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Sexism by anti-sexist activists

Change doesn’t come easily.

7 March is International Women’s Day, activism against gender inequity is experiencing a ‘third wave’, supported by writers, scholars and civic organisations alike – and yet, old habits are hard to shake off, even by these feminists themselves. Old habits, such as belittling women by the way they are named.

Carpenter around 1875 (from Wikimedia Commons).

As I was reading a biography of the activist Edward Carpenter, written by eminent women’s historian Sheila Rowbotham, it struck me that she referred to the women in Carpenter’s life by their first names, while the men were called by their family names. (This is especially clear in the chapter ‘Love and Loss’.) For an online example, see Rowbotham’s earlier publication Hidden from History. 300 Years of Women’s Oppression and the Fight Against It.

In European culture, the use of first names traditionally implies intimacy, but also low status and a form of infantility or immaturity. First names are used for children, servants, nurses: Katie; Maud; Mary. Second names, on the other hand, have for a long time been reserved for people of power and authority, such as (male) politicians, authors, and teachers in secondary or higher education: Gladstone; Byron; Snyder.

(For a bitter laugh: google-image search ‘professor’ and then ‘teacher’.)

A romanticising painting of the Shelleys: William Powell Frith (1819-1909), ‘The Lover’s Seat: Shelley and Mary Godwin in Old St Pancras Churchyard’.

The distinction becomes abundantly clear in English literary history with the Shelleys, who were both famous writers. In most narratives about the Shelleys, Percy is ‘Shelley’ while Mary is ‘Mary’. It leads to such statements as ‘In mid-1816, Shelley and Mary made a second trip to Switzerland.’ (This one from Wikipedia, but exemplary of much academic writing as well.)

Another example, about contemporary writers: I use an appointment diary published by an international human-rights organisation, which contains poetry by political dissidents. Two Soviet poets from the 1980s are quoted: Irina Ratushinskaya and Nizametdin Akhmetov. She is ‘Irina’. He is ‘Akhmetov’.

Ratushinskaya, photographed by Mikhail Evstafiev. CC BY-SA 2.5.

Some women seem to be especially prone to being named in a way that places them at the bottom of the pecking order: these are immigrant women and women who have received less formal education.

Not too long ago, I was at a university conference about some of the work scholars in Britain are doing with local communities. Part of the aim was to show that such projects are a two-way street involving true collaboration between academics and people with other kinds of knowledge: knowledge from experience, or from family stories, for instance.

Unfortunately, these good intentions did not translate itself into the naming practices adopted by the (academic) presenters. The non-academic participants, mostly female and immigrant, were referred to by their first names, while the mostly indigenous/white scholars (also women in majority, in this case) were referred to by their family names.

Even scholars who make it their task to challenge racism and sexism have been immersed in a racist and sexist culture from a young age, and clearly even they find it difficult to shake of its influences.

No doubt I have been guilty of the same unfair practice over the course of my life. But once we start to notice how often it occurs, we can begin to be more careful about what we call people.

Michelle? Or Obama? (official White House portrait by Joyce N. Boghosian, 2009, from commons.wikimedia.org)

N.B. When I tried to locate the original source of this photo, the following message appeared on my screen:

Thank you for your interest in this subject. Stay tuned as we continue to update whitehouse.gov.

Sheila Rowbotham’s otherwise excellent biography is called Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (Verso, 2009).

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Will Britain sack Britain?

Two days to go before the referendum that will decide whether Britain and Northern Ireland stay inside the EU.

It is hard to think about anything else these days. It’s in the news, it’s in people’s conversations. We used to laugh about the idea of a Brexit, but the atmosphere has turned more vicious and you can see people getting scared, not least those British citizens who want to stay in.

What’s more, the English flag is everywhere. Sure, the UEFA football championship is upon us as well (I wonder, do the same Britons want to leave the UEFA, too?). But the usual football flags have taken on a more ominous meaning now, especially since the murder of Jo Cox.

A new park and flood protection in the north of England, created with financial support of the EU.

 

Most of the Brits wanting to leave the EU are motivated by xenophobia and nostalgia. They have not reached their verdict after weighing the economic and political pros and cons of EU membership. No, they want to prove that Britain can still do it on its own – that’s the nostalgic part, and it even includes talk of the nineteenth-century empire –  and they want foreigners to disappear.

But of course, foreigners won’t disappear if the UK is no longer part of the EU. For one thing, more non-EU-citizens than EU-citizens live in the UK. (Many leave-campaigners seem to think that abolishing the EU will somehow also solve the violence in Syria and East Africa and economic destitution worldwide.) Secondly, the agreements that the UK will negotiate with the EU if it leaves, will probably not force out those already living in the UK. Those with a job will even be asked to stay. Whether they will want to stay, is a different issue.

As a friend remarked this morning: if Brexit becomes reality, how will all those uninformed ‘leave’-voters react, over the coming weeks and months, when they notice that the migrants are still here? The referendum campaign has temporarily channelled xenophobic sentiments, but also stimulated them. Will the resulting anger be directed at politicians who made fantastic promises? Or will it be the same old same old?

Fortunately, I am finding that my local friends, colleagues, and students show no inclination of wanting to leave the European Union. Fortunately for international understanding, but also fortunately for the people of UK. Especially in the north of the country, jobs, pensions, health and well-being may have more to fear from London than from Brussels.

A new park and flood defence in the north of England, realised with financial support from the EU (photos by author).