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The Paris metro

About a month ago, on a Saturday night, a man attacked me in the Paris metro. In the seventh arrondisement, a very chic and expensive area, no less. I had cursed at him as he and his friends whistled and looked my friend and I up and down. He grabbed the front of my dress and my arms and started yelling at me. Why had I said that, he demanded. I had had a few drinks and I was so shocked and confused that my French came out unclear. I tried to say because I didn’t want to talk to you. But what I really wanted to say was because I knew you were not a nice person as you’re demonstrating now. And because I didn’t like the way he was behaving towards my friend and I. When men whistle at you in the metro, and make sleazy comments, they don’t think they are going to seduce you. In my mind it does one of two things. It either implicitly states that you are an object and there to be perused or used by them. And the second thing it does, although it is not unrelated, is it scares you. It’s meant to scare you. It’s meant to say that despite laws or years of women’s rights assertions, somehow he might still be able to “get” me.

I didn’t apologise. Je suis désolée didn’t leave my lips by choice.

I shouldn’t have been rude and maybe I should have worn a longer dress. Something more conservative? Yet never ever is it a women’s fault that she is attacked. That was him. That was his choice. I can avoid it and discourage it, but the point is I shouldn’t have to. You may think me irresponsible, but I ought not to have had to have been responsible for the behaviour and choices of others.

My friend grabbed his phone and threatened to break it. She was smart and quite brave. It was at least two minutes before any other men or women arrived off another train. It was late at night. Yet it was frightening how alone we were for that whole stretch of time.

It was interesting that he was not at all interested in coming at my friend. It was me that he was angry with. I prefer that it was me. I would have been too upset and helpless watching my friend being hurt. Why was it he was so angry with me?

I had insulted him when I said f*** off. He had insulted me. I didn’t like being ogled. I didn’t like being an object for his viewing pleasure or the butt of his sexual jokes. You might ask why then do I wear short dresses? And you’re right to ask. I’m not sure. It’s a contradiction, to be sure. Fashion is one reason. Actually attracting boys is another – but only a particular kind of boy. And even then I get uncomfortable if they are looking me up and down.  I didn’t look trashy – I had a pretty, classy dress on. Short with heels, but a blazer and low key makeup. I was going to a club. But, the man in the metro did not have a licence to pull the front of my dress and grab my arms and neck. He might be allowed to whistle, but I don’t have to like it.

I think he was so angry because it seemed like I thought I was better than him. Actually I was thinking and feeling what I said above – scared, angry about being whistled at, confused about women’s fashion. To him it may have seemed like a rejection of his… manhood or his attractiveness perhaps. But he couldn’t really have thought that whistling was a wooing technique. So this doesn’t quite square up. On a deeper level, perhaps he thought it was a rejection of his self-worth. He may have seen it as though I didn’t think him worthy to talk to me or look at me. He was black. I am an Anglophone. Did I seem bourgeoisie – a white, non-French girl in the seventh arrondisement?

Virginia Woolf has written that men have the motivation to win wars and run countries, or even civilize the world, because their self-worth is kept intact by defining themselves as superior always to at least half of the people in a room. Women. The focus is not so much our inferiority, but their superiority. Ego is important to men. In her poetic and old-fashioned way Virginia was right to say that men’s self-confidence is somehow wrapped up in how women react to them and how they perceive themselves vis-à-vis women. I think in France there was a racial or even lingual layer to my experience.

I thought he might hit me. A blood nose wouldn’t have killed me – I mean it could have been worse. I shouldn’t like to be raped. Ever. But it wasn’t close to that. The power of the suggestion of rape was what weighed in his favour. It was what made me say f*** off in the first place. This suggestion in his whistle was what caused me to react. He didn’t like that I thought he didn’t really have that power. Again I suggest that whistling at women, the way some men do, is about scaring them or about power. Not always, but often. And rape is about power.

