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We Need to Celebrate Bossy, Not Ban It

17 Mar
Image by Patrick Denker, used under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by Patrick Denker, used under a Creative Commons Licence

I’ve never been called ‘bossy’; I’ve been referred to as ‘ambitious’, ‘opinionated’ and, my least favourite word of all, ‘feisty’, but never ‘bossy’. This is probably because when I was a child, my sister, who is six years older than me, decided that she would do what all good big sisters do; boss her younger sibling around.

In my childhood mind, the word ‘bossy’, was the only weapon I could use against her, and I called her it often, because by pointing out her only flaw, I knew I could defend myself. I used the word as an insult, because I was tired of being told what to do.

However, in my adult mind, the new Ban Bossy campaign, AKA #BanBossy, created by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State, and the woman who needs no introduction, but I’ve given her one anyway, Beyoncé, which seeks to ban the word ‘bossy’, makes the word, and its connotations that little bit more insulting.

Of course, Victoria Coren Mitchell has summed up the main problem with the campaign in her latest column, and I agree, that by attempting to ban the word bossy, they are doing one of the bossiest things that a group of powerful women can do; controlling language in order to control people, thus playing up to stereotype of the bossy ambitious woman.

However, the spirit of the Ban Bossy campaign is excellent; it recognises that a lot of young girls feel that they cannot be seen to be assertive, or show ambition for fear of being labelled bossy, which is something that we need to challenge and ultimately, change. Yet, no matter how well-intentioned the campaign is, the thought of banning words makes me feel uneasy. There are words that have different connotations for men and women, such as ‘assertive’, ‘bossy’ and ‘bold’, but policing language is the first step on the slippery slope of censorship, which we must fight, or we will lose our right to speak freely.

Sure, we can ban some things, such as adverts for being misleading, or in the recent case of Paddy Power’s highly inappropriate Oscar Pistorious advert, because it was insensitive and attempted to profit from the murder of Reeva Steenkamp. But words? Should we ban words?

Words, like clothes, haircuts and celebrities fall in and out of fashion. In 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary added words like ‘twerk’ and ‘selfie’ to its respected pages, while this year, ‘cunting’, ‘cunted’ ‘cunty’ and ‘cuntish’ – also known as The Four Cunts – finally found their place in the pages of the dictionary, and there was much rejoicing. Well, I was pretty cunting happy about it.

In fact, cunt has a very special place in the Scottish vernacular; it has many uses, and can be used in a variety of situations. For example, if someone refers to someone else as “A good cunt”, this translates to “I believe this person to be a good person” or similar. However, if, during an argument, one party calls the other, “A FUCKING CUNT!”, then that means: “I don’t like you”. At the same time, cunted is used as another word for drunk or high, as in “I was absolutely cunted last night”, and if someone says you were acting “like a right cunt”, then they’re not best pleased with you, and you had better apologise quickly.

This is not a blog about cunts, or the many uses of the word, but my point is that language isn’t fixed; it constantly evolves to reflect changes in our society and views. For example, ‘slut’ was once used to describe a woman who kept a dirty house, whereas now, it means, as one of my former writers once so bizarrely put it, “a woman who engages in excessive female fornications”.

Meanwhile, the word ‘hack’, once a derogatory term for writers who produced poorly written and sensational stories, has been gleefully adopted by British journalists. Many now describe themselves as ‘hacks’ or ‘hackettes’, in that true British journalism spirit that we have perfected over years of stoic self-deprecation while our industry circles the drain. It’s not the word itself that holds the power, but how it is used that creates the meaning.

So, if journalists can proudly adopt ‘hack’ as a title, while Scots can use ‘cunt’ so eloquently, then why can’t women embrace ‘bossy’? I’m with bell hooks on this issue, who has created the #BossyAndProud campaign and believes that instead of banning and fearing being called bossy, women and girls need to celebrate it. The trick to defeating the negative power of bossy is to stop treating it as a dirty, shameful word. Therefore, by embracing, not banning, the word ‘bossy’, you take away its negative connotations, which will make it a much more positive and powerful label for young women.

Be your own boss. Be bossy and proud.

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The Great Pubic Hair Debate Or Hands Off Our Pubes

20 Mar

Lady GardenThis week, Independent Voices published a piece called ‘Debate: Is Pubic Hair a Feminist Issue?‘. The piece was, a follow-up to Louisa Saunders’ earlier article, ‘The Politics of Pubic Hair: Why Is a Generation Choosing to Go Bare Down There?‘ where Saunders attempted to discover why a generation of young women were choosing to shave their pubic hair. The article was sparked, in part by a night at the theatre watching her one of her daughters in a production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. During an interactive segment of the show, the audience were given a large piece of paper and encouraged to write what their vaginas would say if they could talk. Saunders, who was watching the piece with her younger daughter, admitted that she was “too British” to join in, that was, until she noted that a young woman had written “I need a shave.” Upon reading this, Saunders “snatched up a pen” and promptly responded with “No. You DON’T.”

