1. Tits & class: page 3, the Duchess, & public bodies

    There is one main reason why News International have been under fire this week. Not that they seem to ever be sinkable - tapping dead children’s phones, blackening the names of a whole city, none of it seems to actually matter when you have enough money and power to continue to push your way through the public letter box like some kind of credible media. 

    Beyond the headlines - the details of the full horror, the shameful cover-up, and the pathetic apologies - another group have been trying to take on the Sun for different reasons. This week saw a campaign, based on one woman’s attempts to get page 3 removed by asking very politely if it could go, gathering pace. You can read about the campaign and sign the petition here:


    The likelihood of a group of feminists winning in a power-struggle with News International seems pretty slim. As mentioned above, this is a media corporation so powerful it seems they can do the most vile and disrespectful things to the British public and still wash it all away with a bit of populist banter and some free holidays. NI are almost certainly otherwise engaged at the moment but no doubt if/when enough of a ripple happens to catch their interest current campaigners will receive the same abuse that was dished out to smear the Labour MP Clare Short when she made the same arguments - that any dislike of Page 3 comes from a combination of jealousy, prudish dislike of sex, and a general busy-body nature found in those who like to gain power by restricting the freedom of others. I’ll look at each of these three contentions in turn.

    Jealousy. Do people like Clare Short and the current campaigners actually harbour resentment for the page 3 lovelies, and seek to drive them out of the public consciousness for this reason? After all, we all know a lot of feminists don’t diet. Some of them don’t wear make-up. Some of them Don’t Even Shave Their Body Hair. All of these are prime signs of not being a Stunner, so it is natural that these kinds of women would be jealous of the male attention attracted by a more conventionally attractive woman’s naked torso. Well, the answer here is probably multiple. Some women don’t actually care what men think of them (shocking!). Many hetero women probably like male attention from men they find attractive but wouldn’t extend to wanting it from the entire Sun readership (some of whom also have issues with lifestyle/exercise and excessive body hair) - I’m conscious here of taking a heteronormative view of things but I don’t even know where to start in extending this, so am probably better leaving that to someone else. Many more women feel massively insecure about their bodies in a way that is shaped by the proliferation of the public female body - not just in the Sun or lads mags but women’s magazines too - as something which is owned by all, open to continual scrutiny, and must fall into very specific boundaries of what is not what is not an acceptable form. If these women are reacting to this by trying to challenge the thing which causes them some of this body angst, I’m struggling to see what the problem is.

    Prudishness and dislike of sex. I’m not really sure what to say to this. I know a lot of feminists. Most of them like sex. A lot. Some of them don’t, though they have no interest whatsoever in whether other people do or not. It’s a tired old allegation that is always used whenever women campaign within anything relating to the sex industry - for example, it is apparently pretty prudish to look into the huge amount of human trafficking and internal injuries involved in many prostitution rings.

    Freedom and censorship. This seems to be the main liberal argument used against this type of campaign (ironic, when liberal feminist groups such as UK Feminista and the Fawcett Society are generally fully behind this type of campaigning compared with more politicised issues). Censorship does not generally win over minds, it’s true, but it is incredibly reductionist to see women’s attempts to control what they are exposed to on a daily basis in their home, workplace etc as a form of censorship and an unfair attack on the freedoms of a multi-billion corporation in controlling what is in that environment. 

    The main dimension which seems to be missed in a lot of these arguments is class. What exactly makes the mass printing of working class woman’s tits a national treasure but the publication of a national treasure such as the Duchess of Cambridge’s tits a terrible disgrace? Consent, in a way, because obviously in one case it is there and the other it isn’t. I think it goes beyond that though - the old distinctions between the earthy and the sublime, all the age old Madonna/whore rubbish that we get spoonfed from an early age. Probably life would be a lot easier all round if we didn’t have all this public/private fetishisation surrounding tits and had the same norms for women as men, but I can’t see that happening any time soon. The women who work Page 3 are put up for public display as simple, good-hearted creatures, and there is a danger that this form of patronisation is extended into any feminist analysis in which they are pitied as unintelligent. Time and time again we get raw intelligence confused with educational opportunity and the norms supported by consumer based class system of capitalism. It is not as simple as poor silly girls being exploited, but it is also not as simple as free agents choosing from a wide array of equally weighted life choices.

    So, I am supporting the campaign. I think women (and men) should have the right to control what they are exposed to in their day to day life if it continually shapes the way they are treated by society and the way they treat themselves. News International is still one of the biggest global forces there is so I don’t have much hope for the success of this particular campaign: it will almost certainly be seized upon and smeared. That said, political change in general doesn’t happen if we don’t have the argument or, more importantly, give the alternative and share the hope for change.

