On Being a Woman Part III: International Women’s Day Edition

The other day, I put forward the offer to write a piece for International Women’s Day. I had just finished The Female Eunuch and purchased The Feminine Mystique. I was feeling, once again, that I could put into words that very unique, but also somewhat universal concept of what it is to be a woman. 

I wrote my first On Being a Woman essay this time last year. This was fuelled by a seething anger and profound devastation following the murder of Sarah Everard. It discussed violence against women, sexual harassment and how there are consistent attempts to silence both the female voice and female truth. This essay, one year on, isn’t necessarily intended to be a reflection. It will not say look how far we’ve come because at the moment this is not how I feel. What I feel is boredom; not apathy or fatalism but sheer boredom. A sense that as many famous placards so often read: I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit. 

I am bored of being angry and I am bored of being conceived as boring. A stuck record. That outspoken one who won’t leave things alone. That girl who ruins other people’s fun. (I distinctly remember a mutual acquaintance telling me they were off to see Fifty Shades of Grey and she hadn’t wanted to tell me because I’d ruin it with my feminism.) I am bored of hearing that it’s not all men. I am bored of the patriarchy and I am bored of the perception that being a feminist is undesirable; that if I define myself this way I am purely here to ruin your fun. That I hate men and long for a world without them. That I’m complaining about solved problems and conceived notions. That I should bloody well recognise that we’ve never had it so good (and then, consequently, shut up). 

*

Germaine Greer infuriates a lot of people. Germaine Greer infuriates me. There are many reasons why this is the case, which in recent years has a lot to do with her attitudes towards inclusivity. At this point I’d like to make a full disclaimer: I do not intend to discuss this, I intend to focus on the fact that I have recently read The Female Eunuch and how I feel about that particular work. I propose taking a Roland Barthes-esque approach here; a focus purely on the text and less on the author. 

The Female Eunuch is provocative. It’s pretty provocative now so when it hit shelves in 1972 it was even more so. It has to be read in context, which at times I struggled to do. It also took me quite a long time to read, which for me is never a good sign. As a twenty-first century reader I found that some of the arguments Greer made lacked a certain nuance. There’s a whole chapter on the womb (that ever present menace in the female anatomy), which felt like it ended with her telling me to just suck it up; if you want equality with men you can’t let a silly little thing like bleeding once a month get in the way. For me, being equal is not akin to being the same. It is possible to treat others equally, with the same levels of dignity, respect and worth whilst acknowledging difference, whether that be anatomical, social or cultural. This was gripe number one. 

Number two came in the form of her appearing extremely critical of women in general, implying that as we are complicit in the patriarchy we are basically digging our own graves. Literally. I became more sympathetic to Greer’s discussions in the final few chapters on male violence towards women, but again Greer implies that part of the problem here is that within every woman is a masochist willing the event to happen. Feminism, like anything, is difficult. Not everyone is going to get on. Women are people too(!) and people don’t always see eye to eye, I get that, believe me. However, much feminist theory starts from the point that women are the largest underclass and they just haven’t realised yet. In order to achieve revolution (whether that be class, race or gender based) the oppressed class must become aware of their oppression and identify their oppressors. No one is ever going to get on with everyone, but as long as there is criticism and infighting within the oppressed group, their oppressors have nothing to fear. My main problem though is that in the book’s final pages I wasn’t left with any hope – no solutions, no breaks in the cloud – just a simple question: What will you do?

Become pissed off apparently. Greer pushes boundaries, which has invited scrutiny recently, but she’s been infuriating people for much longer than this for one simple reason: she’s a woman who has no qualms complaining and making people listen to her opinions. Those opinions may be questionable, but they are opinions, not facts, and I couldn’t begin to tell you the amount of questionable man’s opinions I’ve had to listen to over the years, often with no dissenting voice in the room. Everyone (women and men included) finds it easier to silence the female voice than the male’s. And this is what I am bored of. 

