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Artillery Row

Don’t tell feminists what our priorities should be

We know the seriousness of the issues that affect us, thank you

Why do feminists waste time fussing about nonsense such as Parkrun? That’s been the question on many people’s lips, ever since the organisers removed speed records from their website. Last week’s decision has widely been seen as a response to female athletes such as Mara Yamauchi and Sharron Davies protesting the practice of allowing male runners to compete in the female category. Honestly, ladies! It’s just a fun run! Except when male people want to select the “female” drop-down! Then it’s a matter of life or death!

Removing the records upset some men, which was bad, because sport is really important to men. The original protest, on the other hand, was stupid. Haven’t women got better things to worry about than running? Like FGM, global femicide and making sandwiches? 

This take on the situation was summed up in a tweet from Jolyon Maugham:

One in five women have been sexually assaulted, half of single mums live in poverty, there is a crisis in mental health for young girls, baby health visits are in meltdown. If you care about women there is hardly a shortage of actually useful things to do with your life.

That’s us told, I guess. Another one to add to the pantheon of “men telling women to STFU about sexism because other men are sexist”. Why can’t we ever get our priorities right? 

Like most feminists, I am used to being told by men that we focus on the “wrong” things. Growing up in a not-so-feminist household in the eighties, I received frequent reminders that men in the UK didn’t treat “their” women as badly as men in other countries, so what were we complaining about? The message — delivered, as you may have noticed, with a side order of xenophobia — was that British women were spoilt. The only reason we worried about sexual harassment, equal pay or marital rape was that we didn’t have any real problems, unlike women who were being properly oppressed by men who were properly sexist. 

Today’s “progressive” misogynist is unlikely to adopt this particular line of attack. The optics are far too Daily Mail. He is all too familiar with the way in which the right will pretend to care about the plight of women in other cultures in order to pursue its own racist and anti-feminist ends. That’s something he’d never do. 

His version of the pampered, selfish feminist who won’t focus on the “real” issue is (he thinks) an intersectional one. He’s viewing it all through the lens of privilege checking and social justice. Any woman who has enough time on her hands to care about female sporting categories just isn’t seeing the bigger picture. Women are dying, Karen, and all you can think about are your Parkrun rankings?

A justifiably irritated feminist might respond by telling him that women are capable of caring about more than one thing at a time. Indeed, many of the women who have played a significant role in identifying the problems with gender self-ID — women such as Julie Bindel and Karen Ingala Smith — have a tremendous track record when it comes to challenging all forms of male violence. That their work goes unacknowledged by men who are fixated on checking their pronoun usage is hardly these women’s fault. 

Nonetheless, this defence has never seemed quite enough to me. While it’s true that women can have more than one priority, it’s also true that time and resources are finite. Any time you spend on one thing, you’re not spending on another. Why not, Progressive Man might say, devote all your attention to the biggest, most important things? Things such as FGM and extreme poverty? Do you really think women can afford the luxury of sweating the small stuff? 

There is, somewhere in this, the beginnings of a valid argument. Some things are more important than other things. Some women are suffering far more than others. When I wrote my book Hags on the demonisation of middle-aged women, I mentioned that there are still places in the world where older women are burned as witches — but my book isn’t about them. It is mainly about women in the UK and US. While one chapter focuses on lethal violence, another one looks at the use of the word “Karen”. Clearly it is worse to be burned as a witch than it is to be called a Karen. Why didn’t I write a book about that? Or just not write at all?

There are several answers to this. One is that the same beliefs that fuel violence against older women — that they are obsolete, entitled, sinister, space-stealing — are also legitimised by non-violent cultural trends. Another is that writing about non-lethal misogyny is hardly an expression of approval for the lethal kind. A third is that men should not be weaponising other men’s violence in order to silence women on other issues. As the poet Jenny Lindsay points out, a male writer is not expected to grapple with similar moral qualms. There are, she recently tweeted, “things you will never hear directed at a male writer from women”:

Men are dying in war in Palestine and you’ve written a book on male poverty/ men’s health/ male loneliness/Dad’s struggles in THE WEST?? Self-indulgent. Don’t you know what the REAL issues for men are?

Relatively privileged men can focus on any men’s issue they like — and be feted for it — because this is not really a question of priorities. It’s a question of women not knowing their place. The worst things men do to us are supposed to make us no longer care about the lesser things. 

As someone who has experienced sexual violence, I look at a tweet like Maugham’s and wonder at the implication that as long as men continue raping and assaulting us, women have no business fussing about other things. Who do we think we are? Don’t we understand that since women are so far on the back foot, we need to lower our expectations? Why should a rape victim care about Parkrun? Shouldn’t she be concentrating on “reframing her trauma”? 

When Maugham claims “if you care about women there is hardly a shortage of actually useful things to do with your life”, I want to ask why there isn’t a shortage. Whose fault is that? Why is feminism women’s work at all? I know the answer to this: because men are hardly going to do the work for us. They’re not even setting up an ill-fated crowdfunder. But the responsibility for the whole of this mess — the fact that there is any work that needs prioritising to start with — lies with the men who rape us and beat us and bully us and, yes, also the men who try to steal our words and spaces and sporting categories while telling us we shouldn’t care because look, haven’t we bigger things to worry about?

How about 24 hours in which you don’t tell us which words to use to describe ourselves?

It is staggering, the way in which the sheer degree and extent of men’s violence against women can be used, not to shame men, but to tell women that they are selfish for wanting even the smallest marks of respect. Apparently it would be greedy for us, members of the “one in five victims of sexual assault” club, to expect words, spaces, a sporting category of our own. Stick to “not being raped, maybe”. Aim low.

In a 1983 speech, Andrea Dworkin called for a 24-hour truce during which there is no rape. Forty years later, this has still not happened. Given that it seems unlikely to happen any day soon, perhaps men could set some realistic objectives of their own. How about 24 hours in which you don’t tell us which words to use to describe ourselves? 24 hours in which you keep out of our toilets and changing rooms? 24 hours in which you don’t watch any porn? 

Or failing that, just 24-hours in which you don’t tell us what our priorities should be?

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