I chose not to hit him. I could have. Yet he didn’t need an excuse to get more violent. He did not seem to have many scruples about violence. I started to pretend to cry. I thought this might make him ease up. I thought this might be what he wanted to see or hear – it might seem to him that he had won and reasserted his authority. He eventually gave in to my friends threats to smash his phone. He knew he couldn’t take it much further before someone else arrived on the scene. Although he had attacked me it does seem I had been right – he didn’t have that full power to do anything to me.

I was so angry afterwards. Shaky too, but I never felt he would get away with much more than he did.  A French friend of mine called me. He was concerned. He said variously “I told you” and “I wish I had been there to protect you” during the kind phone call. I texted him later to say thank you, but these comments made me even more frustrated that Saturday night. I don’t need protection. I like to think this. I looked after myself and lived alone in Paris. I was an exchange student. Yet, physically, to some extent I really do need protection sometimes. A boy to walk down the streets with at 3am. I have to accept that. Or the only way to protect myself is not to go out at night. To learn judo perhaps, but that doesn’t deter the physical attack in the first place. It just means if the man in the metro had actually tried to do worst I could have fought back. Nails and biting are sufficient given that I wouldn’t have gone anywhere worse than the metro whilst I was in Paris.

I was angry more so because this seems to still be a way to treat women.  I had actually got very upset earlier in the week, with a male friend who laughed at me as I got heated about a feminist argument. I study politics – this is my life. I think the whole experience that Saturday night in the metro made me upset as I linked it into a wider web of maltreatment that many of my fellow females have experienced. I put it into a bigger picture of rape as a weapon in war and honour killings, stonings – the things that are so important in my studies. This justified why I got so upset with my friend earlier in the week. There’s nothing funny about the way men look at you in the street or the metro sometimes. There’s nothing funny about the fact that the primary responsibility for bringing up my children will still rest on my shoulders when I am a mother in the future. It’s true that that can also be a personal issue to work out between me and my future partner, but I will struggle to balance a career and motherhood. I think about it even now as I finish my degree, knowing that my male friends don’t. I’m pretty sure my friend who had laughed at my flustered face earlier that week wouldn’t like me as much as he did if my hair didn’t shine and my dresses didn’t fit the way they do. I am a contradiction. It’s painful to navigate my way through that. My choices are mine, but the shape of the world I make them in is not all of my making.

Why are women still the primary objects of violence, the focus of a man’s ego, the most disadvantaged groups in war and poverty? I won’t see the man who attacked me again, nor would I recognise him if I did, so it is best personally to put it in the past. My only direct follow up is journalism. Journalism has always been my strongest weapon in any situation. What rocked me about being attacked and why my friend had unnerved me earlier in the week is an extrapolation of the reasons I started to study politics three years ago. I have the hope that good politics can make some classes of men less angry and can make women freer from needing protection. Also I hope that women can become freer to dress as they want without fear or reproach. Yet, freer from that way of dressing today that makes them the objects of men’s gaze they both do and don’t want to be. Like me.

Happy International Women's Day!

Happy International Women’s Day and Happy New Year!  As ever, there is a lot to celebrate and a lot to continue to challenge, including the news that the government is planning to axe pay equity research.  This was the subject of a great faxathon last Friday, but it is an ongoing campaign and you can find more details at

I’ve pasted below some news from a Women’s E-News service I subscribe to which gives us a good mini-overview of some news coming out prior to International Women’s Day.  Have a happy one!


Women’s Day Celebrated; Global Wage Gap Grows
Cheers and Jeers(WOMENSENEWS)–


thumb pointing upWorldwide, women are continuing to achieve upticks in political representation in national assemblies and legislative bodies, according to the annual report card of the Inter Parliamentary Union. In 2008, women’s representation increased to 18.3 percent from 17.7 percent in 2007, with a 60 percent overall increase in female representation since 1995. The ranks of female lawmakers still fall short of a 30 percent benchmark target set by the United Nations in 1995, the Associated Press reported March 5.

