Category Archives: Feminism

Dear Yonatan Zunger, you are part of the problem, please stop.

So we’ve all heard about the #GoogleManifesto at this point and I have zero interest in engaging with it. I do have an interest in engaging with some of the responses, and Yonatan Zunger’s much-shared Medium piece is at the top of my list.

Zunger makes three points: 1. GoogleBro is wrong about gender. 2. GoogleBro is wrong about engineering. 3. GoogleBro has negatively impacted the company and his own career because sexist attitudes like his are not acceptable in the industry.

My issue is with Zunger’s entire approach, but mainly with point 3. Either because Zunger is a man and therefore lacks the lived experience to understand what the tech industry looks like for women (or people like me who are read and treated as women), or because of an American/Silicon Valley/neoliberal obsession with individualism, or very likely because of the combination of the two, Zunger presents the Google Manifesto as the work of an individual whose ideas are extreme and not acceptable in the industry. But here’s the thing: sexism is the industry standard in tech, it is endemic, and it is systemic.

Sexism in the tech industry is rarely (but not never) quite as publicly blatant as the Google Manifesto. Most of the time it’s more insidious than that, or alternatively it is blatant in private. But that doesn’t make it any less bad, any less harmful, or any less the industry standard. Let me give you some examples.

Zunger himself admits that he came into the industry lacking a whole range of skills essential to engineering – skills frequently thought of as female-coded, like communication, negotiation, and generally dealing with people. He admits that he’s acquired those skills over the course of twenty years. He fails, however, to admit that the fact that he’s been given the opportunity and slack to acquire those skills is a sign of male privilege. Women in the industry, on the other hand, are held to the most exacting standards across all skillsets at all times. They are not given the time and opportunity to develop, they are expected to be perfect if they are to get anywhere. I have seen countless women in tech hit the glass ceiling (and worse, seen the glass ceiling be policed by other, more senior women). It goes a bit like this. “Oh, she’s great at her job, and she would do an amazing job at the next level, we could promote her. But we won’t because we’re not absolutely certain that she’d do an amazing job three levels up, and if we promote her and she stagnates that reflects badly on all women and we’ll never get another woman promoted.” No slack, no opportunity to grow and develop, no benefit of the doubt or second chances.

It also goes a bit like this. “Oh, we could promote her, but she’s got kids and wouldn’t put in the long hours. Oh, we could promote her but she’d need to accept a job move to the other side of the world. Oh, we could promote her but…” Meanwhile mediocre men get promoted over the heads of brilliant women, and those brilliant women eventually just… settle. I have lost count of the number of women I have seen this happen to. These are not individual problems, these are systemic issues. The bar for women is an order of magnitude higher than the bar for men. (Additional orders of magnitude apply if you happen to experience intersecting oppressions.) Job requirements, particularly at senior levels, are set out with a certain kind of individual in mind, and that individual is a man with a wife who does all the housework and will compromise her career for his.

It also goes a bit like this. Someone makes a sexist comment. As a woman, you now have the choice: do you report it, taking up massive amounts of your own time and energy, and at the risk that HR will sweep it under the rug and flag you as trouble (see Uber, but they’re by far not the only example), or do you swallow it down and learn to just put up with your actively hostile environment? How much time and energy do you think this takes out of women’s days? How do you think it impacts their job performance? Which, incidentally, brings me to another issue I have with Zunger’s post: in all his talk of time and emotional energy and reputational damage the Google Manifesto costs, he never – not once – acknowledges the disproportionate impact this clusterfuck is having on women: women at Google, women in the wider tech industry, women considering going into the tech industry.

So, bottom line: sexism far from unacceptable in tech. On the contrary, it’s endemic and systemic. Positioning it as anything but those things and failing to acknowledge the immense, disproportionate impact it has on women in favour of centring the company’s reputation and the experience of managers amounts of an epic act of gaslighting and abuse of women in tech. Maybe Zunger’s intentions are good, and he is genuinely trying to challenge sexism in the industry. But if that’s the case, he should engage with women who work or have worked in the industry, listen to them, boost their voices and otherwise, frankly, sit the fuck down.

[rape, rape apologism] Congratulations, you’ve been upgraded!

