This weekend I went along to the launch of the book Suffragette Legacy: How Does the History of Feminism Inspire Current Thinking in Manchester (Mørk-Røstvik and Sutherland 2015) at The People’s History Museum. It was an opportunity to see some of the contributors to this wide ranging consideration of Manchester’s feminist credentials, which included academics, artists and activists, talk about their work.
I was particularly interested to hear about the work of Helen Davies and Jenny White of Warp and Weft who made use of their craft skills to highlight the lack of female statues in Manchester City Centre with their project Stature. These inspiring craftivists crocheted a series of masks of women from Manchester’s history (including the author Elizabeth Gaskell pictured), which they placed over several of the male bronzes and statues in Manchester’s town hall.
The project drew attention to the lack of representation of the achievements of women in the city and has successfully provoked a response (a step in the right direction) from local councillors, who have committed to creating a statue capturing Manchester women’s achievements ready for International Women’s Day 2019.
This approach reminded me of the way on opening night The Women in Comedy Festival team had stuck a variety of images of female comedians to the walls of The Frog and Bucket. The venue was supportive of this move, and the festival in general. However, these walls are usually adorned with portraits of comedians who have earned their stripes on the stage at the venue – not one woman amongst them, even though The Frog and Bucket has been home to regular women-only line-ups, Laughing Cows, for a significant period of time.
This is of interest to me as part of my research will touch on the way that the physical performance space for live comedy has shifted from a male specific space (working men’s clubs) to dedicated spaces which are allegedly accessible to all (although are often not accessible in terms of access for disabled performers or audience members as explored in the recent work of Dr Sharon Lockyer). Even though women may now be in the audience and also perform on the stage, the images we see of achievement in comedy remain predominantly male and this normalises the idea of comedy as a male arena.
Additionally this week a public discussion of sexism broke out on an academic mailing list I subscribe to. A female user had put forward the idea that women were being responded to more negatively than their male counterparts when making similar requests (help finding examples, locating references etc.). The word sexism was not used at this initial stage but the argument was made that female users were responded to in a patronising and dismissive tone, whereas males asking almost identical questions would be responded to more considerately. Immediately this suggestion was responded to in a patronising and belittling way (ironically and unwittingly proving the initial point). In and amongst the 50 or so emails that ensued were several comments along the lines of ‘don’t we all have better things to do than argue about this’.
This mailing list is subscribed to by 2,500 people and although the key protagonists were limited to a core group everyone could see their arguments. How many women observing this in their inboxes (as I was) were put off ever posting in this space for fear of similar criticism??
It was incredibly depressing to witness established male academics dismiss this point or fail to take the comment in the way it was meant – as a reminder that we should be cautious when responding by email to anyone and that as women working in a patriarchal environment (which overwhelmingly academia continues to be see here) we are sensitive to this in a way male colleagues may not fully appreciate. In the U.K women are still paid less than men in academia and there are significantly fewer female professors. This virtual space is supposed to be an inclusive one but it does not exist a vacuum we all bring our previous experiences to the way we read and respond to others.
After a while the argument died down with apologies from those who fell into the trap of responding in the heat of the moment with dismissive or rude statements, and the proposal to get together as a collective and discuss these issues was put forward. So progress possibly??… But I found the comments that fell into the ‘we all have other more important things to do with our time’ particularly infuriating. These issues should be discussed and considered publicly. It is important because it feeds into and feeds off the way women are treated in the real world (see Everyday Sexism for a myriad of examples). The face of success, especially in academia, is still that of the (white) male. If spaces are not inclusive to women or reinforce notions of gender difference then it will take longer to create a more equal image of what it means to be successful.
So overall this week provided an excellent reminder as to what the spaces we inhabit, both physically and virtually, say to us about what we, as women, can achieve.