewed as an expensive inconvenience, as is maternity leave’”.

The debate on single motherhood is really about women’s autonomy and whether or not society will tolerate it.

What about the subjective experience of single motherhood, the reality as opposed to the myth? I belonged to the category of true single mother – single mother by volition (as opposed to by default, through legal separation, divorce or widowhood), although I did not think as far ahead as my constitutive narrative would like to claim. As usual I hoped that by temporarily severing contact with the two candidates for fatherhood (neither of whom were suitable, MJ because I never loved him and THAK because the relationship had already been damaged beyond repair, loath though I was to admit it to myself, the catalyst for finally making the break his abuse of G – even the drowning episode did not induce me to throw him out instantly, I prolonged the agony, using THAK as an insurance policy to cover the eventuality of no better substitute crossing my path, although all my visits to his grubby flat were unaccompanied – I never left G alone in his company after THAK submerged him in the bath, during his sporadic sojourns in Waffleland if I could not be present, G’s nanny always was, under strict instructions never to let G out of her sight) the decision would be taken for me (my standard conflict-avoidance tactic). I could, however, have settled down into domesticity with either of them with or without registered vows. Anxious to prevent MJ (G’s biological father) from being granted custody or access rights under German law, I persuaded THAK to enter his name on the birth certificate (a magnificent document in terms of exposing persistent social prejudices: the only piece of information I was required to have recorded was my name, whereas his occupation was duly noted – according to bureaucrats mothers are still confined to the home).

For the first seven years of my son’s life we muddled through alone. I remember how I felt: I was not inherently less deserving of love, I was not less intelligent or attractive, I was not poor or badly educated, yet I could not find a partner worthy of the designation. I was starved of emotional input, deprived of all contact and conversation with peers outside work, which I found totally stultifying once the absorption wore off. Indeed, the period between G’s birth and commencing affairs with JMCD and HP is the most sterile in terms of pursuing my academic interests and my creative output. My Muse fell silent, turning her back on me in protest at my all-consuming fascination for the demanding yet endlessly vulnerable extension of my self. It would never have occurred to me to return to Scotland and abandon my new career, although I entered it at a considerable disadvantage compared with my fellow graduates of the diploma course. Having completed the training successfully (I came top) I was entitled to a temporary contract at the institution in question, but was refused it on the grounds of pregnancy (apart from the sheer hypocrisy on the part of an employer charged with the task of eliminating gender inequality this was completely illegal, but I was desperate for an income, my research grant having run out). Smiling, the representative informed me that I could start as a freelance the following week (I only gradually realised quite how devastating a financial impact acceptance of these conditions would have: not only did I miss out on paid maternity leave, but the move from Copenhagen to Waffle Central had to be undertaken at my own expense – I would have to wait twelve weeks before receiving a penny, the burden of scraping together the deposit on a flat comprising a full three months’ rent in addition to the first months’ payment made in advance of the keys being handed over plunging me further into debt – mandatory sickness insurance was my own affair and I did not enjoy the privilege of having all VAT on the purchase of a car and consumer durables refunded).

Far from being the promiscuous hedonist of the newspaper columns, I was barred from access to sex; I couldn’t go looking for the comfort of caresses, partly because living abroad I had no support network (I will always be grateful to my closest friends from those days, SM and AB who kept me sane; although their contribution was far from negligible, as busy professionals they were subject to the same constraints as I), partly because the inhibitions of my upbringing and my aversion to the incessant pounding of loudspeakers rendering all attempts at conversation futile made the prospect of doing the rounds of pubs and clubs unappealing. For the first time I was cut off from an environment with a supply of available males. I had nobody to turn to for reassurance (without worrying that I might be imposing or being a nuisance). In Waffleland, tuts and hostile stares are routine whenever a child emits a sound of any description, even gurgles of pleasure – the “children should be seen and not heard” mentality alive and well. I was eventually driven out of my first flat (and ended up paying two rents for the first eight months of my new tenancy, as my former landlady insisted on my respecting the lease to the letter – in all conscience, I could not fob off an unsuspecting replacement either) because of the relentless persecution of my neurotic and spiteful downstairs neighbour. After 6 pm, she would bang on her ceiling when my son was taking his first teetering steps. Similarly, if I conducted a telephone conversation after 10 pm (there is a law prohibiting excessive noise between 10 pm and 6 am) in little above a whisper, I would be given the broom handle treatment again. The last straw was when she rang on my front doorbell in the middle of the night, threatening to phone the police (my son was barely three months old) as he had been howling inconsolably for twenty minutes and, I quote: “Babies do not cry unless they are being abused”. Fortunately for me I by then could afford to pay combined sum of about 1,300 pounds per month on the two properties, but I have never forgiven the old sow for the mental anguish and grief she caused me. Nor, I suspect, did it contribute to my offspring’s healthy development for me to appease him continually for fear of being lectured to again. As it was, I moved out without a word of complaint to her face and put up with the financial misery.

The lack of emotional sustenance and the sense of complete isolation were hard to bear. Although she is discussing problems faced by married mothers, Ann Oakley’s phrase resonates: “(…) the conditions of maternity in modern industrial societies: the isolation, and the constant, unrelieved responsibility which mothers have for their children” (from The Sociology of Housework, Martin Robertson, London, 1974, p177). When G’s face was beetroot red and his tiny body rigid with fury I often felt like walking away until he calmed down of his own accord, but I never did.

My distress was compounded by my acute awareness of my lowly status. Susan Maushart eloquently captures the : “While it’s true that we of the middle-class no longer openly stigmatise single mothers, we do not really accept them as the social equals of partnered mothers. Even a child knows this. It’s the same with our attitude towards cohabitation. We see it as a kind of B-grade alternative to marriage, certainly not an equivalent” (Wifework, Bloomsbury, London, 2001, p63). Single mothers are at the bottom of the social pile, pitied and scorned alike. As Maushart adds adds: “In most circles in western society, a woman who decides to bear and raise children as a single mother, independently of the economic or other support of a biological father, is probably still regarded as aberrant, or at least unwise; but she is no longer persecuted as a social deviant” (op. cit., p65).

The following excerpts from my diary (1991) are intended to illustrate my mindset and the dilemmas I put off confronting.

7th January
The baby-bag is becoming physically well-defined. Breathing can be a little tricky – I just have to lean back. Women as receptacles of male desire.

10th January
[On MJ] Incredible aggression. I don’t need him at all any more and the father-joy stuff just gets on my wick; he’s becoming the perfect cliché of a gentlemen. I have been polite, but have not encouraged any physical contact. It embarrasses me. What worries me is that I have twins and that they were conceived far later than I thought.

11th January
[On MJ] I can’t stand this at all: his laugh, the way he picks at his chin, the way he “sets” his jaw “in place”. The fact that he doesn’t listen, or, if he does that he finishes sentences – everything that drove me up the wall previously annoys me to the point of blood vessels exploding. The whole joy of having a baby is excluded – all the fun crap about tiny clothes, buying and plans and so on and I won’t be made a fuss of again so much in the future. It wakes me too when he doesn’t sleep properly. God I wish I could strangle him!

12th January
[On MJ] “Möchtest du nicht küssen?” Then the request disguised as a statement: “Es ist eine Ewigkeit seitdem wir gekuschelt haben”. I considered whether to just sit there and be with him, but we went to the pictures instead (En fremmed flytter ind, Pacific Heights). He muttered that I am a “schöne Frau”, but not directly to me. I always view mothers as boring/drab/stupid and always regarded childbearing, as CC once put it, as a “lobotomy”. It marks the end of my youth and I would rather have spent it in some stinking slum in Scotland. He’s putting up with my temper beautifully, being very tolerant and understanding, trying to show how much he cares about my pregnancy.

13th January
You see he had never referred to me, even indirectly, as beautiful before. I still haven’t told him yet (he hasn’t asked), so it seems unreal, though I am less tense and moody and aggressive. I’m having pangs of wanting to spend time with him since this is the last time. I have to tell him, at the latest on Tuesday as he leaves early (9.15) on Wednesday. The necessity of the pain makes me unclean and impure and ugly, as does the frothing aggression and I want to be kind to him, still everything about him angers me.

15th January
We still haven’t come to the confrontation yet (at 22.47 according to my clock), but it is a matter for M[J] to raise – naturally, his hopes lead to assumptions. I found the ultrasound quite fascinating. Everything would appear to be functioning as normal: the heart beating away and the bladder full, indicating kidney function, but it refused to stir, even when provoked. The doctor informed me that some foetuses are very lively and others quiet and calm. It is M’s though – around 11th September. As my Mother put it, he probably tolerates my moodiness because of my present state, therefore does not interpret my aggression correctly. The baby had its back turned to us so we couldn’t tell the gender.

27th January
I worry a lot about my diet and the possible brain damage through poor nutrition. It would probably be better to eat fish with my rice, yet my revulsion (physical as well as moral) for fish and meat is so great that I could not overcome it. The guilt. At most I could manage a piece of fish and chip shop haddock in batter, which I seriously contemplated whilst at home, but couldn’t persuade myself in the end.

1st February
My belly has really grown and is taking on that shape. It’s starting to be noticeable whenever I move. I feel guilty about M on the phone – I want to tell him, but I don’t want to see him yet be denied sexual contact with him, nor do I especially desire ever to see him again – the dilemma is that I must tell him and preferably face to face rather than down the impersonal phone line. I want to visit him once it is all cleared up, otherwise the situation will degenerate into a conflict – I am hurtling into a fight! Yet how could it be different if I had told him? If I didn’t tell him in advance, though, I’d have to cope with that virtually unbearable conflict, so I would enjoy such a visit even less. The only alternative is to write that I never want to see him again, pretending I’m not in when he calls, aber das kann ich nicht ab.

5th February
The midwife visit was a complete disaster – I do not consume meat, fish, coffee, tea, alcohol and now I’m expected to give up chocolate! I had already cut out fizzy drinks and chips. I don’t want anything to happen to the baby, I don’t want it to get all fat before it’s even born, so I will stop gorging on chocolate and eat more fruit and yoghurt as suggested.

10th February
M didn’t tell me about the party, nor was he forthcoming on the subject of who is coming for a “Besuch” on Friday. I always think of someone staying the night. It doesn’t really bother me though – as long as it is merely a nagging doubt, what one doesn’t know, etc…I’m panicking, naturally work, but more emotionally, feeling left out.

13th February
I must send the letter to M. I need to alter it too because I don’t know how he’ll react to the very strong hint that it is his baby: I’d never get rid of him. [After moving to Waffle Central in April to commence my career, I did not contact M[J] until 3rd August to inform him of my new address, by which time he had realised I was opposed to anything more than his superficial involvement].

17th February
Ate a lot of cake, which I did not want to, believe it or not. I’d like to start going swimming. I’m not happy about my weight and I don’t want the midwife to have the satisfaction. People look at my belly now when I walk down the street or take the bus. I try to ignore it and adopt a “superior” gaze.

21st February
Pregnant and alone and abandoned: no lover to comfort me, knocked out of the sexual race, classified as asexual when I am in fact most sexual. Defenceless and alone with no physical contact with any male. I am ultra (i.e. undeniably) feminine now: the carrier of life. The one time I could give free expression to my sexual urges without fear of the consequences is slipping by in unwanted celibacy. The “submersion society”. We submerge every unpleasant prospect beneath our entertainments and deny them with our comforts – is then the role of art to jolt from complacency after all? Of writing to drive a stake through the heart of apathy and resurrect indignance? Nothing shocks any more. The level of mediocrity has not declined, but grown along with the increase in population. I am very vulnerable to feelings of humiliation at this stage.

28th February
The belly and the end product don’t stand in any real relation to one another in terms of my mental association.

1st March
Have more energy (the beginning of the adrenalin), but am very tired (noticeable in forgetfulness, though not as clumsy as prior to a period). One good thing about being pregnant is that there are no drastic monthly hormone swings and no messy sanitary towels to dispose of.

3rd May
Mum had stretch marks like mine, but she didn’t know what they were (especially the colour!) and thought she had cancer.

10th May
Had my first ever attempt at ironing, which wasn’t very successful, since I had to unplug the damn thing to take it through to the living-room and the sheet I have on the table (interim ironing board substitute) is creased. In the supermarket, a friendly lady tried to persuade me to queue jump, but it worried me that she thought I was due sooner, telling me it was on the way down! Still no more premonitory pains (who’s complaining?). I have to keep al feelings switched off and avoid speculating on anything at all – otherwise it becomes too much.

12th June
Wrote notes from books [about giving birth in order to draw up a birth plan]. Dismayed at the number of unnecessary or partially necessary [medical] interventions. They filled me with dread and I reverted to combat mode: the hospital is the enemy out to maim and disfigure, rob the woman in labour of her rights and transform an already distressing experience into a power struggle and an act of humiliation. America seems even worse than Britain in that respect, though.

13th June
Scan at P. R[oyal] I[nfirmary]. I was in belligerent frame of mind. Up at 7 a.m. to write birth plan and steel myself for the fight. Scan at 9. the baby is big and its bowels are full. It has a very strong heartbeat. The doctor was patronising and sarcastic. The first midwife was much more sympathetic – the doctor was pig ignorant, misogynistic (what the hell is he doing in obstetrics?) and downright rude – full checks, blood test, the lot. To labour suite and watched the last few minutes of a relaxation refresher class. Guilt about wanting it out, rather than being taken by surprise. No warning signs. I don’t want it to drag out.

15th June
Midwife visit. Blood pressure up. They might have to admit me “to rest”. It was the tension I felt – not knowing what to expect.

17th June
Every day minus baby I should relish. Often I can, yet I’m a prisoner to the blood pressure and staying out of the hospital. The days there will be completely wasted – tiredness, pain, humiliation, privacy deprivation and immobility. Midwife arrived as I was standing on the lawn in my bare feet. Blood pressure down, so they can’t do anything – the relaxation worked. Although they are a little swollen, my ankles are not sore. Bought a baby sponge and “teether” at the supermarket.

19th June
A different midwife called round. Traces of protein in the urine and blood pressure borderline. Granddad gave me fifty pounds. He was delighted to see me and wants a “shot of it” [to hold the baby] before I go back. He was a bit drunk, but hopes “to try for the hundred”. He hopes it is a girl. Mum’s book fell on the floor when she dozed off. Sometimes it wakes her up. If not, Dad takes off her glasses when he goes upstairs. I think something is happening – will happen – today.

20th June
Examination at the clinic over by quarter to eleven. I couldn’t be bothered going to the class afterwards, although it gave me a twinge of guilt. I have a new clinic appointment for next Thursday and feel pissed off that the midwife is to come every single day from now on. I am trapped. At the mercy of my blood pressure. Can’t do anything, go anywhere.

21st June
19.00 The contractions started, becoming regular quickly. They were uncomfortable – not hellishly painful, like mild backache. I slept on and off. The contractions were like waves, starting at the bottom and working their way up. I imagined them as syrup, thick and mucousy.

22nd This was a long, hard day. My mood fluctuated throughout labour from excited to depressed. I refused to take painkillers of any sort. They respected my birth plan: no episiotomy. Because it was taking so long, I was put on a Syntoctin, glucose and water drip by way of induction. At certain stages I worried about its effects, as I felt unaccountably euphoric. It had been on Dr. G’s orders and he dismissed my fears concerning water toxicity. I went through three or so jugs of ice, sometimes chewing the misshapen lumps as pain relief. Three shifts of midwives came and went, all of whom were encouraging. The drip had no discernable effect between 2.30 and 20.30. The contractions were regular and unpleasant, the “push” stage a relief and I did not utter a sound until the head began to appear when I swore so as to make a whore blush. The back of G’s head felt spongy. He had swallowed a lot of mucous, meconium and fluid. The head and hair are fascinating and the skin soft.

23rd June
G was born at 0.24. It was too late for an anaesthetic and a snip. He came out by himself. I had to control the final pushes, but in spite of my efforts I tore badly. The emergence of his head was searingly painful – like a white hot poker thrust up the pudendum. It was warm and jelly-like. The placenta appeared about ten to fifteen minutes afterwards in a torrent of blood. It was revolting, a blob of slime and haemoglobin, veined like the underside of a lily pad. Dr. G did the stitching – between twenty and thirty in total – swearing himself at the extent of the damage. The local anaesthetic did not dull the sensation of the suturing needle. I tried a little Entonox, but it made me nauseous, so I took no more than one dose. The thread being pulled through was worse than the incision itself. I did not regret having taken no pain relief during the birth.

21st July
Here I have G in my lap. I’m holding that revolting dummy tit in his mouth. He’s looking towards the ceiling. I’m sick and tired of lies and being trapped. I don’t mind the responsibility of G, I like him as he is at this age, helpless, dependent and undefiant. I like him needing me. I have been unable to write. I might as well have ceased to exist. The small street incidents in [Waffle Central], the cobbled side streets. I’m balanced and cold, or rather tired. He’s drinking in the bookshelves. Now, in a way, I no longer have to take any decisions – I have a career and I must look after my baby. I don’t need anyone and my emotions have ebbed, yet I do not have time to create. The flow of ideas has ceased. I am not numbed in the physical (sexual) sense, yet I might as well be. There’s nothing left – his long, flat body, warmth. Nothing left, no tingle. Would it bother me to remain celibate from now on? In a way not really. I am not willing to let anyone know the secret of openness.

28th July
THAK thankfully cannot apply his child “care” methods with my parents around, e.g. screaming in G’s ear, stuffing cotton wool in his mouth when he screams or blowing to break his breathing rhythm so he cannot continue screaming, or putting his hand over G’s mouth until he exhausts himself.

29th July
THAK tense as my parents make suggestions, or rather issue behavioural prohibitions in his handling of G. “Don’t hit him so hard when winding him or he’ll end up bruised and we’ll be taken up for battering bairns”. True. I detest the way he treats G. Hate my naked appearance, unless I twist to smooth out the cellulite.

30th July
I told Mum about my feelings concerning [a colleague] when we were shopping at Low’s. She doesn’t think I should give up THAK without a replacement. She often feels suffocated by Dad. As usual, she gave no hint as to approval or disapproval.

11th August
THAK keeps putting pressure on me to have sex – first jokingly, then the remarks turn snide. I turn him down on the grounds that I do not wish to fall pregnant again, which he refuses to accept. He is annoyed at me for failing to have a cap fitted at the check-up [abstinence from sexual intercourse was advised by the doctors for six weeks following the birth], although he claimed that he had known I wouldn’t. I do find him attractive, but feel the relationship is dead. I sometimes like to share the warmth of his body, but sex is unnecessary. Orgasm is something I induce myself and I have no intention of divulging the secret. In despair, he retorts that I should just admit to not wanting sex instead of citing lack of contraception as an excuse. Then he pouts that he should employ someone to sleep with him or go out and fuck someone who at least reciprocates that wish. I turn to food when he starts to become erotic. This destroys my self-image.

12th August
The sexual pressure continued. I don’t have sexual feelings towards ANY man at the moment. Yet another day of frustration and confinement. Wanted to go outside, but G prevented it. He’s quite “under the weather” as Dad put it. He kept choking on his milk and coughing and whining. THAK was very nasty to him during the morning nappy change, gagging him with his hand until G turned purple. I objected. Stuffed my face today.

13th August
R told me he and Mum had caught THAK shaking G and R had been on the point of punching him in. That, along with stuffing cotton wool in G’s mouth to insulate against the sound annoys me like nothing else can – a woman in P was arrested and her sentenced deferred until a psychiatric report could be drawn up – for LESS! I could quite easily murder him for it yet I’m impotent. I need his help to look after G, that is, I need someone’s help. I want to slouch around and cram food into myself all the time because I feel so unattractive. I want to get rid of THAK more than anything else, but how? I’ve lost all my self-confidence and do not even have the strength to walk downtown alone. Everyone is nagging me about my figure and my posture, which simply depresses me all the more. I can’t bear to look in the mirror to be confronted with my bedraggled hair. There is nothing to look forward to any more.

30th September
G had the most restless night ever. I gave up and let him in with me at about 6 a.m., but to no avail, as the bed collapsed and M[J] irritated me by saying it had to be nailed together again. The atmosphere deteriorated. G howled when I left for work. I trust M[J] far more than THAK: he kisses and cuddles G all the time and doesn’t do the “nasty person” routine. When G screams, THAK throws a T-shirt over his head to scare the shit out of him and whips it off when I come in the room thinking I haven’t noticed and pretends to be nice to him. M[J] would give G all the attention he wants and would never shout at him or hurt him. That endears him to me, but otherwise he irritates the hell out of me as per usual. M[J] doesn’t sit near me. I need to bail out of the relationship with THAK.

1st October
Stared to discuss matters with M[J]. We bought some chips, but couldn’t quite manage to eat them all. He will not cause any hassle at all: he will take G during holidays and wants pictures of him, but he’s not willing to move here. He felt physically sick when I told him what THAK had done and despises him for it: How can anyone do that to a baby? He kisses G and basks in the attention he receives because it is friendly. I felt quite close to M[J] after he’d drunk a few beers and relaxed a bit. I wanted it to last, but bedtime descended on us. I couldn’t live with him, yet it’s still the best relationship I’ve ever had. He doesn’t like the stretch marks for my sake – he’s still as unbearable and pedantic as ever. He took a damn good look at me soaking away the stress in the bathtub – I always felt slightly exposed whilst naked or semi-naked in his presence, but now I am acutely aware of it. The belly and the marks distract him. He looks after G and takes care of the bottles and milk. G doesn’t like being fed by him, keeps turning his head this way and that to avoid the teat.

2nd October
For him [MJ], eight months ago he would have moved here at the drop of a hat, but now he won’t, having figured out (correctly) from my ignoring him for so long that I did not want him around. He does not have no feelings for me whatsoever, but it isn’t what it was. He can’t stay in [Waffle Central] under the present conditions as this would mean cutting off his roots in K. and he is not willing to do that. He wouldn’t play the “Ehepaar” any more, not even for G’s sake. He would have before, but now the door had been closed. It saddens me in a way, yet I don’t really care either. I’m not prepared to live alone and want a replacement father as soon as possible [I had someone in mind, but nothing developed].

13th October
When I pick G up at night to feed him he doesn’t even open his eyes. He doesn’t writhe or wriggle. He has settled into a routine, crossing his legs and arching backwards to rub his fists into his eyes when I lift him.

Friday, 7 January 2005

Feather Duster

Filed under: — site admin @ 3:41 pm

For Elin

“As far as I am concerned the ‘house-wife’ does not exist. She is a patriarchal wet-dream, designed (albeit unconsciously) to curb the pleasure and jouissance of the woman and to remind her that enjoying her baby is all very well, but her real task is to be a wife-in-a-house”
Jane Graves, The washing machine: ‘Mother’s not herself today’, in Pat Kirkham (ed.), The Gendered Object, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1996, p32

Susan Moller Okin in her lucid introduction to John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, 1988) puts the work into historical context, painting a bleak, yet entirely accurate, picture of the prospects awaiting women following conjugal union: “In the 1860s, married Englishwomen had virtually no rights under the common law. Upon marriage they entered into a legal condition called ‘couverture’, in which they could not own property (even the wages they earned if employed), make a contract or a will, nor sue or be sued. (The wealthy avoided the loss of their daughters’ property upon marriage by establishing trusts for them, as the law of equity allowed). Wives had few custody rights to their own children, and almost no legal protection against sexual or other physical abuse by their husbands. Not only was the marital tie deeply oppressive; it was virtually indissoluble. Until 1857, divorce was obtainable only through the (extremely expensive) passage of an act of Parliament; only four women had ever acquired such a divorce. After 1857, a wife who could afford it could seek a civil divorce, but the sexual double standard still prevailed. A wife could sue for divorce on the grounds of adultery only if her husband had also committed bigamy, incest, or severe cruelty, whereas a husband could obtain a divorce on the ground of a single act of adultery by his wife” (ppvii-viii; Mill catalogues these disadvantages on pp31-5. Cf. also Helena Kennedy’s excellent Eve Was Framed, Chatto and Windus, London, 1992, pp24-5). As Mill himself acknowledges: “If married life were all that it might be expected to be, looking to the laws alone, society would be a hell upon earth” (p35).

Mill originally wrote his impassioned and exquisitely argued plea in 1861, although publication was delayed until the most opportune political moment, which came in 1869. His adamant stance that one sex should not be permitted to reign supreme over the other was motivated by his commitment to the progress of mankind: “That the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes – the legal subordination of one sex to the other – is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other” (p1).

He was fully aware that the prevailing weight of opinion against him: “(…) for a cause supported on the one hand by universal usage, and on the other by so great a preponderance of popular sentiment, is supposed to have a presumption in its favour, superior to any conviction which an appeal to reason has power to produce in any intellects but those of a high class” (op. cit, p3). It possessed such a firm hold on the mind that it had taken on the semblance of being “natural”: “So true is it that unnatural generally means only uncustomary, and that everything which is usual appears natural. The subjection of women to men being a universal custom, any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural. But how entirely, even in this case, the feeling is dependent on custom, appears by ample experience” (p13).

Its origin was to be sought in the exercise of brute force: “In the first place, the opinion in favour f the present system, which entirely subordinates the weaker sex to the stronger, rests upon theory only; for there never has been trial made of any other: so that experience, in the sense in which it is vulgarly opposed to theory, cannot be pretended to have pronounced any verdict. And in the second place, the adoption of this system of inequality never was the result of deliberation, or forethought, or any social ideas, or any notion whatever of what conduced to the benefit of humanity or the good order of society. It arose simply from the fact that from the very earliest twilight of human society, every woman (owing to the value attached to her by men, combined with her inferiority in muscular strength) was found in a state of bondage to some man. Laws and systems of polity always begin by recognising the relations they find already existing between individuals. They convert what was a mere physical fact into a legal right, give it the sanction of society, and principally aim at the substitution of public and organized means of asserting and protecting these rights, instead of the irregular and lawless conflict of physical strength. Those who had already been compelled to obedience became in this manner legally bound to it” (op. cit, p5).

Mill endeavours to account for the stubborn persistence of oppression, its robustness: “(…) this dependence, as it exists at present, is not an original institution, taking a fresh start from considerations of justice and social expediency – it is the primitive state of slavery lasting on, through successive mitigations and modifications occasioned by the same causes which have softened the general manners, and brought all human relations more under the control of justice and the influence of humanity. It has not lost the taint of its brutal origin. No presumption in its favour, therefore, can be drawn from the fact of its existence” (p6).

Although nothing more than an anachronistic remnant, its persuasive grip was further tightened by our unfortunate capacity for unreflective self-deception: “We now live (…) in a state in which the law of the strongest seems to be entirely abandoned as the regulating principle of the world’s affairs: nobody professes it, and, as regards most of the relations between human beings, nobody is permitted to practice it. When anyone succeeds in doing so, it is under cover of some pretext which gives him the semblance of having some general social interest on his side. This being the ostensible state of things, people flatter themselves that the rule of mere force is ended; that the law of the strongest cannot be the reason of existence of anything which has remained in full operation down to the present time. However any of our present institutions may have begun, it can only, they think, have been preserved to this period of advanced civilization by a well-grounded feeling of its adaptation to human nature, and conduciveness to the general good. They do not understand the great vitality and durability of institutions which place right on the side of might; how intensely they are clung to; how the good as well as the bad propensities and sentiments of those who have power in their hands, become identified with retaining it, how slowly these bad institutions give way, one at a time, the weakest first, beginning with those which are least interwoven with the daily habits of life; and how very rarely those who have obtained legal power because they first had physical, have ever lost their hold of it until the physical power had passed over to the other side. Such shifting of the physical force not having taken place in the case of women; this fact, combined with all the peculiar and characteristic features of the particular case, made it certain from the first that this branch of the system of right founded on might, though softened in its most atrocious features at an earlier period than several of the others, would be the very last to disappear. It was inevitable that this one case of a social relation grounded on force, would survive through generations of institutions grounded on equal justice, an almost solitary exception to the general character of their laws and customs; but which, so long as it does not proclaim its own origin, and as discussion has not brought out its true character, is not felt to jar with modern civilization” (pp6-7).

Entrenched resistance to change arose from defending a vested interest, which did not represent an exclusive prerogative of the rich: “Whatever gratification of pride there is in the possession of power, and whatever personal interest in its exercise, is in this case not confined to a limited class, but common to the whole male sex. Instead of being, to most of its supporters, a thing desirable chiefly in the abstract, or, like the political ends usually contended for by factions, of little private importance to any but the leaders; it comes home to the person and hearth of every male head of a family, and of every one who looks forward to being so. The clodhopper exercises, or is to exercise, his share of the power equally with the highest nobleman. And the case is that in which the desire of power is the strongest: for every one who desires power, desires it most over those who are nearest to him, with whom his life is passed, with whom he has most concerns in common, and in whom any independence of his authority is oftenest likely to interfere with his individual preferences. (…) We must consider, too, that the possessors of power have facilities in this case, greater than in any other, to prevent any uprising against it. Every one of the subjects lives under the very eye, and almost, it may be said, in the hands, of one of the masters – in closer intimacy with him than with any of her fellow-subjects; with no means of combining against him, no power of even locally overmastering him, and, on the other hand, with the strongest motives for seeking his favour and avoiding to give him offence. In struggles for political emancipation, everybody knows how often its champions are bought off by bribes, or daunted by terrors. In the case of women, each individual of the subject-class is in a chronic state of bribery and intimidation combined. In setting up the standard of resistance, a large number of the leaders, and still more of the followers, must make an almost complete sacrifice of the pleasures or the alleviations of their own individual lot. If ever any system of privilege and enforced subjection had its yoke tightly riveted on the necks of those that are kept down by it, this has” (op. cit, pp11-12).