  2. My reflections on Fem 11: inclusion, debate and building a shared movement

    Just back after a very long day down in London for the Fem 11 feminist conference, so thought I would spend a few minutes organising my reflections on what was an enjoyable and challenging few hours.

    The session started in the main hall with a general address from a small selection of speakers. There were about 1000 of us gathered altogether. Sandi Toksvig (who we think we spotted coming out of Euston about half an hour earlier) gave a warm and funny overview of her perceptions of the relationship between women, language and power which I disagreed with somewhat (particularly her anatomical distinction between “male brain” and “female brain” which I felt oversimplified the overlapping spectrum of individual male and female structural differences into a binary) but which was engaging none the less. Kat Banyard, who was visible at various points during the day remaining completely hands on in the running of the conference, highlighted the Fawcett society’s critique of the disproportionate impact of cuts on women, before outlining her belief in the importance of moving on from the sub-categorisation of different types of feminist, stating her belief that this is divisive and restricts progress. It is a theme I have heard her raise already this fortnight, as she spoke at the UCU women’s conference last week and was questioned about where UK Feminista falls politically by a delegate there. (Incidentally, I was proud to see UCU represented at the stalls at the conference and hope that as the Feminista movement develops engagement with trades unions grows.)

    It is a sentiment I partly agree with and partly have reservations about. Certainly I share her frustration that at times debate is locked down into stating of ideological differences which impedes action, an issue which is not unique to feminism but shared in any political group I have ever participated in. Issues of shared concern can often get lost in quibbles over belief or language - one of the most common issues of debate at the moment, for example, is “the sex industry” (itself a loaded and disputable term), and while there are real differences between the radical feminist opposition to all forms of pornography and the counter-critiques that these raise, there are plenty of shared areas which the anti and pro-porn feminists could agree on, such as the necessity to highlight trafficking of sex-workers where it is taking place, or the nasty misogynist and often racist element to a lot of mainstream pornography. It isn’t an area I can ever make my mind up about - as a marxist feminist I think there is a class bias in the main “anti” critique of sex work and a need to engage the voices of sex-workers more thoroughly in the analysis, support improvement of working conditions, unionise etc, but I am also uncomfortable with certain elements of the pro-sex industry argument, at least where the pornography in question is mainstream, in particular the nagging suspicion that the statistics as to who actually forms the main labour force of sex work and why.

    Coming back from that sex work tangent, I think we need to keep a dialectic approach, and that includes recognising that different “types” of feminist, moving away from the label and onto the actual critique that they bring, broaden and strengthen the movement. I would love to see the day where class, ethnicity, disability, sexuality and any arena for discrimination is embedded firmly within the core of mainstream feminist analysis, but until that day comes, there is a need to recognise that what is being presented as the united and central school of feminist thought has to be open to a spectrum of analytical positions.

    Once we had finished the introduction session, we went along the the workshop on “Migration, cohesion and religion: A gendered perspective” from Southall Black Sisters. I have to say now that this was one of the most inspiring groups of speakers I have ever witnessed, with Pragna Patel in particular absolutely turning a light on for me and possibly the whole room, illuminating and drawing together a number of the murkier issues of culture, ethnicity, religion and prejudice. She spoke very coherently about the current political climate, in which ethnic communities are being relocated culturally as religious communities, effectively passing the right to decide who should speak for a whole group of people to patriarchal religious organisations within these communities and in doing so silencing internal dissent. This is located in parallel to a move towards “big society” in which state funding for secular and fem positive organisations such as SBS is being slashed with the gap in provision is fulfilled by patriarchal religious groups, further disempowering the most vulnerable. Also occuring in tandem is the narrative of “integration” in place of the previous problematic but less damaging concept of “multiculturalism”, with the result being that non-white cultures are framed as “others” who must adapt and be assimilated within UK society even as the very political voices stating this are structurally reinforcing the increase of religious authority. The group also spoke about the need for ethic/gender/class interscted issues to be heard within the Occupy movement, and about the discriminatory practices at the heart of the immigration system. Coming from a marxist perspective I am constantly aware of the extent to which the illusion of capitalism working effectively is built on a comfort for a global minority sustained by the sweated labour of the world’s poorest, women and children; ethnicity and class have to be at the heart of a feminist struggle otherwise it is a meaningless tokenisation of “equality”, and it was inspiring to hear this belief reinforced and further informed so eloquently.