To mark International Women’s Day on March 8–and the 30th anniversary of the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women–the United Nations has increased its calls to end violence against women. Events in nations around the world are drawing attention to anti-violence efforts, including rallies, press conferences, exhibits, concerts, panels and seminars.

“This year there is much to celebrate,” UNIFEM executive director Ines Alberdi said in a prepared statement. “The vision women marched for over a century ago, of a life free of poverty and violence, has spread to countries around the globe. People everywhere believe that lives of men and women can be different, and governments have the fundamental obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights.”

More News to Cheer This Week:


  • “The Hijabi Monologues” is catching on with audiences and challenging perceptions of women who wear the Muslim headscarf, the Los Angeles Times reported March 6. The play was written by three women in 2007 and, like Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues,” gathers women’s stories about their experiences covering their heads. The play has had fewer than a dozen performances in the United States, but interest has picked up rapidly in the past few months, with performances planned in more U.S. cities and additional women writing monologues.  
  • Members of the First Inclusive Women’s Sagarmatha Expedition–the 10 Nepali women who climbed Mt. Everest in May 2008 to become the first all-women expedition to summit the world’s highest peak–have started a project presenting a video of their story to schoolgirls around the country, the Inter Press Service reported March 2. The mountaineers are hoping to inspire other Nepali women to climb the peak, which is scaled each year by several thousand people, mostly male and foreign. Before 2008, only seven Nepali women had climbed Everest.  
  • Girls have tentatively been returning to school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, the United Nations’ IRIN News reported March 4. Taliban militants had banned girls from attending school in the region in December.  
  • Vietnamese women form 50 percent of the paid work force, comprise 83 percent of those participating in economic activity and hold 30 percent of seats in their national assembly. Vietnam was recognized as the Southeast Asian nation that has done the most to eradicate the gender gap over the past 20 years, Vietnam News reported Feb. 27. The country ranked 68th among 130 world nations in the 2008 Global Gender Gap report and continues to experience high rates of domestic violence, increasing HIV rates among women and an imbalanced sex ratio between male and female infants.  
  • Discussion of abstinence-only sex education is “unpopular on Capitol Hill these days” and the Democratic Party’s control of Congress signals the “beginning of the end” for the curriculum, CQ Weekly reported March 2. Annual funding provided to states to pay for abstinence-only programs currently amounts to $95 million, but political support has waned. Abstinence education has been assaulted by reproductive health advocates as ineffective, deeply flawed and even harmful to women’s health.

Take Back the Night Auckland Saturday November 1

I thought you would be interested in this upcoming event.  I have participated in many Take Back the Nights in Australia and Canada and am looking forward to this one – what a great event!



Tena koutou, 


We’re writing to let you know about Take Back the Night, which will be held this year in Auckland on Saturday, November 1st.  There will be a rally (with food and speakers) at Aotea Square in Auckland City at 7pm, followed by a march to Basque Park. 


Take Back the Night is a long-running international event that asserts women’s right to feel safe at night and to live in a world without rape and violence. It is an event that raises awareness of and bears witness to the violent crimes perpetrated against women, children, transgendered, and intersexed persons everywhere. It is also an empowering opportunity for women to recognise their shared experiences and unite in the struggle for a world without violence.

From the street to the home, in many spaces women, transgendered and intersexed persons are harassed and subject to many different forms of abuse. These include rape and physical violence, the pressure to conform to men’s expectations, and in some cases, murder – on average a woman in Aotearoa is killed by her (ex-)partner every six weeks.  
By marching, we are powerfully standing together to let the world know that abuse against women, children, transgender, and intersex people is unacceptable, and that all should be allowed to live their lives without fear.


All women, children, transgendered, takaatapui, fafafine, and intersexed persons are invited to join us in ‘Taking Back the Night’. We ask men to support Take Back the Night by respecting our need to organise independently against violence and to use this time to ask how they can best fight rape and violence. 
To present a strong message it would be fantastic if we could get a big number of marchers. Please pass this email on to interested persons, tell your friends, whanau, colleagues and neighbours, and print out the attached poster. We look forward to seeing you at Aotea Square on November 1st. 
Please email us if you require any further information. 