Saunders impassioned defence of pubic hair is great, it’s honourable; but is it right to tell women what to do with their pubic hair? If a woman has a strong enough conviction to say: “I would quite like to shave my bikini line.” Should we automatically say, “No, you don’t”? No, and while Saunders refers to Ensler’s play throughout the article, the play itself talks about so much more than just bikini waxing. The Vagina Monologues is a play about acceptance, loving your body and most importantly celebrating the vagina. Yet Saunders picks just one monologue to support her argument saying: “Those familiar with The Vagina Monologues will remember that it contains an entire sequence concerning pubic hair. In it, a woman describes in eye-watering detail the painful process of removing her pubic hair at the request of a lover – the smarting, the soreness and the vague discomfort of trying to comply with the fetish of a sexual partner.” There are many monologues in the script; from the infamous Reclaiming Cunt where the writer strips the word back to its real meaning, to Because He Liked to Look At It, a piece which explores one woman becoming more accepting of her body through her partner’s desire to simply look at her, to the moving My Vagina Was My Village, which was compiled from interviews with survivors from Bosnian rape camps.

This is not to say that Saunders is wrong; she provides figures from a recent study at Indiana University that reveal that two-thirds of the 2451 students questioned in the female, aged 18-24 demographic, admitted to partially or completely removing their pubic hair in the month before the study. She also offers advice from Emily Gibson, director of the health centre at Western Washington University in the USA, who said in 2012 that [Pubic hair removal] “naturally irritates and inflames the hair follicles, leaving microscopic open wounds.” But it’s clear from Saunders’ article that she doesn’t believe women should tamper with their pubic hair too much, why then, should women not have the choice to change what they want, according to their personal preference?

If Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues was about celebrating the female body in all its forms, then feminism should be about celebrating every woman’s right to bodily autonomy. Of course, for some people, the very nature of changing your bikini line whether slightly or drastically, raises questions – why are more people – not just women – choosing to do this? Is it because of embarrassment? Are bikini waxes simply becoming more accessible and more affordable? Is it because people are becoming more influenced by what they see in pornography? Is this just how caring for the bikini line has evolved over the last century? Is it, perhaps because women are increasingly under pressure to remove their pubic hair because of their partner, friends or even society?

If this is true, and we feel that young people, particularly young women, are being forced to have their bikini lines waxed or shaved, and are even being told by their prospective partners that they should before they will sleep with them, as one Twitter alleged, then it’s not waxing and shaving that we have a problem with; it’s about the lack of bodily autonomy. If this is the reason, then we need to look at how to change this, how to let every person know they have a choice over what happens to their bodies, that they have the right to refuse, and others have to respect their wishes. Perhaps we’re all a little “too British” and we should talk about the subject of pubic hair more openly, and in a less judgemental way?

If a woman, or any person wants to do anything to their pubic hair, or anything else on their body, it should be up to them; this kind of decision should not be made under duress. But one thing is for a certain, many men and women trim, wax, shave or pluck their bikini lines of their own free will. But choosing to do so doesn’t it doesn’t make you any less of a feminist, or even a person. Deciding to take a razor to your pubic hair does not make you an enemy of the sisterhood, so as long as it was your choice to do it then why all the fuss? Surely, in 2013, it’s unreasonable to judge women, and in fact, any person by the modifications they make to their pubic hair?

So, ladies, gentlemen, if you’re happy trimming, waxing, shaving or leaving it well alone, keep on keeping on, your opinion is the only one that matters.

Feminism Needs The Transgender Community

13 Jan

Julie Burchill

The problem with being a celebrated feminist writer, is that many people will analyse everything that you say, even seemingly meaningless throwaway analogies. The journalist Suzanne Moore, found this out to her peril recently, when during an otherwise excellent piece about the power of female anger in The New Statesman, Moore made a comment about women aiming for the body of a “Brazilian transsexual”. Many people disagreed with this statement, and Moore was questioned about it on Twitter by a number of people, and verbally abused by others.

Although Twitter is never the best place to have an argument, or attempt to question another person at length about a serious subject as the 140 character limit is too damn short, Moore’s defensive and evasive tweets on the matter, and her subsequent follow-up piece in The Guardian, I Don’t Care If You Were Born a Woman Or Became One did little in some people’s eyes to make up for the hurt caused, and so, Moore decided to leave Twitter. Not to be outdone, the journalist Julie Burchill wrote a response in The Guardian’s sister paper, The Observer, and then the proverbial shit really hit the proverbial fan.

Titled, Transsexuals Should Cut It Out, Burchill’s impassioned defence of her “brilliant writer” friend Moore, reads less like a well-balanced and well-argued analysis of the situation, and more like a threat: “You really won’t like us [me] when we’re [I’m] angry.” But puerile threats aside – I’m sure trans people have much more to worry about than Burchill’s promise to get angry – what should transsexuals cut out, exactly? Standing up for themselves? Correcting hateful and incorrect language? ‘Bullying’ her mates? Undoubtedly, some people went too far in their abuse of Moore, and were probably not going to be satisfied with any of responses, but they had every right to challenge her. However, once what should be an impassioned debate becomes difficult and abusive, then all sides are at fault. If Burchill, believes that the transgender community is wrong because a few of its members have bullied her friends, then Burchill’s article, makes her, by her very own definition, a bully.