    During lunch we were able to hear a performance from the Woman Asylum Seekers Choir, which for me further added to the issues I was already grappling with by hearing some of the women most excluded by our society, and it was very moving but also troubling to hear the choir giving voice to their experiences and the ways in which these are denied by the mainstream: “I was not born an asylum seeker”. I was reminded of the SBS call out to us all to make sure we support black feminist groups and integrate a critique of the disproportionate marginalisation of black issues within our movement.

    After lunch we went along to Platform 51s session on teenage pregnancy. This was a lively and informative session, with three young mothers who have accessed support from the group testing us on our knowledge about teenage pregnancy, and talking about their experiences. Once we got into small group discussion I managed to get myself in a semi-heated exchange (nothing unpleasant, just somewhat passionate) which to me again brought home the need for marxist feminism as a critique within feminism as a whole (whether it is labelled that or not). Basically a couple of other people within the group were, in my opinion, coming from the point of view that teenage pregnancy is a problem which needs to be solved, and because it is in many cases unplanned should therefore be ideally prevented. As a lecturer who works a lot with Access students (often returning to education after teenage or young pregnancy) I have come to the opinion over time that it is in fact the social restrictions placed on teenage mothers which are the issue rather than the pregnancy itself. If our society did not centralise a patriarchal model of education as something done between the ages of 2 and roughly 25 before embarking on a career, and instead opened up strengthened multiple educational pathways throughout life, then motherhood (itself educational) could be integrated effectively within the system instead of being seen as a barrier which has to be circumnavigated by an add on. I also found it difficult to believe that someone in my group couldn’t understand the teenage mother’s perspective that childbirth is a process they are patronised and disempowered by in a lot of health provision. There are of course issues with health with very young mothers (as there are with older mothers, who face their own battles with dominant cultural norms but are not stigmatised in the same way), and below a certain age questions about consent become much more difficult areas to address. However, the reality is that the care to learn funding support for young parents has got an axe hanging over it, Access is in real strife, and I think the situation for young mothers is going to get worse. I really felt like some of the arguments I was meeting came from a lack of contact with teenage mothers and the relative cultural voicelessness they have in public discussions about their own lives. Anyway, it was a really engaging session and I was very impressed with Platform 51 and the work they do.

    Once the workshop was over it was time for Feminist Question Time back in the main hall, with Shami Chakrabarti, Bea Campbell, Zoe Williams, Carlene Firmin, Matt McCormack-Evans, and chaired by Cllr Rania Khan (who spoke briefly about her work opposing local lapdancing clubs at the start of the day). The panel discussed a range of issues, including representation, the sex industry, the role of men in feminism (which I will come back to in a minute), and lots of other areas which have now escaped me as it has been a very long day! It was an interesting and lively panel, with Carlene Firmin particularly wooing the crowd with her articulate raising of the issue of feminism reaching outwards to engage young and disaffected women who without encouragement and discourse see no place for themselves within the movement.

    There was some cat-calling when an elderly gentleman took a very rambling route towards a point/question, and while I can understand the frustration of those who wanted to move on, I did feel this was a low point of the day for me. I felt really uncomfortable about it happening, not least because I felt there was a certain element of ageism involved. Many people do ramble as they get older going on my experience, and it doesn’t mean they should be silenced. I’m also finding myself increasingly irritated by the standard dismissive line of “what about the menz” which a small but vocal minority seem to bring up whenever mens activity within the movement is discussed, and which was being expressed by a couple of people behind me when the sole man on the panel was clapped for talking about the need to engage men as feminist activists. This is something which as a marxist feminist (and a mother of a young son) I have strong opinions about too. Yes, occasionally a male comes along to a feminist event and is very vocal and dominates discussion (although there are plenty of female participants who do this too). However, in general for a lot of men coming along to a feminist event, knowing there is a small minority of radical feminists who don’t want them, and the micro-social group is one in which they are a minority. As a marxist feminist I firmly believe there is a lack of a strong, feminist critique of the systematic way in which the capitalist patriarchy hurts (mainly working class) young men. Who are the cannon fodder in the war machine? On a more local level, young women suffer horribly from the gang culture which grows out of poverty and marginalisation, but this is not to say young men don’t suffer from it too - how many die per year from knife crime? They are all somebody’s son, and they entered this world as blank and blameless as the next baby, to be manipulated by a system which may give them more power than women in most areas but it is not as simple as the oppressor and the oppressed for me. This is before any kind of analysis of the extent to which macho culture stifles the creativity and development of the young men who are as imprisoned by it as the women they victimise.