Standing united,
Auckland Take Back the Night Working Group.


The politics of abstinence promotion

Something that has me all fired up this week: Republican Vice President Nominee Palin and the politics of abstinence-based sex education (or the effective lack thereof)

Recent news reports of the announcement that Governor Palin’s 17 year old daughter is pregnant have generated widespread debate about Palin’s ‘family values’ and her own parenting and the possible mistakes that she may have made as a working mother that have led to the situation her daughter finds herself in.  While these deliberations are certainly worthy of this blog (including the attention paid to the fact that this 17 year old woman is ‘unwed’), I am particularly interested in bringing attention to Palin’s policies as Governor of Alaska regarding sex education.  Abstinence-based programmes draw my ire due to their ongoing ineffectiveness particularly in the light of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the power of this ideologically-driven stance on funding and on delivery of sex education, or the lack thereof.  It is well-known, for example, that only NGOs that support abstinence-based ‘prevention’ programmes receive USAID-PEPFAR funding (the United States International Aid Agency and President’s Emergency Fund for HIV/AIDS and TB funding), as do domestic HIV/AIDS programmes in the US.  This week, the Newsweek publication published details of Palin’s views on sex education and abstinence-based programmes (see below).  I don’t think this is as simple an issue as asking that Palin ‘practices what she preaches’ as it is her daughter who is pregnant and she is an autonomous young woman.  However, her stance on sex education policy is one that brings the relationship between church and state into the lives of young people and the choices available to them.

Newsweek writes that ‘perhaps the most detailed account of Palin’s views remains her responses to a questionnaire put out in 2006 by the Alaskan arm of the conservative pro-family group The Eagle Forum. We’ve pulled the questions most relevant to family planning, but you can access the questionnaire in its entirety here.

1. Complete the sentence by checking the applicable phrases (you can check more than one).
Abortion should be:

  • Banned throughout entire pregnancy.
  • Legal to save the life of the mother.
  • Legal in case of rape and incest.
  • Legal if the baby is handicapped.
  • Legal if the baby has a genetic defect.
  • Legal in the first trimester.
  • Legal in the second trimester.
  • Legal in the third trimester.
  • Other:__________________

Sarah Palin: I am pro-life. With the exception of a doctor’s determination that the mother’s life would end if the pregnancy continued. I believe that no matter what mistakes we make as a society, we cannot condone ending an innocent’s life.

3. Will you support funding for abstinence-until-marriage education instead of for explicit sex-education programs, school-based clinics, and the distribution of contraceptives in schools?
Sarah Palin:
Yes, the explicit sex-ed programs will not find my support.

8. Do you support parental choice in the spending of state educational dollars?
Sarah Palin:
Within Alaska law, I support parents deciding what is the best education venue for their child.

12. In relationship to families, what are your top three priorities if elected governor?
Sarah Palin:
1) Creating an atmosphere where parents feel welcome to choose the venues of education for their children; 2) Preserving the definition of “marriage” as defined in our constitution, and 3) Cracking down on the things that harm family life: gangs, drug use, and infringement of our liberties including attacks on our 2nd Amendment rights.


Editor’s Note: This item originally reported that Palin’s public-health division had decided to submit an application for a federally-funded program to promote abstinence from sexual activity. Subsequent reporting revealed that the division had decided otherwise.Newsweek

Gender norms for teenage girls?

Hello All

The day of Auckland’s “‘Boobs’ on bikes” parade, this article arrived in my inbox and relates well to a discussion that came up at the beginning of last week’s Women in Politics morning tea with R. and also to the ‘post-feminist’ debate.

What do you think about the idea of such activities as teenage bikini car washes necessitating social agency action?


