This weekend the New Zealand Herald published a cartoon that riffed on a familiar theme. An enormous male hand — looking not unlike the hand of God in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam — reaches down from above to point at a tiny woman. The message? Tiny woman needs to STFU.
I am not the first to have noticed similarities between this image and anti-suffragette propaganda of a century ago. Outspoken women — women who say things men don’t want to hear — need to be kept in check. By rendering women’s silencing cartoonish, women themselves both pitiful and grotesque, misogynists seek to tell themselves their behaviour is justified.
This is an age-old practice. In From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner describes a popular 18th century woodcut which shows a woman’s head being hammered on an anvil. The workshop sign, representing “la bonne femme”, shows a woman with no head at all. This is, Warner notes, “a satire against bluestockings, feminists, scolds, and other opinionated women”. I’m sure we can all think of some up-to-date words for the latter.
I have never seen anything more gender normative in my life
Isn’t it funny how some things never change? Yes, I know there is another way in which we are supposed to read the recent cartoon. It has a caption (“Standing with the spirit of Georgina Beyer”) and a speech bubble (“Your terf propaganda is not welcome here”) that implies this is taking a noble, kind stand against transphobia. The tiny woman is supposed to be Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, whilst the owner of the hand is supposed to represent Beyer, a New Zealand politician who was the world’s first openly transgender member of parliament. So, it’s still a male person intimidating a female person, but with apparent justification. It’s fine to tell women to be small and pitiful and silent as long as it’s in the name of smashing the gender binary.
Over the past weekend several events have reminded women (old-style women, that is, with the bodies that dare not be named) of the requirement to always include males in their politics and never to organise on their own terms. After centuries of cartoons, we still need telling, because each time it’s apparently different. In New Zealand, violent protestors halted Keen-Minshull’s Let Women Speak campaign; in the UK, both The Lesbian Project and a feminist gathering in Hyde Park were subject to threats and abuse. It all feels so very familiar, yet we’re meant to believe the rage — a very male rage — is of a different order to that of the past.
We’re meant to think that this time, it comes from a good place, because these particular women, TERFs, are bad. Even if the same group (male people) are expressing fury that the same other group (female people) are doing the same things (organising politically, talking without their permission, saying “no”), this time the fury is progressive. We’re meant to think it’s progressive because the male people don’t call themselves male people. Or because the female people are all right-wing, even though some of them aren’t. Or because the male people claim to be demolishing gender norms in ways the female people wouldn’t understand. This is despite the fact that I have never seen anything more gender normative in my life than these global, public tantrums about women doing literally anything that doesn’t centre men.
It’s nine years since I first wrote about this issue and instantly became one of the women who’s supposed to have her head stomped on or her lips stuck together with superglue or whatever the next old-new punishment happens to be. The thing that has amazed me in all of it is just how much, once you scratch the surface of calls to “live beyond the binary” and “let people be their true selves”, you find a bunch of men who are beside themselves with delight at having found an excuse to put women in their place. Religion was too uncool for them; traditional values, too restrictive; openly right-wing misogyny, just not their style. But this, this is brilliant. Spend the day waving your fist at women, then get home and crack open a beer whilst congratulating yourself on what a great ally to women — new-style women — you are.
No one on your side would do this, would they, unless they had good reason?
These men will pretend they care about the political backgrounds of the women they threaten. They don’t. They threaten them if they’re right wing. They threaten them if they’re left wing. They threaten them if they’re Mumsnet mummies. They threaten them if they’re lesbians.
They will attempt to merge all these women — women who share a belief in the social and political salience of biological sex — into one subhuman mass. Like the women accused of witchcraft in Silvia Federici’s Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women, their crimes are exaggerated “to mythical proportions”, enabling their persecutors “to terrorize a whole society, isolate the victims, discourage resistance, and make masses of people afraid to engage in practices that until then were considered normal” (such as noticing male and female bodies exist).
There are discussions to be had between these women about where their values are shared, where they diverge. Discussions, too, about tactical approaches and moral compromise. My own view is that British women’s resistance to the “progressive” misogyny of the left lies in not being pushed into the arms of the right. Yet I don’t think the men currently threatening women care either way. If they are not calling right-wing women fascists, they are telling left-wing women that they shall pay for their disobedience by having their rights “taken away by the literal nazis.” If their alt-right counterparts did not exist as a means to shame and bully women, left-wing misogynists would have to invent them.
One of the most disturbing things about mob violence against women is that, as in witch trials, once it becomes a spectacle, it becomes self-justifying. No one on your side would do this, would they, unless they had good reason? The worse it looks — the more obvious it becomes that these are just men, shouting at women, threatening them, abusing them, same as always — the more necessary it becomes to dig in your heels, to insist that the targets are real witches, this time.
Witches don’t exist, though. What is happening right now is exactly what it looks like. It’s a male hand, pointing down, trying to silence. It’s a male fist meeting a female face. It’s the same anger, the same misplaced sense of virtue. There’s nothing more to it than that.
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