It’s been a couple of weeks but I figured I’d post here the speech I delivered recently at the New Statesman debate at the Cambridge Literary Festival. The motion was ‘For more women to succeed more men must fail’ and I was speaking for the motion. (That’s NS deputy editor Helen Lewis in the chair in the pic). Here’s what I said:
“There is something richly ironic about a group of feminists – in which I include myself of course – having a debate. There is surely nothing more typical of toxic masculinity than a debate, a format invented by men because they couldn’t just sit about talking about stuff SOMEONE HAS TO WIN. Personally, I’ll only consider myself to have won this debate if you all abstain at the end and choose to mull the issues more deeply rather than vote.
However, we’re here and I’d like to look at two areas in particular that I know well, that sit at either end of the scale that runs between the public and domestic sphere and which I think demonstrate clearly that more men must fail if women are to succeed
Firstly, in the public sphere there is one place where it is quite clear cut that men must fail for women to succeed – the House of Commons.
There are only 650 seats, the vast majority represented by men.
This event is one of very many taking place across the country to mark 100 years since some women won the right to vote. Many suffragettes and suffragists – don’t forget the suffragists, factions and disagreements within the movement are nothing new – thought winning the vote would inevitably lead to further improvements and maybe even equality.
Now the former is undoubtedly true. The lot of British women has improved since suffrage was achieved. And that demonstrates why we need more women in parliament, because if women are present women’s needs will be considered. This isn’t just some airy fairy need to consider women’s issues, it’s life and death. While we had a female education secretary she drove a policy of compulsory and comprehensive Sex and Relationships Education. When Justine Greening was replaced by Damian Hinds one of his first moves was to go soft on SRE, confirming that parents will be allowed to take their kids out of classes if they wish. This despite a Women and Equalities Committee report that reported quality SRE ‘HAS THE POTENTIAL TO MAKE THE SINGLE BIGGEST IMPACT ON ALL FORMS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE IN THIS COUNTRY’
But we can only have more women in parliament if there are fewer men. There are only so many seats. For women to succeed in winning places in our law making body more men will have to fail to get elected.
The fact that equal suffrage has not brought about equal representation speaks to my second point which I’ll come on to shortly.
But it is rooted in the fact that we don’t actually want a parliament that is representative. If that was so we would want murderers and stupid people sitting as MPs. I would suggest that we want is a parliament that represents the best of us.
And still today women are not seen as the best of us.
We are trained from a very young age to look down on women, we create a female sphere to disdain it.
This is my second point, men must redefine what it means to fail because for too many men failure actually means being like a woman.
Big boys don’t cry – why? Because to show emotion is to be like a woman
‘Woman’s work’ is a derogatory term – because women’s work is low status and consequently low paid.
For a man to be termed a big girl’s blouse is generally regarded as an insult. The insult is not in being described as an item of clothing, it’s in being like a woman’s item of clothing.
When I was looking at the internet instead of writing this speech the other day I came across the latest writings by godawful Brexiteer shitehawk Dan Hannan in which he described critics of his offhand attitude towards the Irish border question as shrill. Men, who physically have deeper voices are not shrill. The implication is that his opponents are rubbish because they are like women.
It is all around us.
And it starts very young. One of the surprises that my partner and I learned from the Gender Diary project that documented the different ways boys and girls are treated and which culminated in The Gender Agenda book last year was the constant reinforcement girls and boys get that one gender is better than the other.
That to be ‘like a girl’ is to be inferior. Seared into my memory is the scene in a toy shop when a young boy of maybe 7 was playing with the lovely dolls houses on display at the back of the shop only for his father to emerge from the front of the shop and loudly proclaim: “Caught you! Playing with the DOLLS HOUSES”. The shame on the boy’s face as he mumbled ‘no’ and ran off was as heartbreaking as it was infuriating.
It’s no excuse but it’s no wonder when they are told practically from birth that women are inferior, when they see their mothers shouldering the mental load of household tasks while their father does something more important out of the home – and that remains the norm, there is not a country in the world where men do more domestic work than women – why are we surprised that men regard it as inferior, to be avoided, failure.
I don’t think men need to fail because I don’t regard what I do – juggling childcare with freelance work, enjoying spending time with my children because it feels like the most natural thing in the world while my partner does what comes naturally to her – pursuing an impressive and fulfilling career, knowing who needs a pack lunch when and making sure each kid has enough clean shirts for school, stuff that so many women regard as normal – I don’t regard that as failing at all.
Men need to rethink what it means to fail. To throw off the narrow definition of masculine success. In my new book, Dad’s Don’t Babysit, I look at how we can make that happen. Because when it does, when man do their fair share around the home women will be free to succeed in whatever way they choose.
Ladies and gentlemen, by the standards men set I’ve failed. I wish those standards would alter but until they do more men must fail just like I have. And just like me I know millions of them would enjoy better health – mental and physical – and happiness.
For more women to succeed it’s not just that more men must fail, they must embrace failure.”