If Moore’s initial piece was problematic in its wording regarding trans people, then Burchill’s article is simply abusive. It uses a number of hateful and upsetting terms, most noticeably  “shemales”, “shims” and “dicks in chicks’ clothing”, which should not have been published in any newspaper. Her insistence that the trans people not only want to be treated as women, but receive special privileges above those of “natural-born women” is both worrying and inaccurate. Burchill’s article reveals a woeful ignorance, if not hatred, of trans people, and it is ignorance that causes fear, paranoia, anger and leads to the abuse of, and violence against, trans people.

But there is a bigger issue at play here, and that is that women, and therefore feminism itself, are exclusive terms, and that only certain people can identify as women and feminists. If you really, truly identify as a woman, whether you were born in a female body or not, then you should live as one, freely and without judgement from anyone, let alone other women.

If you identify as a women, then you’ll probably identify as a feminist, because you want women to do and feel better, and if you believe that women deserve better, then you are a feminist. Whether you’re cisgender or transgender, you are welcome here, and you are very much-needed in feminism. It’s time for trans people to stop being used as an easy target for abuse and ‘jokes’, it’s time for us to come together, to get angry, and to use that anger to grow our movement, to increase our followers and bring us all one step closer to equality.

I am a woman, I am a feminist, and you are welcome here.

Why Does the Government Hate Women?

6 Oct

In the same week that the Minister for Women, Maria Miller announced that she would back a reduction in the abortion limit from 24 to 20 weeks, the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt has announced that he backs the reduction of the limit further, to just 12 weeks.

Miller’s support of lowering the abortion limit from the current 24 weeks to 20 weeks, is not a decision backed by medical science, or the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which announced in 2009 that it had found no medical evidence to justify such a cut. Similarly, Hunt’s support for a 12 week limit on abortions, though a decision he says he came to “after studying the evidence”, although he hasn’t yet cited the evidence for this decision. He has also denied that his faith has been one of the driving forces for his decision.

But just as Miller’s support for a 20 week limit has been met with derision, so has Hunt’s desire to cut the limit to 12 weeks, a decision slammed by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, who have criticised Hunt’s stance on abortion. Speaking to The Times their spokesperson Kate Guthrie said:

“The politicisation of women’s health is absolutely shocking. Politicians talk about putting patients at the centre, which is quite right.

How is the woman at the centre of her healthcare with something like this?

If everybody had to have abortions by 12 weeks, my worry would be that women would be rushed into making decisions: ‘I have to have an abortion now or I can’t have one.’

That’s an absolute shocker. You will absolutely create mental health problems if you start dragooning women into making decisions before they have to.”

Abortion is a sensitive issue; it is a difficult issue for some people, but above all else, it is an issue that should concern the women who are experiencing a surprise pregnancy. Women deserve the right to have autonomy over their own bodies, we are entitled to make the decision to end or continue a pregnancy if that is what we want to do. The decision to have an abortion is a difficult one, and is influenced by many factors, not least by the existing time limits.

Let me be frank, Miller and Hunt’s desire to lower the abortion limit will not mean fewer abortions will be carried out. It will mean that women that rely on the NHS will be forced to make a decision with very little time to spare, while women with money will be able to afford to access an abortion in other countries with a higher time limit. Those women without the means to pay for their own abortion, or ability to travel to another country to have one will be left with fewer options and a lot of desperation and worry. Desperation will cause women who want to end their pregnancy to turn to unlicensed backstreet abortion which led to hundreds, if not thousands of women contracting serious illnesses, becoming infertile or dying from their injuries. The amount of women who became ill or died following an illegal abortion before 1967 cannot be verified, but it is estimated that 47,000 women have died because of unsafe abortion. Is this what we want for women in the UK?

Unwanted pregnancy rates need to be targeted by the government, but not by reducing the abortion time limit. Improving access to contraception would help deal with the issue. This has been proven time and time again by studies, with the most recent one, carried out by Washington University in St Louis, concluding that better access to contraception means fewer abortions. In addition, improving pre-natal testing for genetic abnormalities, would help make parents more aware of any issues with a pregnancy well in advance of the 24 week mark. As would working to stop end any delays that some women considering abortion may face.

So, Miller, you’re Minister for Women, start acting like you’re on our side; stop describing yourself as “a very modern feminist” and trust women to make the right decisions about our own bodies and futures. As for Hunt, the Health Secretary should recognise that lowering the abortion limit will not mean fewer abortions, it will mean fewer documented abortions and more women putting their lives at risk in order to end a pregnancy that they either cannot or will not continue with due to choice, or the health of the foetus. Late abortion is accounts for a very small percentage of abortions in the UK, less than 2% of the 200,000 abortions carried out in England and Wales in 2011, were late-term abortions.

If Hunt and Miller were really interested in stopping unwanted pregnancies, they would start by looking at access to contraceptives and improving sex education, not by punishing women who have an unexpected or non-viable pregnancy. This is the latest step in the Conservative’s war on women, and we must fight to make sure that all women have access to safe and legal abortion – should they need or want one.

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