2014 was a good year for Feminism, I’ve been reading. Women suffered all over the world in the most horrendous ways, just for being female – no news there – but 2104 was the year some kind of critical mass of protest was reached at last, or so it has been proclaimed. For the first time ever, ordinary “non-feminist” women were agreeing publicly that it is not ok to trivialise rape, sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual exploitation. It is not ok to routinely blame the victim, to somehow imply she asked for it. That these things, not just the crimes themselves but the attitudes to them, are a real affront to us all, not just to ugly lesbian-feminists with chips on their shoulders. And when the conservative matrons of the world agree on something, then their husbands, sons and fathers cannot be far behind. For the first time in history, maybe, they just might have to give the matter some serious thought.
Trouble is, when you start thinking – when do you stop? The enormity, the self-evidence of sexual inequality worldwide when you start noticing it just ends up inducing total paralysis. Every single established social activity seems complicit, from fashion to literature, politics, dating and sport. It ends up calling everything we do into question; and that’s why, I think, that up to now, so many of us have always been so confused and ambivalent about something as apparently straight-forward and humane as a simple appeal for sexual equality.
It starts in the playground. A few weeks ago, my son announced, like he’d made an important discovery, that girls are actually not as good as boys. Good at what? I said sharply. Is that the case in your class, that the boys are the best at everything? He admitted it wasn’t. What he was talking about, it transpired, is the way “like a girl” has come to be the ultimate playground insult. Being like a girl is a boy’s ultimate humiliation. We all know, don’t we, that for girls who are “like boys” the situation is not remotely comparable.
My son isn’t a terribly boy-boy, and, as a feminist, I’ve always seen that as a good thing. For ages, his favourite colour was pink; as a pre-schooler, all his favourite people outside the family, female. On the other hand, he was physically active, and thoroughly obsessed with trains; an early Lego enthusiast and definitely a contemplator of things and mechanics rather than people. But he is quiet, sensitive, afraid of sudden loud noises, shy with strangers and not particularly competitive.
School put an end to his pink-phase, and encouraged him to befriend other quiet boys, which he did, successfully; these are friendships he has maintained. At seven, he seems well-balanced, sociable and popular, with a good range of interests and aptitudes. But as the years roll by I see the pressure on him to avoid all things “girly” increasing. It’s mainly a risk of being “teased” by the class policemen (and some girls); he can’t wear a certain, slightly fluffy fleece, openly enjoy dance class, or choose certain books from the Accelerated Reading boxes. He has to avoid some, the Rainbow Fairies, for example, he’ll read avidly anywhere there is no chance he’ll get caught at it by other kids. What I declare– that he should just read, wear, do what he likes, for goodness sake – is of no consequence beside his certainty that if he makes the wrong choice, he will be “teased”.
I find this seriously upsetting. I don’t think the school and other staff do enough to counteract it. It’s not seen as bullying, because the pressure is largely invisible; the children, especially the more sensitive ones, can be counted on to police themselves. It may also be the case that large sections of our parent body see proper gender-role indoctrination as an essential part of their children’s education, and would actually like to see more of it. Certainly some casual parental comments I’ve overheard suggest that. In the context of our school, it’s a controversial issue which is simply glossed over. Both boys and girls and all of us are losing out.