Book Review: Everyday Sexism

While I am more than suspicious of #hashtagactivism, seeing it in the large part as the end product of the conversion of politics into identity-expression, my ethical vision of the world in which I live has been aided immensely by subscribing to the EverydaySexism twitter account. Over the last few years my morning feed of jokes, mathematical discussion of soccer tactics, and links to theological articles has been interrupted by accounts of women as they describe in short, terse sentences the daily slog that it can be to simply live with an XY chromosome.

A few months ago the curator of the project, Laura Bates, published a book and I finally got around to reading it a few weeks ago. I found it very hard going. The content in the opening chapters was so distressing that it was relegated from the bedside table. The opening chapters, about the tipping point where women were unable to take harassment anymore, the difficulties that women face in electoral politics and especially the chapter on how pre-pubescent girls are afflicted by the ramifications of patriarchy left me unable to sleep easy.

Which is as it should be.

I joked with Wife-Unit about how I wanted to put the book in the freezer, like Joey did on that one episode of Friends. Of course, Joey is a walking personification of everyday sexism and the book that he was so affected by was Little Women.

It’s funny when men are moved by stories with female protagonists!

Having finished it and reflected upon it, I conclude that the book, for me, was strangely invigorating. I am a preacher and I use my opportunities in the pulpit to unashamedly address a number of issues: the spiritual danger of wealth, the literary merit of Kurt Vonnegut, and the fact that the New Testament and early church history are ignored quite blatantly when it comes to the role of women in many congregations. I have decided to become an even more annoying preacher as a result of this book. I am going to bang that drum until people get up and leave, or get out of the way and let women use the gifts that the Holy Spirit has decided in her ineffable wisdom to bestow on them.

That isn’t to say that the book is without fault. Bates is a superb community organiser and her ethical voice is clear. But there are gaps all over the argumentation and places where her points actually fold-over themselves and cut against sections that are directly prior. The discussion about abortion is ideologically committed to one position, which neither does justice to the feminist spectrum around the issue, nor to the severity of the ethical problem the issue poses. The writing is unpolished in places.

But having said all that, I’d love if the previous paragraph was read in subscript. After all, if I went looking for a book on feminist theory, I wouldn’t have found a book that distressed me in such a healthy way. And if Bates nuanced her arguments and amassed her sources with academic rigour, she simply wouldn’t have 152,000 people following the project. Furthermore, she explicitly states that her methodology and her use of data, while sincere, is not intended to be exhaustive. As such, many of the complaints that I would levy against the book are out of bounds. It is superb at what it is meant to do.

I am unlikely to ever have even 152 people follow a project I curate. But my obscure academic interest was piqued throughout the work. I am sure that dozens of PhD students will, in the future, find inspiration (constructively or not) from this bestselling work. When I read this passage, I was struck by how Bates is describing how our societies are in some senses, vice-forming. Our shared life encourages the worst in us, instead of our best:

These inherently potent messages about gender-biased power and control surely help to shape the way our children see the world around them. We understand how it works: the everyday becomes the accepted norm, accommodated in the way we live; by making this allowance we reinforce the idea of acceptability and compound the sense of entitlement; that assumed prerogative is then exercised to an ever-increasing degree; and naturally we then find ourselves with even more of an everyday problem… To tackle street harassment, we have to break through the pernicious cycle. We have to abandon the mistaken idea that street harassment is nothing more than a minor inconvenience, or a compliment taken the wrong way.

– Laura Bates, Everyday Sexism, 169.

Without getting bogged down in philosophy, this passage made me think of the work of the philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre. For MacIntyre, contemporary liberal society is unable to deal seriously with shared ideas of the human good. Everyone is left to judge for themselves. I am sure that the philosophy of a Marxist Catholic, heavily engaged with Thomas Aquinas would meet much objection in the wider feminist community but surely to some extent what Bates is calling for looks like feminism as a counter-movement within broader society, a community in which certain deep human virtues are cultivated. MacIntyre says:

The best type of human life, that in which the tradition of the virtues is most adequately embodied, is lived by those engaged in constructing and sustaining forms of community directed towards the shared achievement of those common goods without which the ultimate human good cannot be achieved.

If #hashtagactivism is ever to amount to more than the exhibitionism of the right-on political pronouncements, it must cultivate forms of community directed towards the shared achievement of those common goods without which the ultimate human good cannot be achieved.

And of course, we cannot consider feminism without considering the role of capitalism. Actually, scratch that. I am sure you can consider feminism without considering capitalism. But it will be desperately thin and won’t account for reality. While Bates doesn’t launch any kind of systematic attack on the relationships implicit between the commodification of the feminine and the commodification of, well, everything else, she does have good leading words to start the conversation:

… the most flagrant example of this came in June 2012, when two editions of Now magazine hit newsstands at the same time. One was a regular issue, featuring a front-page image of model Abbey Clancy beside the melodramatic headline ‘Oh no! scary Skinnies’ and a caption that warned: ‘Girls starving to be like her’. Inside, an article claimed that Clancy had become so dangerously thin she was a role model for damaging pro-anorexia websites. The second issue, which appeared directly alongside it on the shelf at my local newsagent, was the Now Celebrity Diet Special. This too featured Clancy on the front cover, but beside the headline: ‘Bikini body secrets… The stars’ diet and fitness tricks REVEALED’. Yes. In the same week they claimed that emulating her look could make young women dangerously ill and used the promise of helping reader look like her to sell copies.

– Laura Bates, Everyday Sexism, 201.

The internal contradictions of capitalism laid bare as clearly as anything you’ll find in Marx. But the point here isn’t that it is important to be vigilant against the creeping corrosion of Mammon, or even that you should immediately send bundles of money to whatever young theologian you might know of who is studying that topic. The point is that this media massaging of lies is intended to generate profit for the men who own shares in the companies that advertise in these magazines and the companies that publish these magazines and the companies that distribute these magazines and the companies that stock and sell these magazines. Human immiseration for the sake of profit didn’t go away when we stopped sending children down mines. We send them to newsagents instead. Just as much profit gets made and now you don’t even have to spend money on feed for the canaries.

The final chapter is entitled “People Standing Up”. It is a fitting humanist response to the penultimate chapter which details how around the world and in your housing development, office building and church, women are under threat. Sexism is “an eminently solvable problem”. It involves nothing so dramatic or revolutionary as refusing to support those cultures that treat women as less than men. For Bates it will be achieved by objecting at work when maternity leave is conceived as a problem, among friends when gender essentialism is used to explain away injustice “because that’s just what men are like”, or on the street when we refuse to pretend to not notice when women are verbally harassed.

I am not as optimistic as Bates. Theologically, I suspect patriarchy is a symptom of a bigger problem that won’t fully go away until Kingdom come. That is no invitation to resignation however. In the here and now, we are compelled to struggle ceaselessly to make the world we live in more like the world we are called to live in. Christians should follow this movement. Christian preachers should read this book. Every woman I have talked to about this book has told me heartbreaking stories of everyday harassment.

It should end.

Your Correspondent, Subscribes to the idea that men are from Earth and women are from Earth.

3 Replies to “Book Review: Everyday Sexism”

  1. I had not. Thanks for the link.

    And even that sort of concerted and deeply disruptive harassment isn’t near the top level awfulness that the project regularly reports on.

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