Other factors operated to perpetuate the situation. For example, women were trapped in the state of matrimony with precious little by way of “respectable” alternatives to support themselves financially. Against this backdrop it was relatively easy to extract compliance. Their position was further complicated by the emotional bonds between them and their husband-masters, a formidable array of incitements, intimidations and prohibitions as well as deeply rooted cultural archetypes: “It is a political law of nature that those who are under any power of ancient origin, never begin by complaining of the power itself, but only of its oppressive exercise. There is never any want of women who complain of ill usage by their husbands. There would be infinitely more, if complaint were not the greatest of all provocatives to a repetition and increase of the ill usage. It is this which frustrates all attempts to maintain the power but protect the woman against its abuses. In no other case (except that of a child) is the person who has been proved judicially to have suffered an injury, replaced under the physical power of the culprit who inflicted it. Accordingly wives, even in the most extreme and protracted cases of bodily ill usage, hardly ever dare avail themselves of the laws made for their protection: and if, in a moment of irrepressible indignation, or by the interference of neighbours, they are induced to do so, their whole effort afterwards is to disclose as little as they can, and to beg off their tyrant from his merited chastisement [The force and relevance of this point remains undiminished today in the case of battered women].
All causes, social and natural, combine to make it unlikely that women should be collectively rebellious to the power of men. They are so far in a position different from all other subject classes, that their masters require something more from them than actual service. Men do not want solely the obedience of women, they want their sentiments. All men, except the most brutish, desire to have, in the woman most nearly connected with them, not a forced slave but a willing one, not a slave merely, but a favourite. They have therefore put everything in practice to enslave their minds. The masters of all other slaves rely, for maintaining obedience, on fear; either fear of themselves, or religious fears. The masters of women wanted more than simple obedience, and they turned the whole force of education to effect their purpose. All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self-will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of others. All the moralities tell them that it is the duty of women, and all the current sentimentalities that it is their nature, to live for others; to make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections. And by their affections are meant the only ones they are allowed to have – those to the men with whom they are connected, or to the children who constitute an additional and indefeasible tie between them and a man. When we put together three things – first, the natural attraction between opposite sexes; second, the wife’s entire dependence on the husband, every privilege or pleasure she has being either his gift, or depending entirely on his will; and, lastly, that the principal object of human pursuit, consideration, and all objects of social ambition, can in general only be sought or obtained by her only through him, it would be a miracle if the object of being attractive to men had not become the polar star of feminine education and formation of character. And, this great means of influence over the minds of women having been acquired, an instinct of selfishness made men avail themselves of it to the utmost as a means of holding women in subjection, by representing to them meekness, submissiveness, and resignation of all individual will into the hands of a man, as an essential part of sexual attractiveness” (pp15-16).

This artificial subservience runs counter to the spirit of modernity: “For, what is the peculiar character of the modern world – the difference which chiefly distinguishes modern institutions, modern social ideas, modern life itself, from those of times long past? It is, that human beings are no longer born to their place in life, and chained down by an inexorable bond to the place they are born to, but are free to employ their faculties, and such favourable chances as offer, to achieve the lot which may appear to them most desirable. Human society of old was constituted on a very different principle. All were born to a fixed social position, and were mostly kept in it by law, or interdicted from any means by which they could emerge from it” (p17).

Such an objection is inextricably bound up with Western individualism, expressed in the notion of liberty, with choice constituting a further essential ingredient: “The old theory was, that the least possible should be left to the choice of the individual agent; that all he had to do should, as far as practicable, be laid down for him by superior wisdom. Left to himself he was sure to go wrong. The modern conviction, the fruit of a thousand years of experience, is, that things in which the individual is the person directly interested, never go right but as they are left to his own discretion; and that any regulation of them by authority, except to protect the rights of others, is sure to be mischievous” (p18). Mill here propounds a somewhat idealistic view, which overlooks the social inculcation of predispositions together with other less visible impediments to opportunity, such as unequal access to resources and power disparities. Whereas the latter must be factored in by way of a corrective, it is still useful to bear in mind that only Western tradition has thus far paved the way for a modicum of female emancipation.

It would be misleading to suggest that Mill’s vision included a radical overhaul of the social structure in terms of advocating wholesale female gainful employment. This crucial aspect of latter-day feminism did not did not form part of his programme, as we shall see. Instead, his primary concern was, as we have noted, that of eradicating legally hallowed subjugation: “In consonance with this doctrine, it is felt to be an overstepping of the proper bounds of authority to fix beforehand, on some general presumption, that certain persons are not fit to do certain things. It is now thoroughly known and admitted that if some such presumptions exist, no such presumption is infallible. Even if it be well grounded in a majority of cases, which it is very likely not to be, there will be a minority of exceptional cases in which it does not hold: and in those it is both an injustice to the individuals, and a detriment to society, to place barriers in the way of using their faculties for their own benefit and for that of others. (…)
…if the principle is true, we ought to act as if we believed it, and not to ordain that to be born a girl instead of a boy, any more than to be born black instead of white, or a commoner instead of a nobleman, shall decide the person’s position through all life – shall interdict people from all the more elevated social positions, and from all, except a few, respectable occupations” (pp18-19).

His conclusion: “The disabilities, therefore, to which women are subject from the mere fact of their birth, are the solitary examples of the kind in modern legislation. In no instance except this, which comprehends half the human race, are the higher social functions closed against any one by a fatality of birth which no exertions, and no change of circumstances, can overcome” (p20).

He hits the nail on the head with his ironic comment on the weakness of the case for preserving the status quo: “The general opinion of men is supposed to be, that the natural vocation of a woman is that of a wife and mother. I say, is supposed to be, because, judging from acts – from the whole of the present constitution of society – one might infer that their opinion was the direct contrary. They might be supposed to think that the alleged natural vocation of women was of all things the most repugnant to their nature; insomuch that if they are free to do anything else – if any other means of living, or occupation of their time and faculties, is open, which has any chance of appearing desirable to them – there will not be enough of them who will be willing to accept the condition said to be natural to them. If this is the real opinion of men in general, it would be well that it should be spoken out. (…) ‘It is necessary to society that women should marry and produce children. They will not do so unless they are compelled. Therefore it is necessary to compel them’. (…) Those who attempt to force women into marriage by closing all other doors against them, lay themselves open to a similar retort [having drawn comparisons with slave owners and press gangs]. If they mean what they say, their opinion must evidently be, that men do not render the married condition so desirable to women, as to induce them to accept it on its own recommendations. (…) I believe they are afraid, not lest women should be unwilling to marry, for I do not think that any one in reality has that apprehension; but lest they should insist that marriage should be on equal conditions; lest all women of spirit and capacity should prefer doing almost anything else, not in their own eyes degrading, rather than marry, when marrying is giving themselves a master, and a master too of all their earthly possessions. (…) I agree in thinking it probably that few women, capable of anything else, would, unless under an irresistible entrainement, rendering them for the time insensible to anything but itself, choose such a lot, when any other means were open to them of filling a conventionally honourable place in life: and if men are determined that the law of marriage shall be a law of despotism, they are quite right, in point of mere policy, in leaving to women only Hobson’s choice” (pp28-30).

His verdict on the likelihood of overcoming male resistance to the slightest erosion of their privileges is gloomy: “I believe that their disabilities elsewhere are only clung to in order to maintain their subordination in domestic life; because the generality of the male sex cannot yet tolerate the idea of living with an equal” (p53).

As Okin judiciously remarks: “For all his insistence on the legal rights of married women, Mill (…) never questioned their traditional responsibility for the unpaid labour of the family” (op. cit, px).

For Mill, housework is one of the main “feminine blandishments”, which temper the husband’s autocratic power: “The real mitigating causes are, the personal affection which is the growth of time, in so far as the man’s nature is susceptible of it, and the woman’s character sufficiently congenial with his to excite it their common interests as regards the children, and their general community of interest as concerns third persons (…); the real importance of the wife to his daily comforts and enjoyments, and the value he consequently attaches to her on his personal account, which, in a man capable of feeling for others, lays the foundation of caring for her on her own” (p40). The logical order he posits is revealing: she must dutifully carry out the care-work in order to solicit his affections.

The clearest illustration that he sees nothing inherently objectionable in confining a woman to the domestic sphere is to be found in the following passage: “When the support of the family depends not on property, but on earnings, the common arrangement, by which the man earns the income and the wife superintends the domestic expenditure, seems to me in general the most suitable division of labour between the two persons. If, in addition to the physical suffering of bearing children, and the whole responsibility of their care and education in early years, the wife undertakes the careful and economical application of the husband’s earnings to the general comfort of the family; she takes not only her fair share, but usually the larger share, of the bodily and mental exertion required by their joint existence. If she undertakes any additional portion, it seldom relieves her from this, but only prevents her from performing it properly. The care which she herself is disabled from taking of the children and the household, nobody else takes; those of the children who do not die, grow up as they best can, and the management of the household is likely to be so bad, as even in point of economy to be a great drawback from the value of the wife’s earnings. In an otherwise just state of things, it is not, therefore, I think, a desirable custom, that the wife should contribute by her labour to the income of the family. In an unjust state of things, her doing so may be useful to her, by making her of more value in the eyes of the man who is legally her master; but, on the other hand, it enables him still farther to abuse his power, by forcing her to work, and leaving the support of the family to her exertions, while he spends most of his time in drinking and idleness. The power of earning is essential to the dignity of a woman, if she has not independent property. But if marriage were an equal contract, not implying the obligation of obedience; if the connexion were no longer enforced to the oppression of those to whom it is purely a mischief, but a separation, on just terms (I do not now speak of a divorce), could be obtained by any woman who was morally entitled to it; and if she would then find all honourable employments as freely open to her as to men; it would not be necessary for her protection, that during marriage she should make this particular use of her faculties. Like a man when he chooses a profession, so, when a woman marries, it may in general be understood that she makes choice of the management of a household, and the bringing up of a family, as the first call upon her exertions, during as many years of her life as may be required for the purpose; and that she renounces, not all other objects and occupations, but all which are not consistent with the requirements of this. The actual exercise, in a habitual or systematic manner, of outdoor occupations, or such as cannot be carried on at home, would by this principle be practically interdicted to the greater number of married women. But the utmost latitude ought to exist for the adaptation of general rules to individual suitabilities; and there ought to be nothing to prevent faculties exceptionally adapted to any other pursuit, from obeying their vocation notwithstanding marriage: due provision being made for supplying otherwise any falling-short which might become inevitable, in her full performance of the ordinary functions of mistress of a family” (pp50-2).

Although I do not agree with his point concerning under-achievement, he does freely recognise that women have several extra sets of obligations from which their menfolk are exempt. He retains a staunchly middle-class perspective throughout – working class women were even less likely to make an impact in the literary salons. In the context of his argument concerning the dearth of woman philosophers, painters and so forth as well as the relative lack of attainment in these fields on the part of the few women able to venture into them compared to their male rivals, he does, however, admit to the unremitting drain on a woman’s time and creative energy of running the household, diverting her from other – more artistic and contemplative – pursuits: “The time and thought of every woman have to satisfy great previous demands on them for things practical. There is, first, the superintendence of the family and the domestic expenditure, which occupies at least one woman in every family, generally the one of mature years and acquired experience; unless the family is so rich as to admit of delegating that task to hired agency, and submitting to all the waste and malversation inseparable from that mode of conducting it. The superintendence of a household, even when not in other respects laborious, is extremely onerous to the thoughts; it requires incessant vigilance, an eye which no detail escapes, and presents questions for consideration and solution, foreseen and unforeseen, at every hour of the day, from which the person responsible for them can hardly ever shake herself free. If a woman is of a rank and circumstances which relieve her in a measure from these cares, she still has devolving on her the management for the whole family of its intercourse with others – of what is called society, and the less the call made on her by the former duty, the greater is always the development of the latter: the dinner parties, concerts, evening parties, morning visits, letter writing, and all that goes with them. All this is over and above the engrossing duty which society imposes exclusively on women, of making themselves charming. A clever woman of the higher ranks finds nearly a sufficient employment of her talents in cultivating the graces of manner and the arts of conversation. To look only at the outward side of the subject: the great and continual exercise of thought which all women who attach any value to dressing well (I do not mean expensively, but with taste, and perception of natural and of artificial covenance) must bestow upon their own dress, perhaps also upon that of their daughters, would alone go a great way towards achieving respectable results in art, or science, or literature, and does actually exhaust much of the time and mental power they might have to spare for either. (…) But this is not all. Independently of the regular offices of life which devolve upon a woman, she is expected to have her time and faculties always at the disposal of everybody. If a man has not a profession to exempt him from such demands, still, if he has a pursuit, he offends nobody by devoting his time to it; occupation is received as a valid excuse for his not answering to every casual demand which may be made on him. Are a woman’s occupations, especially her chosen and voluntary ones, ever regarded as excusing her from any of what are termed the calls of society? Scarcely are her most necessary and recognised duties allowed as an exemption. It requires an illness in the family, or something else out of the common way, for her to give her own business the precedence over other people’s amusement. She must always be at the beck and call of somebody, generally of everybody. If she has a study or pursuit, she must snatch any small interval which accidentally occurs to be employed in it” (pp79-81).

In order to assess whether much has changed since Mill’s day as far as women’s unremunerated labour in the home is concerned, I would like to examine two important contributions separated by almost thirty years, Ann Oakley’s The Sociology of Housework, from 1974 (edition used, Martin Robertson, London, 1974) and Susan Maushart’s Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women (Bloomsbury, London, 2002).

Oakley’s aims were to describe the housewife’s work situation and her attitudes to housework; to examine patterns of satisfaction and dissatisfaction with housework in relation to certain variables, including social class, education, the division of labour in marriage, technical equipment and social interaction and to formulate hypotheses directed towards explaining the differences between housewives emerging from her study sample of forty London housewives aged between twenty and thirty, all of whom were mothers (p30). Interviews with them were conducted in early 1971 (p30). Half of the women selected were working class and half middle class, with class being “assessed in the conventional way, on the basis of husband’s occupation” (p37). She justifies this approach by the need to test the assertions in the literature on women’s domestic roles to the effect that middle-class women are unhappier about their confinement to the home than their working-class sisters (p37). As six of the women were also engaged in part-time employment outside, Oakley felt duty-bound to emphasise that this did not exclude them from the category of “housewife”: “The addition of paid work to the housewife’s activities does not mean she is no longer a housewife. The definition of housewifery is cast in terms of responsibility for the running of a home” (pp38-9).

She begins by lamenting the ingrained bias amongst her (primarily male) colleagues in the discipline of sociology, which has consistently marginalised women whilst professing rigorous gender-neutrality: “In much sociology women as a social group are invisible or inadequately represented: they take the insubstantial form of ghosts, shadows or stereotyped characters” (p1). Indeed: “Sociology is sexist because it is male-oriented. By ‘male-oriented’ I mean that it exhibits a focus on, or a direction towards, the interests and activities of men in a gender-differentiated society. The social situations of men and women today are structurally and ideologically discrepant, and the dominant value-system of modern industrialized societies assigns greater importance and prestige to masculine than to feminine roles” (p2). Furthermore: “The concealment of women runs right through sociology. It extends from the classification of subject-areas and the definition of concepts through the topics and methods of empirical research to the construction of models and theory generally” (p3). Nowhere is this tendency more blatant than in the case of housework: “”The conventional sociological approach to housework could be termed ‘sexist’: it has treated housework merely as an aspect of the feminine role in the family – as part of women’s role in marriage, or as a dimension of child-rearing – not as a work role. The study of housework as work is a topic entirely missing from sociology” (p2).

She exposes the flawed logic behind this outlook: “…a general set of axioms is responsible for the place of women in the two areas of family and marriage, and industry and work. The neglect of housework as a topic is also anchored in these axioms. They can be stated thus:
1 women belong in the family, while men belong ‘at work’;
2 therefore men work, while women do not work;
3 therefore housework is not a form of work.
The third appears to be a deduction from the first two, but the syllogism is false. Its falsity hinges on the fictional nature of the dichotomy between ‘family’ and ‘work’ and on the meaning of the term ‘work’. Although the work/family distinction expresses the separation between these two spheres of life brought about by industrialization, it does not follow that one is the world of men while the other is the world of women. Many women go out to work; many women (and some men) work in the home” (p25).

Oakley then turns to the issue of what can be encompassed by the term work: “What is ‘work’? According to one definition, a work role has five properties. It requires the expenditure of energy; it permits a contribution to the production of gods or services; it defines patterns of social interaction; it provides social status for the worker, and, lastly, it brings in money. The only difference in this definition between employment and housework is housework’s lack of pay. But because work is not a component of the feminine stereotype housework lacks any conceptualization in sociology as work” (p26).

The “woman’s place is in the home” mentality will not be easy to dislodge: “Despite a reduction of gender differences in the occupational world in recent years, one occupational role remains entirely feminine: the role of housewife. No law bans men from this occupation, but the weight of economic, social and psychological pressures is against their entry into it. The equation of femaleness with housewifery is basic to the structure of modern society, and to the ideology of gender roles which pervades it” (p29).

Oakley launches into an analysis of her findings by looking at the perceived positive and negative aspects of being a housewife: “Autonomy is the most valued quality of the housewife role: housework is the worst” (p42). However: “In the housewife’s case autonomy is more theoretical than real. Being ‘your own boss’ imposes the obligation to see that housework gets done. The responsibility for housework is a unilateral one, and the failure to do it may have serious consequences. As itemized by these women, such consequences include the wrath of husbands and the ill-health of children (through lack of hygiene) (…)
What this means is that the taking of leisure is self-defeating; the fact that one is one’s own boss adds to, rather than subtracts from, the psychological pressures to do housework” (pp43-4).

She carefully evaluates the statements made by her respondents: “Housework is described as a never-ending job – in the stock phrase ‘a woman’s work is never done’. It is said by some to be more tiring physically than a paid job, by others to be less tiring: some women say it takes a greater emotional toll, others that the drain is less than other work. Reference is made to the unconstructive nature of housework tasks, to the emotionally frustrating sense of being on a treadmill that requires the same action to be repeated again and again” (pp45-6).

All of the women were anxious to emphasise that their chores comprised of real work. Oakley makes sense of their insistence as follows: “This defence of housework is all the more necessary because housework passes unmentioned in the predominant stereotype of the housewife as a leisured homemaker. Yet another reason why the women’s comments are phrased in this way derives from the low social ranking women see as attached to the occupation of housewife” (p46). Moreover: “(…) whatever their level of personal identification with the housewife role, the denigration and trivialization of housework is such a pervasive cultural theme that the message is likely to have filtered through to the housewife in some form or other. The need to dissociate oneself from it then follows” (p47). One image that cropped up frequently was that of stay-at-home wife as cabbage, vocabulary reminiscent of the more recently coined medical term “persistent vegetative state”: “A ‘cabbage’ housewife is someone entirely immersed in domestic affairs, a colourless personality, a drab, uninteresting automaton” (p47).

In reality, housework calls for a multitude of proficiencies, the implicit denial of which forms part of the downgrading process: “Another message that comes over clearly is the need to separate out the different tasks that make up housework. Housework is not a single activity. It is a collection of heterogeneous tasks which demand a variety of skills and kinds of action. Washing a floor contrasts with shopping for groceries: peeling potatoes with washing dirty socks and planning a week’s meals. To call all these jobs by the same name is to disguise their differences, to reduce them all to the same common denominator. In fact, some are more liked than others; some are more repetitive, some less tiring, some more potentially creative and so forth. Each of the tasks that the housewife does – cooking, laundering the clothes, cleaning the house and so on – can, after all, constitute a paid work role in its own right. The role of chef is very different from the role of commercial laundry operator or the job of ‘domestic help’” (p48).

Oakley identifies the six core housework tasks as cleaning, shopping, cooking, washing the dishes, washing clothes and ironing, ranking them in order of how liked or loathed they were by the women questioned. Perhaps unsurprisingly, ironing proved the least popular (“It is disliked because it is physically an exhausting activity; more than any of the other tasks it consists of actions which have to be repeated time and time again with little variation”, p49 and: “Ironing consists of repetitive actions which tire specific muscles without engaging the attention of the mind or the concentrated energy of the whole body. The obvious comparison here is with the assembly line worker in a factory, tied machine-like to a mindless and endlessly repetitive task”, p50). It is followed by washing up (a dirty job, p50) and cleaning (a lonely job, p52). Doing the laundry comes next (“Although both washing and washing up are activities in which dirt is removed from objects, the pleasure inherent in washing seems to be greater. Possibly this is because of the personal associations that clothes have. The clothes that are washed belong to and are used by someone, normally the housewife, her husband and children. It depends, of course, on the particular item”, p54 and, in the case of a sink full of greasy plates: “The unpleasantness is stressed because it is usually preceded by an enjoyable activity – eating a meal”, p50). One of the elements elevating shopping above the average is its location: “(…) the housewife’s role as a consumer is a more public one; it requires an absence from her work-place – the home” (p55). The current connotations of shopping in today’s later stage of consumerism are hedonistic (“retail therapy”; “shop until you drop”; the “sex and shopping” genre of women’s literature), which is why two types of shopping excursion must be distinguished between – the “necessity” shop (driving to the local hypermarket and shoving a trolley round the aisles and the “indulgence” shop (treating oneself, spending money on non-essentials). At the same time it is worth noting that they have never been entirely mutually exclusive and increasingly tend to merge (supermarkets now stocking all manner of non-perishables from discount paperbacks to bargain DVDs), as Oakley realised: “…another merit of shopping is that it can be expanded to include (or even defined to consist of) window-shopping. This is self-consciously an escapist activity, its main value being that it avoids the careful budgeting and penny-counting which shopping itself entails” (pp56-7). The creative potential of cooking sets it apart, accounting for its place as the least onerous duty (cf. p58). Even this is not as straightforward as it seems at first glance, however: “In reality husbands demand meals at specific times, small children cry when their stomachs are empty, the hour that might be spent cooking competes with the hour that ought to be spent washing the floor or changing the beds. ‘Thinking what to eat’ is an endless duty, however creative the actual task may be. Thus one latent function of the creative cookery ideal is the production of dissatisfaction. Standards of achievement exist of which the housewife is permanently aware, but which she cannot often hope to reach due to the other demands on her time” (p59).

Oakley summarises the results with a list of the properties enhancing or detracting from the work experience:
“Attributes referred to as promoting a positive attitude include (in order of importance):
1 Being able to talk to other people while working;
2 Being in the ‘right’ mood;
3 Having enough time;
4 Having the right work environment or tools of work;
5 Having enough housekeeping money;
6 Having one’s work appreciated.
The following factors are mentioned as associated with a negative attitude:
1 Monotony and repetitiveness;
2 Having the wrong environment or tools of work;
3 Being in the ‘wrong’ mood;
4 Children getting in the way;
5 Not having enough time;
6 Social isolation;
7 Having to think about work” (pp59-60).

She concludes that housewives themselves look upon housework as “analogous with any other kind of job” (p60), exploding the myth of their membership of a leisured class.

In assessing the link between social class and domesticity, Oakley addresses the issue of satisfaction levels amongst middle and working class housewives as regards two discrepancies, namely “that between the status of housewife and the status of the husband’s work, and the discrepancy between the status of the housewife’s own present or previous employment work and her status as housewife” (p71). While the former did not have a discernable impact on contentment, the same was not true of the latter. “Status” was measured according to the criteria of skill, training and social prestige (whereby Oakley concentrated on what she terms “‘feminine’ rewards – that is, those dimensions of a job that have relatively high prestige within the feminine job world. These include ‘glamour’, the opportunity to mix with high status men and women, and the intrinsic reward of doing a ‘worthwhile’ job”, p72, a focus, which could be considered of questionable validity nowadays). Her evaluation is as follows: “in part, the housewife’s dissatisfaction with her work is a function of downward social mobility” (p73) and “there may be regret for the loss of the rewards of professionalism” (p73). Whereas the “connection between high status employment work and present dissatisfaction with housework holds only for the middle-class women”, there is “evidence that the tendency to be dissatisfied with housework in relation to the status of one’s previous job may involve the question of a ‘reference group’. There are no women with high status previous jobs in the working-class group, so that those with an intermediate status job hold the highest status jobs in the working-class group as a whole. Among the working-class women, eighty-eight per cent of those with jobs whose status is ‘high for class’ are dissatisfied with housework; in the middle-class group, the figure is a hundred per cent. Conversely, of those women with jobs whose status is ‘low for class’, a lower proportion is dissatisfied with housework (…). Thus, while middle-class women are more likely to object to the label ‘housewife’ on grounds of its low status, there is a general tendency for downward mobility on the status dimension – from paid work to the job of housewife – to be associated with present dissatisfaction” (pp74-5).

Significantly: “Beyond this particular question of status, middle-class and working-class women in this sample have in common a deep-seated appreciation of the rewards experienced in outside work. The resultant comparison with housework persistently brands it as a less enjoyed and less enjoyable occupation. This is all the more remarkable since many of the jobs held by these women are not, at first sight, particularly rewarding ones. Nearly a quarter of the forty were in unskilled factory jobs and over a third have done typing or general office work. Thirty of the forty fall into the four occupations of factory work, retail sales work, domestic work, and office or secretarial work. All, with the exception of (…) an ex-computer programmer, were engaged in occupations stereotyped as feminine and thus traditionally low paid.
Housework contrasts with employment work in its lack of economic reward, its isolation and the lack of social recognition accorded to the responsibilities carried by the housewife” (p75).

I would add that the assumption that middle-class women are less likely to be satisfied with housework is an expression of institutionalised discrimination against their less privileged companions in fate, as if the mind-numbing toil common to both categories somehow “goes with the territory” of being working-class, the encumbrance were intrinsically less painful or exacted a less pitiless personal cost and were somehow therefore easier to condone or shrug off. Oakley’s reasoning challenges this conventional “wisdom”.

Oakley goes on to scrutinise the characteristics deemed conducive or detrimental to a sense of fulfilment within the remunerated employment sector, comparing the results in terms of job satisfaction with levels of contentedness within the unpaid realm in the home (thereby demonstrating once again that housework is indeed labour). Monotony is a “definite source of job dissatisfaction” within both spheres (p81). The picture proved more complex in the case of fragmentation (defined as “the experience of work subdivided into a series of unconnected tasks not requiring the workers’ full attention”, p82), since it represented “an expected and accepted quality of housework” (p82). As Oakley elaborates: “This is an instance of the general finding that aspects of work activity have the capacity to satisfy or dissatisfy people only in relation to the personal value put upon them. Job satisfaction or dissatisfaction is a function of the perceived relationship between what one wants from one’s job and what one sees it as offering or entailing. Since women do not see housework as a coherent, meaningful structure of tasks demanding their full attention, they are not made dissatisfied by its fragmented nature” (p82).

On the time pressure front, the “finding is inconsistent with the conclusions of various surveys of job satisfaction in industry, according to which a feeling of excessive pace is a potent cause of dissatisfaction. For the housewife the situation is complicated. Apart from the deadlines created by husbands’ and children’s’ needs, she imposes her own time pressures; these follow from the way she organizes her work and the kind of standards she sets herself. The interviews suggest that satisfaction or dissatisfaction are the prior conditions here, and that the feeling of having too much to do or not to do flows from them. A woman who is generally satisfied will organize her days so that she is not overcome by the many demands on her time” (p85).

Nevertheless, deadlines do have an effect: “So far as the housewife is concerned, time limits imposed by factors outside her control mean that the pace of work is too fast for each task to get the attention she would like to give it. Unlike many jobs, housework can often be done in a very short space of time without actually failing to be done at all. Cleaning may consist of a quick dust or ‘whip round’ for the harassed housewife (…). However, it is the housewife’s ultimate responsibility to see that all tasks get done properly. Neglect or minimization of a task is at best only a short-term expedient, and the housewife’s awareness of this fact causes time pressures to be felt possibly more acutely than they are in other kinds of work” (p87).

One area where a structural difference exists between work in the home and that performed in another setting (factory, office, etc.) is that of relative social seclusion: “Some degree of isolation is entailed by the housewife role, simply because housework is ‘home’ work, privatized and solitary. The housewife’s only faithful companions are her children. Satisfactory social relationships with adults thus have a heightened importance. But for some women, seeing and exchanging a few words with a number of other people during the day may actually be a source of negative feelings. The superficiality of these ‘social contacts’ acts to remind the housewife how critically important to her are the deep and meaningful relationships she lacks” (p91).

The housewife’s working hours are not subject to the strict regulations governing outside employ. Oakley calculated working hours on the basis of the description of the daily routine provided by her respondents. She excluded time spent in leisure pursuits, such as watching TV or reading as well as time spent outside the home in visiting relatives, neighbours or friends. Looking after the children did feature, however: “The care or supervision of children, though not strictly speaking housework, is included because in practice it was impossible to make an adequate distinction between the two activities of housework and childcare. (…) While doing housework they are responsible for children and must know what the children are doing: while looking after children they are almost always involved in housework activities. Changing a baby’s nappies involves washing those nappies [the disposable variety not yet having been invented]: feeding children entails (eventually) tidying up, cleaning, and washing up” (p92). Although she acknowledged that when visiting meant taking the progeny along it did strictly speaking fall under the heading of child care, Oakley did not count it. Likewise, although the children taking a nap did not absolve the housewife of her responsibility for them, the daytime hours they spent snoozing angelically was not comprised, unless the mother made use of the “interval” afforded by their slumber to catch up on other chores. The result: “The average working week of housewives in this sample is seventy-seven hours – almost twice as long as an industrial working week of forty hours” (p93). And, discouragingly: “Comparing urban Britain in 1950 and 1971, housewives have added seven hours a week to their working time during this period” (p93). Oakley then ventures a reply to the puzzling absence of a correlation between long hours of graft and resentment: “First of all, it seems that the housewife’s resentment of her long working hours is located by her in the context of a comparison between hew own and her husband’s situation. (…) the assertion that women work harder than men is part of a constant dialogue between husband and wife. A second answer is that long working hours are not a cause of housework dissatisfaction because they are an expected part of the housewife’s role. Like its fragmented nature, housework’s ‘never-endingness’ is so much bound up with the idea of housework that the two are not conceived apart. Housewives simply do not expect to work the same hours in the home as they would in an office or factory” (p95). One further qualification merits mention: “…working hours are more important to employed married women than to employed men, since they have the double burden of employment and housework” (p95).

