The Invisible Labour of International Women’s Day

It’s International Women’s Day.

I’ve been reading twitter and there’s an outpouring of (mostly) celebration and mutual recognition, and lots of posts about brilliant friends and colleagues and inspirations. Lots of celebrations of supportive women, women who have held out helping hands to others, who’ve been there, who’ve listened, who’ve encouraged, who’ve given.  And lots of poignant posts, too. @thewomensquilt is the account recording the making of a quilt to commemorate the hundreds of women killed by their partners in the UK. It’s beautiful, but very sad.

I can understand why the celebratory posts need to be there, to counterbalance the sadness and to give some sense of hope. I can see why they’re part of the same issue. Women who do support other women are the ones who raise awareness of femicide, who open and run refuges, who lend an ear to friends struggling in abusive relationships, who educate young women in what a healthy relationship looks like, who provide opportunities. It’s necessary work.

But the juxtaposition also makes me uneasy. Women are constantly taught to give, to listen, to support, to encourage – and to do so voluntarily, silently and selflessly. This rhetoric is very much part of the culture of victim-blaming of women in abusive relationships, and it is very much part of the culture of reporting on femicide (and, indeed, reporting on other forms of misogyny). Women are encouraged to do invisible labour, and we all, men and women, are encouraged to interpret it in the traditional terms that reinforce misogynistic ideal of femininity. We’re encouraged to call it kind, generous, and nurturing. Occasionally, we’ll come across men who say, thinking they’re being flattering, that this is a wonderful female thing that men just don’t get.

And that’s a problem. All of this de-professionalises women’s support networks, and implicates them in a well-established set of social expectations relating to guilt.

I’ll concentrate on the workplace, for a minute, to explain what I mean. Women have been trying to build networks of support in male-dominated industries for decades (centuries, actually), and it’s easy to look to initiatives like Athena Swan in academia and to feel there’s a real solution to the problem. But then this, like other networks, requires someone to be there. And if you only have one woman at the top, or perhaps two senior women in a faculty of a hundred, then that someone is always going to be Dr X. I have several friends who are Dr X. Dr X is on the Athena Swan committee, because it was important to have a woman lead. She’s also on the big grant proposal with Professor A, because Professor A needs a woman there. And she’s running the women’s forum for the postgraduates, because Drs B, C and D agreed it should be a woman. Chances are, she’s also writing references and reading papers and mentoring ECR Drs E, F and G while listening to colleague Dr H figure out how to get to senior lecturer level. Meanwhile, the male members of the department are enthusiastic and fair-minded and understood completely the need to have women taking the lead in gender equality work. And they have rather more time for research than Dr X, somehow.

There’s a burden of guilt here – guilt piled on by well-meaning people and guilt arising from the fact that women are taught it’s particularly their job to support other women.

The other end of the scale is my own experience. I’m a woman early career academic, and I am acutely aware of the demands on my senior colleagues’ time. I know that when I email that fantastic professor who’s asked me to show her my book proposal, I am taking her away from other things. I know that when I ask my colleague, again, if she could read this chapter draft, I am giving her one more email to deal with in a heap of requests. Of course, these requests are part of normal academic life, and everyone – men and women – expects to make them and expects to receive them. So, why do I feel guilty? It’s because women asking for help, even professional support that is entirely appropriate, are interpreted as ‘needy’. That has been the conditioning I have received all my life – like other women – and so, like other women, it presses in on me when I’m trying to do my job.There’s a burden of guilt I have, because I know I’m asking colleagues who typically do not have as much free time as their male peers, who’ve had a harder time getting where they are than their male peers. And I try very hard to do without that support and that help, because I have internalised the idea that this is what I should do.

The more women’s networks of support are written off as ‘generosity,’ the more they are represented as optional extras, nice things to make women’s lives easier, rather than necessities.

So when I see these outpourings of celebration on International Women’s Day, I’m torn. Yes, we need to celebrate and thank other women who support us, and we need to shine spotlights on each other’s work and give each other recognition. But we also need to stop characterising this work as an informal outflowing of generosity. We need to stop celebrating friends for ‘going above and beyond’ or ‘doing so much more than I could have deserved’. We need to start saying, ‘I know women who work hard for me. I recognise these women who put time and effort into building a better world for women. I see that the work is time-consuming and effortful and often invisible.

Supporting other women is great, but it’s also taking its toll on us. Professionally – in my line of work, and I’m sure in others – it is quite literally taking us out of the business. It is taking away the time and the energy and the effort that we should be entitled to put into our lives and our work, and using these as sticking-plasters on wounds we didn’t cause. We should be angry about that.

I want to put time and effort into building a better world for women. I’m not doing it out of generosity or a nurturing instinct: I’m doing it because I am still furious that Karen Ingala Smith needs to run the Counting Dead Women project. I’m furious that I need to find a female colleague who’ll understand the pressures on women, instead of knowing all my colleagues face the same opportunities. I’m furious that there needs to be an International Women’s Day. Yes, I’ll celebrate, but I won’t forget.