It’s Summer: Time to Clean Up the Bikini Car Wash By Kimberly Gadette – WeNews commentator

Underage, underdressed girls’ fundraising activities are more than merely tolerated. They seem to be fully sanctioned by the parents. Kimberly Gadette says that if this is the charity that begins at home, perhaps it’s time to call in child services.

Full Story:

Anti-violence campaign – a different approach: Make Some Noise on August 8th

From: International Indigenous Solidarity []
Sent: Tuesday, 7 August 2007 3:15 p.m.
Subject: Press Release: SUPPORT WHĀNAU MĀORI: Make Some Noise campaign.

SUPPORT WHĀNAU MĀORI: Make Some Noise campaign.

Press Release: AWA: Allies of Whānau o Aotearoa

Allies of Whānau o Aotearoa (AWA), is a new Māori group, formed out of a hui of Māori social service workers and community activists to advocate support for all whānau o Aotearoa. AWA is promoting whānau based solutions to whānau problems.

“We want whānau, and our allies, to MAKE SOME NOISE tomorrow to show that they support solutions to the challenges faced by whānau Māori that are conceived, developed and delivered by Māori for Māori,” says spokesperson Te Kanikani Tautoko.

The group met on Saturday August 4th, 2007 and developed a list of requirements that whānau need from their allies:

– be willing to listen to whānau

– acknowledge that the solutions rest in Māori hands

– be respectful toward Māori

– speak when invited

– be accountable to Māori

– be willing to share power

Example: allies would advocate support and funding to whānau, to address the breakdown of Māori society that has occured with the loss of our lands, language and culture, and economic well being.

“We have had many non-Māori broadcasting what they think is wrong with Māori people and whānau in the last week. While we appreciate their concern, non-Māori need to recognise the following fundamentals: This is not a ‘Māori problem’, so much as it is a colonisation problem and Māori communities must lead the development of solutions.” Said Te Kanikani Tautoko

Te Kanikani Tautoko continued, “the silence proposed by a coalition of non-Māori organisations is counter-productive; engaging in korero and making noise is a more appropriate approach. Our aim with MAKE SOME NOISE is to gather solidarity from genuine supporters of whānau.”

“Another central purpose of MAKE SOME NOISE is to mihi (acknowledge/honour) the grief and mamae (pain) that the whanau of baby Nia, and other whanau who have lost children to violence are going through at this time. For this reason we ask supporters of MAKE SOME NOISE to kōrero on this issue, sing waiata tautoko (songs of support) and/or play taonga puoro (Maori instruments) in support of the whanau. At 12.12pm, Wednesday August 8th 2007.”

“We worry that the solutions promoted by many non-Māori pundits in news media this past week will make things worse. For example, the marriage counseling proposed by the Sensible Sentencing Trust, Family First and For the Sake of Our Children Trust is useless as it does not deal with the root causes of violence. We need a new system that shares resources fairly.”

People who MAKE SOME NOISE this Wednesday will be sending a message that they support whānau; they believe that whānau hold the solutions and will be advocating working genuinely with Māori to support whānau. AWA urges all people of Aotearoa who support a fair and equitable approach to solving violence in Māori communities to MAKE SOME NOISE with us at 12:12pm, Wednesday August 8th, 2007.

Please contact AWA spokesperson Te Kanikani Tautoko for further information or comment: 021 155 1154 or

ImagineNative Action”Building solidarity between Indigenous and Peoples of Colour communities. Defending our whenua & peoples against racism and exploitation since 2007″Email received and posted by Anita.

Is Hilary Clinton 'satisfactorily feminine enough'?

I keep finding articles in The Guardian that inspire me to ask questions – at the very end of this article on a recent YouTube broadcast and interactive (interesting in itself) candidates debate, you will see two rather incredible questions directed first at Obama and then at Clinton.  I am horrified that a female candidate for a Presidential nomination be questioned on the degree of her feminity – what do you think?  What do think the person who posed the question is getting at?  Do we ask this of women leaders in NZ?  Can women in positions of public leadership escape such questions?  How?  