A further facet of the concept of work relates to standards: “…for most people the idea of work contains some notion of externally imposed constraint. Even if one’s occupation is freely chosen, it usually carries with it a certain set of rules about what should be done, when, how and to what standards” (p100). To contend that housewives are exempt from such strictures is short-sighted to say the least. Although they are not formalised or regulated, standards of cleanliness assail the housewife from television advertisements depicting gleaming surfaces and pristine tablecloths fluttering in the breeze from the washing line above the trimmed lawn with scarcely a blade of grass out of place to the imperious mother-in-law running a critical finger over the top of the wardrobe to check for accumulations of dust. Oakley initially prefers to place the stress elsewhere, returning to her argument concerning independent organization of the tasks: “Housewives (…) are impressed by the freedom from the constraints of externally set rules and supervisions. However, a consequence of this autonomy is their responsibility for seeing that housework gets done. The housewife is her own supervisor, the judge of her own performance, and ultimately the source of her own job definition” (p100). The downside is that: “Gaining coherence and self-reward in their work, autonomy is relinquished and creativity constrained” (p112).

The psychological gratification emanating from observance of self-set standards and routines compensates for the stony silence of the spouse: “The husband is one potentially appreciative figure in the housewife’s landscape – but does he play this role effectively? Among these forty women none referred spontaneously to her husband’s comments as a source of personal reward for doing housework” (p104). Ironically, a wife-batterer is more likely to pay attention to the care and efficiency with which housework duties have been discharged, such as residue of dinner on a fork or dog hairs on the carpet, albeit as a pretext for lashing out with his fists.

Oakley then considers socialization and self-concept, highlighting the impossibility of disentangling the housewife role from the self-definition as female: “(…) the lessons of childhood, when girls learn to equate their femaleness with domesticity and female identities are moulded round the housewife role” (p113).

And: “The performance of the housewife role in adulthood is prefaced by a long period of apprenticeship. Housework is not unique in this respect: other occupations also have apprenticeship schemes. But a female’s induction into the domestic role – unlike these other schemes – lacks a formal structure, and consequently is rarely seen as an occupational apprenticeship. A main reason for this is that preparation for housewifery is intermingled with socialization for the feminine gender role in the wider sense. Neither in theory nor in practice is one process distinguishable from the other” (p113).

The outcome is predictable: “Through the integration of feminine role learning with self-definition, housekeeping behaviours tend to be developed as personality functions. There may be very little awareness of their connection with sex status” (p114).

Mothers function as role models, either positive or negative – their housework behaviours being emulated or rejected accordingly (pp115-7). Strikingly: “There are no social class differences in this crucial area” (p117). Where the family unit is composed of dual earners the woman is likely to succumb to “overconscientious adherence to conventional gender role stereotypes in domestic areas. The woman responds to the negative image of the cold, ‘masculine’ competitive female, and her enduring dedication to the ‘responsible housewife’ pattern is a denial of gender role deviation and an affirmation of women’s domesticated conditioning” (p119). Moreover: “(…) there is little support for the view that the domestic theme in women’s general situation has been substantially muted over recent decades. Employment figures show the continuing ‘domesticity’ of women’s work roles: the bulk of women workers in all industrialized countries are in teaching, nursing, shop work, clerical work and factories making domestic products like clothes and food. In Britain the concentration of women workers in traditional female occupations has increased, not diminished, over the last ten years or so. The expansion of educational and professional training opportunities for women has done very little to alter the concentration of female professionals in ‘domestic’ professions: most professional women are still teachers or nurses – both jobs closely allied with the traditionally ‘nurturant’ role of women” (p119).

When asked to jot down a list of ten qualities describing them as individuals (“I am –“), working-class women were twice as likely to portray themselves in terms of roles as opposed to personality traits (p125). Oakley attributes this marked propensity to the fact that such a test taps into two dimensions. Firstly, identification: “Identification is a profound conformity-base, a fundamental and enduring facet of personality. According to the classical definition, identification is the major process leading to internalization, and internalization is ‘a condition of incorporation of norms and/or roles into one’s own personality, with a corresponding obligation to act accordingly or suffer guilt’. When a norm is internalized, it is part of a person, automatically expressed in behaviour, rather than regarded in a more detached way as a rule external to the self” (p125). Statements about the self might not pertain to this, relating instead to second dimension, that of “the psycho-linguistic question of the extent to which self and (housewife) role are differentiated in the self-concept” (p125).

The self-definition as a housewife is likely to influence behaviour in a variety of ways: “For example, it is probably important in relation to educational or occupational choices; it may affect the nature of the marriage relationship, and also, very possibly, the way in which a mother brings up her daughters” (p127). The significance of this intergenerational effect cannot be stressed enough. Ultimately: “A fundamental challenge to the traditional equation between femininity and domesticity is hardly possible so long as the roots of domesticity remain firmly embedded in female personality and self-image” (p133).

Oakley devotes a chapter to a consideration of marriage and the division of labour. The entire structuring of society conspires to keep women chained to the kitchen sink: “Legal definitions current in our culture tie the status of ‘wife’ to the role of unpaid domestic worker. The husband is legally entitled to unpaid domestic service from his wife, and this is a right that courts of law uphold. National insurance and social security systems are based on the presumption that married women are financially dependent housewives, and income tax regulations take the same view; for example, because ‘wife’ means ‘housewife’, neither partner in a marriage can claim against tax the cost of paying a housekeeper. These legal constraints are, of course, supported by other economic, social and psychological pressures which weight the balance firmly in favour of the equation ‘wife equals housewife’” (p135). Less immediately obvious forces may also be at play here. Her husband’s career prospects may hinge on her compliance, for example: “…if a wife fails to play the supportive domestic role, the man may be handicapped in the demanding world of industrial management. Female domesticity is a necessary condition here. The pressures exerted on the organization of roles in the home by the husband’s involvement in his career are also pressures acting to confirm a woman’s identification with housewifery: this identification, laid down in childhood, is reinforced rather than eroded” (p152).

On the basis of the interviews, Oakley’s overall verdict is that: “(1) Only a minority of husbands give the kind of help that assertions of equality in modern marriage imply. (…) (2) Patterns of husbands’ participation are class-differentiated. (3) There is a greater tendency for men to take part in child-care than in housework” (p138). Exploring these in more depth brings out some hidden inequities: “Half the working-class husbands are low on their participation in both housework and child-care. The social class difference is greater in the case of housework than child-care, indicating a generalized preference for involvement in children as against the alternative of more washing up, shopping, cooking, washing or cleaning. For fifteen of the forty husbands there is, in fact, a discrepancy between their participation in the two areas. This means that a man’s performance of housework tasks cannot be predicted from his record in child-care and vice versa” (p139). Delving even deeper, however, reveals that men tend to monopolise the fun aspects when they look after the progeny (“The physical side of child-rearing is a mother’s responsibility. Fathers are there to play with children”, p154, handing baby over when a nappy has been soiled).

As Oakley clarifies, the division of labour is but one component of the marital relationship. Others may have potential to increase or decrease the housewife’s definition of and satisfaction with her daily round. At this juncture, Oakley introduces Elizabeth Bott’s notions of “segregated” and “joint” roles: “In the former, husband and wife have precisely defined and differentiated roles. Their division of labour separates male and female tasks; they also have different leisure interests and activities. In a joint-role marriage, on the other hand, there is a minimum of task-differentiation. Interests, activities and decision-making are likely to be shared” (p142). It emerged that: “Husbands and wives who share in one area also share in the other, and the same symmetry holds when the accent is on separation” (p142). Whereas in Bott’s estimation segregation and jointness extended to the marriage relationship as a whole, Oakley’s data did not paint such a harmonious picture: “(…) marriages characterized by jointness in leisure activities and decision-making are not necessarily those where husbands help a lot with housework and child-care; in a segregated marriage the husband may, conversely, participate domestically to a considerable extent. This is an interesting and crucial finding. It highlights the importance of taking into account the domestic task area where assertions of equality are concerned. Modern marriage may be characterized by an equality of status and ‘mutuality’ between husband and wife, but inequality on the domestic task level is not automatically banished. It remains; there are still two marriages – ‘his’ and ‘hers’. Not only is the level of masculine participation in domestic tasks generally low in the present sample, but an atmosphere of shared roles outside the housework/child-care sphere in some cases gives quite a false impression of sharing within it” (pp145-6). Oakley’s stance is corroborated by other research, leading to the conclusion that Bott has been successful in gauging perceptions as opposed to actual conduct (pp147-8): “It could almost amount to a process of double-think. Both husband and wife may believe that the man does more domestically than he actually does; in any case there is likely to be a gap between the general attitude and actual task-performance. (…) The distinction between attitudes and behaviour in this area is clearly of immense importance, since arguments about husband-wife equality in modern marriage are not only arguments about egalitarian attitudes, but about changes in behaviour which make new life-styles possible. The significance of married women’s increasing employment outside the home must, for example, be seen in the context of women’s role in marriage generally; if husbands do not in fact share domestic work equally with their wives then all that has happened is that women have acquired a new work role – employment – in addition to their traditional domestic one. In the present study, only a minority of husbands participate domestically at the level implied by the term ‘equality’, and the lack of congruence between the patterning of the division of labour and other areas of marriage suggests that a large pocket of domestic ‘oppression’ may be concealed in what could otherwise be described as ‘egalitarian’ marriages” (pp148-9). In short: “(…) the temporary rise in male domesticity during the period of dual-employment does not signify a basic egalitarian philosophy. There is a discontinuity between the division of labour in a marriage before there are children and the division of labour between husband and wife where the woman is not employed. When the wife ceases to work outside the home, the willingness of the man to help declines and the division of labour reverts to a more traditional pattern. The couple’s basic beliefs about male and female roles have not altered” (p159). Once again, “responsibility” rears its ugly head: “The question of responsibility is a critical one. As long as the blame is laid on the woman’s head for an empty larder or a dirty house it is not meaningful to talk about marriage as a ‘joint’ or ‘equal’ partnership. The same holds of parenthood. So long as mothers not fathers are judged by their children’s appearance and behaviour (and in dual career families it is the mother’s responsibility to find substitute child-care) symmetry remains a myth” (pp160-1).

Satisfaction with marriage is higher amongst women whose husbands are prepared to lift a finger rather than burying themselves in the armchair behind a newspaper (p149). As Oakley points out: “The housewife’s resentment of her husband’s non-domesticity is common: a corollary is that domesticated husbands are highly valued” (p150).

Her penultimate chapter focuses on children. A fundamental incompatibility exists between the role of housewife and that of mother: “The servicing function is basic to housework; children are people. Child-care is ‘productive’, housework is not. Housework has short-term and repetitive goals (…) Motherhood has a single long-term goal, which can be described as the mother’s own eventual unemployment. A ‘successful’ mother brings up her children to do without her” (pp166-7). A similarity in approach to the two roles was more pronounced amongst working-class women: “In part the equation between housewife and mother roles can be considered as a simple response to the situation in which women find themselves. The two jobs are carried out simultaneously, and there is a general lack of differentiation in social attitudes to women: ‘housewife’ means woman, wife and mother, and the separate components are rarely spelled out. The occupational description sanctioned by society for a woman who is at home looking after the children is not ‘mother’ but ‘housewife’. However the confusion between housewife and mother is also tied in with other facets of the – more typically – working-class orientation to children. Working-class women less often mention interest in the child as a unique individual (which does not of course mean in practice that the child is not treated as an individual). A greater importance is attached to the child’s public appearance and behaviour” (pp172-3). I would ascribe this concern with “respectability” to the tight budgets within which working-class women have to operate. They are not as well-off, yet strive to demonstrate that their children are fed and kept clean as well as any others (“dirt”, “lice” and other forms of “pollution” attaching themselves conceptually to the less favoured and the outcasts). To resurrect Victorian terminology, they may be poor, but they are deserving; their pride remains intact. Being poor is not synonymous with neglecting the children. The honesty and/or indolence of the underprivileged is continually judged by their “superiors” on the basis of signs such as dirt under the fingernails.

According to Oakley, in the middle-class group: “(…) there are many references to the pleasure in children as personalities that develop before one’s eyes, as active and independent people in the making, rather than as passive objects to be decorated and controlled” (p173). In her appraisal: “Such an approach is only possible where child-care is clearly seen as different from housework” (p173).

The aforementioned willingness of men to step in to pitch in when this does not entail excessive inconvenience can end up making matters worse: “Social isolation and constant responsibility bring about discontent. Competition with the demands of housewifery means that to the mother as houseworker the child is sometimes seen as an obstacle to job satisfaction; for the child, the need to juxtapose its demands with those of housework cannot but be experienced as frustrating. Although (…) men do something to remedy this difficulty by involving themselves in child-care, the trend could be seen as a retrogressive one from the women’s point of view. Playing with children, taking them out, and putting them to bed, are the child-care activities that men prefer. There is, apparently, a strong feeling against involvement in the work-like, routine, less pleasant aspects of bringing up children. This kind of enlargement in the father’s role is an unfortunate development for women, who stand to gain little from it but temporary peace to do household chores (…). At the same time, they lose some of the rewards parenthood offers. Satisfaction with housework may be increased, but only at the expense of satisfaction with child-care” (pp179-80).

Oakley does not view remunerating women for housework as a magic bullet: “The arguments seem to be that women should be paid for housework, and that if they receive a wage they would then be in s position to take further action to improve their situation. This seems to be false reasoning; a demand for wages is a move to affirm, rather than reject, the identification of women with housewifery. It is difficult to see how such a move would increase awareness of the many interconnected ways in which women are led to accept a secondary status” (p196).

What then is the way forward? Oakley’s closing words set out her stance: “The systematic correction of sexism in our society is an operation which has to proceed on many different levels simultaneously. Theoretical analysis constitutes one level; another level consists of the practical measures which must be taken towards institutional equality; yet a third is concerned with the erosion of biases against women in social attitudes. To argue that a greater emphasis should be put on the need for women to amend their own gender-divisive notions of a ‘woman’s place’ is not to deny the appropriateness of action on other levels. But, beyond these kinds of action, it remains true that one major limit to the possibility of change is the capacity to envisage it” (p197).

In the years that elapsed between Oakley’s brilliant investigation and Maushart’s secondary literature-based clarion call, external conditions (such as fiscal provisions, rules governing the workplace from prohibiting sexual harassment to outlawing overt discrimination) had improved. Indeed, housewives have become something of an endangered species. Surely we live in more enlightened times, reducing the relevance of the interrogation? Idleness is now the preserve of the super-rich and celebrities (little wonder that so many trapped in the daily grind aspire to fame – dreams, which certain of our “betters” continue to begrudge us).

Maushart wittily summarises the apparent seismic shift in attitudes: “Wives, it seems, have gone the way of patterned lino, fondue pots and ironed sheets – a cultural collectable now viewed with amused disdain” (p1). Once a woman does enter into a marriage, however, disillusionment quickly sets in. His marriage is still not the same as hers, in spite of all the media’s assurances: “Ironically, our belief that the two marriages should coincide, indeed that they must do so, has grown even stronger. Our new egalitarian convictions have made it even harder to penetrate beyond the veil, as it were. Both males and females in our society publicly profess their dedication to the ideal of what social researchers call ‘companionate marriage’ – a covenant between two equally loving and nurturant partners, in which the division of labour and leisure are negotiated rationally, equitably and, above all, without reference to gender.
But when a woman marries, what she sees is not what she gets. The exterior architecture of the contemporary marriage emphasises fluidity, simplicity and light. No wonder it’s got such fantastic street appeal. Venture inside, however, and you’re in for a nasty shock. Notwithstanding the tastefully renovated façade, the interior of today’s marriages remains as dusty, cramped and overelaborated as a Victorian drawing-room. It looks awful. And it feels worse” (pp2-3).

For all her effervescent humour, Maushart’s book makes for sobering reading: “Beyond the lip service paid to ‘equal marriage’ by both men and women, the contemporary family remains primarily, and profoundly, organised around gender. Beneath the veneer of its sleek post-feminist contours, the divisions of labour within the family remain rigidly gender-specific. Females within marriage are strenuously, overwhelmingly, outrageously responsible for the physical and emotional caretaking of males and offspring. (…)
Research conducted throughout the English-speaking world continues to show that wives, whether employed or unemployed, perform 70 to 80 per cent of the unpaid labour within families. And husbands whose wives work full-time for pay do no more domestic labour than husbands of women who are not in paid employment at all. What such dreary and familiar statistics conceal, however, is that wives also contribute 100 per cent of the husband care – the myriad tasks of physical and emotional nurture that I call ‘wifework’.
By anybody’s reckoning – if only somebody would reckon it – wifework is a time-consuming, energy-draining and emotionally exorbitant enterprise. Centred primarily on the care and maintenance of men’s bodies, minds and egos, wifework is a job that violates every principle of equal-opportunity employment – often, chillingly, in the name of ‘love’. For there is no counterpart to wifework, no reciprocal ‘husbandwork’ driving males to provide caregiving to their female partners at the expense of their own well-Being” (pp9-10).

Maushart sets out a comprehensive definition of what wifework entails, much of which sounds familiar from Oakley’s more dispassionate examination:
“Wifework includes:
Performing a disproportionate share of unpaid household labour (by conservative estimates, at least two-thirds of it, irrespective of Her occupational status – or His, for that matter).
Assuming total responsibility for His emotional caretaking (from organising His underwear drawer to arranging His social life).
Maintaining His intimacy needs at the expense of Hers (including relating sexually in a way that responds to His libidinal timetable and otherwise privileges His preferences).
Taking full responsibility for child-care drudgework (laundry, meals, tidying, homework supervision, shopping) so that He can enjoy quality time (games, sport, watching television with the kids).
Monitoring His physical well-being (providing a healthy diet, encouraging and supporting fitness activities, organising medical treatment, etc.).
Preparing meals tailored specifically to His taste, appetite and schedule.
Deferring to His agenda in day-to-day conversation (women initiate more topics, but men choose which ones will be pursued, demonstrating their conversational dominance by completing women’s sentences, interrupting and withdrawing attention when it’s the woman’s turn to speak).
Maintaining His extended family relationships (ringing, buying presents, sending thank-you notes, staging and catering family gatherings – and, most important of all, allocating mental space to remember all of the foregoing).
Laughing at His jokes. (I’m serious. People have studied this).
Wifework includes what Virginia Woolf called ‘reflecting a man at twice his normal size’” (pp10-11).

Clinging to the belief in equality in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary has now been given sociological recognition in the shape of a technical term, “pseudomutuality” (coined by Michael Bittman and Joyce Pixley): “A state of affairs in which both parties profess egalitarian ideals, and pretend that they are sharing equally, while still conducting their married lives according to more or less rigid gender-typed roles. Pseudomutuality is not simply a public pretence – not just a ‘front’ married people adopt to impress researchers or friends or neighbours. It is, rather, a front we adopt to impress ourselves, to convince each other that our marriages are fundamentally different from our parents’ marriages, that what seem to e enormous contradictions between thought and action aren’t, really” (p23). In other words, it denotes a form of denial, which, in common with its other manifestations “makes us feel more comfortable – at least over the short-term – by reducing the unbearable tension of collapsed boundaries, or shuffled priorities, or any other formerly stable structure in our lives that has begun to sway, buckle or disintegrate. We are most vulnerable to denial, in other words, whenever we are most caught up in change. Whenever the demand to adapt to a new set of conditions either outstrips our capacity to do so fully, or compromises our ability to do so without pain or awkwardness” (pp23-4). Pseudomutuality is adopted by both men and women “as an unconscious way to protect consciously and genuinely held beliefs. If those beliefs – beliefs about justice, equity, intimacy, sharing – were not important to us, we wouldn’t need to bother about subterfuge. The incongruities wouldn’t get to us” (p24). Far from being an aberration, Maushart considers pseudomutuality as the most widespread strategy for alleviating accumulated frustrations amongst middle-class men and women over the age of twenty-five (p24).

Subsuming wifework under ‘love’ is an act of self-deception, albeit one supported by the dominant cultural schema: “Love may be a many-splendoured thing, but it’s surprisingly monovariate. What is immensely diverse and changeable is not love per se, but the ways we translate it into action. To argue, therefore, that women perform wifework (…) because they ‘love’ their husbands is to confuse chronicity with causality. Women may love their husbands, and they may also perform wifework: but the connection is purely incidental. Wifework is a behavioural repertoire that may or may not be associated with a feeling state called love. Indeed, some of the most conscientious performers of wifework are those who regard their partners with a feeling state more closely resembling contempt. (…)
Performing services for men has become a conventionalised way in which women show their love for them. Yet the connection between the inner state called love and outward and visible signs like the nightly preparation of a ‘proper meal’, or ironed shirts, or regular sex on demand is no more intrinsic than the connection between, let us say, genuine commitment and the arrangement of carbon molecules we call a diamond. A diamond does not equal a commitment. Rather, a diamond can be said to ‘stand for’ commitment because of its beauty, its durability, its capacity to reflect light, its rarity and, of course, its price. (…) The relationship is a conventionalised one because it depends on a shared agreement about meaning” (p34).

She turns the question round: “Does the fact that men do not express their love for women by performing such services mean they do not ‘really’ care? The very idea is absurd. Yet this is precisely the sort of logic women use to defend and rationalise the status quo in which they find themselves mired” (p25).

Thus: ”There is nothing foreordained in our nature that makes the servicing of males by females either desirable or necessary – although there is much foreordained in our society that makes it convenient. Wifework is, in other words, an artefact of culture – a behavioural adaptation that arose, as do all adaptations, as a way to enhance survival. In this case, the survival of females and their offspring.
In all likelihood, wifework evolved as a form of barter between males and females. Well, all right. A bribe. The provision of a wide range of caretaking services was how females persuaded males to stick around, to share resources and to provide protection to offspring – generally, from the marauding of other males. This remains, albeit in different form, a primary benefit of monogamy for women” (p36).

Maushart then muses on the origins of patriarchy: “The most basic asymmetry between the genders – indeed, perhaps the only basic asymmetry – is the one that discussions of ‘equal opportunity’ are most likely to ignore. I refer, of course, to the fact that females give birth and males don’t. From this single anatomical acorn has grown the mighty oak of patriarchy: a social structure that systematically privileges males and all things masculine, while controlling and constraining females and all things feminine. In this sense anatomy really is destiny. Among other things, it destines females to hold disproportionate reproductive power over males – and it destines males to do whatever they can to even up the score. Biologically, females have the upper hand. But under patriarchy – the macrocosm, of which marriage is the microcosm – males are compensated by social and economic advantages so enormous, and so deeply entrenched, that most of the time we forget they are constructions at all.
It’s important to recognise that patriarchy is not simply one social structure among many that human groups may adopt. It is the social structure that human groups adopt” (p41).

Having explored the idea of reproductive power and the advantages to be derived from cleaving unto a single sperm-donor, Maushart comes back to her central proposition: “Monogamy offered males plenty over the long haul of their reproductive destiny. But if the compromise was ever to prove viable, it also had to dangle some carrots that could be enjoyed in the here and now – a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of monogamy go down. And this, I argue, was the evolutionary origin of wifework: the complex of services – sexual, social, emotional and physical – by which females have provisioned and protected males within the context of monogamous marriage” (p45):

Once the link between sexual activity and the reproductive burden had been severed, however, patriarchy’s days were numbered: “The Pill, which began by freeing sexual enjoyment from the spectre of unwanted pregnancy, ended up demolishing the biological bedrock of our entire social order.
Call it an unanticipated side effect.
Being female, post-Pill, means we are not who we were, who we have always been ‘by nature’. Our anatomy is still a good part of our destiny, but the twentieth century taught all of us that technology is destiny, too – especially when it enables us to exercise significant control over our bodies. It is almost impossible to imagine a biotechnology analogous to the contraceptive pill in its power to change our individual and collective destinies. (…) females who are able to control their fertility reduce their biological deficits drastically, while retaining all their former reproductive assets. Females who are able to control their fertility, in other words, tip the ages-old balance of gender interdependencies. Overnight (as it were) they need men a whole lot less than ever before. Eventually, and inevitably, they will need men a whole lot less than men need them. And when that happens, monogamy will tumble…cradle and all. Which is exactly what is beginning to happen.
Access to contraceptives has given females unprecedented power to break the endless reproductive cycling which has heretofore been their lot in life – and ultimately to disrupt the biological substrate from which patriarchy itself has grown. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that being female does not per se mean ‘weakness’ relative to males. It only does so in a species like our own – in which the processes of pregnancy, childbirth and lactation are so particularly depleting and in which newborns are so peculiarly helpless for such a long time” (pp53-4).

The “holy” state of matrimony was not immune to the assault either as an institution well past its sell-by date: “In the present circumstances, lifetime monogamy means females end up doing more provisioning, not less, assuming greater responsibility for the well-being of their mates than their mates do for them. Marriage asks women to spend the rest of their lives paying back a ‘debt’ that – thanks to contraception, formula feeding, child care and other key changes to the environment – no longer exists, or exists only to a trivial degree” (p55).

Maushart does not mince her words in demonstrating why marriage in its fossilised form exemplifies an increasingly raw deal for women: “Marriage is a contract. But no marriage is purely a legal agreement, or reducible to a set of religious prescriptions. Nor is marriage simply a covenant between two people – although in our romanticism we often tend to forget this. To us, it seems natural to imagine marriage as a highly individual enterprise and family life as something that, as we say, ‘goes on behind closed doors’. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Marriage is first and foremost a social contract, whose terms and conditions are determined neither individually, nor formally (that is, laid down by legal or secular laws), but collectively, within the context of culture. The most important sub-clauses of the marriage contract are surprisingly inflexible. You can bring your own agenda to marriage (…) but, in the end, the institution will exert its own imperatives. Some of these are as old as humanity itself; others are of much more recent provenance. Taken together, they ensure that marriage is quite literally bigger than both of you. It’s also stronger, older and incomparably uglier” (p58).

She reminds the reader of the historical background of the marriage covenant: “In the past, human society was constructed in such a way that females desperately needed to marry. Over many millennia, a social system evolved that institutionalised the dependency of females, investing males with hugely disproportionate power to control and direct resources. Under such a system, any woman who wants to survive, let alone to reproduce, has no choice but to marry. Not only to marry, but to stay married. Which is why ‘spinster’ is as much a socio-economic category as a socio-sexual one. Until well into the nineteenth century, any woman who managed to live outside marriage, or outside of service to a male-headed family, was by definition a woman of means. It is a sociological truism that unmarried males represent the dregs of society, and unmarried females the cream.
Conservatives who thunder that feminism has pulled the rug out from under family life are in many respects completely accurate. The fact is, what we are accustomed to call ‘family life’ – a monogamous unit designed to ensure the survival of offspring – has been predicated primarily on female enfeeblement, both biologically based and socially cultivated. Or, to put it even more bluntly, what keeps marriages together are wives who have no choice but to keep them together. What puts marriages asunder are wives with access to other options” (p60).

According to Maushart the incentives for getting hitched are still powerful: “In order to raise children, in order to obtain economic security, in order to establish adult identity in the community, and in order to experience love and companionship. These four needs – reproductive, economic, social and psycho-sexual – can be thought of as the pillars on which the institution of marriage rests” (p61). The grievances articulated by contemporary women, their sense of having been cheated arise from alterations in the wider social context: “The nature of our reproductive, economic, social and psycho-sexual needs has remained more or less constant. What has changed, at times dramatically, is how we prioritise those needs – which ones we tend to enshrine or celebrate and which ones we downplay or deny. Our needs are the same as ever. How we choose to assign meaning to them is not” (p61).

She then undertakes an architectural survey to ascertain the stability of each of these load-bearing pillars in the here and now. Firstly, the social and reproductive: “While it’s true that we of the middle-class no longer openly stigmatise single mothers, we do not really accept them as the social equals of partnered mothers. Even a child knows this. It’s the same with our attitude towards cohabitation. We see it as a kind of B-grade alternative to marriage, certainly not an equivalent” (p63). Single mothers have transgressed the norm and it is from this act of defiance that ambivalence flows. Cohabitation is still jokingly referred to as “living in sin”, but the tinge of disapproval intrinsic to this phrase is unmistakeable. It simply does not enjoy the same cachet as the ring and certificate authenticated relationship. Nevertheless: “Today, although I would argue that our attitude towards sole parents remains deeply conflicted, we increasingly ascribe [subscribe] to the notion that motherhood is the right of every female, whether married or unmarried. In the context of the history of human groups, a more revolutionary notion is impossible to imagine” (p63).

