writer, broadcaster, portfolio woman

Women on top? You've got to be joking

The Independent, July 19th 2010

For at least 20 years, we have been fed the line that the ‘Future is Female’. But the future has always failed to materialise

What a depressing week it has been to be female. A psychopathically violent woman-beater and murderer is lionised. A film director who drugs and then sodomises a 13-year-old girl is let off. A famous actor tells his ex-partner she deserves to be “raped by a pack of niggers”. And the Catholic Church elevates women’s ordination to the same level of offence as child abuse. Thanks, chaps.

Meanwhile, a new report has reminded us of how little progress women have made in the arts. And, as Selina Scott complained to the BBC last week, when women do succeed on TV, they’re removed as soon as their first wrinkle begins to show, while men carry on till their faces look like a relief map of the Hindu Kush.

First to Raoul Moat, though. The most depressing aspect of the men (and women) defending this “legend” is the blame they have heaped on his ex-girlfriend, Samantha Stobbart. She, remember, is now recovering from being shot twice in the stomach by Moat. During their relationship, he split her head open. He threw her against a wall and jumped on her stomach. And he threatened her with a gun. His former partner, Marissa Reid, has said he beat her with his fists and a baseball bat, and raped her while she was tied to a bed. Nice.

So what do ordinary people make of that? Here are just a couple of comments on the RIP Raoul Moat Facebook page: “Maybe if she kept her legs closed none of this would of happened. Maybe Moaty had good reason to be angry,” and “Moat is a true British hero, he done what he thought was right by getting revenge on his cheating ex-girlfriend.” Moat himself wrote: “I never cheated on her. I wish she hadn’t cheated on me. She pulled the trigger by doing so just as much as me.”

So a woman who moves on from a terrifyingly abusive relationship deserves to be shot in the stomach? And a man who loses a girlfriend is entitled to try to kill her? That’s still a scarily prevalent view. Men are 10 times more likely than women to kill a partner who has left them. People often wonder why women suffering domestic violence stay in a relationship. Usually it’s because the man threatens to kill them if they go. Raoul Moat wasn’t the only man to have said to his girlfriend, “If I can’t have you, no one else can,” and to have followed it through.

In their splendidly named study The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Chattel, the evolutionary psychologists Margo Wilson and Martin Daly write: “Men lay claim to particular women as songbirds lay claim to territories, as lions lay claim to a kill, or as people of both sexes lay claim to valuables.” This sense of ownership gives these men a sense of entitlement and a fury at the notion of losing “their” woman to someone else. So when Samantha Stobbart took up with a karate instructor, in order to feel protected and safe at last, she apparently “pulled the trigger” on herself.

Moat’s twisted logic finds a reflection in other walks of life. When women who have been victimised ask merely to be treated fairly, they are often amplified by men into threatening aggressors. Researching a Radio 4 programme about opponents of women priests last week, I was told of an exhibition put on by an Anglican man who opposed women’s ordination. He had painted pictures of leering women, naked apart from their dog collars, with intimidatingly large breasts, gathered round a communion chalice filled with menstrual blood. What’s that about, Sigmund?

The Catholic Church, of course, has not just forbidden women’s ordination, but made it a dreadful crime. Last week, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decreed that “both the one who attempts to confer a sacred order on a woman, and the woman who attempts to receive a sacred order, incur an ex-communication”. This puts women’s ordination on a par with child rape.

If only paedophilia were taken as seriously as women’s ordination. The Vatican has hounded theologians and priests who have questioned the Church’s teachings on women. Had it used the same energy to root out abusing priests, thousands of children’s psyches could have been spared.

Even in the Church of England, which now has women priests and is close to accepting women as bishops, the hatred and vilification are shocking. At last weekend’s meeting of the General Synod, some women priests were spat at. And a male bishop who appeared on the radio programme I made complained that the Synod had now been “swamped” by part-time women clergy or – as he put it – “ladies with time on their hands”.

Hearing a word like “swamped”, you might expect the House of Clergy to have been taken over by women. In fact, they account for just 39 of 197 members. In other words, men still take up 80 per cent of the places. But if women are seen as threatening and monstrous – as in that priest’s painting – even their minority presence is hugely amplified.

This overestimation of the power and representation of women is commonplace. Research shows that when women speak in the classroom exactly 50 per cent of the time, both men and women think they spoke more. When I took part in an internet debate recently about whether Oxford University was sexist, James Kingston, president of the Oxford Union, said: “Most of the History tutors at Christ Church seem to be women.” In fact, there are six women and six men there.

So perhaps that is why we put up with such appalling under-representation of women in public life. We believe there are more than there are. A report out last week from UK Feminista found that for every female character in TV drama there are two men. Is that an accurate portrayal of our lives? At Glastonbury this year, 71 per cent of the performances were all-male acts. Just 12 per cent of Turner Prize winners have been women, and 7 per cent of Bafta award-winners for screenplay-writing. Even in literary fiction, at which women are supposed to excel, awards go two-to-one in favour of men.

I can understand – just – why only 1.6 per cent of conductors at this year’s Proms are women. Conducting is an all-consuming job with gruelling hours and constant travel. But it’s hard to believe that men are twice as good at writing fiction, three times better at pop music and seven times better at art. And I certainly don’t see why, as a former BBC TV executive admitted to me: “As male presenters get older, they become an authority; as female presenters get older, they become a problem.”

The real problem is that 21st-century Britain still undervalues women, and particularly older ones. Open any newspaper, look at any billboard, switch on the TV or read a magazine and you will search almost in vain for a picture of a woman over 50. Girls may be doing better than boys at school, but it is ridiculous to claim that men are being marginalised. They still have the best jobs, the most money and the preponderance of power. And when women make any progress, however small, that is exaggerated to suggest that they are somehow taking over from men.

For at least 20 years, we have been fed newspaper articles telling us “The Future is Female”. But the future has always failed to materialise. The present is still overwhelmingly male and women’s advances are still over-amplified. I’ll start to feel sorry for men when they are wildly outnumbered on company boards, wiped off TV in their forties, routinely earning less than women, and not just being murdered by their jealous partners, but being blamed for it.

One Response to “Women on top? You've got to be joking”

  1. Deon Zorman says:

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