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.