Single mothers do show that an alternative to marriage is viable, if not a bed of roses: “The gradual untethering of motherhood from marriage – and, by extension, of child care from wifework – is probably the single most explosive issue in the debate about the future of the family. It is a concept that has become even remotely thinkable only in the last thirty years or so, thanks to a convergence of technological innovation and economic upheaval. (…) To have babies without strings – i.e., men – attached is not simply a new lifestyle option. It is an almost unimaginably radical act of cultural subversion” (pp65-6).
In a nutshell: “the knowledge that women no longer need to be wives in order to become mothers (…) threatens to topple the last major power imbalance on which patriarchy still teeters” (p66).

The second pillar is the economic: “Ours is the first society in the history of human civilization in which marriage is pursued not out of need, but out of want – and which predicates family life not on the solid rock of reproductive necessity but on the gossamer wings of sentimental preference” (p78).

Returning to the social, there has been a steady erosion of the other “social dividends” (p83) of marriage: “(…) marriage has ceased to be the only or even the primary means by which females unambiguously attain adult status in the community. There are other paths to female adulthood now, other markers of social legitimacy. Entrance into paid employment, usually after a period of specialised study, is the most obvious one. So, too, is setting up one’s own home, particularly when it entails the purchase of real estate – milestones once inexorably tied to marriage for most women. Age is another factor in the changing status of marriage as a rite of passage. Even a generation ago, teenage marriage was commonplace. Today it has been relegated to a form of social deviance. (…) This dramatic demographic shift is more a consequence of social change than a cause of it; nevertheless, it is a by-product that has begun to function in its own right as a catalyst for further change” (pp84-5).

The final pillar is the psycho-sexual. Marriage is also failing to deliver what it promises, for example, intimacy where the gulf between His and Her marriage gapes wide (“As far as intimacy goes, men get what they need from marriage – either because women happen to give so much or because men happen to need very little”, pp81-2). Sexual activity has always been pursued outside of wedlock, although the penalties for breaking the Eleventh Commandment were severe. Now that “fornication” is no longer an unforgivable social trespass, sexual gratification can be indulged in without any formal ties uniting the partners. Marriage can douse the flames of passion rather than kindling them: “Erotic love, we are discovering, is not necessarily any more enduring within marriage than it is outside of marriage. Sexual desire fades, and it fades fast. And it fades faster still under conditions that are relatively predictable, secure and danger-free, and where partners enjoy unlimited and unfettered access to one another. And these are exactly the conditions created by any ‘good’ marriage” (p80).

In the chapter “Mars and Venus Scrub the Toilet”, Maushart dons her rubber gloves to wipe away misapprehensions about the sharing out of housework. Forty years ago: “Everybody knew that Her marriage was a site of on-going, unpaid domestic slog, and that His was a marriage of convenience” (p88). It would be more accurate to label a male spouse a source of “trouble and strife” than his mate: “According to Heidi Hartmann, a husband creates eight hours a week of extra physical labour for his wife. Beth Shelton’s 1992 study found that married women spend over five hours more per week on household labour than single women, whereas married men spend two fewer hours on household labour than single men. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, widows who are sixty and older do 25 per cent less housework than their married age peers – an awfully good reason to be merry. Widowers, by contrast, will find themselves doing 354 per cent more laundry, 226 per cent more cleaning and 208 per cent more cooking. Males who move in the opposite direction – that is, straight from bachelor pad to nuptial bliss – reduce the time spent on those tasks by 75 per cent, 40 per cent and 50 per cent, respectively.
Quite simply, the presence or absence of a wife is the main influence on the amount of domestic work performed by males” (pp90-1).

This impression is confirmed by Bittman and Pixley’s research: “According to their study of Australian households, wives do on average 90 per cent of the laundry and 82 per cent of all indoor cleaning and tidying. Figures from the US are very similar, with employed wives still performing an estimated 70 per cent of all unpaid labour around the home – and this in addition to as yet untabulated burdens of women’s mental and emotional responsibility for family maintenance, including but certainly not limited to planning and organising all this physical slog.
This is not to suggest that the division of domestic labour has been entirely preserved from social change, snap frozen like some kind of glacier pre-feminist beast. In fact, recent US research has found that wives have cut their average housework hours almost in half since the 1960s, while husbands have almost doubled their contribution. That’s the good news. The bad news is that even with these shifts, married women are still doing twice as much unpaid domestic labour as their male partners. And that is before factoring in time spent with children.
When it comes to child care, wives typically contribute five times more than their husbands do. At the same time, for every hour a husband spends cooking, his wife will spend three” (p91).

The sheer abundance of the available data is an indication of the extent to which the subject-matter has become a respectable object of sociological enquiry since Oakley’s day. We have not yet exhausted the available information by a long chalk: “Research compiled for the 1993 National Child Development Study in the UK showed that women do 77 per cent of cooking, 75 per cent of cleaning, and 66 per cent of shopping. A survey published in the same year found that only one British man in a hundred does an equal share to that of his wife. Figures from the US are very similar, with employed wives still performing an estimated 70 per cent of all unpaid physical labour around the home” (p92).

On the subject of the chores themselves, Maushart hangs out the dirty linen for public scrutiny: “…it is true that the least technologised household tasks – the most physically demanding and unpleasant ones – are also the least likely to be performed by males” (p93).

She begins with laundry: “British author Rebecca Abrams points out that even among dual-earner couples, 85 per cent of women do all the laundry and ironing” (p93). As she comments: “For my money, there is something distinctly maternal about the act of caring for someone else’s clothes” (p93).

This depressing statistic does not stand alone: “There are plenty of other unpleasant unpaid tasks which almost invariably ‘belong’ to women. Scrubbing the toilet, for example. In one recent study, 91 per cent of wives who described the division of household labour in their marriages as ‘fair’ took sole responsibility for this task. Appearances by the toilet fairy persist in nearly all marriages, regardless of spouse’s protestations of ‘equal sharing’ of tasks” (pp96-7).

The emancipated career woman is not let off the hook by virtue of her toil outside the semi-detached: “There was no expectation that a woman’s paid employment would purchase her freedom from unpaid domestic drudgery. On the contrary, wives’ paid work was regarded as a kind of privilege, by women and men alike. The price of that privilege was continuing to accept full responsibility for what we have now learned to call ‘the second shift’ at home. Those who baulked at this deal – or even those whose frantic efforts to fulfil it fell short – were branded as ‘selfish’: the most unwifely stigma of them all” (p101).

Such a mindset might rightfully belong to the dustbin of history, yet someone has forgotten to take out the refuse: “But surely wives who work outside the home for pay do less housework than their stay-at-home sisters? As a matter of fact, they do. It is just that the slack is not being taken up by their husbands. According to Steven Nock’s figures, US women were doing 2.5 times as much housework as their husbands in 1976. Ten years later, that figure had dropped to 1.9. Yet in absolute terms, men were not doing substantially more, but women were doing less. Estimates suggest that about two-thirds of the reported change in the Who Does What? ratio is due to a drop in women’s participation. In 1992, for example, Australian women were spending an average of two hours less per week on cooking than they had five years earlier. Did men cook two hours more per week? No, they did not. In fact, there were no significant changes in men’s participation in cooking in that period – although the women increased the time they spent on home maintenance and car care, traditionally husband’s business, by twenty-one minutes per week. The decrease in time spent cooking reflected a change in consumer behaviour, not in gender roles, as working wives bought more prepared foods and takeaway.
Women are also doing less laundry now – about forty minutes a week less over the five-year period to 1992. Part of the reason, say researchers, is that ironing is now more likely to be outsourced to a paid worker. Another factor, I suspect, is that employed women are less fussy about laundry. Non-essential procedures like starching, bleaching, fabric softening and pre-soaking are now as vestigial as a hand-cranked mangle. So too are the days when a woman’s self-worth was reflected by the whiteness and brightness of the clothes flapping on her rotary clothes-line” (pp102-3).

In other words, as Bittman and Pixley state, greater parity has its origins in women behaving more like men rather than men discovering the delights of tying the apron-strings around their waists and softening their calluses with mild green Fairy Liquid (p103).

Discouragingly little progress has been made since Oakley put pen to paper: “For it is still the case that the unpaid labour a wife performs is taken for granted, almost as if dusting or vacuuming or laundering were the discharge of some natural and therefore unremarkable function. In this sense, women’s work remains ‘invisible’ – as unnoticed as it is uncompensated. And this is the case both in our own homes and in the wider society. Men’s contributions to domestic labour, by contrast, are in many households still greeted with awe and ceremony, as befits an occasion. At the very least, wives are expected to show gratitude for a husband’s efforts. We thank them – often fulsomely, as we would a child who has folded his first napkin, or surprised us by packing away her toys. By doing so, of course, we reaffirm the very gender divide we think we are eliminating. And that’s frustrating. Realising that one shouldn’t feel grateful when a man starts doing his own wifework, as it were, doesn’t change the fact that one does feel grateful. And what about supplying ‘positive reinforcement’? It works with dogs and kids and laboratory rats. Why not with husbands? The problem, of course, is not the ‘thank you’ itself but its subtext – a relationship message that reinforces the perception that when a man does work around the house he is doing a favour, yet when a woman does the same work she is doing her duty. In a more civilised world we would all be thanking each other. But as it stands, the gratitude runs in a single and utterly predictable direction” (p106). I often catch myself using that very term when asking G to bring me the salt from the kitchen: “Would you do me a favour, pet?” As if it were an exceptional act of “grace” instead of it being self-evident or taken for granted that G should lend a hand. When the Hungarian issues a bald and barked command, G drags his feet to spin the process out as long as possible by way of protest. I manage to extract compliance with my gentler style and it is usually cheerful at that. G often mutters about being a “slave” when all he has to do is fetch a bottle of water from the veranda or a glass for me to pour it in. He normally brings me the plate with hot food on it when we eat together, his most onerous task in normal circumstances. My Mother’s daily request “Would you nick [nip] down to the shops?” was one I responded to with mixed feelings, my reluctance due in part to the embarrassment of asking for twenty Benson and Hedges or Embassy Regal in the days before such sales were banned to anyone below a certain age.

The refusal to take housework seriously, which Oakley distilled from the women’s accentuation of its physical and mental demands, persists: “Researchers have observed that domestic wifework remains invisible because males trivialise it. They do this in both conscious and unconscious ways. Almost all men admit to having lower standards for household cleanliness than their wives. What’s more, most of them are proud of it” (p107). Some types of housework are culturally defined as women’s, particularly those carried out exclusively in the dwelling: “These strong gender associations, researchers say, help explain why the contribution of males remains relatively unaffected by changes in hours of paid employment – either his or hers. A number of studies have even found that, for men, hours of paid employment are negatively correlated with hours of unpaid work around the house – in other words, he actually does less the more free time he’s got. Unemployed men often do the least of all occupational groups. Researchers tell us this is an ego thing that cuts directly to the core of masculine identity, and its horror of dependency. To avoid adding private insult to public injury, so-called dependent husbands may refuse to participate in ‘home duties’ at all” (p108).

Maushart’s insight that the degrading of the meticulous performance of housework to a pathology and by extension the attitude that those who force themselves to do it have only themselves to blame also forms part of the marginalisation strategy is perceptive: “I find it fascinating that we accept without question that there is a right and a wrong way to perform traditional men’s work – say, to change the motor oil, or mow the lawn, or hang a cupboard. Yet to most men, the suggestion that there might be a right and a wrong way to vacuum or fold a nappy or hang out the laundry inspires eyeball-rolling, or even disbelief. To me, this is another way in which we betray the very deeply held assumption that what men accomplish matters, and what women accomplish doesn’t; that what men know is knowledge, and what women know is prejudice. As a result, a woman who persists in framing housework as skilled work, and who cares about the results obtained, is routinely stigmatised as ‘too fussy’ or – the ultimate marital put-down – a ‘control freak’” (p109).

We are stuck in a collective groove: “Intellectually, we rejected the concept of wifework a long time ago. Emotionally and behaviourally, we remain stalled within the old patriarchal paradigm: the one that warns us that a good man is hard to find and even harder to hang on to – so if a woman is lucky enough to snag one, she needs to keep those puddings coming, for life” (p115). It would not be too far-fetched to look upon this as internalised blackmail: the nagging little voice at the back of your mind warning you that if he can’t get it from you, he’ll bugger off and get it from someone else – especially if you’re wrinkling and sagging round the middle. Disposable relationships are the downside of women’s freedom to bail out and the consumerist way of life.

The patter of tiny feet confuses the issue: “I believe there are huge and substantive differences between mothering on the one hand and wifework on the other. Yet conceptually, as well as in our day-to-day lives, we are prone to blur the boundaries of these two aspects of ‘women’s work’ – at times to the point where it is almost impossible to determine where child care ends and husbandcare begins. Women’s commitment to mothering is a social privilege – with attendant social liabilities – built upon the bedrock of biological necessity. We have a moral responsibility to mother our young, an urge we experience not as the result of some kind of ‘false consciousness’ or patriarchal conspiracy, but simply owing to the immense honour of being female.
Our ‘wifing’ is another story, of course – especially when it involves a felt imperative to mother men. This imagined responsibility has nothing to do with women’s biology, let alone our destiny as females. In the present environment, it is maladaptive for everyone involved – the women who stagger under its emotional and physical toll; the children who see Daddy, in some ways correctly, less a man than an overgrown sibling; the men who are both prevented and prevent themselves from experiencing parenting at full throttle. (…)
The only real revolution is that we now envisage parenthood and partnership as separate entities – divergent paths into unknown territory, rather than a convergence towards a foreseeable future” (p119).

The stork’s delivery of a squealing bundle of joy turns back the clock: “As (…) marital researchers have stressed, parenthood exaggerates and hardens gender differences within marriage, pushing husbands to become more ‘husbandly’ and wives more ‘wifely’ – and then leaving them there to get on with it. After the birth of her first child, the research suggests, a wife will do even more housework, cooking and shopping than ever before, and she will also work fewer hours outside the home and for less pay. And all of this will be in addition to assuming major, and in many cases overwhelming, responsibility for child care. The new father, by contrast, will perform even fewer household tasks, and work longer hours for pay outside the home” (p123).

Maushart offers little comfort for new mothers, laying bare shared parenting as a myth, thereby echoing once again Oakley’s conclusions: “Researchers estimate that, in the US, women still do about 80 per cent of the child care – as much as in the 1960s. And most of the time men do spend with their children takes the form of what sociologists call ‘interactive activities’ rather than ‘custodial activities’. In other words, Dads play – and Mums pay. According to research published in 1997, the arrival of a first child more than doubles a wife’s domestic load, working out to an average increase of thirty-five hours a week. One large-scale study conducted in 1991 found the increase in domestic labour to be as high as 91 per cent for new mothers – while the fathers’ (lower to begin with, of course) did not increase by a single minute. To put it bluntly, Mummy becomes the work horse and Daddy the show pony” (p128).

Although they have come a long way since Oakley published her volume, researchers have still not sloughed off their bad habits completely: “It’s not just couples themselves who misrepresent the realities of family life. Researchers have been known to do it too – like the investigators who counted child care as ‘shared’ if the husband looked after his children without the wife present ‘at least once a week’. Or the ones who were so determined to find evidence of shared parenting that they analysed the total amount of time fathers spent in the same room with their children! Subtler forms of misrepresentation, part of the everyday reality of most families, are even more insidious. Like the woman who boasts to her mates about how ‘lucky’ she is to have a husband who’ll ‘babysit’ while she works shifts – yet never mentions what it’s like coming home to a scene of domestic devastation and wakeful, unwashed children. Or the man who ostentatiously changes a nappy, while his wife hovers to whip away the soiled wipes, find the pins and – ultimately – scrape it, hang it on the line to dry, and fold it up again for next time” (p130).

Moreover, fathering consists for the most part of following orders: “It is precisely this mental work – the ‘remembering, planning and scheduling’ thing – that is the most arduous of all parenting tasks. It also happens to be the work that married fathers steadfastly avoid doing. Married mothers not only carry out the lioness’s share of parenting work, whether they work for pay or not. They shoulder the additional burden of administering the endless minutiae if family life – a task which consumes untold gigabytes of a woman’s intellectual hard-drive. Husbands may go shopping, but wives still write the list, Dad may take baby to the playgroup, but Mum will enrol her, pack her nappy bag, organise her lunch, and settle her to sleep when she comes back home again” (p131).

Maushart adds to the list of wifely chores contained in Oakley’s pioneering work: “We are now able to discern that domestic labour and child care are things that women do, rather than expressions of what women are. We remain very far from the same insight about the emotional caregiving wives lavish on their male partners” (p145).

This part of the job description escaped Oakley’s attention and not without cause: “Emotional caregiving is a form of wifework that most women perform so spontaneously, so effortlessly (or so it seems) and so successfully that it is rarely seen as a form of work at all, but rather the expression of an innate quality, a way of simply ‘being’ in the world. Yet it is clear that the skills of empathy and listening, the eagerness – or at least the willingness – to be emotionally ‘on call’ as needed, are primarily learned. (…) Historically, women have needed to be more aware of men’s feeling states than men have needed to be aware of women’s. It was all a part of the biologically driven process of catching a man, and continuing to hold him captive. Women’s superiority in emotion-reading may also have once served an important survival function, as an acquired compensation for their relative inferiority in the brute strength department” (p146).

The expectations generated leave a profound imprint on recreation: “In a study of dual-earner families during ‘crunch times’ – in the hour before leaving for work and school in the morning, and the hour upon returning home again in the evening – researcher Susan Donath found that in the mornings, husbands slept later, watched more television, spent 28 per cent more time eating breakfast yet 34 per cent less time cooking it, and exerted 67 per cent less effort in caring for the children. At the other end of the day, the picture was just as skewed. For one thing, three-quarters of all wives were already home by the time their husbands arrived. Wives’ first activities upon arrival were equally divided between household work and leisure/eating. For their male partners, by contrast, 71 per cent engaged in a leisure activity first, while only 28 per cent performed a household task first. Overall, in the first hour following splashdown, husbands spent forty minutes in leisure activities – or 25 per cent more time than their wives did. This included roughly twice as much TV-watching, about two-thirds more eating and drinking, and a third more sleeping. Only 8 per cent of males did not participate in at least one leisure activity in that first hour at home, compared with 17.3 per cent of their wives” (pp156-7).

The unvarnished truth is harsh: “When women walk out on their families for five hours on a Saturday, it’s called abandonment. When men do it, it’s called entitlement” (p159). Maushart is under no illusions: “Most of the time, the inequities in the distribution of leisure by gender are subtler, or at least more artfully concealed. Often, for example, a husband’s ‘long day at the office’ incorporates a multitude of opportunities for leisure and socialising. One common scenario sees him scoring brownie points for working from eight to six – during which time he manages to read the paper, take several coffee breaks, eat lunch at a café and catch up with the latest office gossip. Her ‘part-time’ hours of paid work from ten to four sound like a comparative doddle – and they would be, too, if she didn’t have the sole responsibility for almost everything else that keeps the household running: getting the kids off to school, picking them up again, planning and shopping for dinner (which she does during her lunchbreak), cooking it, supervising homework, organising baths, folding the laundry, etc. etc. The opportunities for ‘concealed leisure’ in such a schedule are few indeed” (pp159-60).

In addition: “(…) married women more often find themselves in the role of leisure facilitators than leisure consumers. Their ‘fun’, in other words, typically consists of arranging or attending recreational activities for the benefit of other family members. In extreme cases, wives’ leisure may be little more than a by-product of overseeing or witnessing the leisure of others” (p162). Whenever we would pick up Granny Wilkie for a “run” in the car, my Mother would make sure that the picnic was ready before we set off for Campsie Road and beyond. She would boil the eggs and spread Shipham’s chicken paste on the plain bread sandwiches (cutting off the hard brown crusts from mine) and store them all in Tupperware containers to keep them fresh. On one occasion her sister and family had driven all the way from England and we had agreed to provide the refreshments. My Father had volunteered to pack the goodies into the car. When we pulled over into a lay-by with an appropriately spectacular view of mountains and heather, she handed out the “pieces” and announced: “I’m gasping for a cup of tea”. Having located the Thermos, milk, sugar, mugs and teaspoons, she rummaged around in the boot, but could not find the essential ingredient: the tea bags. It had slipped my Father’s mind to include them. We stayed parched. He never lived it down.

Women are caught up in a Catch 22: “On the one hand, we live in a society which has constructed gender such that women are expected to find their primary gratifications through the gratification of others. Yet, on the other, we are quick to point the finger at women who have ‘made themselves’ subject to the ruling desires of men and children” (p162). Clearly, the same mechanism is at play as when the house-proud are construed as defective. “Doormat”, we sigh, shaking our heads with (condescending) pity.

Maushart breaks the taboo on discussing sexual servicing of males. Whilst the biological predisposition to be ‘in love’ for exactly eighteen to thirty months (p172), as Cindy Hazan ascertained in her major cross-cultural investigation into the phenomenon, the marriage vows are (in theory) sworn for life. Once love has evaporated, the attractions of carnal congress rapidly fade.

The proposition that intercourse could be an unwelcome obligation might elicit scorn in some quarters. The injunction “lie back and think of the Empire” ought to remind us that the idea is not novel: “Observers who use the word ‘work’ to describe the strategies used to manage a couple’s sexual relationship might in an earlier era have simply referred to a wife’s ‘duty’ to have sex with her husband or, conversely, to his ‘conjugal rights’ to have sex with his wife. Indeed, it is difficult to get one’s head round the notion that ‘wife rape’ was legal in the UK until 1991 [On the background to the landmark decision, see Helena Kennedy, op. cit, pp84, 112 and 130-3 as well as Jennifer Temkin’s Women, Rape and Law Reform, in Mary Evans (ed.), The Woman Question, Sage, London, 1994, pp276-302]. Prior to this (…) the marriage contract was seen as binding on women to provide sexual gratification to their partners. Refusal to do so was a breach of that contract, pure and simple. Under such circumstances, a husband’s resort to physical force was regarded as a legitimate measure. By contrast, British wives who have sought divorce on the grounds of their husbands’ loss of interest in sex have been laughed out of court on the grounds that such behaviour is ‘not unreasonable’” (p177).

Mill also broached the issue of marital rape, the delicacy of his phraseology not detracting from the vehemence of his denunciation: “Above all, a female slave has (in Christian countries) an admitted right, and is considered under a moral obligation, to refuse to her master the last familiarity. Not so the wife: however brutal a tyrant she may unfortunately be chained to – though she may know that he hates her, though it may be his daily pleasure to torture her, and though she may feel it impossible not to loathe him – he can claim from her and enforce the lowest degradation of a human being, that of being made the instrument of an animal function contrary to her inclinations” (op. cit, p33).

Even where abuse does not enter into the frame: “There is considerable evidence that the pressure on married women to ‘perform’ sexually may be greater today than ever. The ‘new’ sexual contract to which we are all now supposed to subscribe sees male and female erotic desires and entitlements as equal. In reality, however, that contract rarely extends beyond the courtship. (…) Almost all of us now believe that women, whether married or not, have at long last gained ‘permission’ to be sexual creatures. Yet for many married women, this gain translates into yet another obligation: a sort of imperative to be sexually assertive and orgasmic whether one really feels like it or not” (p180).

Sexologists offering counselling for couples whose sex lives have been “going through a sticky patch” have also in the past been blinkered by a male-centred bias: “In the 1970s, Alex Comfort’s hugely best-selling The Joy of Sex, for example, became the Bible for a whole generation of ‘adventurous’ married couples. Yet Comfort’s focus on male sexuality was relentless. He was forever admonishing readers to consider ‘what the male turn-on equipment requires’. It was as if the female ‘turn-on equipment’ somehow didn’t count, or maybe didn’t even exist. English psychologist and sex therapist Paul Brown recounts with appropriate horror some of the ‘good advice’ he and his colleagues were giving clients in the 1960s – like prescribing copious amounts of lubricants to combat vaginal ‘dryness’. Eventually, Brown reports, ‘we understood that to ask a woman to use cream to aid penetration when there was no excitement, and hence no lubrication…was much the same as asking a man to tie a splint to his penis if there was no erection’” (p183).

Whereas advances have indisputably been made in the realm of remunerated work, inequality has still not been eliminated altogether: “In our society, males remain not just slightly but quite significantly more likely to earn a higher salary than females. Despite our laws governing ‘equal pay for equal work’, the pink-collar ghetto is alive and well, and ‘women’s work’ continues to be systematically undervalued in occupations ranging from hairdresser and child carer (vis-à-vis, say, mechanic or plumber) to teaching, the ‘caring professions’ and the wide range of people-skill occupations in areas like human resource management, marketing and tourism and hospitality. Even in professions where women have made impressive inroads, such as medicine and law, females continue to dominate the ranks of the ‘unspecialised’ and command proportionately ‘unspecial’ salaries” (p194). The concentration of women in certain functions extends as far as ministerial posts. If this seems exaggerated ask yourself how many women Chancellors of the Exchequer you have ever seen holding up the briefcase on the doorstep of 11 Downing Street? Managing the economy is depicted as technocratic and male. Even the “environment” portfolio has caring, “feminine” connotations. Women ministers are most likely to put in charge of the family, women’s rights (equal opportunities), employment, health, social affairs, culture or development departments– seldom trade or industry. (Although it may be objected that development is equipped with a major budget, it can hardly be regarded as the government’s priority, nor is the money spent at home where votes are at stake). My boundless juvenile admiration for Thatcher was based solely on her attainment of power (to maintain that I was politically naïve at that stage in my life would be extremely charitable). However, her ascent was not without cost. The sobriquet Iron Lady betokened her defeminisation: such a creature could not be soft, tender, yielding, kind or maternal. The metallic, robot-like associations emphasised her hard, cold, ruthless, bossy, domineering side (as did her predilection for “handbagging” her opponents), the underlying message of her aberrant nature (having renounced all womanly attributes) that femaleness and power don’t mix.

Maushart fails to address the age factor as an incentive for “working at” a marriage, which to my mind further saps the will to fight for improvement: “For many women, the simple answer may be that they would rather live with wifework than without it – in the belief that living without it would mean living without marriage, and possibly without men, altogether. (…) it seems to me that so many women are willing to settle for the wifework contract not because they believe it’s fair, but because deep down they don’t believe there’s an alternative. Choosing to remain married, they may ultimately and not at all unwisely decide, is choosing to compromise” (p214). I would call this acquiescence, this “making do”, inertia (to which I am not immune). Inertia does have its compensations, especially where the relationship is not falling apart at the seams. It can be like settling into a comfortable old armchair. However, it can contrive to keep you in a relationship that has gone stale and brittle like old bread. The fear of being rejected, of being “past it” intensifies with the passing of the years. What can crudely be dubbed the “market value” (sexual attractiveness) of a woman diminishes with age, although, in theory at least, a “good worker” would be a “good prospect” at any age. Indeed, domestic responsibilities for the housewife do not miraculously disappear with age, not even on retirement from paid employment – when the husband might be “getting under her feet” (to quote my Mother’s lament, although she also complained bitterly about “the bloody ambulance” [my Father was a volunteer Red Cross trainer for 33 years and a St. Andrew’s Ambulance Association First Aid provider at outdoor and other events for the last seven] and my Father’s obsession with it, her being left alone in the evenings the result and his destruction of the front garden, digging up the lawn and replacing it with gravel so that he could park the vehicle without blocking the driveway shared with the neighbours) to a greater extent. One of her fridge magnets encapsulates the reality succinctly: “Just when a Mother thinks her work is done she becomes a Grandmother”. The exorbitant cost of child-care and chronic shortage of funded nursery places have forced many less well-off working mothers to rely on the family network. Where children can be dropped off in the knowledge that their well-being is not at risk, nursery opening hours do not take proper account of the length of shifts or that women too might have careers (as opposed to part-time, “pin money” jobs). I digress. Society deems that men and women age differently. This is at its most conspicuous in relation to fertility. To quote from Jenny Hockey and Allison James: “By contrast with older women, whose recent access to new reproductive technologies and post-menopausal pregnancy has attracted scathing criticism, the persistence of a sexualised identity into later life among men has been endorsed by Viagra. Indeed, this extension of a sexualised identity, including the capacity to procreate, is seen as a cause for celebration rather than concern, even though children born to men at the very end of their lives are unlikely to receive their social or emotional support as death may quickly intercede” (Social Identities across the Life Course, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills, 2003, pp150-1). A famous example of paternity well into old age was that of Charlie Chaplin. Contrast this with the coverage of retired university lecturer Adrienne Iliescu’s delight at falling pregnant with twins after ten years’ worth of treatment at age 67 (The Times voiced the thought lurking at the back of many people’s minds when it recorded: “She added that she was optimistic about her future as a mother, claiming that her family had a history of longevity”). The assumption behind the unwillingness to embrace the new technology wholeheartedly is that the man is expendable – if he snuffs it, the children will still have someone left to tend to them. In other words, a woman is presumed to be hovering in the background – a younger wife ready to step in when baby gets too fractious or too heavy to dandle on his ancient knee. The repugnance at ageing females reflected in the imagery of drying out (wizened old crone, prune face) is bound up with the reproductive cycle. The deleterious effects on post-menopausal women’s sexual desirability is of course socially determined. Being surrounded by a gaggle of simpering, lissom blondes continues to be one of the trappings of success irrespective of a man’s chronological age, whereas a woman is “over the hill” at forty (if she’s lucky and is still fairly trim). The boundaries are slowly being pushed back, however, and the inversion of the demographic pyramid may yet act as an agent of change for the better. Sexual activity amongst the elderly is no longer frowned upon to the same extent (although sleeping arrangements in retirement homes usually segregate the sexes). Indeed, keeping fit and aerobics (which could easily be subsumed under wifework) prolong one’s sexual marketability by preserving a youthful body. All too often though frail old ladies are elbowed aside as a nuisance and greeted with unconcealed impatience in the post-office or checkout queue when they do not melt into invisibility altogether.