I finished The Female Eunuch and said that it just didn’t feel relevant anymore. This is unfair. It is relevant because had it not been written then all the feminist writers I read today would not have had one of the cornerstones to this cannon. Also, a lot of the ideas are still applicable. Violence towards women is still an epidemic. The pressure from the patriarchy to look and behave a certain way is still there, only now there are more voices expressing dissent. 

*

I know that generally I have an innate desire to please. I write these kinds of pieces and desperately try to justify myself so as not to come across as difficult. I want my arguments watertight, factual, backed up with truth and statistics so as not to appear too emotional. Because as a woman, that’s where they dismiss you with the most ease, with the notion that you are simply hysterical. 

As I write and voice my complaints I feel guilty. There are privileges I have that many women do not. The point of International Women’s Day has been to celebrate women’s achievements, not bring a downer on the whole thing with negative pieces such as this one. However, I shouldn’t feel guilty. I am not ruining anything, not playing the cynic or negating the marvellous things women achieve on a daily basis, but I am realistic. International Women’s Day is great but sometimes it feels like there’s a manipulation of this event into yet another capitalist machine that simply exists to placate women. You’ve got your day, what more do you want?

In the Victorian period women had to put up with such nonsense as the ‘wandering womb’, then came Freud and the idea that what us women were in fact suffering with was ‘penis envy’. Then Mid-Century capitalism told us that we had it all, what could we possibly want with feeling discontent? Extra measures were put in place to shield the middle-class housewife from the horrors of the world; we were placed in protective bubbles made up of laundry, hoovering and decent homemade meals and then they wondered why many felt trapped. How long is it going to take for it to be universally accepted that what is wrong is patriarchal systems and the incessant insistence of men to seek to define us. 

Let women tell you what the problem is. When we visit doctors don’t tell women that the pain they are feeling is simply in their heads. Let women tell you why they are afraid to walk alone in the dark as opposed to simply exclaiming that it’s nonsense women feel this way because it’s not all men. Let women run for parliament without fear, let women make policy, enact change and have a say in the communities they participate in. Let women lead in areas where they are most affected and where they have the most expertise. Let it be the right person for the job, not the right man. Let us examine our language and reveal how ingrained the patriarchy actually is. Let women have autonomy over their own bodies and let women tell you no without fear of the repercussions. Let yourself take all women seriously, not just your wife, mother, grandmother, sister. Let yourself extend respect to women beyond your direct understanding; those of different races, ages, classes, abilities and cultures. 

*

Yet again I feel the record is stuck. This essay arose from the reading of seminal feminist literature and the hope that I would see how far society had progressed from the days of Germaine Greer and her female eunuch. I think feminism has progressed. I’m not too sure about society. 

When women are still being murdered by strangers in public places at an alarming rate I find this difficult to believe. When even more women are being murdered by loved ones in the place they call home I find it harder still. When convictions for rape remain so alarmingly low and when truly representative statistics for all the above crimes remain so hard to come by I continue to feel despair. When I see and read that globally those who suffer most at the hands of the climate crisis and war are women and children I struggle to see the progress. Inequality for me is acting as if someone or something has less worth than you and ultimately I believe this still happens for women, especially in a global sense. Things have advanced somewhat in the West but there are still complexities. If it was solved I wouldn’t be writing this alongside countless others who are arguing similar points. Progress is not victory, but the small victories are important so that you know it’s worth continuing. 

I am going to end this piece with a reading list. I am angry and I know I deploy a certain amount of wilful ignorance so that I am able to live my life day-by-day without internally combusting, however I dislike the notion that there is no hope. Hope for me is not expectation, it holds no guarantees and no disappointments. It is faith. I have faith that as long as women keep using the voices they have; those unique, compassionate, angry, intelligent, hopeful voices, that there will continue to be small victories. There will continue to be small victories that are big victories for those they directly affect, forming great triumphs on the road to a world that will continue to get better. 

After all, no one suggests to me that my womb has found its way into my brain anymore so things must really be looking up. (Although I cannot speak for all women on this point, it’s probably still happening somewhere.)


