On 10 October, the Sunday Times ran a story about Murray Edwards College, one of the two remaining women-only colleges at Cambridge University, offering ‘fertility seminars’ for its students. The college’s new president, Dorothy Byrne, was quoted as saying that fertility was a ‘forbidden subject’, and implying that the classes would be a kind of aide-mémoire: young women, she said, might ‘forget to have a baby’. The piece was widely shared, and the backlash was swift.
On 9 January, Le Monde published an open letter from a hundred women calling for a reconsideration of the ‘excessive’ #MeToo campaign. Among the signatories were writers, editors, translators, academics, gynaecologists, psychotherapists, artists, filmmakers, actors, critics, journalists, photographers and radio hosts. The broadside, drafted by five writers and journalists including Catherine Millet and Catherine Robbe-Grillet, argued that the campaign, though ‘legitimate’ in its calling out of sexual violence in the wake of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, had escalated into policing the relationships between men and women in a way that was detrimental to sexual freedom.
All the frocks at the Golden Globe Awards this year were black, bar three. The unofficial dress code was to publicise Time's Up, a new organisation campaigning against sexual harassment, workplace discrimination and the gender pay gap. Its founders are a mix of A-listers from film and TV, and A-listers from politics and law (including Christina Tchen, Michelle Obama's former chief of staff, and Roberta Kaplan, who brought Edie Windsor's case to the Supreme Court and thereby the Defence of Marriage Act to an end). The red-carpet blackout was a spectacle. Time’s Up’s muscle is a crowd-sourced legal defence fund to support working-class women pursuing harassment cases. The money isn't only for lawyers. Recipients will get help with filing fees, travel, and the other hidden expenses that keep poor women from seeking justice in the courts. After three weeks, the pot is $16.5 million.
It was snowing heavily, in New York’s first real snowstorm of the winter, and the women leading the demonstration at Columbus Circle had to cover their microphones with plastic bags to keep them from getting wet, muffling their chants. There were roughly 150 protesters standing with hunched shoulders while fat snowflakes dampened their caps. Their signs had pictures of growling pussycats and the ♀ symbol with a clenched fist in the centre. A woman with facial piercings had draped a large sheet over her shoulders: on the back, it was embroidered with the words ‘CUNT QUILT’, along with a diagram of a uterus made from pink and red underwear.
Reading interviews with Paul Verhoeven on the publicity trail for his latest movie, Elle, you get the sense he might be disappointed at the relative lack of outrage over his ‘psycho-thriller’. The film, based on Philippe Djian’s prize-winning 2012 novel, Oh…, stars Isabelle Huppert as Michèle Leblanc. It begins with her being raped by a man in a ski mask, who has broken into her house.
This time, the colour was red. At the Women’s Marches in January, we wore pink: pink pussy hats, pink scarves and pink T-shirts with slogans like ‘Pussy Grabs Back’. But on International Women’s Day, 8 March, when women worldwide were asked to strike – both for women’s rights specifically, and more broadly against the globally ascendant far right – women wore red. On the sidewalk in New York it was easy to see who was striking or in solidarity with the strikers. There were red blouses and bags, red jumpers, red dresses, and many, many red hijabs. Red was dense downtown in the afternoon during a rally in Washington Square Park. There were red hats, coats and scarves crowding around the fountain; fathers toted daughters in red pullovers towards the playground; dogs with red leads sniffed the fire hydrants.
London Fashion Week will begin on Friday, and with it comes the usual dismay about the thinness of the models and the impact of this on women and teenagers – including the models themselves. The Women’s Equality Party (founded last year) has launched the #NoSizeFitsAll campaign to challenge the UK fashion industry to do better. One of its demands is for Fashion Week to include models of UK size 12 and above. (Size 12, though smaller than average, is considered 'plus-size'.) 'The softly, softly approach has been tried for years and is not working,' the manifesto says. Well: not for women, anyway. Nearly a year ago I complained about the mannequins at the entrance of the ladies’ department in John Lewis on Oxford Street. ‘It’s nothing to do with us, it’s head office, you’ll have to fill in a complaint form,’ the sales assistants told me. A few months earlier, Topshop had been publicly shamed for its ‘ridiculously thin’ mannequins after a customer’s open letter went viral.
Did the politics of motherhood destroy Andrea Leadsom’s bid to be Britain’s next prime minister? Only last week, some Tory diehards were describing her as a new Margaret Thatcher, a figure to restore the soul of Conservatism and secure the nation’s future outside the European Union. Then, on Saturday, she told the Times that being a mother gave her a ‘stake in the future’ which her childless opponent, Theresa May, lacked. Roundly criticised by party colleagues as well as enemies, Leadsom backpedalled, first declaring she had been misquoted and demanding a retraction from the newspaper, then admitting she had ‘misspoken’ and issuing a sorrowful apology to May. She made no mention of the affair when she announced her withdrawal from the race today, but it seems inconceivable that Leadsom would have dropped out had she never made those comments. Talking about the way motherhood shapes political sensibilities used to be simpler.
Theresa May looks set to be Britain's second female prime minister, now that Andrea Leadsom has quit the Tory leadership race. It would be wrong to hail this as a victory for feminism. May's record as home secretary suggests that her government would be especially punitive for women at the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum, or with precarious migration status.
