Thursday, 22 October 2015

Vague thoughts on Feminism

Aside from actually being a feminist, in a living, breathing, sticking-up-for-women's-rights kind of way, I can't actually admit to knowing a great deal of feminist theory. I certainly don't know which wave of feminism I'm in, though at least I'm aware there are different waves. I haven't even read The Female Eunuch. I'm not sure that for practical, everyday matters I need to read up on the latest deconstructions of feminist thinking to know how I feel about the inequality I see in my world.

It was only last week that I got into, a, erm, vigorous discussion, on Facebook with someone I don't know about feminism and patriarchy. She honestly and genuinely expressed the opinion that we (here in the UK) don't live in a patriarchal society and that women have won the battles that need winning and should stop complaining. Seriously. In a country where there are more men called "John" leading FTSE100 companies than there are women of any name. In a country where only 25% of the judiciary are female. In a country where women are still less than a third of our elected parliamentary representatives. In a country where it was only this year that we finally abolished male primogeniture for the monarchy. In a country where the gender pay gap still stands at 19.1%**. I'm not claiming there are simple reasons for all these things or indeed simple solutions to them, but while our country is largely governed, judged and led by men, it's pretty much going to be patriarchal. Men are in the positions of power, earning the majority of the money.

There seems to me to exist a persistent, background assumption that men are leaders, men are rulers, men are somehow better at being in charge. And just for today there are two manifestations of that presumed supremacy that are irritating me. They're not big issues. They're the kind of things that the woman I argued with on Facebook would no doubt think aren't worth bothering about. But I can't help but feel that if you address the little things, you can undermine the foundations on which the bigger inequalities are built.

Thing #1: My name
Last weekend it was my birthday, and amongst the loveliness of having a birthday (like being given a cuddly bunny rabbit by my son), there was the pleasure of receiving things in the post that aren't invitations to take out a credit card I don't want, or buy clothes I don't want, or vote for someone I don't want. I received 5 such pieces of happiness-inducing post. Only one of them was actually addressed to me. The others were addressed to Mrs BigBear. I'm not Mrs BigBear, I'm Miss PhysicsBear. I categorically haven't changed my name, and yet my brother, one of my cousins and my in-laws all address me as Mrs BigBear. I've never told them I'm Mrs BigBear, in fact my email address, phone book entry, business cards, bank accounts, Facebook profile and every other single place they might see my name is Miss PhysicsBear.

Now, I understand that not changing my name when I got married is not the norm. It's a bit new-fangled and un-traditional, but it's also my decision. My name. Me. How I define myself. How I ask the world to acknowledge and address me. I may be married to BigBear, and love him dearly, I may be happy that LittleBear is actually Little Mr BigBear in the name department, but I am not a possession, or an adjunct to my husband. I am me. I have a name that I like, why would I change* it? Maybe by addressing me as Mrs BigBear my in-laws are wanting me to be part of their family, and that's lovely. But I can be part of the family without having the same name. After all, LittleBear and I don't share a name and there is no-one in the world who is more a part of my family than my beloved LittleBear.

I do know one man who changed his name when he got married, but let's be honest, most men don't. And if you try asking someone whether they think men should change their names to that of their wives when they get married, you'll get some interesting reactions (go on, it's quite fun, I've done it). So why is the asymmetry not only accepted but assumed? Why is a man's identity, reputation, name, more important than a woman's?

I'm not suggesting that people addressing me as Mrs BigBear are somehow inherently sexist, or deliberately setting out to impose their view of how things should be upon me. Nor am I suggesting that all the millions of women who have changed their name over the years are in some way oppressed and brain-washed. Everyone should be free to make that choice, and to choose to declare their togetherness with a single name if that's what suits them. I'm just pointing out the extraordinary degree to which something so unbalanced, so patriarchal,  is still the norm, still assumed across our society, still so rarely questioned. I'm pointing out that choosing a name to indicate your togetherness doesn't have to mean choosing the man's name; you could merge your names, choose a new name altogether, choose the woman's name. I'm pointing out that those of us who have chosen not to follow the norm have the right to have that choice accepted and acknowledged. I am me. Choosing to be me is not a rejection of my husband, or his family. Just as BigBear keeping his name is not a rejection of me or my family, and no-one in their right minds would ever think it was.