Further Reading for Hopeful Futures:

  • Invisible Women – Caroline Criado Perez
  • My Life on the Road – Gloria Steinem
  • The Most of Nora Ephron – Nora Ephron
  • All We Can Save: Truth, Courage and Solutions for the Climate Crisis – Edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson & Katharine K. Wilkinson
  • Difficult Women – Helen Lewis
  • Sharp – Michelle Dean
  • By the Light of My Father’s Smile – Alice Walker
  • Cassandra Speaks – Elizabeth Lesser
  • The Pursuit of Love – Nancy Mitford 
  • Decisions and Dissents of Ruth Bader Ginsburg – Penguin Liberty Collection
  • Things I Don’t Want to Know – Deborah Levy
  • The Beauty Myth, Promiscuities & Vagina – (All) Naomi Wolf
  • The Feminine Mystique – Betty Friedan
  • Let Me Tell You What I Mean – Joan Didion
  • The Female Eunuch – Germaine Greer (if you dare…)

Saffron Rain lives and writes in Stockport. She was born and raised around Manchester, only moving away to get her degree and subsequent MA in English Lit in Sheffield. During this time she wrote ardently on the North, particularly female writers and filmmakers. 

Her preferred form is the personal essay and she enjoys writing about topics that she connects to on a personal level. Some of these have appeared in independent publications and she shares longer pieces on her own blog. She loves to read, particularly women, and will take any opportunity to crowbar Joan Didion into a conversation.


Photo by Flora Westbrook from Pexels

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Book Review: Class, Violence and Female Friendship in Pat Barker’s Blow Your House Down

While so far, this column has been used as a space to spotlight and celebrate new books by Northern women, I’m excited to take a slightly different approach in the year ahead. Platforming fresh voices remains an integral part of these reviews, but I’m also interested in sharing some iconic books written over the last century that I think are essential to the Northern literary canon.

This month’s pick marks the first of those: Pat Barker’s Blow Your House Down. Best known for her First World War trilogy, the third instalment of which won the Booker Prize, and more recently her feminist takes on ancient tales, I find this book often slides under the radar. I’ve pushed this into many hands since reading it, and every one of those people loved it, so I decided it was time to give this book its rightful spot in the NRTH LASS library.

Blow Your House Down was published in 1984 and follows the lives of a group of sex workers living in the North of England. Loosely based on the Yorkshire Ripper murders, the story is driven by a killer who roams the streets and targets vulnerable women. Despite the risk of death now associated with their jobs, they have children to feed and rent to pay – life must carry on. Like most sensationalised serial killer sagas, documentation of Peter Sutcliffe’s crimes often focuses on the man himself and the brutality of his murders. While fictional, Barker’s narrative places priority on the victims of such crimes and restores agency to the women impacted by the violence inflicted. 

The working-class women in Pat Barker’s books are powerful, tender and complex, and Blow Your House Down is no different. Her intensive use of dialogue captures this brilliantly, crafting conscious and believable conversations between the characters. She incorporates a distinctive Northern dialect without patronisation and creates women worth falling in love with on the page. Written in the midst of Second Wave Feminism, Barker’s novel speaks strongly to the idea that sex work is work, and women who partake in such activity should be viewed no less than any other. During the Ripper investigation, prostitution was vilified by police and the media, and Sutcliffe’s victims were blamed in part for their own death. Blow Your House Down represents the multiplicitous perspectives of women and exposes the bigotry of this narrative. 

Despite the grim circumstances faced by the women in this novel, the fierceness of their friendship is undeniable. They are comrades in arms, there for each other at every turn and brought together to fight against a common enemy. The women understand the danger posed to them by a patriarchal society and go to extreme lengths to ensure each other’s survival. This is demonstrated when another woman is savagely murdered by the killer, and her lover embarks on a mission to avenge her death – whatever it takes. The characters in this book fear the worst, but in friendship, they become more powerful than ever. 