Clinton and Obama clash after YouTube debate

· Candidates grilled by public’s video clips
· Accusations of naivety over foreign policy

Ewen MacAskill in Charleston and Ed Pilkington
Wednesday July 25, 2007
The Guardian
New York Senator Hillary Clinton speaks with Illinois Senator Barack Obama after the CNN/YouTube Democratic presidential candidates debate
Hillary Clinton speaks with Barack Obama after the CNN/YouTube Democratic presidential candidates debate. Photograph: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty images

Bickering broke out yesterday between the camps of the two main contestants for the 2008 Democratic nomination with Hillary Clinton’s team seeking to portray Barack Obama as naive in his approach to foreign policy in the wake of an experimental debate organised by CNN and YouTube.Mr Obama, responding to a question from a YouTube user in Monday night’s debate, said he would meet without preconditions the leaders of countries with which the US has strained relations – Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea.

Article continues

Mrs Clinton, asked the same question, said she would not as she did not want to be used “for propaganda purposes”.Yesterday she said she thought Mr Obama’s response was “irresponsible and frankly naive”. Mr Obama’s camp highlighted a quote from Mrs Clinton in April in which she said: “I think it’s a terrible mistake for our president to say he won’t talk to bad people.”

The spat demonstrated how intense the rivalry between the two has become six months before the first primary contests begin. It also shows the impact of the new irreverent style of debate that was pioneered on Monday. The organisers of next year’s key US presidential debates are planning to dispense with much of the old formula and incorporate the freewheeling style of the YouTube website and other new media favourites.

Presidential hopefuls, television companies and political websites yesterday judged the debate, organised by CNN as well as YouTube, as a success. The eight candidates for the Democratic nomination faced two hours of questions from a cross-section of Americans who submitted 30-second video clips.

The debate, in Charleston, South Carolina, included questions about Iraq from a mother whose son was to be deployed there and a father who had lost a son in the country. There were also questions about health from brothers spoon-feeding dinner to a father suffering from Alzheimer’s, about Darfur from an American in a refugee camp, and about gun laws from a man cradling a rifle which he described as his “baby”. Some questions were gimmicky and aimed at winning laughs.

One of the organisers said it would now be impossible to return to the old format. Although the candidates at times seemed uncomfortable with the uncertainty, listening with fixed grins, their campaign managers yesterday said it had been refreshing. Joe Trippi, who is part of John Edwards’ campaign, said: “I thought it was great. It was more freewheeling.”

David Axelrod, the campaign strategist for Mr Obama, said: “I think he relished this. He thinks the American people have been cut out of Washington politics.”

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, co-author of a history of presidential debates, called the move a milestone. The humour in some of the videos inspired interest in topics that might otherwise bore viewers, as did the images of “real” people talking about troubles in their lives, she said.

YouTube bloggers generally welcomed the format but objected to CNN choosing the questions: 39 were selected from almost 3,000 clips sent in.

Typical of the format’s directness was Jordan Williams, a Kansas student, who asked Mr Obama whether he was “authentically black enough”. Mr Obama said he had suffered the same difficulties as other African-Americans in hailing a taxi in New York: “You know, when I’m catching a cab in Manhattan in the past, I think I’ve given my credentials.” He also asked Mrs Clinton if she was “satisfactorily feminine enough”. She replied: “Well, I couldn’t run as anything other than a woman.”

Are feminist spaces still needed?

