Unfashionably late to the feminist debate.
For some reason, I grew up believing feminist activism to be a dated irrelevance, an attention-seeking anachronism in our balanced and equal UK society. Many of the most prominent feminists I remember reading or listening to when I was younger, all came across as bitter and aggressive, petty separatists whose central message sounded like ‘men are useless’, or, ‘women should take over the world’.
It turned me off the gender equality debate. As an English Literature student, I could feel myself glaze over, tuning out whenever the ‘feminist reading’ of a text was discussed. Later, in my early twenties at work in the midst of office chatter, something inside me would clench and cringe when groups of women privately patronised their partners, shared exclamations of mock gratitude at how well they had done to put the plates in the dishwasher, or worse, described them simply as ‘the husband’.
I felt, very strongly, that the differences between men and women should be celebrated, not ignored, and I was well aware of the moments or situations where I had felt at an advantage by being female. Ultimately, I thought there wasn’t much ground left to make up.
I can still see why I felt this way. I’m almost proud of my naïve optimism, something I feel on this particular topic is owed to the attitude and atmosphere of the school I attended, and to my parents. My Dad has absolutely no Master of the House tendencies, an astounding and total lack of ego, and the calm, deep kindness that comes from having enough security in your own identity that you barely notice whether someone is male or female – you just see the person. Over the past few years though, since leaving the family fold, graduating from university and working professionally, I have gradually and painfully woken up to the ingrained, and deep-rooted inequality that defines many areas of our society. This realisation, that women have so much still to fight for, hit me very recently, but has coloured many hundreds of earlier experiences.
Last summer in 2014, I spent a few weeks researching a documentary arts series, searching for exciting, brave, and unusual artists from all over the world. It was a few weeks into the project when we began going through our contacts, putting a treatment together and turning it into a more detailed proposition. I scanned my shortlist of around fifty international artists, and my jaw dropped in shock: less than ten of them were women.
I was astonished. The list had come together very naturally, as a result of weeks of in-depth research. I didn’t feel I had distorted my findings, or that I had naturally felt more of an affinity to the male artists I had come across. I thought back over the past few weeks’ research. I was confident that this unbalanced selection accurately represented the work I had found myself exposed to; there had simply been more men out there than women. We spent the next few days redressing the balance, making sure that we had enough female artists in our final document, but it involved a lot of hunting and searching, and having to discount any male artists I came across to ensure I was adding only women to our list.
Something shifted inside me. It was a sudden noticing, like putting on a new pair of glasses and seeing the world in slightly sharper focus, or tuning into a constant background noise that had been humming along for years, unnoticed. I am ashamed to say this, but I think I had always found it easy to believe that men might naturally be more suited to the corporate business environments that we are frequently told they dominate. That argument fell apart, disintegrated, immediately revealing itself to be my own ignorant mistake, as I scanned the imbalance of my artists shortlist. There was no way I was ever going to be convinced that Art is naturally a male pursuit.
(Bridget Riley: Pause, 1964)
This realisation precipitated many more. I ran through lists of artists in my head. I could reel off men for infinity: Hirst, Rothko, Gilbert & George, Seurat, Monet, Turner, Kapoor, Wei Wei, Cézanne, Hoyland, Nicholson and so on and so on until I ran out of breath. But, for women, on the tip of my tongue all I could find were Emin, Riley, and Hepworth.
I turned my attention to fashion designers (McQueen, Galliano, Marc Jacobs, Christopher Kane, Gareth Pugh) to photographers (Mario Testino, Patrick Demarchelier, Terry Richardson) to film directors (Hitchcock, Scorsese, Allen, Tarantino) and finally composers (Debussy, Beethoven, Scriabin, Satie, Brahms). Where were all the women?
The gap was too hopelessly vast to be explained by temperament, or motherhood, by chance, or opportunity. I was overcome with a strange kind of rage. So much of the cultural language we are surrounded by has women at its heart, but is conceived and presented to us by men.
I wanted to gather Anna Wintour, Annie Leibovtiz, Stella MacCartney, Sofia Copolla, and Clara Schumann in a room and give them all a fierce hug and a kiss.
(Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub, 1945)
I thought back to a fact that I had heard discussed at an advertising conference in 2014, that just 3.6% of Creative Directors are women. And then, and then…things started unravelling, as I pored over memories of my working life. I spun through all the moments when I had felt valued on a project because I scrub up well for important clients, the meetings I had left believing the best idea had triumphed when in reality no, it hadn’t: His was just the loudest, most forthright voice in the room. I began to notice the lewd and aggressive phrases, the masculine terms projects are often discussed in, all the ‘dick-swinging’, the ‘manning up’, and the ‘having the balls’. (I doubt it would go down quite so well if I started wagging my labia around to make a point.) Creativity will die a silent death if the ideas that get listened to are determined only by the confidence with which they are delivered, the subtleties of their substance and content ignored.
For the first time, I allowed myself to consider, properly, how many hundreds of times out in London, or on the tube, a man had made me feel sexually vulnerable, trapped, uncomfortable or unsafe. I thought about how often I am groped in bars and clubs, heckled on my way home, approached in the street for my number, and how many of these encounters leave me feeling unrelaxed, jumpy, on edge. I don’t want to muddy the waters by trying to discuss female sexual vulnerability in the same breath as professional underrepresentation, simply because it would be impossible to do both issues justice, but they are undeniably linked.
(Tracey Emin: I’ve Got It All, 2000)
I wondered where to go and what to do with my brand new anger and frustration. The temptation was to turn up the volume and make a big, grand statement, to shock people into paying attention. This, I think, is what people like Rihanna are trying to do, with her latest video, showing her as a beautiful and violent gang leader, her latest victim naked and gaffer-taped, strung up by her legs and swinging from the ceiling.
I understand that there’s a certain power to opening that discussion, the question of why it is somehow more awful to see a woman in that role. But with some of these overdone statements, I worry that they only do a superficial job; they appear to make progress, by making a loud noise, but no change happens.
The injustice of the situation fuels an anger that is hard to contain, but we must carefully harness that frustration, and make sure we are turning it into a constructive energy. If we apologise instead of asserting our convictions, laugh along because it’s easier than disagreeing, or doubt ourselves because the world we live in makes over-confidence look like authority, then we become part of the problem.
The world needs female writers, creative directors, designers, poets, journalists, business executives, a collective voice loud and varied enough to balance out this broken see-saw dialogue. But we need to be clever about it. There is a tendency to feel that the loud and controversial statements will make the biggest leaps forward, will get us there the fastest. Instead of doing something shocking and extreme to try to move the conversation along, we must get our heads down and forge ahead, silent and steely, with laser-sharp focus. We must close our eyes and breath. We must get to know ourselves. We must trust who we are, and not soften or shy away from what we are working towards.
I am not going to use any more energy articulating a problem that is everywhere, that we have gone blind to. I am simply going to make sure that I achieve every single thing that I am capable of, and become a part of a steady, powerful, and advancing group of feminists.
Title Image: Man Ray: Noire et Blanches, 1926