Above all, Blow Your House Down is a deeply honest representation of what it is to be a woman in a society rife with violent men. It highlights how minority groups are exposed to further risk, how working-class women suffer at the hands of men and how sex workers are blamed when men act out. The impact of this book is immense, and despite being written in the 80s, its social commentary remains more relevant than ever. 

If you’re a fan of literary crime narratives with a strong message at their core, you will adore this touching and nerve-wrenching novel. Buy it here to support the indie bookshop community.


Words: Beth Barker

Beth Barker is a writer and blogger from Blackpool, and co-host of Up North Books, a podcast celebrating books and writers from the North of England. 

Beth wanted to contribute a monthly review to NRTH LASS in order to shine a light on Northern women writing great books. The North is very much underrepresented in publishing and she hopes a monthly review throughout 2021 will showcase the talent Northern women have to offer.

For more book reviews and insights on publishing in the North, follow Beth on Instagram and Twitter.

On Being a Woman

This is the kind of narrative that could begin with a trigger warning. I’ve never started anything with a trigger warning, and I don’t intend to now. If I were to start this with a trigger warning then, as per the rules of this warning, at birth, all women should be served with such a caution.

Last week was International Women’s Day and I hold this event close to my heart. Every year I take time to think about the women in my life who have influenced me and helped me grow into the woman I have become, and the woman I am still learning to be. I am lucky that I am not the original feminist in my family, in fact the original feminist does not hold a place in my generation, or even my mother’s generation. The original feminist in my family is a crown firmly worn by my grandmother and she is exceptional. I would go as far as to say that her mother, my great-grandmother, whom I knew until I was just shy of fourteen lay the groundwork for a line of women who were not afraid to use their voice or go after a life they felt they deserved.

For a number of years I have used this annual event to celebrate and be grateful for remarkable women, however this year I felt that all this time something was being negated. I was no longer acknowledging the sheer anger I feel on a regular basis, instead happily falling in line and choosing to focus on where women have succeeded, whereas in reality it should be a day to also highlight the fact that a woman’s ‘place’ in the world still has a long way to go.

The problem is it’s hard to be so angry all the time. As I’ve been raised a feminist I have spent much of my adolescence and into early adulthood being really, really angry. And it is tiring. I studied sociology at college and found that the feminist theory I was being taught was in no way advanced enough. I am conscious of my gender so have taken time to learn about how this affects where I stand in the world. Throughout the pandemic I have chosen to use the time to educate myself further and last year I watched a plethora of documentaries on the likes of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Alexandria Orcasio Cortez and Gloria Allred. Upon its release I devoured Mrs America, which has since taken some stick for its portrayal of the Women’s Movement, but I think as an extremely watchable drama it introduced a whole host of people to a topic they didn’t even know existed.

I staunchly researched the Equal Rights Amendment and read Gloria Steinem’s memoir, in fact over recent years I have made a pact with myself to try and read books written exclusively by women. I studied English Literature at university and we were vastly underrepresented, a tragedy I have been endeavouring to change ever since graduation. All of this new learning continued to teach me something I frankly already knew; the voices of powerful women are few and far between, movements that are female led are slow to be taken seriously and amendments pertaining to the rights of women and girls, or the protection of women and girls are near impossible to get written into law, tragedies I have been trying to come to terms with for a good half of my life. 

Being a woman, whether that be your biological gender or a choice that has been made, is akin to being a second-class citizen. And that is before you start to explore the different facets that make up this category of people; things such as race, class or disability meaning that the levels of prejudice against women vary extensively throughout society. As I wrote that first sentence the dominant part of my thinking said don’t be so dramatic and as a result I nearly deleted it. This is a problem. A survey released last week announced a very real statistic: 97% percent of women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four have been the victims of sexual harassment.