Thing #2: Marriage Certificates
Again, this one seems like a minor niggle, but again I think it represents the ongoing asymmetry in how men and women are recognised, treated and acknowledged. No, it's not as important as stopping FGM, or stamping out honour-killings, or any of a thousand other ways in which women's lives are degraded or even ended. But it is another small brick in a wall that divides men from women for no good reason.

In England, on your marriage certificate, there is a space to fill in the name and occupation of your father. That's it. Not "a parent". Not your mother. Not both parents. The only thing that appears to matter for the record keeping is who your father was. And the most important thing about him is his job. As though the defining feature of your life to this point is the identity of the man who begat you. And his identifying feature is his employment. Another way in which the only person, and only name that matters is that belonging to a man.

I've done more than enough genealogy research into my own family history to know how important and useful it is for future generations to be able to trace parents from public documents like birth and marriage certificates. And it would be so much more useful to have both parents acknowledged. You know, the two people who were instrumental in creating your very being, not just one.

Here endeth my rant. 

* Those who've known me for more than a decade will know that actually I did change my name. Twice. Once when I was young and naive and married TheEx, and once when I was a bit less young and a lot less naive and divorced TheEx. The thing is, when I changed my name the first time, I actually cried when I first signed my new name. I felt bereft and confused, as though I no longer knew who I was. And it was with great relief that I reclaimed my original name again. That experience massively informed my decision to keep my own name. It revealed to me how much my identity is bound up with my name. It made me decide not to just "do what everyone does", but instead to have the confidence and self-assurance to do what is right for me. Not to mention the fact that the tedious process of actually changing my name with every organisation I ever encountered was, well, tedious. And as well as liking my name and wanting to remain "me", I really can't face the paperwork. A bit less feminist, a bit more pragmatist. 

** Edited to add I have got this statistic wrong (as it is so widely mis-reported, I forgive myself) and BrotherBear has kindly pointed out my error. The full-time gender pay gap is 12.8%. Which is fine, obviously.


  1. Jenny F Scientist23 October 2015 at 03:41

    Ooh, blogger just ate my comment. It's late so I'll summarize: people without basic respect for others can FOADIAF.

  2. :D

    I get the gist, but ...IAF? In A Field?

    1. Jenny F Scientist26 October 2015 at 21:04

      Fiiiire. A BIG fire.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. And the part-time pay gap is -3.4%, i.e. women better paid than men.

    And the full-time pay gap doesn't take into account whether people have taken time out to look after children, i.e. you take time out (male or female) and you end up with less years of experience on a lower rung of the organisation, with less pension etc etc.

    As some frothing loons pointed out (ok UKIP) it isn't a gender pay gap it is a maternity pay gap.

    1. I'm sure some of it is "just" a maternity pay gap, but what frustrates me enormously is how hard it is to find some of these figures. What I actually want to know is whether there's a pay gap when you compare like-for-like. Not based on years of experience, or gaps in continuous employment, but based solely on comparing people doing equal work. To quote the Equal Pay Portal however:

      "Although median and mean hourly pay excluding overtime provide useful comparisons of men’s and women’s earnings, they do not reveal differences in rates of pay for comparable jobs, and it is rates of pay for comparable jobs which are the focus of the equal pay legislation."

      They also point out the problem of using the median as a measure:

      "Various methods can be used to measure the earnings of women relative to men. The ONS headline estimates of the gender pay gap are for hourly earnings excluding overtime. The ONS uses median, rather than mean, earnings because the median is not affected by extreme values, such as changes in the earnings of small numbers of very high earners. However, as those on very high earnings are predominantly male, and those on very low earnings predominantly female, the mean is an important measure of women’s experience of labour market disadvantage as compared to men, and one which allows international comparisons to be made."