Media coverage of the recent violence in Cologne is perpetuating sexism and racism in the name of feminism. On 9 January, the German magazine Focus carried a photograph on its cover of a naked white woman with black handprints all over her body. Süddeutsche Zeitung used a drawing of a black hand reaching up between a white woman’s legs. (SZ’s editors have since apologised; Focus’s have not.) A Charlie Hebdo cartoon shows monkey-like men chasing a woman and asks: ‘Who would little Aylan have become if he’d grown up? A bottom-groper in Germany.’ The British media too have carried stories on the problem of ‘migrant gang sex attacks’ and ‘sexual jihad’, accepting the far right’s use of the spectre of sexual violence to advance its anti-immigrant agenda.
Chantal Akerman’s films don’t have conventional plots with a beginning, middle and end. Yet nearly all the obituaries, following her death at the age of 65 this month, described how Akerman was inspired to make her first film at the age of 18 after watching Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, and said that Gus Van Sant cited Akerman as one of his major inspirations. Over and over, we were given her genesis as a filmmaker and the promise of her reincarnation, bookended by two credible male auteurs.
I heard that the octogenarian Joan Didion was to be the ‘new face’ of the Parisian luxury brand Céline when I was in the middle of commenting on a new monograph by Margaret Gullette called How Not to Shoot Old People. It documents countless grim instances of neglect and contempt for the elderly across a vast ageist spectrum. We oldies live in schizoid times.
Old fashionistas are suddenly all the rage (if hardly plentiful) at Vogue and Dolce & Gabbana. Living longer, old people can be encouraged to consume more, especially by cosmetic and fashion industries promising to keep us looking streamlined and elegant. We may, undesirably, be no longer young, but we can at least dutifully defer to the dictates of fashion. Didion even has the skinny look of a fashion model: hardly an inch of flesh, mere bones on which to hang clothes and accessories.
Before I ran the London Marathon on Sunday I was told that I would ‘enjoy the first 15 miles’ and ‘be buoyed by the crowd’. No such luck. It hurt from the start – I never hit the famous ‘wall’, just felt a steady increase of pain over time – and the crowd might as well not have been there, as far as I was concerned. I posted 3 hours and 37 minutes, which if I have some kind of memory lapse, I will probably try to better in the future. It would be ungrateful of me, however, not to recognise that it’s been a bit of a struggle in the last century for women to be allowed to compete in marathons at all. Women have fought for my right to feel that amount of discomfort. For many years it was felt that women’s bodies could not withstand the stress of 26.3 miles.
This was a big week for Facebook feminism. A worldwide coalition of feminist groups, led by the UK's Everyday Sexism Project and Women, Action and the Media in the US, have been challenging Facebook's advertisers (mostly via Twitter) to suspend their ads until the platform agrees to remove some straightforwardly offensive images making hitting and raping women sound like fun. (They are depressingly easy to find on the internet. A couple is having dinner, a single rose in a vase on the table: 'Win her over... with chloroform.' This is the tame end.) If asking the advertisers to ask Facebook to ask whoever posted the images to take them down sounds like a roundabout way of going about things, that's because it is: Facebook, who have censored photos of breastfeeding in the past, had already vetted the images and didn't think they violated 'Facebook's Community Standard'. On Wednesday they backed down and issued a statement setting out how they were going to change their moderators' ways.
At the end of last month, it was decided that the archive of the Women's Library was to move from a university in the East End to a university in central London. 'LSE saves Women's Library from closure,' the Guardian announced. London Met needs to save money; LSE has room in the new library it's building – nothing could be more practical. All that will be lost is a purpose-built, award-winning, lottery-funded building that has been standing for only ten years (and which may turn out to be worth more demolished). Woolf wasn’t joking when she said a room of one’s own needed ‘a lock on the door’.
If you lived through the 1960s and 1970s, and are a woman, it's really hard to be shocked or surprised by the tolerated sexism back then that's currently crawling out of the woodwork. It wasn't in the woodwork at the time. It was just there, in the air you breathed, in the world you walked about in. It wasn't just DJs and comedians. It wasn't even only the touching up, the comments, the boss who called you in to deal with a pile of filing that needed putting away in the bottom drawer of the cabinet right opposite his desk (think 1960s miniskirts). The men who felt you up on the Tube at least knew they were doing something wrong, even though they didn't think it was very wrong, or only wrong because it was in public. You could say, in a loud voice, 'Take your hand off my body,' and they would look ashamed. You could strategise to avoid those you knew were trouble, you grew a tough skin walking about the street being shouted at, having your body commented on, being sneered at when you didn't respond. Learning to deal with loathesome men in public and at work was part of being a young woman. But it was more pervasive than that.
I can't say if the Pussy Riot trial tells us anything new about Russia, but it tells me something about feminism. In the UK at least, the new feminism has been polite, well-mannered and, well, twee. When the pro-life protesters get out their tiny plastic models of foetuses, we get out our iced gingerbreadwomen. We open feminist conferences not with exhortations, but with jokes about sexist children’s books. Abortion clinics are inspected for pre-signing forms, but hardly anyone is saying that the 1967 act is antiquated and unfit for purpose. Big gestures can seem empty and small ones futile. I’ve left too many meetings, conferences and rallies feeling the absence of Angela Davis, of Simone de Beauvoir – and, it turns out, of Pussy Riot.