This did not surprise women and those that did seem shocked (myself included) were simply amazed that the statistic was not higher. I’d argue the figure is closer to one-hundred percent but the harassment experienced has been shrugged off, or deemed not important enough to note. I have been guilty of this for much of my adult life. I was raised to be strong in my femininity and as a result of this I’ve refused to be a victim. I think lots of women will be in this position, where harassment becomes such a norm, or so tiring that you just have to ignore it otherwise you begin to feel yourself living in a constant state of victimhood. 

I worked in hospitality for ten years and the industry is rife with sexism, harassment and assault. Being behind the bar can be akin to being trapped in some kind of pen, a pen where men feel that they can say or do whatever they like to you and are completely within their right because of the job you have. To count the amount of times I heard give us a smile, love, you’re prettier that way, would waste more time than I have to spare. (Side note here: there is an excellent Lily Tomlin quote in which she says ‘Science has proven that you feel better when you smile. Unless a man is telling you to do it, in which case, never smile.’)

I would spend many an evening asking men politely to please don’t touch me to be confronted with why or alright love, calm down in response. As a manager I had to ask bouncers to physically remove men who would not take the answer of no from female members of staff, who could not take themselves out of the situation as they literally had to be there because it was their job. One member of staff ended up having to inform the police about a male customer who had begun stalking her, only for our (male) manager to then intervene and inform her that she wouldn’t have this problem if she didn’t dress the way she did. Yes. I just wrote that down and it is entirely true. 

I could go on, but like I’ve mentioned, it’s tiring being this angry and the rage I’ve reconciled in relation to these events over many years can so easily begin to rear its ugly head. Some of this is harassment and some of this is assault. Yet when I and the other women involved were living it, it was simply our work. This is another problem. It is so relentless, so overt, so outright and so unfortunately ordinary that it just becomes life.  It is when you step back from the situation, when you no longer deal with those things every single day that you realise that that is not what normal should be. When I left the industry one of the things I was grateful for, and still mention being grateful for now over a year later, is that I no longer have to deal with men touching me without my permission. And I am one of the lucky ones.

Women across the country have been shaken by the events that have unfurled over the last ten days. Some men have asked us why and taken steps to instigate understanding and change. Other men have shouted not all men and continued to show women that our experiences, our voices and our truths are not welcome. Women aren’t stupid, we know it’s not all men. The problem is, it transpires that a lot of the time we don’t know which men fall into the ‘not all men’ category. I’m lucky in that my partner and male friends fall into the category of men who understand and this is one of my biggest privileges. For a lot of women (one in four actually) it is the men within their homes, whom they trust enough to live with, who put them in harm’s way. When 25% percent of half the population are victims of domestic abuse then attitudes and behaviours have to change on a large scale. 

‘Lad culture’ has a lot to answer for and it is these small acts, often passed off as ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘harmless banter’ that lay the foundations for abuse towards women and sadly, I do believe that a large proportion of the male population partake in these kinds of discussions or ‘jokes’. We all know the kinds of things; that lads chat where one member of the group shares some particularly derogatory porn and everyone replies with lol, that group of blokes you hear in the pub complaining that the Mrs wants them home, the school boys at the back of the bus comparing and rating the girls they share a class with, when a woman is upset and a man within earshot asks if she’s on her period, or that old man up the road sharing female-lead articles in a WhatsApp group with the opinion she’s just overreacting.

The list goes on. And on. And the further it goes on the more it legitimises the idea that women can be treated as secondary objects there for the entertainment of men. If this is what society is teaching its young boys it is unsurprising that some boys grow into men who disregard, harass, assault and, in too many cases, murder women. 

It is not fair that one half of the population live with some level of anxiety pertaining to their safety in this way. For those who argue that it is ‘not all men’ then I pose the fact that not all women are raped, not all women are murdered but in these instances all women are asked to take extra precautions to ensure that they do not become a statistic. Like the outcry in the eighties during the Peter Sutcliffe murders, why is it that again all women are asked to abide by a curfew when it is in fact men who are unable to be trusted after dark. It is unfortunate for men that their reputation be tarnished by the actions of a few but women feel the effects in a much more serious way on a regular basis. I’ve already read how the language surrounding this topic is a problem, we talk of women being raped instead of men raping women, of girls getting pregnant instead of boys impregnating girls, of women being victims instead of men victimising and abusing. The language is all passive, these are things that happen to women, there is little in the fact that the power lies with the men who engage in these acts. 