    Lastly, three out of four of the London mayoral candidates took part in a q and a - Boris for some reason didn’t want to face us. It was interesting for me (although as I live in the west midlands arguably some sort of other option might have been useful, though I can appreciate the need to have a big audience to add to the appeal for candidates to come along. I will probably write about this for Labour Left tomorrow as it has been a very long day, but in summary, I felt that Ken was charismatic (if in places misguided) and generally very clear, the woman representing the green candidate was evidently fully engaged in feminist issues, and the Lib Dem candidate was something of an enigma, seeming to distance himself repeatedly from his party and his previous role in the police but taking a more partisan aggressive line on the other candidates than either of the others. I will be interested to see if the panel take up Kat Banyard’s challenge to don a muff and join the “muff march” (does sound like a feminist parody and perhaps not going to do much work in engaging “women not normally defining themselves as feminist” but highlighting the very serious issue of the rise of vagina surgery in the increased intrusion of public artificial norms on women’s bodies) down Harley Street.

    I feel like I have been sounding quite negative up to this point but the day itself was really positive. I first heard of UK Feminista when I was asked to speak on a panel about everyday activism at the summer school this August, and when I actually went along I was really excited to see how big a thing it actually was = bigger still now and it is really positive to see the movement on the rise. Kat Banyard has worked immensely hard to bring everything together and as I commented earlier clearly continued to work hard through the day. There is no trace of egotism in her manner and it is great to have someone so committed to bringing forward a unified feminism doing all the work she does. We absolutely have to stand together and keep pushing forwards as a sisterhood - a shared sisterhood built on a recognition of the many fronts of power and exclusion, built on positive and dialectic spaces for debate.

  3. Mother’s milk: the politics of breastfeeding

    I probably should have gone with some sort of breast related pun for the title of this but couldn’t quite bring myself to do it.

    A couple of things have got me thinking back to breastfeeding this week - an article I read looking at the reasoning behind a hospital choosing not to give free formula milk  http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2011/10/baby_friendly_b , and a student in one of my groups at work planning a research project looking at a cultural analysis of breasts and their functions (so far called: “breasts: food or sex?” - a bit catchier than my title).

    On the surface, the politics of breastfeeding seem simple. The formula companies exploit the difficulties of early breastfeeding in order to sell women something their bodies could produce, for free, with millions of added bonuses including antibodies and increased lifetime protection from various ailments and conditions. As my student has already spotted at the age of 16, this goes hand in hand with a nonsensical cultural norm system in which breastfeeding is viewed as something which should be hidden from view while shelves are lined up with rows of soft porn.

    When I was pregnant for the first time, I was asked at various stages by both my midwife and various female relations whether I would be breastfeeding. I didn’t have to think about my answer much - I didn’t have any idea that there would be any difficulty involved whatsoever, having some worries about whether the baby would initially latch on and possible soreness but beyond that had heard that after the few days it got much easier. Whenever I replied that I would be breastfeeding I was met with beams of approval.

    Things went ok initially; he latched on well and was sleepy from the anaesthetic from my c-section. By the second night, however, I was really struggling. He was latched on, dozing without really sucking, but screaming whenever he was unlatched, for about 6 and a half hours. My milk had not come in, and all the skin was coming off my nipples. I was hormonal and teary, recovering from surgery with no sleep having no idea that it was possible to co-sleep while he nursed. After various attempts to change his position, which resulted in the same sleepy sucking, the midwife spoke with me and we agreed to top him up with a few ml of formula. Finally, he was satisfied and went into a deep sleep. I think basically what was happening was that he wasn’t getting enough to fill him up, so he was comfort nursing through the hunger. The supply issue carried on - I would do hours and hours of nursing, finally giving up and topping him up again, watching in tears while a nursing assistant fed him with one of those little cups. Exhaustion, pain, and more than anything, a deep sense of failure. He had mixed feeds till the age of 8 months, when he weaned himself.

    Fast forward to my daughter being born a couple of years later. I had received a good deal of redirected disapproval (mainly aimed at the hospital) for Ben being topped up, as apparently this was what meant I never then managed to get the supply to fill him up. This time I wasn’t going into breastfeeding with the ignorance I approached it with the first time round - I knew that if I just kept at it long enough, my supply would match my babies demands. I knew that there was no need to worry about getting no sleep at night, because my baby could sleep in with me, latched on all night long if she wanted to, and we would both get some rest. I knew there would be pain and difficulty, but that we would work through it and make it work.