Maushart predicts that divorce rates will keep on soaring: “We are so accustomed to thinking of marriage as something women need to do, a favour that men might or might not bestow, that we have not yet assimilated how decisively the balance of power has shifted, how far the ‘economy of gratitude’ has been redistributed between the genders. If the institution is to survive, marriage will have to become ‘fun for the woman’ as well, in ways entirely unprecedented in human history. If men cannot manage that, then it will increasingly be the case that women cannot manage marriage” (p230).

As the comparison between Oakley and Maushart’s respective diagnoses of the phenomenon of unremunerated labour in the home shows we are – sadly – still waiting for the breakthrough in spite of the protestations of non-culpability on both sides of the gender divide.

Just how deeply unfashionable housework has become in the meantime is shown by its treatment in the media. For example, the results of a study carried out by Professor Daniel Kahneman, Princeton University, originally published in the journal Science (A Survey Method for Characterizing Daily Life Experience: The Day Reconstruction Method, Vol. 306) made it into the tabloids. The research involved 909 employed women filling in questionnaires in which they had to jot down a brief outline of what they had done the previous day. The average age of the women in the sample was 38 and the average household income $30,000 (note that no mention was made of how much she contributed to the total). Each activity was given a rating, from zero (not at all enjoyed) to six (very much enjoyed).
An article in the right-wing Daily Mail [which I occasionally dip into to remind myself of how precious my core values are by scanning a paper that glorifies their antithesis] summarised the findings as follows: “In an ideal world, a busy woman would love to spend more time with her spouse.
But in the real world, he falls well down the list.
When it comes to her favourite things to do, she much prefers socialising with friends [cf. Maushart’s observation: “In one study, wives were twice as likely as husbands to describe a relationship with a best friend as ‘the person closest to them’. In another, 64 per cent of married women said they were more emotionally intimate with other women than with their husbands. Other research has shown that wives are less likely to talk over problems exclusively with their spouse. Husbands, by contrast, are far more likely to name their wives as their best friends or most trusted confidantes. The conclusion is inescapable. As far as intimacy goes, men get what they need from marriage – either because women happen to give so much or because men happen to need very little”, op. cit, pp81-2].
Then there are eating, exercising and slouching [note the value-judgement laden choice of verb] in front of the TV.
Only then comes her husband or boyfriend – and that’s just because she prefers spending time with him to doing the shopping and working.
And it turns out she only marginally prefers spending time with the children to doing the housework or even commuting.
The findings suggest that while many women dream of domestic bliss, the reality of family life is often very different”.
And: “Being alone emerged as the least favourite way to pass the time (3.4), followed by commuting or being with the boss (both 3.5), working (3.6) and doing housework (3.7)”.

The word “housewife” conjures up an image of a 1950s-style perfectly coiffured, miraculously manicured woman clad in an apron with pockets, pushing the vacuum cleaner with a cheerful grin showing off her flawless pearly white teeth, brisk and efficient, mindlessly cheerful. I used to look down on housewives as pampered, lazy parasites who had never been required to develop their intellectual faculties (partly motivated by envy as I too had fallen under the spell of the dominant paradigm about housework not being work and knew that I would never be able to afford the luxury of releasing myself from the obligation to earn a wage). Brillo pads, Mr. Sheen, Brasso, scouring powder, bleach, chemicals poured down the plughole (the public information film admonition against putting Paraquat in lemonade bottles under the sink as baby might drink them replays in my mind’s eye) and disinfectants her paraphernalia. Nowadays clean is not clean anyway – the housewife must banish not only visible dirt, but menacing, unseen bacteria must be also be extirpated (cf. Germaine Greer’s wonderfully sardonic: “A mythical battle has to be waged by the houseworker against germs, depicted as intelligent beings of deviant appearance lurking under the rim of the toilet ready to infect helpless kiddies if the houseworker should be so remiss as to allow a single one to survive. There are more ‘germs’ in her mouth and under her fingernails and in her hair than there are under the rim of the toilet, but the houseworker is not told this. Her vocation is to rid the world of germs with the aid of a knight in shining armour, a genie in a bottle, a white tornado. This is housework as heroic exploit. The houseworker can only know that she has done her duty when she has squirted bleach-based agents into every nook and cranny of her house, even down the drains. Houses no longer smell of cooking; they smell of cleaning” in The Whole Woman, Doubleday, London, 1999, pp131-2).

I decided to subject our domestic idyll to critical scrutiny. The Hungarian oozes self-confidence, secure in his masculinity. Circumstances dictate that he must stay at home, thrusting me into the traditional breadwinner role. I do not want to fall into the trap of discounting his non-monetary input: he is far cheaper than G’s nanny could have been (purchasing the house was predicated on the massive saving made by having him around when G comes back from school).

We have “outsourced” (Maushart) most of the boring slog to our cleaning lady (funding her studies). The main drawback to relying on her services is that she does not rinse the dishes, leaving an unpleasant taste of washing up liquid on the cups and plates. I have no intention of wasting water or ripping out my fitted enamel cupboards by investing in a machine. Germaine Greer discusses another gender-based double standard with customary frankness in conjunction with this unavoidable chore: “The men who leave ziggurats of dirty dishes festering in the sink are actually involved in a power play which they have no intention of losing. All they need is to exploit inertia and wait it out. Sooner or later the woman will give in, because the squalor is not held against the menfolk but against her. A man who is slovenly and untidy is considered normal; the woman who is either is a slut or a slommack or a sloven or a slag. A woman who is dirty is dirt. The external attribute becomes a moral quality, as it does not for a man. This works both ways; a house-proud woman equates her spotless house with her virtuous self and derives her sense of self-worth from the orderliness of her cupboards rather than qualities of her mind or soul”, op. cit, p134). Whenever she is on holiday or sitting exams, the Hungarian relents and does the washing up (related to his cooking duties). In his words: “Washing the dishes doesn’t make me less of a man, it’s a question of intelligence”.

The cleaning lady also mops and vacuums the cherry-wood parquet in the living room and bedroom as well as the hallway floors. After her weekly visit the washbasins and bathtub gleam. The length of her absences can be read from the toothpaste stains, tidemarks and the build up of hair around the plughole. Yes, it’s true that plastic filters can be fitted to prevent such inconveniences, but then the cleaning lady would be deprived of the opportunity to squirt the notorious De-Stop, a liquid so noxious it was employed by a local serial killer to dissolve the hacked remains of his victims – bones, teeth, the lot, into the dark orifice. At his trial, forensic experts at his trial gave a demonstration to the jury using parts of a bovine carcass. The dust on TV screen and my brother’s “Wash Me” message on the living room window pane (written with a saliva-wetted finger in the first week of July) betray that we do not expect her to do everything.

I collect the empty plastic Coke and Irn Bru bottles as well as the Spa Fruits of the Forest mini-cartons with straws, which the Hungarian and G leave lying around – squatting next to the computer or the red top protruding from underneath the sofa – and deposit them in the blue bag for recycling when I cannot abide the mess any longer. My own still mineral water is always thrown out as soon as last drop is poured into my plump glass. They don’t really pay heed to tidiness and neither do I for the most part (I tolerate the disorganised stacks of DVDs in front of the player – though that is due more to my acute awareness of the chronic lack of shelf space).

I remember my trips to the launderette during my single mother years with a shudder. I would stuff the bags full of vomit-dribbled romper suits and musty socks on to the tray beneath the pushchair (my Grandfather’s last gift) and walk the twenty minute distance come rain or shine. On arrival I would cajole the machine into coughing up change for the tokens to buy sachets of powder and fabric softener (preferable to lugging a box, which might get soaked underway in inclement weather) as well as for the slot in the washing machine and tumbler drier. Although I never failed to arm myself with a tome, I rarely had the chance to read as planned. Many of the other women insisted on smoking (replacing the fragrance of flower meadows with eye-watering smoke) and chatting. I had to keep G entertained (a problem I also encountered every time I had to forage for food in the supermarket, all in all a physically arduous experience without a car). Now when the laundry-basket is full or when I need work clothes prior to departing on a mission, I pile the dirty clothes in, add the powder in the pull out compartment, choose the settings and switch it on. The Hungarian drapes the soggy garments over the clothes horse in the freezing hallway between the garage and the bathroom. I am always reminded of my Mother’s preference for fresh air over mechanical drying – it was not a superstition, she was right about the freshness. If he is distracted (you could be forgiven for mistaking him for a bio-extension of the computer, attached at the keyboard), I need to remind him, sometimes more than once when it has a stale, sour smell, having started to rot in the metal drum. He also has to remove the dry clothes to make space on the horse. It would never occur to him to fold or sort them; they are instead unceremoniously dumped in a massive heap on one of the chairs in the living-room (which nobody can use to sit in as a result). I retrieve my own tops, knickers and other items and assign them to the relevant mound in front of the bookshelves in the bedroom, folding the work ones. He and G haul items from the chair assortment as necessary – permanently creased and wrinkled. My Mother and Father splashed out on an ironing board and iron for me when I moved into my first flat in Waffleland. I never used them more than once or twice (I don’t wear blouses precisely because they require ironing) and when we escaped the city for the leafy suburbs we didn’t lug them with us. The Hungarian periodically complains (usually when G cannot find his gym kit or runs out of clean socks) that G should take his trousers, T-shirts and fleeces up to his room and put them away neatly in the drawers– blind to the inconsistency of his reaction (G is merely taking a leaf out of his book). We are very utilitarian when it comes to clothes. The Hungarian has two pairs of jeans, which he alternates until they split or wear out. I too have a limited number of outfits, which I swap intermittently. I have to dispatch G and the Hungarian to the casuals warehouse (less than five minute’s walk away) to ensure he has decent gear to put on, otherwise he would be perfectly unabashed about wearing tatty old rags, which the school authorities would interpret as a sign of neglect. Neither of them is fussy about how they dress. I spent a fortune on a beautiful tailored overcoat for the Hungarian and a pair of expensive brogues to match. Only once when we were invited to an ambassador’s party did he slip into them (in the case of the shoes I absolve him, as his feet bleed from a stray nail digging into his flesh, a condition exacerbated by tight footwear). They often seem allergic to smartness.

G wouldn’t even flush the toilet at one stage and I would be confronted by the unedifying sight of a brown aura of suspended particles around the deposit. Nor has his aim always been accurate: “Mindent össze-vissza huggyozik a gyerek!” [“The kid is pissing all over the place!”] the Hungarian would cry in exasperation. If the cleaning lady has not come for a fortnight it smells like a public convenience and I leave the disciplinary supervision of the wiping up to my other half.

The Hungarian also does the necessity shop. If I feel like a stroll by the wine racks and frozen peas I accompany him (very rarely the case). He brings in the carrier bags and he and G put away the spoils in the fridge or on the kitchen surfaces (never in the cupboards, although, to be fair, there isn’t much room next to the pots, pans and unused teapots).

He likewise deals with placating G’s teachers and representing the family at parents’ night.

We don’t make the beds because we each have a separate duvet (until very recently I snuggled beneath a Pierre Cardin sleeping bag with a broken zip). When I cannot endure looking at the patches of leaked menstrual blood and other unmentionable blotches any longer, I encourage the Hungarian to strip the sheet off the mattress and wash it.

As far as the dust under the futon is concerned (the acid test of who will crack first), the cleaning lady will vacuum it once a year or so. The reason why the bookshelves do not call for more than a swift running over with a cloth is that most hold a double row of volumes.

Cooking. For breakfast I usually wait until I arrive at work (an allongé and a couque au chocolat my staples), as I am seldom hungry on getting up (I have to leave before G in the mornings to catch the bus). The Hungarian used to make him bacon and eggs (it was a short-lived phase, as G takes after me– we have tried every means to coax him into eating, cereals of every description, from chocolate-coated flakes to sugar puffs, which he inevitably tires of within the space of a week). Currently he sets off with a multi-vitamin tablet and “fortified” juice to keep him going. We only ever breakfast together at weekends or during holidays. The Hungarian goes to the baker’s for fresh rolls and spicy tuna or whatever filling we ask for. I brew my own coffee – he can sometimes be persuaded to join me. When he does, the mug is filled almost to the brim with whole milk, leaving it colder in temperature than I can bear to sip it. This is how he copes with its weakness, an electric jolt of espresso his true preference. Dinner is the one meal we sit down together for on an almost daily basis. We do, however, have a higher proportion of take-aways in our diet than would be conducive to our health (a problem compounded in my case with regular work-dictated travel, necessitating reliance on hotel room service and restaurants in general). Whenever he is out repairing a computer or otherwise engaged (normally in game design) we are left to our own devices, which boils down to nagging him to pick up the phone and place an order with the Indian or the Thai once the rumbling tummy can be ignored no longer (the predilection for spicy dishes is something we have in common – G’s Ethiopian nanny was an excellent cook and spoiled us with her homemade n’gera and rich hot sauces).

I have eschewed all “feminine” handicrafts such as knitting, sewing and embroidery since Mrs. Clucky’s reign of terror in primary. Every time a lesson with the ill-tempered battle-axe was scheduled, I would come down with mysterious stomach aches or bronchitis attacks. She would rap your knuckles hard with a wooden ruler if you did not stitch quickly enough for her liking and she took it into her head that I was a shirker. I never did master the art of purl (as opposed to plain stitch) and developed a scathing contempt for all non-academic subjects. “Home Economics” (by which gender-appropriate behaviour and ambitions were bludgeoned into us) with its cooking and cleaning tips I dismissed as a particular waste of time once I reached secondary. Until then, my Father dutifully consumed the dishes I prepared (reheated omelettes, iced buns and flat sponges), feigning appreciation so as not to hurt my feelings. For a brief interlude in Primary Seven my teacher allowed me to do woodwork and I became quite handy with a fretsaw.

My Mother kept the house scrupulously clean. One of the indicators of her declining health in my Father’s eyes was that she had lost all interest in it. He didn’t mind that she had delegated the maintenance to him: it was more that it laid bare her state of mind. He tried to cajole her into tagging along with him on excursions to the supermarket for the sake of the exercise, but to no avail. I am deeply ashamed that I rarely lifted a finger to help her when she was still radiant with well-being until I was converted to Christianity as a teenager (in the sect’s parlance “born again”). My reasoning along the lines that if I were to set an example of ungrumbling virtue it might assist in converting them. So I would hang out and take in the washing, vacuum downstairs and help her to make the beds. She never uttered a complaint about the mind-numbing drudgery and always thanked me for drying the dishes. I used to joke that she had “asbestos hands” as she held them under the running hot water whilst peeling the tatties, carrots and neeps, a tape playing in the background, or a quiz on the local radio station. She was always on the go: dusting the glass-fronted cabinet with its glass shelves, ornaments and china, polishing, kneeling on a mat to scrub the kitchen linoleum. When the carpet was to be shampooed she rented the equipment. It was a treat to drive with her to “do the messages” [shopping] (or take the bus when I was younger). She always bought me magazines. Weeding the garden, watering the flowers, growing (and stewing) the rhubarb and the tomatoes in the greenhouse she counted as relaxation.

I was vehemently opposed to marriage and childbirth (to the extent that I refused my rubella vaccination when I turned 16 on the grounds that I had no intention of ever becoming pregnant), both of which I regarded as equivalent to a lobotomy. When my Father berated me for failing to do my share of the chores I retorted that in later life I would pay someone to do them for me, which is precisely how it turned out (although at the time it seemed like an impossible and therefore impertinent goal). I stuck to that line of defence and he eventually gave up – it became one of the yardsticks by which I measured my subsequent success (the other being the mortgage – my Granny Wilkie, Granddad, parents and brother all live(d) in rented accommodation).

The right to be exempted from housework is still very much a part of the cultural construction of (heterosexual) masculinity. The Hungarian voiced his scepticism over the “housework conspiracy” thus: “Don’t explain with sexism what you can explain with sheer laziness”. The impotent rage that filled me in the wake of THAK’s “drowning episode” has convinced me that the male refusal to intervene except under duress is nothing other than pure power play. He was pretending to watch a film on television as a pretext for ignoring my increasingly desperate requests to the effect that even if he did not want to bathe the bawling G himself he could at least take over for a minute or two whilst I organised the clean nappy and towels. Too frightened to take out his displeasure on me directly, he inflicted it on a helpless infant too young to support its own head, submerging him while his tiny limbs flailed and his face turned bright red. Appalled and terrified that he would drop G or bang his skull, I begged him to give him back. Once he had made his point, he relented. Our relationship died that afternoon.

To their credit, none of my gay friends suffer from the curious masculine aversion to housework. Whereas it is correct that they have a higher proportion of disposable income to spend on ladies to do the ironing and cleaning as well as on dishwashers, I have by the same token never heard any of them gripe and their dwellings are always immaculate. An article (A Neat Solution) in the Independent [my newspaper of choice] from 14th July 2004 corroborates my experience: “(…) a recent survey by Outlet, an accommodation agency targeted at gay and lesbian tenants, found that 67 per cent of landlords would prefer gay tenants to their straight counterparts. The landlords surveyed said gay and lesbian tenants were more ‘easy-going, clean and open-minded’”. The journalist interviewed John Wilson, a customer service assistant at London Underground, himself gay: “Wilson agrees that gay people make better tenants. ‘Because they’re quite image-conscious, they keep a tidy house. Gay people tend to be more sociable too, so when you bring people home you are very houseproud. Also, in financial terms, most gay people are professionals and only have themselves to support, so that’s a plus for landlords’”.

Who could forget the wonderfully subversive Freddy Mercury in the video for I Want to Break Free (the setting selected to go with the title no coincidence) as he pushed the vacuum cleaner in his curler-strewn wig, clinging pink top and false boobs, thigh-exposing skin-tight black leather miniskirt and fishnets – the perfect illustration of domination and its sexualisation? He winks at the camera, he can escape, he’s only playing at the role temporarily. Annie Lennox in the Beethoven video for the Eurythmics by contrast attempts to convey how being a housewife can drive a woman to distraction. In a plaited navy skirt, hideous (and frumpy) floral print blouse and drab, mousy wig she knits, folds a turquoise hand towel discarded on the bedcover, draping it over the rack in the bathroom, takes the Ajax to the washbasin, wipes the cabinet doors and the floor tiles, plumps the pillows, arranges the flowers in the vase, polishes the shelves, vacuums the rugs, chops cucumber and carrots and sticks skewers at weird angles into a corncob (all three phallic vegetables). In the meantime, a pre-pubescent girl smears lipstick on at the dressing-table before skipping around wreaking havoc, unpicking the knitting, knocking the record collection to the carpet, scribbling with crayon all over the cupboards. She symbolises the untamed anarchy of the rebellious little girl in all of us, whose naughtiness has been painstakingly suppressed. The inner tension of the housewife is expressed by Lennox rocking back and forth whilst clutching a cushion and wandering from room to room. The moment of meltdown is signified by her transformation into a disobedient sex goddess, her make-up employing the same colour-scheme of the girl and her new white-blonde shock of a wig set off by her low-cut, slinky, supremely impractical gown. Cackling with maniacal laughter, she empties the contents of the dust-bag everywhere, ecstatically tottering on her heels, scattering cornflakes from an open packet as if it were champagne froth. The clip closes with her walking along the street in her new garb, confident, sleek and feline.

Tuesday, 12 October 2004

Barley Sugar

Filed under: — site admin @ 10:04 pm

The sole commuter on the bus carrying an umbrella (having lent too much credence to the London-area forcast and its implications for the precipitation levels in Waffle Central) I spotted another abuse of my mother tongue on a local authority-sponsored poster. A stick figure pooch in punkesque spiky collar obediently waiting for his owner to remove the offending object he had just deposited on the flagstone. “I’m training my master” and “Tidiness is everyone’s business” the captions. So far, so good. The receptacle intended to dispose of the offending article, however, was labelled “doggy bag”, not quite what we had in mind when we invented the phrase. Imagine coming home from a party or a wedding with an abundant spread: “I brought you a doggy bag, dear, thanks for babysitting”. Instead of a slab of aromatic fruitcake with marzipan and icing several inches thick or salmon paste sandwiches – let’s not dwell on the idea.

It also occurred to me during my inbound journey that playing a clip of the Smash Martians could be the most effective means of providing a palatable introduction to sociology. The televised advertisements for dehydrated potato flakes (simply add boiling water and stir) featuring these characters were extremely popular in the late 1970s. On board a flying saucer a Martian teacher switches on the display screen at the beginning of the daily lesson in front of a class of eager pupils (the Martians are not organic life-forms, but robots). The subject is whimsical and outmoded Earth customs, more specifically food preparation. A housewife is shown peeling and chopping a potato, a spectacle, which causes the alien observers to collapse with mirth, such primitive methods having long since become obsolete. The jingle (”For mash get Smash”) is played above their helpless laughter.

The lessons (by no means an exhaustive list):
1) When viewed from the outside, any practice can take on an air of eccentricity. This points to the essential arbitrariness of all interactions: the “natural” comprises a socially determined artifact of (broad though never absolute) consensus.
2) Technological advancement is routinely associated in our culture with superiority. The Martians are the functional equivalent of 19th century explorers, pitying the poor humans and distancing themselves from them simultaneously. Backwardness (equated with relative lack of technological sophistication) is an unenlightened and undesirable state of being and must be overcome.
3) The overt message needs to be interpreted against the backdrop of a dense tissue of meanings and connotations (specific contextuality). Appealing to the viewer’s sense of humour is clearly not a disinterested act: the purpose of attracting public attention is to shift goods. The choice of a science-fiction trope may be motivated by historical factors (the popularity of the Daleks and other non-human creatures at the time), or it may comprise an oblique (comic effect-enhancing) comment on our inflated self-perception (we consider ourselves the most highly-developed society on the planet, hence an extra terrestrial has to be roped in to take us down a peg or two).
4) Stereotypes and norms are depicted in an apparently uncontentious manner conducive to reinforcing them (the gendered division of labour evoked by the simple device of a woman’s hand scraping off the vegetable’s outer skin is taken for granted).
5) Human intervention is presumed to add to the value of a raw commodity. Processing ennobles: lost vitamins are put back in greater quantities than were originally present, making the finished merchandise more nutritious. Interestingly the image on the packet shows a serving of steaming mash indistinguishable from its conventional counterpart, with a knob of melting butter and sprig of parsley on top (which suggests that stressing artificiality is not necessarily the main selling point).
6) The consumerist ideal attaches importance to innovation and convenience. The advantage of Smash is the speed with which it can be prepared. It liberates the buyer from the drudgery of bending over the sink, collecting and throwing out the unwanted, inedible peel. No fuss, no reddened hands from running the soil-dirtied potatoes under the tap. Labour-saving solutions are at a premium.
7) Even the seemingly most trivial manifestation of our culture can unearth a great deal of information concerning our thought-processes and everyday conduct.

A similar analysis focusing on the equally popular flat-capped, “trouble at mill” Tetley Tea men or the PG Tips monkeys could be every bit as instructive.

In my youth, the targeting of children by advertisers (beyond a few brands of crisps and confectionery and the innundation of toy-related spots in the run up to Christmas) would have been regarded as blatant and distastefully predatory, in short a breach of propriety. Innocence has waned with the advent of niche broadcasting and channels dedicated to specific age groups in the digital age. Now Barbie with her vacuous, high-maintenance smile, jet set lifestyle and unattainable figure beams from the screen every ten minutes or so. Alongside literacy and numeracy our diminishing numbers of offspring require training to become fine, upstanding, discerning consumers, susceptible to persuasion and enticement, discouraged from extracting greater amusement from climbing into the box the present arrived in than the educational or entertainment-oriented piece of gaudy plastic itself.

Saturday, 9 October 2004


Filed under: — site admin @ 10:00 pm

[To Gy, 15th December, 1997]

On the train to S, apart from reading Elias’ “The Established and the Outsiders”, which contains a number of resonances paralleling my experience of growing up in a working class suburb of a predominantly middle-class town where the two communities lower in the hierarchy lived either in the new council estate (NM, the district most prone to flooding, the plight of its residents making the front pages of the national dailies a couple of years back with pictures of soldiers evacuating them in rowing boats) or the longer established, but poorer area of old-style tenements, HC, I caught sight of an article in The Times, which is thematically linked to the problems of social values and dominant standards/ideologies/depictions since it deals with another group of outcasts, namely the non-slender.

Apparently a 15-stone woman (if I recall this constituted the sole reference to her physical characteristics or personality bar a mention of her height, i.e. this woman is being represented exclusively in terms of her weight, as if that were the sole factor of any importance in classifying individuals, her intelligence, purchasing power, taste or whatever else counting for nothing in comparison though, to be fair, a photograph of her was included), an American, is suing Mohammed Al Fayed for having his security guards eject her , creating the impression amongst other customers that she had been caught shoplifting, although she had just spent £1,500 on goods in the store. The pretext was that she did not conform to the dress code imposed on clients of the establishment, even though she was wearing an outfit that she had previously purchased there, comprising a pair of leggings and a jumper priced at £250 (information provided to indicate that she was not unsuitably attired). Moreover, her mother (presumably slim, although this was not specified), wearing virtually identical garments, was not forced to leave. The security guards informed the hapless woman that Mr. Al Fayed did not approve of the way she was dressed. She claims that she is the victim of “sizeism” and it is on this basis, as well as the injury to her feelings, that she is taking him to court.

The presentation of this article is extremely informative as to the underlying values of society at large. The title was, if I recall correctly: “15-stone woman sues Harrods for ‘sizeism’”. Immediately the weight commands attention. This could be justified by the nature of the claim, but why the emphasis on the precise figure? It is quite deliberate. Her clothes size is also referred to in the piece. The figures carry with them a classificatory and evaluative significance replete with a set of cultural connotations. She was reported to be staying in a hotel where room prices start at £300 a night. She works in the fashion industry (not normally associated with fat women) and counts a top designer, Zandra Rhodes, amongst her personal friends. This establishes her credentials: she is aware of fashion, appearance-conscious and unlikely to be badly turned out (she herself emphasizes these points by stating that she deliberately wears expensive clothes to compensate for her weight and that she had just returned from an appointment with the beautician), that she is affluent and a successful businesswoman, in short, a far cry from the stereotype of a “loser”. To that extent, she confounds prejudices. Her status rating is high, her disposable income not negligible, she can afford to display the trappings of success (as determined collectively). The treatment meted out to her is not commensurate with her standing or her value as a customer (she had loyally shopped there for over a decade, but has now vowed never to set foot beyond the revolving doors again).

She was also continually referred to as “Ms.”, a designation supposed to lend an element of ambiguity, rejecting the notion that a woman can be defined by her relationships, but which here reveals what it is intended to disguise. Fat women are not deemed attractive, whatever other attributes they may possess, so we conclude that she is on the shelf.

Elias’ argument about the means of retaliation being deprived the underdog is valid here. All she can do (beyond setting a legal precedent banning discrimination on grounds of body shape, and sadly, I do not rate the chances of a verdict in her favour very highly) is to employ a negative strategy of protest, which entails denying herself the pleasure of shopping in Harrods.

It raises the issue of depiction and reality and how depictions affect social realities. Women whose body shapes do not conform to the prescribed (and coveted) supermodel skinniness make up the overwhelming majority of women, yet they are the ones plagued by feelings of inadequacy and denied access to public spaces, so intolerant has media-obsessed society become. The lesson from the Harrods incident is clear: appearance is everything, the prohibition against excess fat so strong that to accumulate spare tyres is to forfeit the entitlement to respect. Even visibly encoded membership of an elite is no protection from the revulsion elicited by breaking the obesity taboo. Snap judgements dominate where complete superficiality has become the norm. The ideal functions as a form of covert (and oppressive) control, enjoining us to squander time and energy that could more fruitfully be spent in other ways. How is it that the majority becomes convinced that it is, in fact, the minority and that it lacks value? Is it lack of visibility or public profile?

I suppose the ancient mechanism is at work again, mischievously. Belonging to the majority ceases to be the prized condition as scarcity increases a commodity’s worth. So the ultra-privileged, ultra-thin women make an ostentatious show of their superiority in rank and wealth by flaunting their lack of feminine curves in the latest ultra-extravagant fashion creations. Perhaps, in its extreme manifestation, it is a denial of mortality.

By the same token, it is widely held to be the case that being overweight in our society is a marker of chronic poverty or underprivilege. The badly educated, lazy lower orders are encased in lard because they wallow in their ignorance, too idle to boil fresh vegetables. Again, as Elias writes, the deadly (as opposed to the venial) sin is attributed to the most vulnerable and despised group.

Next to the article was another publishing the results of a recent survey according to which fat people are more likely to be less well off, less well paid, in less prestigious jobs and more miserable than their slim counterparts. Again the message is unequivocal: extraneous rolls of flesh condemn you to a second class existence. Now you know why I detest reading newspapers (!)