In these two pieces from the UK-based Guardian newspaper, Polly Toynbee and Kira Cochrane tell of the newspaper’s long-running women’s page, its history and they offer arguments as to why such feminist spaces are still needed. The posts following these articles are as interesting as the pieces themselves.
What do you think? Are feminist ‘spaces’ needed? Are there feminist spaces in your lives?,,2128820,00.html,,2128681,00.html

Why does the Guardian still need a women’s page? Because the feminist revolution is only half made

Polly Toynbee
Wednesday July 18, 2007


How did the Guardian women’s page become so influential? It helped that as the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s got under way, Private Eye regularly sneered at the page, with male newspaper columnists writing biliously about hairy, dungaree-wearing, lentil-eating, man-hating Guardian wimmin. There were reams of articles in the tabloids and rightwing broadsheets back then about why men should now slam doors in women’s faces to prove that women couldn’t have it both ways – not chivalry AND equality. And that vitriolic backlash proved the making of the women’s pages.
The section raised all the difficult issues – battered wives, the menopause, women prisoners giving birth while chained down. It asked why girls were put in pink, what’s hard-wired and what’s not, why sex was often rubbish for women, why men were often rubbish but women had no means of escape. Why should women always do the housework and why shouldn’t they do anything a man could do? Back before the Equal Pay Act in 1970, the unions insisted on lower rates of pay for women doing the same job as men in the same factory. Back before the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975, all kinds of jobs were forbidden to women.

It’s hard to recapture the shock and fury that feminism caused but, never forget, these were, and still are, revolutionary ideas. The very notion that women, that mothers, can be equal in everything reaches down into the heart of family life and questions everything. And there is no denying that feminism caused a soaring divorce rate and an explosion of single motherhood. Women walked away from bad men. Bad said: “If you want equality, then I can abandon my family responsibilities and pay no maintenance.” So it is still an unfinished revolution, where women’s attitudes changed fast, but men’s only slightly, and society has done too little to accommodate this great eruption. The economic system still demands a male wage to bring up a child – jobs aren’t flexible enough and women’s pay is too low for mothers alone to be breadwinners.

The Guardian women’s page had a huge influence in spreading revolutionary ideas. The secret was that it alerted one of the most powerful, but usually all too politically dormant forces in the land – the women’s magazines – to what was being written. The Guardian was the conduit for ideas from the US, from Rosie Boycott’s Spare Rib, Virago, the wages for housework campaign and some dottier ones too. Suddenly the editors of Woman’s Own and Woman took up these themes and popularised them for a mass audience. I doubt any revolutionary ideas were ever spread as far, as fast and as effectively as by those magazines, read by women under men’s noses. Glossy magazines became the underground press for women. The trouble was, men didn’t get it, didn’t read it and didn’t understand what was in the air. They were startled to find women growing discontented and demanding. Where were they getting these ideas from?

Sometimes we were startled too. There was the woman who wrote a card to Jill Tweedie, the greatest women’s page writer, sent from a remote caravan park: “I’ve done it! I’ve left my violent husband and taken the children and we’re living in a caravan. What should I do now?” Jill was appalled. What did she know? No one wanting advice would have taken Jill’s own life story as any kind of template. But her insights into her own life became the anvil on which she pounded out what she knew of how life was for women in general – and it turned out she knew a lot and was funny and wry about it too.

By the time I started writing a column for the women’s pages in 1977, the battle lines had been drawn years before, starting with Mary Stott. But the perennial question was asked then as now – why do you need a women’s page? Isn’t it a harem that confines and diminishes women, as if the rest of the paper was not really women’s domain? For journalists, it was a problem. I was a reporter on the Observer, covering strikes and industrial relations when, out of the blue, I was offered the column. I suspect nervous male editors and features editors kept trying to find women to edit and work on the pages who were not known for feminist writing.

Although it was a great honour, I’m ashamed to admit that, like many others, I hesitated before joining. Although I was always a feminist and never a feminism-denier, I worried I’d be branded a single-issue women’s columnist, a bit frivolous, no longer fit for the men’s newsroom. Would I ever get back to the “mainstream”? Lurking somewhere beneath was that old fear of being branded as a bra-burning harridan.

Well, I stayed for 11 years, some of the best years of my working life, and it changed my view of the world. All through those Tory years there were fierce battles to be fought.

