Why we feminists really need to pick our battles wisely
Calling an inappropriate compliment 'misogyny' robs the word of all meaning, writes Carol Hunt
Published 13/09/2015 | 02:30
When will those bloody feminists learn to take a compliment? Or a joke? It's something I get asked quite frequently whenever I point out that telling me I have "great tits" or expecting me to laugh at rape jokes isn't kosher. In fact, I'd have to say that I find it downright sexist.
But then I would say that, wouldn't I? I self-describe as a feminist and on more than a few occasions I've been accorded the term 'feminazi'. Obviously I need to get a sense of humour and stop taking myself so seriously, eh?
But advocacy for women's rights is clearly still an important issue in many counties.
Sexism exists. Even in Ireland there are many issues of gender equality that we need to address.
But a major part of successful advocacy is knowing when to pick one's battles. And I have to admit that many of us feminists have recently done more damage than good by not choosing wisely.
Of all the horribly sexist things you can get called on social media, being told your profile picture is "stunning" is not the worst. Getting a tweet saying that you're an ugly c**t who should have been aborted before birth, now that's bad. Or a message saying that you deserve to be gang-raped, that's pretty awful too.
Anything that sexually belittles you, makes you feel afraid or dismisses your opinion because of your sex, you shouldn't have to put up with. But there's a difference between getting mildly irritated by some old fogey thinking he's still stuck in Mad Men territory when it comes to commenting on a younger woman's appearance and being sexually demeaned by a Neanderthal troll.
Barrister Charlotte Proudman did the sisters no favours last week by informing Alexander Carter-Silk that his message to her on the social forum LinkedIn was "offensive and misogynistic" before she put his wickedly sexist comments all over Twitter.
What did he say that so irked and insulted her? He posted: "Charlotte, delighted to connect. I appreciate that this is politically incorrect but that is a stunning picture! You definitely win the prize for the best Linkedin [sic] picture I have ever seen. Always interest to understand [sic] people's skills and how we might work together."
Now women all over the world have been receiving messages like this since pictures started appearing on social media. Most of us just roll our eyes and move on.
As a columnist, I've probably had more unwelcome online attention than many others, purely because in putting yourself above the parapet you invariably get shot at. There are some blokes out there who have gone to the trouble of emailing me sexist abuse about my "man-hating, feminazi" opinions.
Most, I ignore. Some I re-post to shame the buggers. Once or twice, I've had to report them, but thankfully I haven't had to go to the gardaí about any violent threats. Yet.
What would I have done if I had received a message like the one Carter-Silk sent to Proudman? I would have shaken my head, snorted, and promptly forgotten about it.
Not because it wasn't inappropriate or mildly sexist, it was both of those things, but because in the context of real misogyny it doesn't even make it onto the pitch. There's a huge difference between a clumsy attempt to chat up a much younger woman and deliberately undermining them because of their sex.
If we screamed "misogyny" every time a colleague complimented us on our hair or dress, it would take exactly 10 seconds for the word to lose all meaning. The real misogynists out there - and, make no mistake, they are legion - would be delighted.
"Told you so", they'd leer at us. "You're all just ultra-sensitive, man-hating hairy lesbians who can't take a joke", they'd insist when we protest at the "compliment" of them informing us that they'd like to "do us from behind".
Because there is so much vile sexism out there, we need to be able to distinguish clumsy comments - from men who may be old-fashioned but have no desire to hurt or humiliate - from the real deal.
Ask yourself; is this comment meant to humiliate me? Is it sent/made by someone who hates, dislikes, mistrusts or has a prejudice against me because I am a woman?
This is the definition of misogyny and we need to remember it. Recently, when the furore over the alleged sexist comments made by Professor Tim Hunt was at its height I recall asking a friend (who was highly insulted by them), if the comments attributed to the scientist were typical of his attitude to women in his classes?
Hunt, 74, a Nobel laureate, was forced to resign from his position at University College London when comments he allegedly made about the need for gender-segregated labs and that the trouble with "girls" was that they cause men to fall in love with them, caused international outrage.
They weren't, it seems, typical. From what information I could glean about the man, these comments were wildly out of character for him. And inevitably, after the mob outrage had died down, when the man had been so vilified that his life had all but been destroyed, the facts emerged. Hunt had joked about sex-segregated labs and made it clear he was joking by adding: "Men would be the worse off for it" - that is, if labs were sex-segregated.
As part of his protracted joke, he said he hoped women wouldn't be put off working in science by "monsters like me", thus making it absolutely clear that if any problem had been posed by anyone during the course of his personal falling-in-love-in-the-lab troubles, it was he who was responsible and not any women.
Misogyny exists, it is corrosive and persistent and it needs to be called out whenever it occurs. But an old dinosaur complimenting a woman on her picture? An elderly professor making clumsy jokes about women in labs? They're not the enemy. But by attacking them, we risk letting the real culprits get away scot-free. We need to pick our battles wisely.