Back to pattern reproduction. What I pinpointed with the shrink was something I had attempted to convey to her, but which she had failed to grasp until, rubbing her hands with glee, she managed to latch on to an aspect of my childhood that could have laid the foundations for later behaviour. It is my paranoia, or what I would dub as “hostile world” syndrome. My experiences have affirmed for me that the outside world, comprising everything and everyone outside my immediate home environment is a threat, a potential aggressor or source of hurt and loss. Apart from my closest friends, I can trust no-one in society at large. I cannot admit them into my emotional life. I must defend myself against them (largely achieved through rejection) and defend my child against their depredations since all that they want of me is to strip me of what I love and care for most. Oddly, through the article it occurred to me that my continued transgression of the weight norm confirms me in my belief, my cognitive strategy for dealing with life, the basic premise of which is that everyone (potentially at least) loathes me and that my destiny is to be repudiated. Latterly, rather than fuelling my indignation and drive to achieve, it has been sapping me. Irritatingly, if I have nothing to keep me down I fear that a vacuum, a quintessential bankruptcy at my core will be exposed. Perhaps it is life itself that terrifies me. It is certainly not death. Ceaseless activity is for me an amulet to ward off even greater calamities. What worries me is that I might unwittingly pass on this pattern to G, thereby permanently injuring the innocent party in the equation who does not deserve such a fate.

Being celibate in itself does not worry me overmuch. That I often obsess about it is connected to my outrage about the accompanying labels: superfluous, unbeddable, sub-human. Just because I am a single mother – the reasoning goes – does not mean I am unattractive. I did not become pregnant in a desperate effort to trap a man. In one sense I can wear my celibacy proudly like a badge, proving that I am not “after” a partner. However, such assurance requires a greater sense of self-worth and confidence than I can muster. I want to dissociate myself from the stigmatised genus of which I am part (single parents). To achieve this I need a partner, even if just a sex partner without lasting commitment. If I were thin, I would know beyond doubt that my celibacy was a matter of personal choice rather than a captive and externally imposed state of inevitability from which I am preordained never to escape. I am in a weak bargaining position because of my weight and in spite of all the other advantages I am fortunate enough to be able to boast of. The weight, that most absurd indicator of worth with its overlay of moral proscriptions, is the only one to matter (carry weight!) in the eyes of others.

Saturday, 25 September 2004


Filed under: — site admin @ 9:47 pm

[To Gy, 27th January, 1998]

Further to our phone call yesterday, here are my thoughts on dynamics in “partner relationships”:
My basic premises are as follows:
1) Need automatically entails loss or relinquishing of power. When subject to need, you are no longer entirely autonomous or in charge/control because need implies abandoning self-reliance, becoming dependent on someone else to a degree. If you want, but do not need by contrast, you do not relinquish power, but gain it.
2) People change over time and with experience. This change is reflected in their needs and wants. Hence, though there are needs that have great longevity, their perceived avenue of fulfilment might change radically.
3) Passivity is morbid.
4) We cherish ideals and expectations. These are streamlined and inspired by society and lifestyle.
There are four possibilities in relationships:
1) Need, but don’t want (the specific individual)
2) Want, but don’t need (you towards me, then)
3) Both need and want (me towards you)
4) Neither want nor need.
The remedy to my dilemma, it would seem, is to teach myself to want but not need (since to neither want nor need seems a bit Utopian). To eliminate the urgency of need and its resulting tyranny.

The Nature of Need

Society provides us with a definition of appropriate goals, expectations and needs (this applies both to our immediate social environment and to the broader society in which we live). For example, a woman, in order to be happy, fulfilled, to be a “real” woman, conforming to norms, needs a man. She is deemed incomplete within herself. And vice versa. However, power disparities attached to gender stereotypes and roles come into play to tip the balance against the “weaker” sex. The associations that immediately cluster around the concept of “spinster” (no longer a fashionable term because of the negative connotations, the less wretched-sounding “singleton” its substitute) illustrate this principle (and it is worth recalling that the underlying expectation is that she will be celibate): dry, infertile, wrinkled, warped, frustrated, desperate, useless, superfluous, defective, frigid, unattractive, envious, spiteful, grudging, grim, sour-faced, wizened.

Compare this with bachelor, where the underlying expectation not that he will be celibate, the moral censure originating from his lack of seriousness, his commitment-phobia as he prefers to sow his wild oats: irresponsible, prolonging “youth” (failing to take on the responsibility of family life), selfishness, hedonistic, playboy, footloose and fancy-free.

Consumerism is need-driven, devising deficiencies, exploiting our insecurities and prescribing the cure, whether it be a vaginal douche spray or roll-on deodorant, a high-performance sports coupe that does nought to sixty in three seconds or an exercise bike that records the pulse. Of course, it is seldom as clear-cut as this. We no longer inhabit a society where sexual behaviour is restrained by prescriptive morals to the extent that women are forced into involuntary celibacy because a wedding ring does not grace the appropriate finger (the penalties for transgression severe: single mothers being spirited away into asylums until more recently than I feel comfortable thinking about). Nowadays they are every bit as free to play the field as their male counterparts (although there are still no equivalent terms of censure for males as “slag” or “slut”, proving that the hypocrisy of the double-standard continues to find fertile soil). Female single-ness still possesses a slightly different quality in spite of the opening up of access to higher education and opportunity. However, the atmosphere is more relaxed now that God has been deposed and women marry later (as do men) because they are able to establish themselves independently. Economics and feminism have bolstered each other.

Specific needs vary for each individual. I can give the fullest account of what I believe I require of a potential partner if the relationship is not to be doomed from the outset:
1) Similarity of habitus. Convergence of outlook, tastes, interests, appreciation of culture (incorporating the highest Culture as well as the “common” culture of the B position into which I was born). Eclecticism, but free from snobbery! Ideally that he should speak Hungarian, enjoy operas and art exhibitions, have a European background and play badminton.
2) He must be at least as intelligent and self-aware. I prefer to consort with those who can teach me something, who can encourage me to try out new experiences, such as eating revolting things! If he cannot be more intelligent, he should at least be more experienced.
3) He has to be strong within himself and stable. He must be tolerant and accommodating or else he will not be able to cope with my thirst for drama (heid-banging), which differs from that of a certain other person’s [the reference is to a former lover of his from Wales who instilled in him a deep and irrational loathing of the natives of that beautiful land] in that it does not seek to hurt or destroy others, it is not at their expense, at least I never deliberately intend it to be so, though I concede it sometimes ends up as having that effect. I crave drama as it reminds me I am still alive. I tend to fluctuate between two extremes: extreme joy/ecstasy and extreme despair. If I am not in love, I might as well be dead. Between these two extremes lies emptiness, nothingness.
4) Independent. Increasingly (no doubt a by-product of age and enforced isolation as well as my innate hostility to compromise) I cannot put up with or accept any constraint on my freedom. I do not want a freeloader. I refuse to be a mother to a grown-up child. If he is not self-sufficient I cannot respect him. His does not mean he is not permitted to need me, however. The bottom line is that he must not stifle or place restrictions upon my independence.
5) Creative. Creative enough to understand the process of producing art (and the temperament that goes along with it). Preferably not so much more brilliant that the relationship degenerates into a competition/rivalry scenario.
6) Equal or higher income (though I would waive this if the other criteria were met. Unless he had already retired I would not be willing to be the sole earner. I would not be willing to sacrifice myself as the sole earner whilst being leeched from. By the same token I would not live a parasitical existence.
7) Greater status/consecration, to elevate me by association. This is why I am instinctively drawn towards older men with their accumulation of economic and symbolic capital as well as of experience. It also accounts for my constant use of the pronoun “he”, in spite of my ambiguity. A woman, to be a viable partner, would have to be remarkable to compensate for the relative lack of status-enhancement she would bring.
8) An external factor: my moral predicament: I cannot abide the idea of dominating someone, preferring the position of subordinate partner. This has the added benefit of absolving me of responsibility (a belief which may well be fallacious). There is, however, only a certain amount of subordination I can bear (the difference between subordination and subjection). I would have to be aware of being loved and cherished.

I reckon this slightly diminishes the number of potential partners out there.

How it goes wrong
1) The gulf between expectations/requirements and practice yawns too wide, becoming too painfully obvious.
2) The disparity in terms of needs and wants between the partners is too great.

Possible outcomes

1) Best case scenario. Both partners have their needs and wants satisfied by the other. Match between needs, wants, aspirations. Both need and want the other in identical measure. Best prospect for the relationship to be lasting and meaningful. I could achieve this with a higher status male, all other factors being equal.
2) Neutral scenario. With a lower status male or female of any status. I want, but don’t need. I can take it or leave it. The balance of power is in my favour. It chafes because I allow no leeway for development. A long-term relationship cannot develop because it does not conform to my ambitions. It does not measure up to my perceived needs. Therefore it is inherently futile and self-defeating, its only worth as a fall back option, a faut de mieux, a stopgap (crude pun). Good for me, harmful to the other.
3) Worst case scenario. I need and want (the partner corresponding to the ideal or as near as damn it as I am ever likely to come in this flawed world) and the partner wants, but does not need me. Does this sound familiar?

Result: I will want, hope and strive for (at this juncture the quirks of my personality enter into the equation: investing everything, since I set no limits to the partner’s entitlement, what he may ask of me or claim from me – reciprocation, though not demanded in kind, is still needed to an extent) something I cannot have.

This is a classic mistress situation. I have to serve the lover, fit in with his plans, relinquish all idle dreams, put ordinary life on hold; I become dependent, powerless, resentful, my hopes continually dashed, indignant (why do others get their way whereas I am constantly thwarted?). There is little room for development or “progress”.

I automatically defer to higher status males, accepting a subordinate role (you are a consecrated expert in possession of a healthier symbolic capital account; JMCD belonged to the nobility). As soon as I recognise the higher status it triggers the need/want response. I have to prove to myself and to the partner that in spite of the gap I am nevertheless worthy of love and affection (usually by flaunting my intellectual prowess).

When you need, you can’t just walk away; you can’t simply take it or leave it. You are simultaneously crippled by need and sent hurtling out of control.

Compounding difficulties:
1) I cannot accept chronic, abject, hopeless subordination. The catalyst for my self-destructiveness was the realisation that a potential partner for me did exist after all: this partner, withholding fulfilment through no fault of his own (already married when we met) torments me by demonstrating that consummation of desire is not a mere mirage or delusion, but a genuine possibility. Yet he remained unobtainable. Full circle (the parameters not permitting any realistic hope of change) = grudging self-denial (particularly with JMCD over the three years when everything I built up was cruelly swept away, recurrent setbacks catapulting me back to square one) = impotence = suicide. Therefore I must avoid becoming involved in such entanglements, keeping myself out of harm’s way. This would be far easier if I could eliminate need.
2) Structural contingencies: the high status males have usually been snapped up long before they have achieved peer approval.
3) My pathological fear of betrayal. To compensate, I engineer non-viable associations. I am protected since the breakdown, when it inevitably occurs, is not due to some innate shortcoming or defect within me. I am not cursed with hamartia and the failure cannot be attributed to me either explicitly or implicitly. The paradox is that I create loss in order to avoid more calamitous loss (my self-worth derived from outside myself). I cannot be let down or disappointed since I expect to be abandoned. By feeding my pessimism concerning male nature, I emerge intact (which would not be the case if I selected someone available, as some of the blame might rest with me and I would have to face up to my own blemishes). At the same time, my ideal is preserved unsullied, rare and priceless.

I would like to contrast your attitudes to physicality and sex with mine. For you, physicality is a resource, for me a burden, an encumbrance. It is an inescapable precondition of consciousness (until technology advances far enough, that is). You and I both believe that there is no after-life, which imparts a certain urgency to our dealings. This existence is all we have (hence my enveloping sense of gloom). We each have coping strategies. Yours first. You extract the maximum pleasure out of life/physicality/intellect. You in-corpor-ate physicality into your total life experience and thereby enhance it. It is not a zero sum game, as it is for me. Growing older might impair your sensory avenues of appreciation/savouring pleasure, lending it a depressing connotation. You are open and tolerant of deviance from the norm in others because you understand the processes at work that engender them. You discern, in other words, the social attribution of meaning to physicality and, armed with these insights into society, are at liberty to make your own judgements and decisions unencumbered. Moreover, you conform to the mandatory slimness/fitness norm to a greater degree than I. For you, sex is beneficial exercise, conquest a source of excitement and swelling, fecund anticipation, variety a challenge. For you, sex is both enjoyable in itself and an end in itself.

I, by contrast, having hauled myself from the clutches of Christian dualism, find that the scars of it silver my flesh. For me, physicality is irrelevant at best, oppressive at worst. I am not at ease in my body, unlike you, as I am overly aware of the judgements of others. Physicality detracts from my total life experience. I refuse to pander to dress norms (so do you, but you can afford this affectation as it represents a legitimate and acknowledged position-taking in the academic milieu, a healthy disdain for externalities, whereas in my working environment a rigid, conspicuous consumption and ostentation-oriented dress code, commensurate with the dignity of the institution, eccentricity the mark of the pariah). I do not wear make-up. I too have a high tolerance for deviance. I despise bland conformity because it denotes weakness, capitulation, compromise. I reject standards thereby coming into conflict with mainstream society (and other representatives of my profession) because I stand firm in refusing to pay lip service to the context-specific meanings it attaches to physicality. I cannot escape being judged unless I withdraw altogether, an impossibility given my obligations.

Sex is not an end in itself. I feel animosity towards others who seek to impose their definitions and heap moral censure on me. The media howl that if you are not sexually active you are missing out, worthless, you do not count. It makes me feel inadequate. Because sex (as opposed to masturbation) requires a partner I resent those who withhold or deny me this “pleasure”. I actually refuse to concede the existence of pleasure: for me there is only necessity, momentary relief and further necessity. Sex is conformism. Sex is a tool, a means to the end of obtaining love and security.

Back to the phone call. Whereas there is not a complete homology between your approach to food and sex, the overlap is substantial. If there were a complete homology, you would not eschew certain sexual practices such as anal sex or S and M. Shocking others gives you a kick (me too) because it is rich in dramatic effect, confirming you in your individualism and giving you power. You push boundaries. You have great openness, energy and a ceaselessly probing curiosity.

Because you take immense delight in transgressing boundaries (though you are least inhibited when you are fairly certain of the territory, knowing you can “get away with it”), you fall under the spell of “boue”. The forbidden lures you. Hence you are turned on by my ambiguity. It is attractive rather than repellent as you are well-balanced and secure within yourself (it does not threaten you). It defies conventions and breaks taboos. In fact in that respect I go further than you.

You are uninhibited in your enjoyment, unashamed of it (unlike me who cannot admit pleasure without feeling undermined, compromised or guilty). You revel in your orgasm as much as you wallow in your depression (the latter sin I am no stranger to myself).

Remember that the analysis is detached and clinical, the precision of a surgical scalpel, free from all trace of accusation or recrimination. I have nothing to forgive you for.

I hate being alive, really. All this futile and undignified struggling.

Friday, 17 September 2004

Late Nectar

Filed under: — site admin @ 9:39 pm

[To NM, 17th August, 1997]

Dear N,

I am sitting in the garden at my friend’s house in Hellerup. The wind bears the traffic hum from the motorway, a plane drones overhead, a lawnmower works in the distance. The poppy heads are green, like pepperpots, soon they will scatter their seeds; the tomatoes ripen in the evening sun, the apples rot on the branches, red and green paprikas hang listless, a bee’s wings vibrate noisily as it attempts to land within a recalcitrant host, cornflowers white, pink and (my favourite) blue fill the borders and a single dark dahlia curls, shrinking away from the heat. The lawn is half brown, but not overgrown, a tended space. I watch the bubbles rising impatiently in the bottle of lemon-flavoured mineral water. Children are playing beyond the fence. A wood pigeon croons. The bricks beneath my bare feet are still warm, though the sun is gradually setting between two fir trees. Rhubarb grows by the plastic barrels that catch the rainwater and soon I shall have to fill the can and relieve the thirst of the pot-bound. I was too lazy to catch a bus or an S-train and, on the way here, asked the taxi driver what the weather had been like. 31 degrees, sunshine, not the merest wisp of cloud. Summer at last. A vine crawls up the bricks beyond the guiding confines of the lattice. I can look through the stair window from here – her volumes of Hockney. Thistle-down floats idly on the barely perceptible breeze – fairy godmother – catch her, make a wish and set her free. In her gratitude, she will make your wish come true.

A fragrance of tea roses – magpie overhead – raspberries, brambles, syrup, a drop of moisture to wipe gently from your lips, a drop of honey to smear on them – if I had a white rose, I would stain it red for you with my precious blood – stain your tongue with the juice of fruit, with wine.

We can never be free, but are dictated to by our very physicality, our appetites. We can never be free, but are exposed, as long as we choose to live, to experience. Our senses, the concentration of one touch, urgency, arms spread wide open, waiting. Walking down a pedestrian precinct, snatches of languages, T-shirts, jeans, coffee grinders, bottle openers, amber enclosing ancient insects, church spires, a fountain with paddling storks, water, water. Experience is everything. Rubble, dust, smashed window panes. We evaluate our experience in a social context. Right and wrong, they tell us. We agree to the extent that we accept the order that surrounds us. A world behind appearances, independent of appearances – which conceal and confuse – a pond’s surface, undisturbed, dip in a finger and the image is distorted – a haze of consciousness, false recognition, something beyond, something deeper, velvet folds of my petals, sip the nectar, contemplation – stationary, rooted, by a desk or a table, in a cell or a library – the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, centuries of wax, smoke and dirt from the devotional candles and the incense offerings, controversy about the restoration – fresh glory of colours – rewriting the textbooks about his language in paint – Edinburgh: the Scott Monument, blackened by the chimneys and the railways – the Council have decided to leave it as cleaning would wear away the sandstone and the tourists expect it to be imposing, soot-clad, grimy.

Road movies. Liberated from duty and obligation, the hero/heroine is nothing more than a traveller, who may observe and participate to the extent he/she deems desirable. Wandering – Wanderjahre – an apprenticeship, learning through shifting perspective – relationships and roles constantly changing as the journey continues – one town, one adventure – no world behind appearances – just superficiality – time is needed to discover, but there is no time when you must keep moving forward – restlessness, perpetual motion – never stay in one place long enough to form a real attachment or gain a real understanding – no final destination, except for death. Random factor. Chance encounters. No responsibility, so no inhibitions, no apologies to make, no standards of behaviour to conform to. Take, give a little, taste, flee, flee lest you stagnate, lest the roots erupt from the ground beneath your feet and coil seductively around your ankles – brutality – disjointed – the thread is the thread of perception, the unifying narrator the owner of the experiences. There is no permanence, better to travel until your youth and your strength fail you. No plot, no purpose.

Our perception of ourselves is not our identity. Our identity is social – it is the perception of ourselves by others, through the filter of norms of acceptability, through the filter of the authority of unspoken assumption. Despair fills us when the disparity between who we know we are and who we are told we are, who we are permitted to be, who we are accepted as is too great. Belief in an unshakeable truth is nothing more than a mandate to impose your will upon others. [Hoeing, the insistent chatter of blue tits]. Fall beyond the boundaries set by the presumed majority at your peril. Tyranny of taste, tyranny of structure – invoking the sanction of the Absolute – paraphernalia of control – priestly vestments to reassure you there is meaning – the truncheon and riot shield to coerce you when you protest. The neatest trick of all is the deadweight of assumption, of what we have been lulled into NOT questioning, so that it appears “natural” and “normal” and is immune to enquiry. Truth is subjective. Events are subjective. Our societies set a premium on our identity, whether it be our gender identity or our national identity. We breathe meaning into these physical or administrative facts, a meaning which, in turn, determines our approach to others. A framework for understanding – and we have lost our faith in all but our bodily reality – so we chase after pleasures and weep when we are denied. Urgency again. Life is loss with a few brief moments of gain. I choose to defy. The more society rejects me, the harder I spurn society, but it is difficult. Exhausting. You know this. Rest with me.

Small gnats dance and the air has grown chill. I picked some ripe tomatoes and sprinkled them with salt. Ants are crawling everywhere.

In P-shire, where I come from, instead of vineyards we have rows and rows of raspberry bushes, field after field. In the school holidays, the local children would earn pocket money by going to the “berries” – clambering on to a truck at 8.30 in the morning to fill bucket after bucket, the more buckets, the greater the amount in your hand at the end of the day. These raspberries are canned and exported all over the world. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, Scotland is the major international producer of canned raspberries. When I was an undergraduate living in K – my first extended stay abroad – I was shopping in “Aldi”, the cut price supermarket when, to my delight, I found a tin of Scottish raspberries. I ate them with cream that evening. In summer, after school, my brother and I would cross the playing fields to the wild raspberries – inevitably the thorns would snag on the uniforms, scratch our legs, but the hunt for the red amongst the flowers and the green distracted us from such minor inconveniences. Sometimes, when you bit into one, it would be sour and writhe with tiny white maggots and you’d have to spit it out and throw the rest away. Home we would trudge for tea, through the long grass of the banking, shouting towards the empty buildings that had cooped us up, to hear the echo. Cuckoo spit – the nest of a tiny green larva.

Tomorrow I have to make my way into town, to the Parliament building where the course is being held. Eva’s cat, Fay, has arrived, sitting on the roof behind me, intent on the dragonflies that flit tantalisingly beyond her reach. I must retreat indoors now, it’s becoming damp.
Sleep well, my dear, in spite of the heat.

Friday, 10 September 2004

Mirror Image

Filed under: — site admin @ 9:34 pm

[To Gy, 1997]

Edinburgh, mid-80s, Saturday afternoon in the ritual combat season. Rival coaches parked all the way along London Road, the shop fronts on Easter Road shuttered in preparation. Chemist’s, grocer’s, kebab emporium, pet purveyor’s protected with stell rigidity against the violence of defeat and inebriation. Sometimes, trudging home from the library, I forgot. The supermarket, the freezer discount store with the cheapest fresh milk in town would not admit me. A stream of men, young and old, boys in team strips waving scarves, the colours. Mounted police just in case. Slow progress along the dusty pavements. Then, from the refuge of my bedroom on Albion Road, the cheers, the jubilation. I never witnessed the rowdiness for which supporters have become the stock metaphor. No beer cans flung to gash a forehead, no skinhead disruptors. Chants, laughter, expectation, but never mindless fury.

The Meadows, by the University. Summoned by a leaflet. Without a grant, how could I continue my studies? Pawning my future for a loan? Discontent, marching. Representatives from the National Union of Students from London equipped with whistles to guide us along the route that would cause maximum disruption and inconvenience to the uninvolved. Police escort. They began to sing: “Maggie Thatcher’s got one, Norman Fowler is one”. I joined in, though I did not entirely approve. This was too political. My quarrel was not with the Prime Minister or the Education Secretary, but with the principle of paying for access to higher learning, which would deter those from a similar background from ever trying to succeed. Such primitive hatred would surely do nothing to advance our arguments. Up by the castle and back to where we started. The biggest student demonstration Scotland had ever seen. On returning, the cameras were ready as were the speakers. Copies of “Socialist Worker” on sale, pleas for solidarity with the proletariat. Exit labourer’s daughter.

Glasgow. Summer. Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre. Drinks for sale, but who would budge from their fought-over patch of melting tarmac to buy them? Tickets at inflated prices for those unfortunate devotees who had not been quick enough off the mark. I had coughed up £25, a fortune. For standing room in the front section. Even having arrived early in the morning, I was quite far from the entrance. U2, my favourite group, a popular preference. The doors finally opened in the fading light. Programmes, T-shirts, badges, posters available as we queued. Suddenly, space, dashing to the front. As the support act came on stage, I was lifted by the surge, rendered incapable of determining my own movements, my feet literally not touching the ground. Nor could I breathe, the crush of sweating bodies too tight. Like frantic waves breaking against a cliff the fans hurled themselves relentlessly at the security guards to cross the barriers, to no avail. Forward they heaved, each rebuttal renewing their resolve, the sheer force of their efforts. By this stage I was virtually unconscious and in some distress. The spectators in the cheaper seats looked down upon us without sympathy. Finally respite when the set concluded. Relaxation, withdrawal. I retired to the relatively depopulated rear of the section. They sought proximity to the beloved, the idols. So close the precious beads of sweat could drip upon you. Fainting girls are not the products of hormone-rich hysteria, but of oxygen deprivation induced by mass exuberance.

Scone. East of Scotland Bible Week, 1981. Let the spirit flood through your being. Eyes shut to screen out unnecessary distractions, reducing sensory input, focusing on the godhead. Music boosted through huge speakers. Familiar songs of worship blending with unfamiliar tongues to a crescendo of release in absorption. Embrace your brothers and your sisters, clasp their hands. The canvas of the marquee billowing in the chill evening breeze. Words are uncommunicative. The newly baptised strewn over the straw matting, felled, immobilised, “slain in the spirit”. Peace, peace.

What absurd variety surrounds us, what absurd abundance. Can we even name the trees and the plants? Daffodils, daisies, lilac, cherry, dandelion, hogweed, ash, oak, beech, plane, primrose, nettle, convolvulus, ivy. Punks and piercers with rings and studs in their nostrils, through the tender skin of the eyebrows, pink-dyed Mohicans, gentlemen in suits wielding umbrellas and briefcases, mothers with prams and pushchairs, dreadlocks, orange robes, matted tangle protruding from shop doorway sleeping bags, baseball caps and trainers. Resting, moving. Purposeful, purposeless. Watchful, begging, daydreaming, perched on bar stools sipping foamy coffee, browsing through CDs, selecting fruit from street stall displays. A young man of Chinese origin in scarlet thigh boots and black leather miniskirt clears the bystanders with his incoherent utterings. Teenagers giggle, yet he remains oblivious. Give me your change, the palm thrust in your path. Bleating flocks hungry for entertainment, thirsty for activity, on the pick-up. Saturday night in London.

[Waffle Central]. Guest bathroom. I use the basin to wash my hands because the water in the tap heats up more quickly there. The mirror startles me. Who is this staring at me so solemnly? Green eyes, burst capillaries in the cheeks, downward turning lips? A parody of how I perceive myself. A monstrous figure that bears no relation to the waif in mourning black who laid a homage of red roses and purple irises at Mahler’s grave, who kissed the sandstone sphinx at Bellevue, posing for a portrait in the file of frozen memories. Identity is supremely transitory, changing over time with the accumulation of experience, fresh insights and information. Old identities become superfluous as they outlive their usefulness, losing their appeal. What is it that brings about change? If the pressure towards cohesion and homogeneity is so strong, how do we resist? Even identical twins are different. I have not yet discovered a convincing explanation. Temperament and disposition, a unique balance of humours as a means of reconciling similarity and difference. As we grow older we become alien to our former selves. The self is a shifting, intangible entity. We grow, discarding our past Me’s like so much extraneous matter.

Chameleon and Sphinx, Bellevue, Vienna

When we move in groups, united by a common purpose, we shed our sense of self like a snake sloughs off its skin, revealing a new pattern beneath. Crowds are strong and wilful. Crowds defy authority and conventional norms of appropriate behaviour, rejecting the standards of the invisible majority because, in a crowd, you are immersed in the majority, sheer numbers laughing at coercion. When others cast off their inhibitions around you, you feel sanctioned to follow suit. Crowds are notoriously difficult to control and notoriously open to manipulation, meek, pliable. We congregate to attain a specific aim or merely out of curiosity. These days we can consume endless flows of information passively, from our homes (with the option to switch off should our attention drift), soaking it in from manipulated sources. The bias may be overt or concealed, but it always exists. British news, [Waffelian] news, an assigning of priorities on the basis of national and political interests. We have no need to take to the streets unless stirred by deep conviction or dire urgency. Home shopping, home banking, home working, home learning, society recedes, shrinks, becomes increasingly abstract. We continue to have obligations, we pay the taxes (by direct debit or by means of the form dropped through our letterboxes), but our actual contacts with the administration diminish in number. We do not encounter the bureaucrats face to face unless we are unemployed or otherwise reduced to state dependency, forced to stand in line, squandering the time of which we have a surfeit, humiliated, all for the sake of appending our signatures to a piece of paper. Dependent on our computer screens, our fellow beings lose their solidity and we lose our ability to relate meaningfully to them. Isolation. A dictatorship of those who control information. Apathy and non-engagement. Distance and dehumanisation. Only the home is safe and free from surveillance. Public spaces are dangerous, empty, deserted, patrolled by gangs of thugs brandishing broken bottles, no fit place for the weak or old or women. Kafka, Orwell, H. G. Wells, Bradbury. Rallies, protests, latent aggression. Banners proclaim our affiliation, our espousal of a cause. Shoulder to shoulder we listen to speakers whose eloquence amplifies our outrage at injustice. Strikes, honouring the leader whose image decorates the dingy walls, the monarch as the nation made flesh, waving paper flags and cheering at the limousine that glides by, a glimpse of a gloved hand. Carnival, processions of saintly relics around cathedrals, we have an appetite for spectacle. Guy Fawkes’ hanging, drawing and quartering is not recalled, the burning of the effigy no longer commemorates the foiling of a fiendish plot to destroy the institution of democracy, the saving of Parliament from the forces of reaction, but the signal for a fireworks display.

Saint Paul that old misogynist recognised the waning effect of isolation, its dissipation of faith. It is good to meet to celebrate the fellowship of redemption, he insisted. Christ in mystical communion with his followers, the natural imagery of the body institutionalising the relationship of mutual dependence: the members of the church related, united, essential to each other. Collective identities are fragile, requiring constant reaffirmation, as Durkheim argued. Protestantism and its emphasis on the personal relationship with God. Direct contact unhampered by a rabble of intermediaries or obscure and excluding incantations in an obsolete tongue. The cult of the individual. Mass society, mass education, mass economy, the individual assuming increasing importance as a contributor to the welfare and prosperity of the nation. The bureaucrat’s grief over the fallen sparrow. Eternal life in Christ transmuted into eternal life within the nation (Armstrong). Until we reconcile ourselves to our own mortality, we shall continue to crave outside assurance that invests our brief span with meaning, that comforts us our essence is not lost forever once our bodies cease to function. Writing is a form of immortality. Civilisations rise and fall, their architectural gems vandalised or eroded, but the products of their culture live on (our obsession with the past, with archaeology and history is in part a quest for confirmation, in part a product of nationalism, in part inquisitiveness and in part a validation of our own society as the best and most advanced known to mankind. All great civilisations have been intoxicated with pride at the awesomeness of their achievements, believed in themselves as the most benign and cultured and all have come to and end). Passing on genetic material is not enough, as it does not perpetuate the self. Writing, the product of an individual mind, is far more satisfactory, although there are no guarantees that it will be preserved.