I might be on the women’s page still if I hadn’t unexpectedly been offered a job as social affairs editor at the BBC. Would I ever have made the jump from Guardian women’s page to Guardian comment page without leaving first? The fact that I even ask this question shows that the word “women” still signifies what it always did – “other”, “second class”, “not serious”, “not one of the boys”. That – paradoxically – is exactly why we still need a women’s page. The revolution is only half made, and sometimes it seems to go backwards. Who else will keep banging the drum?

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

Still so much to do
Kira Cochrane, 2006 – present

Kira Cochrane
Wednesday July 18, 2007


It happened to Mary Stott fifty years ago, and it still happens to me now. That moment (usually, annoyingly, at parties) when someone asks – “what’s the point of a women’s page anyway?”
Even before the inquisitor lays out their case, even if I’m on my third martini, I can still guess what’s to come. The suggestion that a women’s page is intrinsically sexist (why no men’s page?); that a women’s page is patronising, ghettoising; that we are living in a post-feminist age of such blinding, cast-iron equality that a section dedicated to women is an anachronism.

Reading through fifty years of the pages, as I have over the past few months, women’s changing status has hit me harder than ever. In the late 1950s, well into the ‘swinging’ sixties, and on into the feminist heyday of the seventies, the constrictions of women’s lives seem, with hindsight, incredible.

Women unable to get a mortgage in their own name; banished from the table at the end of dinner parties; having no access to safe, legal abortion; being told that their career options were nursing, secretarial work or, at a push, teaching; being sacked, quite legally, if they became pregnant; being paid – again, quite legally – less than a man in the same job. Treated like children. Or worse.

Back when the pages started in 1957 there was still a clear split between the public sphere and the home, with women often confined to the latter. In those days the women’s pages had a clear purpose, being the only section that discussed women’s specific concerns. Now, of course, women have entered the public sphere in droves, and, at the same time, coverage of ‘women’s issues’ has found its way onto the news pages, the general features pages, even – just occasionally – the sports pages too.

Is there still a place, a need, for the women’s pages then? Yes (and I’m not saying that simply because I love my job and quite fancy keeping it).

However much women’s situation may have improved, the fact remains that we are still some distance from equality. There is still a 12.6% pay gap between men and women – rising to 40.2% when it comes to part-time work; only 30% of women get a full state pension, compared to 85% of men; rape conviction rates are at an all-time low of 5.6%, down from 33% in the late 1970s.

Equally, while ‘women’s stories’ do make the news pages, men still dominate – and they account for 80% of MPs, 89% of high court judges, and 97% of the Chief Executives of FTSE 100 companies. If the women’s pages – which now run on two days a week – were the only place to showcase ‘women’s’ stories the ghetto argument would be more than fair. In fact though what they now provide is simply a guaranteed space, a space that persists and provides at least some balance on those days when every single major news story pivots around a bloke.

Uniquely among women’s sections, our pages don’t centre around fashion, food or general family stories – we have other extremely good sections that deal with all of those. What they provide is a dedicated space for stories that solely affect women – some of them frivolous (frivolity being essential to anyone’s sense of liberation, I would guess) but many of them political, serious and campaigning.

While other sources are adamant that feminism is over, the women’s pages have recently covered all manner of activism – from the revival of the Reclaim the Night protests, to the rise of anti-pornography campaigns, to the creation of six new British feminist magazines in the last eighteen months.

While others talk about living in a post-feminist age, the women’s pages are still looking forward to a truly feminist age – one in which men and women are treated equally, no more, no less.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

Welcome to Semester Two

Hello fellow bloggers

I would also like to welcome you to the site – I think it is great that Jacqui and Tania have invited the Gender and Politics class to the site and hopefully this will be a dynamic shared space.

I found this blog today from a student at the University of New Brunswick that I thought we would all find inspirational, including some great links to feminist websites, blogs and journals. I like her discussion of the idea of space, and I think the notion of a safe feminist space is an important one to explore.