A female Unite comrade speaks about the experiences that women activists face in leftist campaigning and trade-union involvement. We post this in the spirit of constructive criticism of our movement and in light of the fact that the majority of TU members are women, while our leaders and language are predominantly masculine.
The use of language which perpetuates sexism has been well-documented since the 1960’s; be it as direct catcalling, harassment and derogatory slang, or the softer usage of masculinised words to degrade typically female professions (e.g. nurse to murse). This is still depressingly common in the experiences of the day-to-day lives of working women across the world. Within our movement, the role of such language in belittling women is well understood, whether you would consider yourself a feminist or not.
Microaggressions are another story altogether. This sexist language is often perpetuated by well-meaning allies who, through prevailing societal norms, internalise discrete racist or sexism in their every-day conversations. In recent years this has been a growing area of online discussion, with many Tumblrs and websites now dedicated to the documentation of offending incidents.
“Micro” doesn’t make it sound like a big deal and individually each isolated incident isn’t a major issue. But the problem isn’t just one individual sentence—it is the constant unending stream of muted and tamed put-downs which men will defend as ‘making a fuss over nothing’ when challenged. Herein lies the trap of micro-aggression: you can rebuke a catcall of “Great arse love!” but it’s much harder to call out a would-be flatterer for saying “Excellent job! Especially for a woman!”.
Micro-aggressions are more insidious when they involve provocation completed intentionally to demean women. In these cases, the recipient will often have to leave the remark unchallenged for the sake of civility and give the offender the same benefit of the doubt as a well-meaning if misguided individual. This facilitates the camouflage of out-and-out sexist and obnoxious remarks by them using a simple “It was a joke” or “I didn’t mean any offence”. It should not need to be explained that this feeds the false narrative of beleaguered offenders: that feminism has gone too far and annihilates freedom of speech. A well known example of this behaviour would be the Cameron Calm Down “Gaffe” which was an obvious move to put a woman back in her place for heckling a man, disguised as a joke when asked to apologise… by another man.
The use of such excuses never acknowledges the unequal treatment that exists between men and women in the public sphere. We live in a society where:
- A man is unlikely to have his looks discussed in an argument but women will experience this behaviour regularly
- A woman is likely to be seen as hysterical rather than impassioned when making a political intervention
- A man showing leadership is considered to be direct whereas a woman would be accused of being ‘bossy’
Examples of which, you can find right here, in Irish politics.
The ramifications of unchallenged microaggressions are huge. To hear yourself insulted, your experience minimised and your opinion discounted has a huge impact on the way women view themselves and their competencies. Once you hear yourself being called ‘shrill‘ once too often for making a legitimate point, you will eventually just stop speaking your opinions.
When the commonly used phrase “Like a girl” implies poor performance, how can girls and women be expected to take pride in anything they do? And how are boys and men supposed to treat the women in their lives, their teachers, bosses or partners, with respect and dignity when it is not expected of them as male role models?
There is often the assumption that the left is somehow above sexism and ‘politically enlightened’. But countless examples prove the exact opposite. There have been many cases where a culture of secrecy has perpetuated the worst examples of a patriarchal society, excluded opportunities for open and intelligent debate on sexism and gender roles, as well as cases where women were actively prevented from being in a position to challenge extreme misogyny. Even within the Trade Union Movement, there is a very suspect and tarnished track record when it comes down to getting women workers the same rights and protections that male workers have long taken for granted. Sexism is a long standing component of capitalism and will survive long after capitalism if we do not start to challenge the cultural and social aspects of it alongside the economic arguments.
This requires men in the trade union movement and left-wing politics to be aware of their own language when speaking to comrades and to be respectful of the unique experiences that women bring to the floor. Beyond this bare minimum requirement, the word comrade necessitates that we value each other as equal contributors and respect each others differences while involved in political activity. Men can be allies of women but this needs to be proven through principled actions and words, on a daily-basis.
Women and men need to stand together, back to back, as equal comrades fighting for a society that will require many interventions before its’ inequalities are finally stamped out.
If you can’t do this as a man, then you aren’t in our movement.