The Incomprehensible Past, or Authority and Gullibility. The attitude to authority has undergone a radical transformation. Democracy and the notion of equality of human beings, each of whom is invested with inalienable rights deriving from shared humanity entitles all, in theory, to access to power. Legitimation derives from the sovereign will of the people; the state must act in the best interests of its citizens. There is no longer a single truth operating in the world that subordinates all of reality to its ineluctable logic. We have a greater distaste for, antipathy towards arbitrariness, particularly as a justification for privilege. Suitability for office becomes a matter for public scrutiny and acclamation. However, bitter lessons in warfare and manipulation have undermined our confidence in those stewards or caretakers to whom we have delegated responsibility for ruling us. Governments callously conspire against their own people with no thought for their welfare. Our innocence has been irretrievably lost. The scandal provoked by clandestine experiments in the States in the 1950s that recently became public knowledge when the relevant documents were declassified vindicating the distrust. When scientists were given permission to deliberately contaminate the water supplies of rural townships with radioactive material to ascertain whether radiation had a detrimental effect on foetuses. Who would vote for a government that gave its approval to such involuntary trials? Information is withheld “for our own good” to allow those in power to continue to enjoy the exercise of that power.

We are amused by reports of the panic caused by Orson Wells’ radio dramatisation of “The War of the Worlds” smugly congratulating ourselves on our greater discernment, more accustomed as we are to the media. How quaint were our forefathers, how credulous, how easily swayed, how obedient to their lords and masters. We watch the documentaries of the saluting throng, tut in pious disapproval at the barbarism of pyres of books, smashed-in windows and sewn on stars. We could never fall for dictators. We would never let ourselves be taken in by demagoguery. The corner shop is raided, the alarm ringing disturbs our viewing, but it is only high spirits or some tearaways after a bit of spending money. Should make more of an effort to integrate, learn to speak English properly, stop stealing our jobs…What are they doing over here anyway if they can’t respect our traditions? Numbed, we swallow the contents of the broadcasts uncritically. Catastrophe, calamity are common occurrences. We watch torrents of mud sweep away everything in their path, earthquakes demolishing skyscrapers, flood victims hauled into rowing boats or winched into helicopters, clutching at a few salvaged possessions. We do not feel the damp; we do not smell the blood, the death. The same screen that presents us with these stories presents us with the trials and tribulations of fictitious characters. Small wonder that we remain impassive, for who can be bothered to distinguish between the unreality of distant events and the unreality of narratives of non-existent communities? The soap operas at least address our everyday experience. Their situations and dilemmas are familiar, we can more easily and readily empathise with them. So our compassion is blunted, as long as we are not directly affected we remain complacent.

If our governments betray us, if they are not to be trusted, who can we trust? Who will defend us against the evils of corruption? Journalists step into the breach for the sake of a scoop, a sensation, a boosted circulation. Front page revelation, the truth is out! Tireless investigation and research has brought you the machinations and unbridled lust for victory at the polls that led to the BSE epidemic, to CJD. Members of the press depict themselves as guardians of morality, the counterweight to politicians, debunkers/deposers of those unfit for office, whilst glossing over the seamier side of their profession, the fabrications that they perpetrate themselves, the baser motives of profit or annihilating an opponent, obscuring the symbiosis between themselves and their chosen targets. Behind the rhetoric of mutual dislike and suspicion, journalists and politicians feed off each other. Both profess to speak on behalf of the people, the same people they make a living out of. For politicians to be ignored is to die. Control of information is control of society.

We want our leaders to be infallible. We expect them to be superhuman, possessed of superior wisdom and abilities. We want perfection of them, a moral purity that matches the trust we have placed in them, the qualities we have attributed to them, the power we have vested in them. How sad we are to be disillusioned! How disappointed to find out they are fashioned from the same flawed material as the rest. How undignified the bickering over divorce arrangements amongst the Royals, how mundane, how sordid. What hope is there for us if those who are meant to set an example stumble?

Saturday, 28 August 2004


Filed under: — site admin @ 9:28 pm

When Thatcher was appointed Prime Minister, I admired her boundlessly. Not because of her electoral promises, but because she had proven that women could attain the highest office (Gy was also entranced by her: in his estimation she was the only woman more intelligent than him, a comment for which I really ought to have kicked him out of the bed). Soaring unemployment and the gradual whittling down of social security payments were the warning signals: she was attempting nothing less than the complete overhaul of the social structure (pandering to the crassest instincts, glorifying gain). Students could no longer apply for unemployment benefit during the summer break (I had summer jobs as a general kitchen skivvy in a palace, where I vengefully picked my nose whilst making sandwiches for the coach-spewed hordes and then as a bilingual tourist guide in a Highland castle). All claimants were under automatic suspicion of cheating the system, degrading questionnaires designed to catch them out. The definition of living together as opposed to merely sharing the same accommodation narrowed to the extent that if you vacuum-cleaned the other person’s half of the carpet, picked their soiled underpants off the floor or washed their dirty dishes along with your own you were stripped of your entitlement. Allowing council tenants to purchase their own houses was, however, a stroke of genius, satisfying aspirations for social advancement (virtually everyone could now buy into the middle-class dream of solid brick and mortar respectability) whilst simultaneously offloading poor quality stock, thereby sparing local authorities the inevitable repair bills. Her particular brand of ruthlessness and aggression was beautifully captured in the image of handbag-swinging, the one inalienable token of her enduring femininity (in spite of all efforts at masculinising her, thereby suggesting that only by betraying her true nature could she aspire to and retain power, traditionally a male privilege). For me, the abolition of student grants was the last straw. For all his sanctimonious declarations about admitting 50% of the population into higher education (without a thought devoted to how this might devalue the currency for all graduates), Blair has succeeded in pushing through top-up fees, which threaten to put the cost of obtaining a degree beyond the financial wherewithal of all but the wealthiest. Had I been born a mere handful of years later I would never have been able to follow my current path. I would never have taken the risk of going to university had the prospect of long-term indebtedness hung over my head. Instead, I was free to pursue my academic interests and nurture my talents. There is no more effective way to promote the elitism Blair has vowed to combat. The working class will be content to accept their subordinate lot, preferable as it is to the alternative in this precarious, solidarity-expunged contemporary Britain: well done Tony, even Maggie in her heyday could not have pulled off such a masterstroke!

The measure of civilisation (reason over brute strength, the dethronement and demystification of biology as a role-determinant) is to be found in female emancipation. Not that we have achieved full equality in even the most secular and prosperous societies: the notorious glass ceiling but one of the hidden mechanisms conniving at our exclusion from genuine power. Background culture (the scaffolding of society and cognition) and prevailing attitudes (for example, Godfrey Bloom’s declaration that as an employer, he would never recruit a woman of child-bearing age, although polemical in intent articulates the secret prejudices of many – women are still assumed to be working for pin money, although in reality current lifestyle aspirations are predicated on their contribution to the family income. In unvarnished terms: most households could not subsist if the female partner did not perform remunerated and unremunerated – Bloom’s “cleaning behind the fridge” – work. Low wage part-time jobs are still justified on grounds of the flexibility they offer to child-rearers. That female-dominated professions continue to be afflicted by a chronic lack of status was highlighted once again by the recent statement to that effect made by the president of the Royal College of Physicians, Professor Carol Black. Women are still considered expendable members of the labour force, a soft target for redundancies) count for far more than simple economics.

Gellner’s lucid and penetrating analysis of the traits of advanced industrial society is relevant here: “Its economic foundation is altogether different: it is self-consciously based on sustained, continuous innovation, and on an exponential growth in productive resources and output. It is committed to a theory of knowledge which makes nature intelligible without recourse to Revelation, and thus also renders nature effectively manipulable and a source of ever-growing affluence. At the same time, nature is no longer available as a source of legitimating principles of the social order. In fact, economic growth is the first principle of legitimacy of this kind of society: any regime which fails to attain and maintain it is in trouble. (…)
This society is no longer Malthusian: economic growth eventually outstrips demographic growth, which, for independent reasons, diminishes or disappears altogether. Its culture no longer values offspring so highly, if at all: sheer labour power or brawn is of little consequence, either for authorities or for individuals, either productively or militarily. (…) Human beings are usable only if educated, and education is expensive. Quality not quantity of personnel counts, and quality depends on the machinery of cultural production of men, in other words on ‘education’. Offspring are not valued by authority for their military or productive potential, or by parents as a form of insurance. Offspring are expensive and must compete, often unsuccessfully, with other forms of satisfaction and indulgence”.

For Gellner, the demographic decline that so exercises the minds of our politicians (worried about how to manage state finances in such a way as to cover the costs of pensions and health care for the elderly) is the corollary of structural (and institutionalised) literacy, technical evolution, mechanisation and enhanced productivity. His argument needs to be complemented by the mindset cultivated (and deliberately encouraged) by consumerism and the impact of greater social opportunities being extended to women, the former intimately linked to the loss of a transcendental dimension. Consumerism is both egotistical and nihilistic, reducing us to our purchasing power: we can rely only upon ourselves for our own happiness (thus the issue of structural inequalities in access to resources is conveniently obscured; ambitions are curbed by the weight of disapproval – what is deemed appropriate in any given milieu for a girl as opposed to a boy a case in point, sending her to university may undermine her marriageability, or the investment involved may appear disproportionate given that she will probably sacrifice a career for obedient spousehood – by a ‘realistic’ assessment of prospects in an environment where gas-fitters can look ahead to a more secure livelihood and greater financial reward than academics), we must remain young, fit and attractive in order to compete, we must revel in the here and now as nothing lies beyond the grave. New improved products forever hold out the promise of enhancing our enjoyment: boost your orgasm, put your healthy bank balance on display in the form of inanimate objects and trophy-partners. Dump everything that keeps you back: last year’s model the ultimate humiliation, everything from the sagging wife to the wrinkled face that greets you in the mirror can be traded in for something better.

The message for women is equally clear: we are taught to covet the masculine ideal of freedom, power and fulfilment. The long hours required to progress through the ranks are incompatible with reproduction, presenting us with a choice: either pursue the male definition of the good life (where old boy networks and testosterone-drenched business practices, such as providing entertainment for top executives in the form of lap dancers or escort girls or taking part in team member bonding late night drinking sessions effectively exclude women anyway, the value of professional expertise or merit never having been the sole or even the primary determinant of promotion in spite of protestations to the contrary) or accept the kitchen sink, dirty nappies and menial chores without complaint. Small wonder that the biological imperative of perpetuating the genes loses out in the desirability stakes. A newspaper article calculated the cost of raising a child to adulthood as being equivalent to a top range Porsche. If our earthly existence is all we have and the years prior to being consigned to the dumping ground of the old people’s home with its dribbling and incoherent residents rush by can it come as any surprise that ever more women subscribe to the materialist rather than the drudgery option particularly now that they at least stand a chance, however limited, of gaining a foothold? Clearly, more than the meagre financial incentives hitherto proposed are called for if the population decline is to be reversed.

My former lovers have left enduring traces in my life. I cover my eyes when rinsing my hair in the shower so that the warm water does not run over my eyelids, THAK having told me that it causes cataracts. I never sleep on my left hand side for fear of putting unnecessary strain on my heart (THAK’s influence again). The most profound imprint was left by Gy, however. By introducing me to Durkheim, he finally liberated me from religion’s baleful dominion. The proverbial scales fell from my eyes: I was exonerated, all my previous experiences suddenly made sense, my biography placed in a new narrative framework. The extent to which our subsequent trajectories are determined by our starting position and genetically inherited inclination was nothing short of a revelation. Likewise, the extent to which society penetrates and colonises our innermost being, colours and directs our thoughts, hopes and desires both empowered me and sharpened my critical faculties. What avenue of intellectual enquiry could be more exciting than investigating how that most complex human artefact, society functions?

Apart from its unacceptable premise of innate, divinely ordained and institutionally enforced female inferiority religion is little more than a compensatory mechanism (justice in the hereafter making up for the disappointments and injustices of the present), a means of quelling our most deep-seated anxieties, an emotional prop in life’s bitter struggles. In my teenage fragility, the church accepted me (at any rate as long as I rigorously obeyed its every prescript and was willing to swallow whole its every doctrine), rescuing me from my shunned outcast condition, providing me with the social context and social network I had lacked. I now attribute the continuing hold religion exerts over minds to the solution it offers for the terrifying arbitrariness of the world. Like society, it comforts us, deludes us that we have some modicum of control over events, that we can ward off disaster through compliance with moral standards; like society, it creates meaning; it endeavours to account for suffering (although its success can only be partial, the tormented cry of “Why me?” ultimately unanswerable) and it takes the sting out of the enormity of our mortality, masking the overwhelming futility of our miserably short lifespan, probably the most important factor in its appeal. History is indifferent to our all-engrossing demise, filing her nails, legs crossed. Even the administrative record we leave behind is preserved on perishable paper or disc. Statistics on date of birth and death, marital status, occupation, crimes committed, titles awarded hardly capture our essence, the extinction of which so appals us. The tears, the laughter, the wit, the inimitable voice. For many, the notion of some pristine repository of the self endowed with magical longevity, a soul, supplies ample reassurance in contemplating death. My headstone will gradually erode, untended in the shade of some tree. I am who I am only through interaction: humanity consists of fulfilling an active social function.

Thursday, 26 August 2004


Filed under: — site admin @ 9:26 pm

“Hunger reduces you to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else. It is as though one had been turned into a jellyfish, or as though all one’s blood had been pumped out and luke-warm water substituted. Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger; that and being obliged to spit very frequently, and the spittle being curiously white and flocculent, like cuckoo-spit”
George Orwell, “Down and Out in Paris and London”.

Being fat can be a positive act of protest, rebellion, defiance, an eschewal of the dominant culture’s values (although at the price of marginalization and ridicule – deviation must always be punished). Being the majority does not help (look at the continued barriers to complete fulfilment for women and the unequal concentration of power in male hands – we roly-polys do not yet determine the content of representations, even the models for “outsize” clothes are carefully selected size 16s, not a spare tyre in sight). Relish the heroic sacrifice of eating five meringues for breakfast or a midmorning snack. It is like refusing to wear deodorant (my solution being to spray the garment direct with perfume, thereby reducing skin contact to the minimum – usually Hugo Boss Woman with its unpretentious packaging, which the make-up encrusted twenty-year-old behind the counter assured me was musky, Gy having given me the benefit of his authoritative pronouncement that I was a bit on the old side for the Laura Ashley fragrances of my personal preference). Outcast status is also accompanied by the standard pollution-markers: fat people are stupid, indolent, ugly, clumsy, dirty, smelly, low class, loud, crude, they sweat copiously. What struck me when I saw the Venus of Willensdorf is how prominent her cunt is (every photograph of the artefact I have clapped eyes on is taken from an angle that casts a discrete shadow over the vital nether regions of the life-giver). The celebrants of the magnificent goddess of fertility were not inhibited by false prudery, as the loving detail demonstrates. Rolls of fat elicit shudders of disgust as a result of our glossy-magazine, commerce-based aesthetic inculcation. When only the elite could afford to be generously-proportioned, luscious curves were the ideal. Now that rich, calorie-laden delights may be purchased by all the elite prefers to sport washboard-chic (ausgemergelt). The prohibition against being overweight so potent that it elicits resentment (some lucky individuals can get away with shovelling down inordinately huge quantities of food without gaining an ounce) and self-loathing. Nobody feels sorry for you when you are fat: you have only your weak-willed self to blame. Measuring big means not measuring up. I used to keep my hair tied back, scared that my face would otherwise resemble a blob of badly-kneaded dough. Corpulence has traditionally been associated with jolliness. We are expected to allow fun to be poked at us, always responding with equanimity (your extra layers presumed to render you impervious to insult and hurt). After a certain age threshold, the brushing aside, forgiving designation “puppy fat” is ousted by the unequivocal term of disapproval “beef”. The instant invisibility and relegation to the sidelines of voicelessness, which followed in the wake of accumulating an extra thirty kilos during pregnancy proved traumatic at first. After all, I was the same person underneath. I learned to take comfort in the belief that the voluptuous padding doubled as a buffer to dissuade the creeps and unscrupulous spongers I had previously been plagued with. I could walk down the street without a single wolf-whistle. Never take a sideways glance at the shop-front in case you inadvertently catch a glimpse of yourself. You are not entitled to be content in your own body. The consolation to be found in munching treats is self-defeating: the unhappier you become about your appearance, the greater the temptation to compensate for the isolation and self-pity with a quick fix. I am fed up with my private life being made the object of speculation, value-judgements, condemnation, condescending moralising (the salt in the wound being that all too often the criticism emanates from my intellectual inferiors) or public debate. On the pretext of championing the welfare of the foetus I was carrying doctors constantly bullied me, dismissing my stalwart rejection of their allegations. Yes, I was a vegetarian, but I did not soak every meal in cream. No, I did not subsist on fizzy drinks (with the exception of carbonated mineral water). The angry purple of my stretch marks faded, now they resemble worm trails in the sand. Having resumed work ten days after the birth for financial reasons (in those days a freelance paid in accordance with the number of days of toil, excluded from the carefree ranks of officials with the privilege of three months maternity leave on full pay), I could not shed the excess through breast-feeding, although I did my best to express the milk with an electric and a hand-held pump. G soon refused my nipple, preferring the lesser effort of a plastic teat. In my bleaker moments, I attributed the fat to a covert death wish. I never participate in the endless (and endlessly tedious) discussions amongst colleagues concerning the relative merits of one diet over another. Without fail only those who make Kate Moss look clinically obese ritually starve themselves. Mortification of the flesh: the ancient dualist loathing of the carnal rears its ugly head in the new guise of ascetic regimes of punishing exercise (the “no pain, no gain” maxim conjuring up images of processions of flagellants publicly proclaiming their repentance) and renunciation for a temporal reward. Let their bones crumble with osteoporosis, their skin chafe and flake with dryness!

Don’t stray blind into the trap of gullibility: the current anti-flab crusade has nothing to do with a caring, paternalistic (for which read conformity-enforcing), responsible attitude on the part of government, but is instead the by-product of the demographic trend towards increased longevity combined with anxiety concerning spiralling health-care costs.

This society is phobic about any natural bodily excretion – the ultimate folly the invention of vaginal sprays to cut out the odour of excitement (unsurprisingly they destroy the essential health-maintaining flora). Another skin-burning aberration scented toilet paper. Similarly those indicators of sexual maturity, pubic hairs (underarm and lower) are agonised over, plucked out, legs are bathed in astringent creams or shaved for extra smoothness, moustaches fussed over, unsightliness the ultimate sign of “letting yourself go”, withdrawing from the flesh market. Preening, primping and pampering for the sake of enhancing allure is as old as the species, yet consumerism has heralded a new era of embarrassment and product-niche induced burning cheeks. Millions of pounds are wasted on futile age-reversal potions (often by women who have ruined their skin by smoking or drenching their almost completely uncovered selves in UV on beaches or basting benches complete with goggles).

To me, announcing “I am a born-again Christian,” is similar to boasting “I have terrible halitosis”. Both are equally endearing, although the latter complaint can be more easily remedied: by handing the suffering wretch an extra-strong mint.

Friday, 30 July 2004

The Iconography of Chocolate

Filed under: — site admin @ 4:09 pm

[1994 and 2004]

Chocolate remains an overwhelmingly feminine food in spite of recent changes in advertising campaigns, the standard courtship or atonement gift for men too poor to afford diamonds. Côte d’Or, for example, exploits the high testosterone cult of physical prowess with its wet-suited barefoot water skier twirling to the tune of “I’ve Got the Power”, which never fails to reduce SM and myself to fits of giggles in the cinema seats. The sportsman in question so obviously self-enamoured we dubbed him the “total wanker”.

Another vision of hyper-masculinity is to be found in the Lion Bar campaign, the ferocious predator, untamed, magnificent, the lazy lord of all he surveys with a harem to service all his needs, from fresh meat to sexual relief, symbol of power and nobility throughout the centuries. Presumably intended to reassure straight men that their virility will not be called into question by consuming it (none of my gay friends being shy about admitting to a sweet tooth as we tuck into Sachertorte at a Viennese coffee house). Echoes of Cadbury’s Milk Tray, the Man in Black leaving his calling card on the plump silk pillowslip before plunging off the cliff in a death-defying dive, the contemporary equivalent of the trials the medieval knight willingly endured to secure the favour of his unattainable mistress (as well as somewhat more romantic than calling in at the local corner shop).

The supposed energy boost of eating a bar (“A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play”) dominating the more prosaic, utilitarian sales pitch. Here chocolate is a fuel as opposed to an indulgence, the every day emphasised in lieu of special occasions (as reflected in the packaging: whereas boxed chocolates are carefully arranged in plastic indentations with a guide to the delights of the soft and hard centres, the humble Mars is more modestly clad in a single wrapper, the intermediate category combining the luxury of dual layers, the outer by which the product may be identified, the inner shiny to suggest preciousness). No need for guilt, it is ingested for a specific purpose.

Although it is not essential to sustain life, it does provide solace for all the random and unfathomable injustice of the world. The Flake commercial from the 1970s showed a beautiful woman sitting at her easel in the middle of a field, brushes resting in a jam jar, her watercolour ruined by a sudden shower. As the red and gold of poppy-heads and ears of corn run together, she reaches for the phallus-substitute in its garish yellow sheath. Comforted, her mood brightens to the extent that she accepts the accidental blotting of the errant paints as an abstract rather than a representational expression of her surroundings. Thus chocolate restores balance and harmony, replenishes vitality. As decorum insists that we women must swallow our rage or else risk opprobrium (the duty of the subordinate being to sublimate), the compensatory reflex of treating ourselves proves strong and the pleasures of chocolate seduce us. Like masturbation, it is an act of self-gratification furtively enjoyed.

Or take the Lindt caption (“quelques instants de finesse dans un monde de brutes”) equating appreciation of the blend of cocoa bean, fat and sugar with the attainment of civilisation and culture: the contemplations of a weedy art lover gazing in silent reverence upon the Mona Lisa are rudely interrupted by the arrival of a swarm of Japanese tourists, snapping away furiously, flouting the ban on use of flashes. Once again chocolate is a consolation, the tender soul of the appreciative viewer favourably contrasted with the bustling Philistinism of the average punter. Sophistication and refinement must be painstakingly acquired as does the taste for the finest Swiss confectionery.

“A finger of Fudge is just enough until it’s time to eat; a finger of Fudge is just enough to give your kids a treat; it’s full of Cadbury’s goodness and very small and neat; a finger of Fudge is just enough to give your kids a treat”. Chocolate as symbol of maternal affection (every Christmas I would gorge on the contents of my Selection Box for breakfast and at lunch time in secondary discover a Dairy Milk lovingly slipped beneath my cling-filmed sandwiches).

Chocolate is smooth and yielding, melting on the tongue, the texture of submission (according to one newspaper article the sensation is as close to the experience of drinking mother’s milk as an adult can normally come). Chemically, it is reputed to trigger the same reaction in the body as falling in love. A contextual chameleon, chocolate is suitable for conveying almost any message: marking birthdays and anniversaries, speeding recoveries, assisting promotions, expressing gratitude. At times of crisis or upset it is always there, the default option, the safest bet. As the slender waistline becomes the sole index of female worth and the anti-obesity obsession bloats into hysteria, chocolate takes on the allure of the forbidden, “naughty but nice”, breaking off a square and rolling it around the tongue tantamount to subversion in the high fibre, whole food, macrobiotic age. Since when did knowing a habit was bad for us ever put us off? The manufacturers compensate by stressing how many glasses of full-cream milk went into each portion (Cadbury’s recent announcement that it would abolish the king size range to my mind a sop to the politically correct brigade, as it will not deter hard-core munchers, the sanctimoniousness of the hand on heart gesture rendered even more unpalatable in the light of findings concerning quite how dangerous the firm’s principle ingredient of hydrogenated vegetable oil has proven to be: had its continental competitors prevailed, Cadbury’s would have been banned from selling it under the traditional designation, forced instead to call it by the far less appetising – yet substantially more informative – name of “vegelate”. A more caring concession would have been to banish the trans-fats, replacing them with cocoa butter).

Waffleland’s most famous export is its pralines, poured into moulds to yield Pharaoh’s heads, dollar signs, walnut shells, coins and treble clefs. Elderly shop assistants bend over the selection, nimble fingers and polished nails hygienically kept out of contact with the goods in transparent gloves, which are discarded after each customer’s order is neatly arranged in a ballotin of cardboard and weighed to the second decimal.

Like fine red wine, chocolate’s flavour is best appreciated at room temperature. It ennobles the vulgar biscuit, warms and satisfies, however briefly. I am helpless to resist.

Saturday, 12 June 2004

Dandelion Lawn

Filed under: — site admin @ 8:37 pm

“The phenomenon of poverty does not boil down, however, to material deprivation and bodily distress. Poverty is also a social and psychological condition: as the propriety of human existence is measured by the standards of decent life practiced in any given society, inability to abide by such standards is itself a cause of distress, agony and self-mortification. Poverty means being excluded from whatever passes for a ’normal life’. It means being ’not up to the mark’. This results in a fall of self-esteem, feelings of shame or feelings of guilt. Poverty also means being cut off from the chances of whatever passes in a given society for a ’happy life’, not taking ’what life has to offer’. This results in resentment and aggravation, which spill out in the form of violent acts, self-depreciation, or both.

In a consumer society, a ’normal life’ is the life of consumers, preoccupied with making their choices among the panoply of publicly displayed opportunities for pleasurable sensations and lively experiences. A ’happy life’ is defined by catching many opportunities and letting slip but few or none at all, by catching the opportunities most talked about and thus most desired, and catching them no later than others, and preferably before others.

As in all other kinds of society, the poor of a consumer society are people with no access to a normal life, let alone a happy one. In a consumer society however, having no access to a happy or merely a normal life means to be consumers manquées, or flawed consumers. And so the poor of a consumer society are socially defined, and self-defined, first and foremost as blemished, defective, faulty and deficient – in other words, inadequate consumers.

In a society of consumers, it is above all the inadequacy of the person as a consumer that leads to social degradation and ’internal exile’. It is this inadequacy, this inability to acquit oneself of the consumer’s duties, that turns into bitterness at being left behind, disinherited or degraded, shut off or excluded from the social feast to which others gained entry. Overcoming that consumer inadequacy is likely to be seen as the only remedy – the sole exit from a humiliating plight”

- Zygmunt Bauman, Work, Consumerism and the New Poor, Buckingham, Open University Press, 1998, pp37-8.

Golf buggies have invaded the squares and narrow thoroughfares, signalling that the tourist season has begun in earnest. Although no longer packed with teenagers in a pungent haze of giggles and perspiration, a seat on the Number Seven remains a luxury. Hanging on to the plastic straps requires the effort of a trained gymnast on the rings, achieving balance an arbitrary and precarious affair, the succession of hairpin bends rendering undesired intimate contact virtually unavoidable.

A new group of beggars has occupied the pavements, smiling pitifully, trouser legs and sleeves rolled up to show brittle, twig-like limbs devoid of muscle.

At the baker’s customers lined up at the marble counter by the coffee machine, munching tuna and egg sandwiches or brioches. I could not help but be reminded of queuing to receive the wafer and life-giving blood of the host without the solemnity or reverential silence. Instead there was the shouting of orders, the clatter of saucers and cups tide-marked with milk froth being loaded into the dishwasher.
We are enmeshed in a web of classifications. Some, such as street numbers, are devised to assist navigation in the physical world, others, such as status markers, to chart a course in the social. Far from being exempt from scrutiny, bodily attributes are highly evocative of rank. In the days when peasants toiled in the fields, being pale was an indication of superiority; in the days when food is abundant, being stick-thin is aesthetic. England is associated with the class system, yet Scotland is where its corrosive influence remains strongest.

Class is confused with value: the higher an individual in the hierarchy, the greater his intrinsic worth, regardless of talent or lack thereof. Class is a distinction based on position, disregarding self-perception and gifts (what counts is not who you are, but where you are). It is wielded by the powerful to justify a certain distribution of social resources: those higher up the ladder „naturally” being entitled to a greater share in wealth and privilege. The grudging response of the comfortably apathetic to the struggle for emancipation and self-fulfillment of those struggling to haul themselves out of the effluent of the gutter arises from the threat of a more equitable sharing of the available resources. Prevailing common sense holds that personal improvement holds the key to improvement of station, concealing the very real barriers to escape (such as taste, refinement, discernment – even if the initially disadvantaged do succeed in escaping their inherited portion, the stench of their origins clings to them like cigarette smoke on clothing after a visit to the pub). The humbler the starting-point, the greater the risk-aversion.