    Megan was exactly like her brother, in that she was a comfort nurser who wanted to sleep constantly on the boob. Difficult to manage with a 2 year old who is desparate for attention, a husband with no paternity leave due to a redundancy while I was pregnant, and recovery from another c-section, but by filling the living room with toys, gradual use of slings once she would tolerate them, and c-beebies on for the entire time, we got through the difficult first couple of months. However, there was a problem. Megan had really bad reflux, meaning she was constantly in pain from the acid being thrown back up through her digestive system, rarely kept a feed down, and hardly gained any weight. She was 8lb 8 when she was born, and dropped down the growth charts like a stone. I reassured myself constantly - she was a slight build, like her dad, and was just adjusting now she wasn’t being fed through my placenta. She was very sick, but it would pass in a month or two, and she would be fine.  I also spent nights clutching my baby wondering about whether the lack of growth meant a lack of nutrients which would be affecting the development of her brain in someway. She was getting longer, but skinnier. Every week when I took her to be weighed at the clinic I filled up with a sense of dread. I was still failing - I was achieving the goal of exclusive breastfeeding, but my milk was not enough to give my daughter what she needed to thrive. Initially we tried baby gavascon, which seemed to make her gain weight in the first week before her weight stalled again. At 3 months (by this stage she was waking hourly at night, and was increasingly discontent) the senior health visitor was called to see me, and after assessing the situation she asked that I start giving Megan a bottle a day. I burst into tears in the middle of the clinic in front of a group of strangers. We talked a bit longer, and she commented that she felt health visitors were constantly driven towards looking after the babies’ needs, but mother’s needs were being ignored as secondary or unimportant unless there was some sort of deep psychological issue (in which the baby could be endangered). I gave Megan one bottle a day until she got to 6 months, at which point I was about to go back to work, so gradually transferred her over. She night weaned at about 8 months, the same as her brother.

    Nothing prepares you for the massive changes that motherhood brings, and for the first few months, when meeting the baby’s needs is all consuming, it feels like the choices you make are a big part of what defines you as a mother. I got lots of support and care from friends online (particularly Megan’s due date community), but the wider world of breastfeeding support seems to be unfairly dominated by an all or nothing mantra where even that one bottle a day is failure - explanations for why a baby would ever be given formula seem to be similar to mine to get sympathy, and extreme lactivists would still feel the need to lecture me on where things went wrong. The reality is that the comparison between breast milk and formula is a one horse race, as far as meeting the nutritional needs of the infant go, but the psychological needs of the mother, whether these are the need for non-judmental, practical advice, the need for reassurance that all new mothers are thrown into a whirlwind of emotion, stress and exhaustion and that she is doing fine, the need for a society which either allows her access to her baby in the workplace because she cannot afford to be at home feeding him (pumps are not universally usable) or stops condemning her for choosing a roof over her baby’s head over long term nutritional benefits, are seen as of minor or no importance, and that is decidedly non-feminist. In an ideal society, women would have the support of all their community sisters around them to care for demanding toddlers, help with latches, supply etc, rota childcare when work becomes possible, but life isn’t like that, and we need to make sure it is the system that stops this from happening which is targetted rather than the individual mother.

    There seems to be a class divide in breastfeeding, with a distinctly higher levels in middle class than working class women. This may be in part about work (middle class women can afford to take more time off), partly about education, but could also be due to the level of trust these groups have in the state and authority in general. It is very likely that (some) health visitors will be able to transmit information in a more level way to middle class women whereas it can be at least perceived if not given out as judgement when working class women are being assessed. Surestart had a great role in getting community women involved as breastfeeding buddies to give a much more accessible information and support point but the whole system is under threat and levels of working class breastfeeding will almost certainly drop as a result, leading to bigger profits for the formula companies and a bigger weekly bill for those no longer being supported.

    My daughter will be 2 in November and I don’t feel any guilt about either of my babies any more - I know that I did my best for them, just like the vast majority of mothers. They are both thriving, are no more sickly than any other children, advanced with their language skills, moving on to new challenges constantly that make that sleep-deprived blur of early motherhood fade into the distance. I like to think that I am more confident both as a mother and as a feminist activist than I was 2 and 4 years ago and should I have another baby will be more robust in dealing with criticism. I think we have to go with the same principles for breastfeeding as abortion - woman’s body, woman’s choice - recognising that the needs of a mother are important, not simply because they will impact on a child, but because she is an equal human being. If the hardcore breastfeeding activists really want to achieve a higher level of breastfeeding for all babies, they need to learn from others within their movement and look at targetting a selfish society which often does not provide the support new mothers need rather than accusing mothers themselves of selfishness.