Meryl Streep’s T Shirt, Emmeline Pankhurst’s Body, and Plural Narratives of Oppression


Quotation is a tricky business, and so – as I’m about to remind myself as I’m beginning a new term teaching – is interpretation of words written far in the past. Connotations and implications that were once so obvious they didn’t need spelling out, become dated and obscure within a surprisingly short time – and if you whittle a quotation down to a few pithy words, or a single bold statement, you’re basically leaving it standing out there shivering, wondering where all the comforting context went. And this is a particular problem with feminist quotations, which seem to be subject to a kind of massed, retrospective contempsplaining effect, as everyone rushes to tell long-dead feminist women what they really meant. For example, I’ve seen de Beavoir’s famous dictim, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” interpreted as a powerful attack on the idea that women are oppressed due to their reproductive biology. And it makes me wince every time, because women’s words deserve to be read in context, not snipped down to the smallest space possible, like a photoshopped model’s unrecognisable body in Vogue.

I’m thinking, as you may have guessed, of the slogan printed on T Shirts, worn by Meryl Streep to promote her new film, The Suffragette. Streep, and the T Shirts, have been the subject of a feeding frenzy, with commentators piling on to express their shock and to point out that the word ‘slave’ is, erm, kinda liable to evoke racist connotations.

Which it is. If you’re looking for an explanation, I couldn’t put it better than Charline Jao, writing in The Mary Sue: “I personally subscribe to the idea that “slave” and “slavery” should not be used outside of referring to the structural violence of treating the body of another as commodity.”

However, there’s more to the unfortunate slogan than that. If you’re reading this in from outside the US, you may not know that ‘rebel’ in that context has a specific connotation, which is still fresh in a lot of people’s minds: ‘rebel’ Confederate flags, signifying allegiance with the defeated South in the Civil War, are still flown in some US states, and they’ve come to be associated with White Pride and entrenched racism. (Disclaimer: not my circus, not my monkeys, please don’t yell at me if nuances of this strike you as simplistic.)

In that context, the juxtaposition of ‘rebel’ with ‘slave’ suggests racial conflicts, and – don’t get me wrong – I’d wince to see someone wearing this T Shirt without realizing that’s one way it might be read. But that’s the problem with snappy, soundbite quotations: they don’t come with context. A fuller quotation gives a little more of what Pankhurst said, and I’ve seen it reproduced in several debates on this issue:

“I know that women, once convinced that they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion. I would rather be a rebel than a slave.”

This does help: at least you can see here that Pankhurst is talking about women, specifically. But we really need the full context. Friends of mine immediately noticed that there’s a tendency to assume UK struggles for equality followed the same pattern as those of the US, both legally and polemically. Katharine Edgar points out that – broadly – in the UK the main discriminating factor within the category of women (and men) who were allowed to vote was economic. Until 1918 (men) and 1928 (women), people had to have a certain amount of wealth in property, in order to be allowed to vote. Obviously, this functioned as a form of covert racial discrimination, but not an absolute ideological racial barrier. Black men were able to vote before white women, and it’s even been claimed that the first black man to vote in England, Ignatius Sancho, was born in 1729, well over a century before the US Civil War.

Why does any of this matter? After all, the presence of a few individuals who evade widespread discrimination hardly suggests that the UK was some kind of haven of racial equality (and I wouldn’t want to argue that). And it seems clear to me that pretending the Suffragettes were some kind of time-travelling secular saints who floated free of all the bigotry of their era, is absurd.

But it’s also – I think – absurd to treat this as a problem with Pankhurst’s speech, rather than with the way her quotation reads, taken out of context and placed on a T Shirt in 2015.

When Pankhurst made her speech, slavery labelled as such was illegal in the UK, but, within that relative (very relative!) legal freedom, women’s bodies had been commodified within Pankhurst’s lifetime. Indeed, when she married in 1879, the legal act that would make it possible for married women to own property – that is, to be financially enfranchised – was still three years in the future. The famous campaigner Caroline Norton, who died just a couple of years before Pankhurst’s marriage, had managed to stir up public sympathy when her husband refused to divorce her and also claimed her earnings as his property, leaving her unable to earn a living and banning her from seeing her sons (which was also his legal right). Lower-profile women, naturally, lacked both the influential friends and the wealthy context of Norton, and faced stark choices between starvation, prostitution, or resigning themselves to the ownership of their husbands (with legalised marital rape). Slowly, women like Norton and Pankhurst were beginning to challenge the structural violence that treated them as non-persons, as individuals whose earning power and legal rights were controlled entirely by men.

There are two things that bother me about the way I’ve seen this controversy play out in the media and in discussions. One problem – which is common to an awful lot of feminist issues – is that we’re being encouraged to treat feminist foremothers as if they must be discredited, as if we should expect them to act as if they’re perfect citizens of 2015, not ordinary women living in their own times. Feminism, in other words, is everyone’s punchbag. The other problem is that, in judging Pankhurst according to the rhetoric of US racists, we act as if there’s only one possible narrative of equal rights, only one way in which human beings have understood intersecting oppressions. That’s damaging, because it imposes a false sense of inevitability onto history. It prevents us from looking at history and learning from it, because we’re too busy assuming that oppression – and fights against oppression – have only ever followed one sequence and one narrative, the same in the UK as the US and as everywhere else. That’s just a tiny step away from naturalising narratives of oppression, and imagining they could only happen in one way, as if we as a species are predestined to be oppressive bigots. And if we do that, then we’re erasing all the work the suffragettes did – that Pankhurst did – in insisting that oppression is not natural and is something we can fight on multiple fronts.

We need to make space to listen to far more of women’s history, far more of women’s feminist writings, not to shout them down or pin them to the narrow narrative of oppression that’s often all the history women and minorities are allowed to claim.

Update: This is a thought-provoking piece on the Suffragette movement and the racial dynamics of its members.