With the introduction of a student loans system, a „road closed” sign has been rudely erected at the entrance to the traditional avenue of advancement. I took part in the massive demonstrations in favour of preserving grants, chanting „Maggie Thatcher’s got one, Norman Fowler is one” as we marched along Princes Street flanked by police and purveyors of Socialist Worker. I have to admit to being appalled by Tony Blair’s victory on the top-up fees scheme. Having betrayed every principle that Labour ever stood for, having purged his cabinet entourage of even the slightest tinge of pink, he has deployed the deterrent of debt whilst calling for half of the population to attend university in order to banish elitism. A degree, as newspaper columns constantly inform us, can no longer be considered a guarantee of employment. Handing them out to anyone who enrolls is likely to debase the currency further. Education should be open to all, but it comes at a price. Acquiring it delays the process of establishing yourself on your own, lengthening the period during which you are dependent on the help or goodwill of others. The lesser the potential/likelihood of earning a decent wage, the more essential “settling down”, setting up a household where two incomes are better than one, the more of a gamble even attempting to gain qualifications appears. Following in the footsteps of one’s peers, succumbing to the temptation of expending the least possible effort, taking the fewest number of risks perpetuates the state of subordination: the trap closes, you settle for less.

In Scottish working class society, “snobbishness” is the supreme transgression, the mortal sin, for which the offender will be rigorously punished by means of ridicule and expulsion from the group. Snobbishness as a concept is an instrument of symbolic violence, to use Bourdieu’s terminology, used to enforce homogeneity and discourage desertion (class is all-embracing and omnipotent in determining lifestyle, thought-style and destiny according to this view). To be a snob is to abandon “yer ain folk”, an act of betrayal, selling out to the opposition’s values without being able to match its economic performance. You are never permitted to rise above the limitations of your class of origin, your expectations never allowed to exceed those of your peers, to issue the implicit challenge that this would entail. You are not to admit you are actually good at something and the prohibition on “showing off”, even by correcting someone or helping them to improve is absolute. If, in spite of all the odds, you DO actually succeed, the sole available strategy for avoiding censure and ridicule is to pay symbolic tribute to your roots by affecting vulgarity and coarseness of manner, “airs and graces” being a giveaway. I clearly recall the day when, on returning home for the Christmas holidays, the first break I had after launching into my then doctorate, the contempt expressed by our next-door neighbour: “All this studying is nothing but skiving (truancy, shirking). When are you actually going to get on with some work? When are you going to get a job?” As if this were not galling enough already, he repeated an injunction he had made a couple of years previously, spelling out what lay in store for me if I ever had the audacity to walk past him in the street without acknowledging him: “I’ll bawl out at the top of my lungs that I knew you when you were a bairn (child) and you got skelped (smacked) doon the close (down the alleyway) fur yer cheek and ye’re no better than the rest o’ us”.

I suffer from, and perhaps always will suffer from what I dub “Eliza syndrome”, the homelessness of the upwardly mobile. Emancipation came at the cost of belonging nowhere. My feelings towards my compatriots who share similar constraints are ambiguous, verging on the schizophrenic, the intensity of my loathing for them equalled only by the strength of my compassion towards them, indeed, idolisation of them as the only authentic group in my native society. I despise them for their narrow-mindedness and lack of ambition and feel entirely vindicated in my hatred because I am entitled to look down on them having been one of them. At the same time, however, if a middle or upper-class person sneers at them for the same reason, I will defend them to the hilt. Whilst I cannot bear the company of my former peers, I can feel no respect or comradeship with the wealthy who can afford the trappings of culture, visits to the opera, attendance at vernissages, etc., whose actual appreciation of that culture is not based on its content as much as its function as the accompaniment of status, the legitimating strategy of the moneyed for whom cultivation is a defence against the charge of philistinism, of the privilege bestowed upon the unworthy or the boorish. To me, their ignorance is the more pernicious as they at least were handed opportunity on a silver platter (which may have caused their indifference or indolence). In other words, they do not have an excuse for their loud expressions of boredom or incomprehension. Another reason why I cannot respect them is that they have never fought and, because of this, consistently underestimate the value of what they have (and, by extension, overlook what I have achieved in raising myself to their level). Moreover, the world of the middle-class is a world of empty formalities, of artificial distance institutionalised in the etiquette of politeness, a paragon of falsehood where statements can never be taken at face value (for me dissimulation was nothing more than a form of base deceit) and deadly poison can be administered with a sly smile. To be genuine and to show one’s emotions honestly and openly was the one saving grace of the working class, compared to which middle-class hypocrisy was a morass of trite, selfish, self-congratulating immorality. (Bringing us back to the symbolic capital of pretence, the deception of purity in the face of degenerate rottenness).

In my home town, the social and physical geography coincided to a remarkable degree. Put crudely, its residential suburbs could be divided into three parts: one at the top of the hill, one at the foot of the hill and one by the river (which has for centuries been prone to flooding, as a glance at the commemorative notches cut into the red sandstone of the old bridge will confirm). The middle class detached houses are situated on the hilltop, surveying the hordes of shabby council dwellings below. We lived at the foot of the hill, away from the river, in the most respectable working class district predominantly consisting of flats with gardens (drying greens for the washing) and hedges, though our house did not fall into the same category as the others surrounding it, being part of a small row of some seven semi-detached dwellings, identical in style, painted white with exterior window sills in bright red with white stripes, each with front and back gardens and reserved for the families of wounded war veterans (as in the case of my father), or other “deserving” members of the community as announced by the commemorative plaques on the facades. Whereas the occupants of the flats came and went, the families in these houses stayed put. The closer to the river a family lived, the rougher and poorer it was, the greater the squalor, the more litter in the streets, the more obscene the graffiti on the walls, the higher the proportion of boarded up shop fronts. The minority Catholic population was concentrated there, amongst the rest of the outcasts. We were segregated from them by the existence of different catchment areas for the primary schools, though my own school did include some of the underprivileged children who were universally feared as much as they were ostracised.

The real trouble began on moving to secondary school. After the first year, we were separated according to academic merit, the less highly scoring were kept downhill at the branch of the academy near my home, the remedial pupils and the brightest sent uphill to the main building where most of the middle class children were to be found. It was then that I learned I was expected to be ashamed of my humble roots. Conformity and obedience protected me from undue attention, I hid, and when I stuck out like a sore thumb it was not because I was found guilty of being “common”. One incident from my final year at school haunts me to this day. Whereas, in every subject we were assigned to streams depending on ability (A-stream, B-stream and so on) and seated within the stream according to marks (so that, on entering a classroom, a visiting teacher knew instantly who was the top and who the bottom), for the register class, which was the class to which a common room was allocated, we were classified according to sex and letter of the alphabet. So it happened that, one sunny lunch break, I was sitting in the common room studying whilst a girl who had previously been in the same primary school class as me was peacefully reading a magazine. It was stiflingly hot and, by some inexplicable inanity of the rules (similar to the practice in certain countries under Communism whereby, if a building did not exhaust its energy quota for heating, it lost it the following year) the heating was on full blast. Eventually she (M. A.) could bear this no longer and clambered up on to a desk to pull a window down for some air, which was, of course, strictly forbidden. Unfortunately for her, the deputy rector (”the beak” as he was nicknamed) came flouncing along the corridor in his stern black gown at that very moment.
“What is the meaning of this, young lady?” his voice still reverberates in my ears like the buzzing of an annoyed wasp, “Don’t you know that you are not allowed to open the windows and waste the heat?”
“Yes, I do (she already incriminated herself by omitting to address him as “sir”), but it seems ridiculous that it is switched on in the middle of summer.”
“You must learn some manners before I deal with you. Do you not know how to speak to a teacher?”
“Yes, I do, actually.”
“I see I am going to have to teach you some respect. What primary school did you attend?”
“G. What’s that got to do with it?” she demanded in a voice heated by indignance.
“It’s what I’d expect from someone like you, you will never achieve anything in your life, you will never be anything or do anything, you will never get decent marks in your exams because you come from the dirt…”
I bit my lip. She would not take such an insult, her sense of honour, her spirited nature would not let it pass.
“How dare you talk about my parents like that, you old fart, piss off!”
Her whole body trembled with rage and defiance.
His eyes gleamed, the bait had proven irresistible.
“That’s quite enough of that language,” he shouted, grabbing her. She writhed, but, short of striking him, there was no escape.
“You will accompany me to the rector’s and we shall see what to do with you then”, he announced, marching her out of the room.
The blood had drained from my face. I knew what I ought to have done, but was too cowardly to do. I ought to have told him that he was wrong, that I, the cream of the crop, outwardly indistinguishable from my fellows from “better” homes, had also gone to G. and it had done me no harm. It would not have achieved anything. He would have shrugged the remark off, leaving his prejudices intact and I would have been unceremoniously dragged along to the headmaster’s be called to account as well. I understood even then, the significance of what I had done. I had betrayed her by refusing to show solidarity, I had deliberately cut myself off from her, even though she was in the right. Inwardly, I acknowledged the old bond, but outwardly, I had sided with him by keeping out of it.

I know what became of her. She left school at 16, the minimum age and found herself a boyfriend immediately, becoming a single mother, “tae get a cooncil flat, jumpin’ the queue” as gossip had it. She then went on to commit the offence of having a second child out of wedlock. The supermarket check-out beckoned, a nightmare apparition for me, along with the kitchen sink and the horror of marriage. That was to be our lot, regardless of inclination.

This incident represented one of the defining moments of my life, making me painfully aware of the discrepancy between my class and my ability, between how I was perceived by others and how I viewed myself, between my “natural” trajectory and the destiny I envisaged. Ever since I have been alert to the minute gradations of social life. The tiny distinctions that entitle you to greater respect (particularly self-respect), the power that comes from knowing that you are better. I hungered after confirmation because I was not like my peers. I had little in common with them. They disgusted me. They did not wash. They smelled bad. Their faces and nails were grubby, their clothes shabby. Yet some of them had new bicycles. They swore and fought. So did I until I learned better.

It also instilled in me an intolerance for weakness perceptively commented upon by my friend L.

My ambition was to be accepted for a place at Oxford or Cambridge. Not because I truly hankered after their fabled (and distant) spires, but because their prestige as institutions could not be matched. In our final year, when our exam certificates arrived, the select few who had been presented with UCAS forms were summoned to the rector’s office one by one to discuss our futures with him. Having dropped the compulsory subjects at which I did not excel (mathematics and science) my grades were uniformly unbeatable. I would have been awarded any place I chose to apply for, but needed Mr. McC.’s official letter of endorsement to be called for an interview for Oxbridge. After congratulating me on my performance, he stated his position quite unambiguously: restricted to issuing two recommendations on behalf of the Academy, he was disinclined to waste one of them on a girl, particularly of my background. The lucky recipients were to be the son of the English teacher, M.M. (who failed in his bid, eventually settling down to his studies at Durham) and I.McK. (a deserving and ultimately successful candidate). In spite of the support I enjoyed from my teachers, in spite of being Dux I was not considered good enough.

Ironically, my Mother had won a scholarship to the Academy when it was still a fee-paying establishment. In her case, opposition came not from a narrow-minded misogynist, but her own flesh and blood. Bitterly jealous at having been denied such opportunities herself, my grandmother refused to pay for the uniform, thereby blocking her daughter’s path to betterment. My Mother’s younger sister endured a similar fate.

Needless to say, that particular wound has never healed, infusing me with permanent dissatisfaction concerning my achievements. Recently, I spotted the shrunken rector, with his hearing aid and forward stoop in the High Street. His malignant eyes bulged as they had when he patrolled the corridors, sniffing out disobedience and insubordination. His wife, weighed down by shopping bags, was struggling to keep up. He showed not one ounce of consideration for her and she was obviously in some distress. There was no physical contact between them, no sign of intimacy. Thankfully he did not recognize me.

Being abroad is liberating because your neighbours do not possess the cultural code to decipher your language, dress and manners. You are not instantly categorized, but judged on the basis of longer acquaintance, which involves at least an element of volition on your part. Ex-pat gatherings by contrast are wary at best until relative standing has been established and the appropriate degree of deference adopted, which is precisely why I avoid them.

Flies circle inanely around the dormant light bulb.

My first priority was attaining the security of income, which would enable me to resume my research following the hiatus brought about by the birth of my son and single-parenthood. My second, to find a loving partner mature and secure enough in himself not to desire me as an appendage to service his own creativity or as a source of affirming adoration. A man reconciled to his own mortality rather than mesmerised by it, who would not resent my independence, but appreciate it. An intelligent man contented once his basic needs have been satisfied (in this particular case good food in ample supply, equally generous provisioning of intimate congress and a high-speed Internet connection) and not prone to straying. He is tall with deep brown eyes and an affectionate smile.

Wednesday, 2 June 2004


Filed under: — site admin @ 8:25 pm

For death, being the extinction of all things,
Frustration of all hopes.

Seagulls spiral above the lawn, caution tempering their frenzy for the crusts half-buried in the fresh snow. My coffee chills in the mug, not instant, mind, but from a cafetiere, good grounds imported from Holland, almost as much of a distance as I covered myself to return home. Still, it won’t leave a ring on the wood.
The back garden was once the perimeter of my world, bounded by the neighbours’ gardens and the garageway. We had a midden then instead of a greenhouse. There were only two greenhouses on the entire street, one of which could be found next door. But then, those neighbours were fanatical gardeners with regimented rows of tatties, neeps and, beneath a protective net, strawberries. Luscious red fruits that they guarded as well as the crown jewels, for some hungry wee laddie might take a notion and climb through the gardens to cram his pockets. In the event, theft of said labours most often occurred when they were off on holiday (badly timed) and it was usually the owner of said second greenhouse, Mr. P. who purloined them. Only he could be entrusted with the tomatoes, for watering and ventilation are complex tasks, that at least was the customary defence of the privileged in excluding us, the great non-growers.
Now, there is a mini tomato surplus amongst the street-dwellers and the competition is one over size.
That and patios. To pour concrete over soft and yielding green is no longer a council monopoly. Deck chairs must be parked visibly and ostentatiously alongside the rest of the garden furniture, resplendent in white moulded plastic. Mustn’t forget the sunshade, a new fabric every year. No one here can get planning permission for a conservatory, which is bad news for the construction industry! P. would become one of the country’s major centres of activity otherwise.
A bus chokes the front garden with its diesel fumes. Moss still grows on the roof slates though the song thrushes have disappeared. The bells of the Academy’s clock can still be heard on the hour every hour from beyond the crest of the hill. My primary school is an extension of the college of further education (who knows, it might soon become a university, after all, D., the nearest rival city, has two), but the second branch of the Academy continues to separate the academically less endowed from the statistic-boosting achievers.
Central heating has made quaint decorative features of the chimneys, but I remember the day my father had to rescue a blackbird from the behind the gas fire. Satellite dishes sprout from the walls, baleful tumescences, stupefying the masses in their “living” rooms. Double-glazing has been fitted almost everywhere and the pebble-dash coated with salmon pink or pristine white. The most ostentatious changes, of course , were wrought in the late 80’s in the flush of purchasing rights. “My ain hoose”, proclaims many a wrought iron property statement.
Indoors too, the New Scotland has made its mark. Lace curtains screen the contents from view. Wall units display the ornaments and the good set of china and conceal the bargain catalogues, bills and crossword dictionaries. Pride of place is given to the ever-bigger, ever-wider screen of the T.V. to which the three piece suite pays silent homage, rapt in adulation. There may be a bookcase (though more likely there is a video cabinet), there may even be a photo album or two or a framed print on the walls, but these tend to be peripheral, for entertainment brooks no distractions.
We have our fridge freezers, our microwaves, our washing machines, our avocado toilets, our shower cabinets, our striped wallpaper with matching borders, our cordless phones, even our personal computers. We go on holidays abroad, we watch our Scottish soaps, sipping at “Scottish blend” tea, we smile fondly at documentaries about our other national drink. We have lost our innocence, together with the years of hardship. Not that I mind this increased prosperity, this more equitable distribution of resources, if that is indeed what it is. I hated using my aunt’s outside toilet, I never enjoyed one bar tartan on my legs. I do not look upon material gain as the root of all evil. Perhaps all I lament is the suffocating atmosphere of the small town, the apathy that settles on its inhabitants like an unnatural mist that never dispels.
With all our wealth, we have to pretend that we are couthy, that we have not changed beneath, that we have not betrayed our origins and become in any way elitist, on the contrary, we are common and woe betide anyone who seeks to stand out or turn their backs on the spirit of the tenement. The more you make of yourself, the greater the sham. Envy and narrow-mindedness continue to thrive unchecked in the suburbs.
One survey of the landscape of P. will suffice to show how far we have come. Take a walk along by the Lade, with its widened paths. It boasts the traditional inventory of detritus: bicycle frames, tyres, empty plastic bottles, sun-bleached carrier bags, crisp packets. A leisure pool and ice rink stand on the site of the distillery, both the football stadium and the cattle mart have been relegated to the fringes of the community, for easy access from the bypass, it could be argued, though it is in keeping with the general trend towards greater alienation or denial, to which I shall return in a moment, to trot out that phrase so beloved of academics, as well as the trend towards relocation of facilities to the periphery.
What do I mean by alienation? Perhaps, “divorce from the environment” would be a more accurate usage. Milk is something that comes in cartons from the supermarket, meat is something that comes hygienically shrink-wrapped in neat cuts. The source of these products, the method of manufacture is conveniently overlooked, perhaps alluded to on a label, a grinning cow or pastoral fields symbolise the countryside, goodness, freshness, health-giving properties, “naturalness”, anything to pander to our squeamishness, to overlook the realities of the stun gun, the rolling eyes, the warm stink of dung as the tangible evidence of distress. We prefer our convenience, conspiring amongst ourselves to forget.
I walked through the old mart before it was demolished to make way for a new palace of consumption, incorporating some of the previous features, notably one wall, complete with worn sandstone sculptures of a sheep’s, a cow’s and a horse’s head. Wisps of hay littered the bare floor around the drainage condies, the pens’ metal barriers had been removed in some parts of the building, the auction room seats’ paint peeled and the clocks had stopped for good. My breath hung on the air in the bitter cold as I recalled a school visit, aged Friesian cows and the steaming flanks of prime Aberdeen Angus bulls. Sheep bleats mingled with the shouts of traders and the reeling off of bids to be concluded at the thud of the hammer. A chaos of offloading from double-storied trucks, wool protruding from the side-slits. Clearly, this could not be allowed to continue blocking the main road down to the high street twice a week, not to mention the noise pollution. P. has become a victim of its own success, turning its nose up at the farmers who fed its pretensions with their riches.

The English have by their mere existence played a major part in defining Scottish ethnic awareness. Their political, economic and cultural domination of the northern reaches of the island has been instrumental in creating a solidarity which has grown over time and which has become increasingly important as a factor in Scottish political life, overshadowing internal Scottish differences (the most notable of which is distinctive Gaelic culture, not to mention the language which has functioned as a potent symbol within the framework of our self-perception as unique and forming an ancient, distinct nation in spite of its unintelligibility to over 95% of the current population, to make a rough guess. Rescuing the “native” tongue of Caledonia from the irreversible decline which would otherwise appear to be its “natural” fate is a cause widely espoused by even the most unreconstructed of monoglots).
The English touch a number of raw nerves, which I shall spell out in the form of binary oppositional pairs:
inclusion/exclusion (not as straightforward as it might appear. Pro forma, Scots are not excluded from any level of participation in public life and we have proven ourselves very skilful at ascending social ladders, manipulating to an extent the leeway we possess, i.e., here we are dealing with a very permeable boundary in real terms, but our exemption from the class system is not complete. We are classified according to the fact of our Scottishness as opposed to our social standing initially, but an evaluation of our background is unavoidable ultimately. We are, if you like, a class unto ourselves, a sub-species of the genus British. Actually, the very concept of Britishness is a construct intended to create a sense of commonality of interest where none existed. In some ways it has substance, in that we have been exposed to a similar way of looking at life, history, art or whatever and, more particularly, we have been exposed to the same literature, TV output, perhaps there are slight differences in local media products, but nothing that would not be instantly recognisable to a fellow inhabitant of a more distant part of the isles.)
dominant/subordinate (in terms of a small country faced with a larger wealthier neighbour which at the same time reserves the right to establish cultural and social standards against which everyone else is measured. It is even more marked in the British Isles than say between Germany and Denmark, where there was always a true language difference as well as recognition on the part of the international community of separate territory and national autonomy. Denmark was justified in her paranoia in terms of a threat of invasion). The Scots, in spite of having produced a body of literature and philosophy (not to mention technical inventions) that compare favourably with the best produced anywhere else still feel uncomfortable about being swamped or overwhelmed by our “oppressors” south of the border.
We are immediately identifiable by the boundary marker of accent. Dialect is also a factor, but not to the same extent. Thus we may be conveniently classified within the class system in our encounters with the English. Internally, the class/classification system functions somewhat differently. Hierarchies seem an inevitable feature of human intercommunication. Scottish hierarchies appear on the surface at least to invert the English model, but the fact is that we apply similar standards and they serve the same purpose of providing us with a secure identity. The extra layer is one of ethnicity and ethnic solidarity which enables us to exorcise our worst fears about being “related to” the English and to present a united front to the outside world, thereby confirming to us the sense of being different.
A separate ethnic identity for the Scots is real in the Durkheimian usage of the word, in that, regardless of its historical accuracy (and didn’t the Scots all come from Ireland anyway?) it is the product of social consensus and a touchstone of group identification.
Our self-identification or self-depiction is a response to the threat of an erosion of our myth of uniqueness. Our identity is defined in relation to “Englishness”.
To summarise the story so far:
English cultural and political domination has helped to crystallise an ethnic identity, which creates its own solidarity, binding us together against a common enemy to whom we present a united front (Schulterschluss). This belief in the fundamental and irreconcilable differences between the two nations vindicates us in our wish for independence, as well as reassuring us that we are indeed not inferior to our richer and more self-confident neighbours. Awareness of these differences acts as a protective mechanism, reinforcing and nourishing our conceptual bonds of shared ethnic origin. We too are tolerant of assimilees of manifestly foreign extraction because the Scottish imagined community is a community of values. We are far more suspicious of English immigrants because they are infinitely more subversive, “infecting” established communities, such as exist in the more remote de-crofted areas. Their taint is a blood taint, not simply one of attitude. Their Weltanschauung is particularly resilient, impervious to change. Whereas we are only too delighted to fleece them in the summer, we prefer them not to enjoy property rights all year round.
The superior/inferior dichotomy is relevant, since the English are responsible for setting the agenda in cultural and political life. The Scots suffer from the inferiority complex of the small nation. Not that feelings of inferiority represent the ineluctable lot of small nations. To take the Danish example again, Denmark’s size is seen as a positive asset. In encouraging the “heathen” to follow the Danish path to welfare, peace and salvation (the Swedes are not alone in believing they have the answer to all life’s problems), the Dane will always start off by saying:”Vi er et lille land, jeg ved, men…” (”I know that we are a small country, but…”). I suspect that the Danes have a greater capacity for healthy irony than the Scots in this context.
We pride ourselves in being different. It is a truism that the worst insult you can hurl in the direction of a Scot is to accuse him of being English. The Scottish identity, then, is based on resentment vis-à-vis the English and on a rejection of a set of so-called English values. Again, spending time assessing whether these values are English is a waste of effort, since the point is that they are perceived as such and that is the crucial fact.
What are “Scottish” values beyond whisky-induced sentimentality about how we were robbed of our freedom and paeans of praise about the bonnie lassies and the heather-covered slopes of our rugged mountains (the best photographs of which are to be found in every postcard-vending outlet in the land and which were taken by an Englishman, Colin Baxter)?
It is easier to set them out negatively, i.e., in relation to what we definitely reject as “English” rather than what we embrace as specifically “Scottish”.
Firstly, there is the cult of “purity”, as contrasted with “corruption” or, “dishonesty”. Here I am not referring to the belief that because something is Scottish it is intrinsically purer, the unpolluted waters, the unbuilt up landscapes, inhabited by the deer, monarch of the glen style or the golden eagles and ospreys so beloved of ornithologists. That is a widespread belief not exclusive to the Scots, a product of general alienation from the bleak industrial and inner city wastelands that surround us and compensate us for the loss of an idealised past. It has more to do with our “Protestant” or maybe even “Calvinistic” eschewal of form above content. In general, Scottish attitudes are steeped in moralistic overtones. We are as sanctimonious as we are categorical. This is our defence mechanism against incursions by the English, or, more accurately, we look down on the English as the embodiment of all hypocrisy and double-dealings to deny that we have any common traits. Politeness is , beyond a certain point, an exercise in obfuscation, concealing the true content of the message supposedly being conveyed. As such, it is profoundly dishonest. Scots reserve the sovereign right to sell each other down the river, to which our history testifies eloquently, but double-dealing in interpersonal relations at the everyday level is the supreme vice.
Secondly, we profess to be adherents of the cult of the working man, the Clyde welder syndrome, or the Rab C. Nesbitt paradox. [In case you are not familiar with this character, created by Ian Pattison, he is an unemployed waster from Govan, who idles his days away swigging beer and philosophising about life and Scottish society. He is the incarnation of every prejudice and cliché about the Scots, embodying all our worst excesses as he loafs around the streets in his ancient trainers and his bloodstained headband. As an individual at the bottom of the social pile, he has virtual outsider status and is free to comment on whatever he observes. Although a total layabout, he is quite perceptive, which is entirely in keeping with our self-image:"here's tae us, wha's like us? Gey few, and they're a' deid."] When challenged, the Scot will draw on a stock of folk memories from the lore of Easterhouse, a phenomenon I label as the fiction of “tenement solidarity”. We derive a great deal of our sense of solidarity through fantasising about the privations and hardships that we as a nation have been forced to endure, and even our anger at our oil resources being used to prop up the ailing “British” economy is a manifestation of this. We glorify our extinct industrial past and attribute mystical significance to the redemptive power of manual labour. This is a facet of our obsession with “honesty”, good money, hard-earned, entitling us to the small comforts we can purchase. We dislike luxury and conspicuous consumption, partly because of our religious heritage, partly because it undermines our desire to be seen to be more egalitarian. The existence of class distinction is something we prefer to deny and obscure at every possible opportunity because it is the English disease par excellence. Hence our fondness for the “golden age”, our nostalgic attachment to a way of life that vanished decades ago in the new wave of housing development.
The “hard man” is a figure of fun, but features prominently in the Scottish collective consciousness. With his drunken boorishness and his physical violence, he is the complete antithesis of everything that is associated in our minds with Englishness, i.e. “softness” or “effeminacy”. Interestingly enough, these same stereotypes exist in the north of England as well. Remember the Monty Python sketch. We have the added advantage of being able to draw on a tradition of looking upon ourselves as a warrior race and the repeated defeats we suffered did not diminish our fighting spirit or the gallantness of our efforts at throwing off the English yoke. Witness the popularity of Braveheart, which won the Oscar for best film, quite telling in terms of the cultural climate.
Scottish humour reflects these preoccupations as does contemporary Scottish art. In our jokes we tend to be vicious and iconoclastic, deflating all pretensions. “Earthy” would be an appropriate adjective to apply. Again, our dislike of the superficial acts as a smokescreen, allowing us to deny any kinship with the English, that difference being essential to our self-respect.
In art, the Glasgow style has gained in popularity and has been given the blessing of the establishment. It reminds me very much of socialist realism. If it doesn’t have a worker in it, if it isn’t a ploughman or a labourer in a bunnet, it isn’t worth painting, lacking authenticity. Even in the newly emerging Scottish literary style there are echoes of this. Take note of the success of Trainspotting, the underbelly of drug addiction, or How Late It Was, How Late. We are obsessed with the lowest of the low.
We despise snobbery in any shape or form, snobbery itself being an incredibly elastic term (ein dehnbarer Begriff). It could extend to academic endeavour, depending on the circumstances and the company and is likely to do so, even amongst otherwise rational individuals themselves in possession of degrees! (Equally, it could be drinking claret, “What’s that shite, geeme ma can o’ Tennants”, though we are becoming more cosmopolitan in taste.) We have a phobia of middle-classness that verges on the pathological, emanating from our need to be distinguished from the English, in the equation middle-class = genteel = English. Thus we can happily ignore the destructive cracks and rifts brought about by class segregations in our own society as well as conning ourselves that we are more “genuine” as we sit in faceless suburbs of Barrat and Wimpey construction, indistinguishable from the rest all around the island. Our difference is our emblem, our core, our centre of loyalty.
I do not for one minute attribute the existence of a Scottish ethnicity to the absence of an English one, or rather, to the limitation of an incipient or inherent English ethnicity to the lower echelons of society. We have too much history and historical awareness for that to be the whole truth, regardless of the accuracy with which we may make our claims to a separate nationhood.
If the English were to ditch their class hierarchy in favour of ethnicity it would merely strengthen our sense of our own ethnic identity. We cling to our institutions because they are tangible evidence of the fact that we enjoy a certain amount of autonomy, they act as an anaesthetic, but we are fairly well aware and are given too frequent reminders of where the real seat of government is. Think back to the ill-fated poll tax, first introduced in Scotland, the testing ground for controversial legislation as well as the nuclear dustbin. Beware of confusing complacency with satisfaction. In one sense, what would we do without the English? We’d be forced into contemplating our own shortcomings instead of blaming every woe or ill on the sassenachs. This is why I have serious doubts as to whether we would actually go through with full independence. Our solidarity might crumble if we were not ruled from Westminster. If we did not have a foe against whom to focus our emotions, what would we do then? We are comfortable with our vocabulary of colonialism, the “white settlers”, wealthy, pampered elites who buy up our ancestral Scottish homeland because we Scots are too poor to purchase it ourselves. We have a great line in passing the buck.

Powered by WordPress       Words, Audiotexts and Images Copyright © Chameleon 2004-2009