There is a reason that the Sarah Everard case has affected women so deeply. It is random. It is inexplicable. It could have been any woman. Like the Black Lives Matter protests of last year, it is the disbelief, anger and fear that comes from the realisation that today’s culture is defined by a lack of both trust and accountability. It is not an irrationality that makes series like The Fall (something I stopped watching) and Luther (something I saw through and had many sleepless nights over) so terrifying. They are a mirror to the world that women live in. 

A male friend of mine rang me on Thursday because he wanted to talk about this topic and I was really grateful. He was angry and frustrated but ultimately, we discovered what he truly felt was embarrassed and distraught that people still needed to be told how to keep women safe. As we talked I was reminded of that famous Margaret Atwood quote; ‘men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.’ It is at times like these that this sentiment is keenly felt by all women. It is that underlying knowledge, somewhere in the female subconscious, that this is a reality that keeps us sleeping with the lights on after we’ve watched a crime drama, keeps us on the phone as we walk back to Piccadilly in the evening after a gig, that means we think twice about going for a run after the sun’s gone down, that makes us wonder whether we take that route or the longer, busier, better lit one, that ensures we keep our headphones out when walking somewhere lonely, that means we keep our heads down when those men in that van shout something vile, that mean we cross the road when walking past a busy beer garden and then the more severe. Those instances where a woman will do what a man wants because of that fear; where a woman will agree to a date just to get someone off her back, when she’ll let him kiss her goodnight just to shut him up and (more often than people like to imagine) let him sleep with her because the consequences aren’t worth risking. 

Being a woman can be difficult and infuriating and change is vital. Sometimes we fall victim of remembering the Suffragettes and the Women’s Movement and thinking that the work is done, that it’s better than it was, that life is more equal. It is, but it’s not far enough. It is seven years still until we can celebrate the centenary of all women over the age of twenty one winning the right to vote and in those ninety three years things have progressed but not enough. When women look to our current prime minister and see a man who is the subject of many jokes pertaining to how many children he has, with how many women, how can we believe we’re going to be taken seriously. When it takes campaigns and movements to get acts such as ‘up-skirting’ criminalized how can we believe that our rights are taken seriously. When misogyny is still not a hate-crime how can we feel valued and protected. 

I think, if you’re reading this then perhaps I’m preaching to the converted. But this doesn’t matter. Throughout my life I’ve found that when I’m angry or grieving or having big feelings that I don’t quite understand, I need to hear them from someone else. I need to read or listen to an experience that provides me with the language to express myself properly. I need to be given a framework in which to discuss my experiences and my feelings.

When the Guardian shared the 97% statistic on their Instagram feed I read some of the comments. One of them was from a fifteen year old girl who said she had experienced some behaviour at the hands of a man that she didn’t like, but she didn’t think that it constituted as harassment. There were tens of replies from other women. No one judged her, no one told her to be quiet, no one told her she was right. All these women told her that if she didn’t like it then she was harassed. All these women told her that her truth was her own. All these women apologized that she had to experience that. That girl has had her experience validated. She has been provided with the language she needs to identify and speak about her gender. The more women do this, the harder we will be to ignore. 


Saffron Rain lives and writes in Stockport. She was born and raised around Manchester, only moving away to get her degree and subsequent MA in English Lit in Sheffield. During this time she wrote ardently on the North, particularly female writers and filmmakers. 

Her preferred form is the personal essay and she enjoys writing about topics that she connects to on a personal level. Some of these have appeared in independent publications and she shares longer pieces on her own blog. She loves to read, particularly women, and will take any opportunity to crowbar Joan Didion into a conversation.