A lot of people seem very surprised that I have a (mental) Probable Rapist list that I regularly add people to based on things they say about sexual violence. Probable Rapist is of course an upgrade from Schroedinger’s Rapist which, frankly, as a man you’re on by default. If you have a problem with that, your best bet is to work towards dismantling rape culture, not filling my Twitter mentions and blog comments with #NotAllMen.

Now, given that Schroedinger’s Rapist is a thing, I have to make decisions about my personal safety on a daily basis. Do I engage in conversation with this person or do I back away as fast as socially acceptable/least detrimental to my career prospects? Do I make arrangements to never be alone in a room with someone? Do I warn others that there’s a missing stair here? Unsurprisingly, I’ve developed some heuristics to help me make those decisions, many of them based on what people say about high-profile sexual assault cases, or about my work. Here’s a small sample of things that have got people upgraded from Schroedinger’s Rapist to Probable Rapist:

  • “Julian Assange is being arbitrarily detained.”
  • Brock Turner raping someone behind a dumpster was a “drunken mistake”.
  • Referring to a rape victim as a “victim”.
  • When I talk about consent, asking “But what about seduction?”
  • “You’re only accusing him of rape because he is Jewish/queer/an activist.”

See, the most charitable possible interpretation of any of the above is that your conception of consent is so far removed from mine (and that of other people who experience sexual violence) that you are likely to rape someone and not even know it. And maybe someone needs to educate you, and some days that someone is me, but it’s not my job to do it all the time, for every Probable Rapist, and I am increasingly disinclined to do so. Of course, the interpretations get less charitable from there.

So that’s the deal: people make up their minds about you based on what you say. This should not be a shock revelation. Do with that information what you will.

[rape, sexual assault] ioerror, TOR, and encouraging victims to report rape to law enforcement

[TW: This post discusses rape and sexual assault in some detail. In addition, several of the links lead to graphic descriptions of rape and sexual assault by survivors.]

First of all, all my thoughts are with the people who were finally able to speak out loud enough to be heard in the face of power. I hope they get whatever measure of justice, or closure, or healing they can and want from this. I also find it tentatively encouraging that, after some prodding, the TOR Project has chosen to deal with this publicly to an extent. The digital rights community has a long way to go, but I guess the reactions we’re seeing this week, and the voices we’re hearing, are better than those back in 2010.

There’s one thing that really struck me in TOR’s second statement though, which in some ways illustrates the depth, complexity and extent of the issues we as a digital rights community still need to get our collective heads around to make this a safe space:

People who believe they may have been victims of criminal behavior are advised to contact law enforcement. We recognize that many people in the information security and Internet freedom communities don’t necessarily trust law enforcement. We encourage those people to seek advice from people they trust, and to do what they believe is best for them.

Allow me to digress for a moment to another high-profile rape case that’s been in the media this week: the Brock Allen Turner one. This is pretty close to a classic “stranger rape” case, where there were two witnesses and a rape kit. This is one of the vanishingly small percentage of rape cases that not only got reported, and got to court, it led to a conviction. It is also the case where the rapist was sentenced to six months’ jail time because anything longer would have a “severe impact” on him. This is how law enforcement treats rape if you are lucky.

Here’s something else for you to consider before encouraging those Appelbaum attacked to go to law enforcement. This is a quote from River’s account over on

I didn’t know until very recently that nonconsensual sex, by a friend, is rape.

This is not unusual among those who have experienced rape and sexual assault. Our society constructs sexual violence as “just sex” in a number of toxic and insidious ways. So if a survivor doesn’t know that what happened to them was rape, guess who else doesn’t know it: law enforcement. Let me be clear: nonconsensual, coerced, unwanted sex is rape, even if the person doing it is a friend, a partner, a spouse. This is certainly the case morally, and it is the case legally in many – not all – jurisdictions. Unfortunately, it’s not how law enforcement actually operates.

From what I’ve seen so far, most of these cases are historical cases of acquaintance rape: more difficult to prove “beyond reasonable doubt”, which is the standard for criminal conviction in most jurisdictions. This is not an issue with the cases, or the victims, it’s a structural problem of the way Western criminal justice systems approach rape and sexual assault. The best you can hope for here is a protracted, painful and humiliating investigation that is eventually declared inconclusive.

Another consideration is that the digital rights community that Appelbaum exploited is by nature multinational and migratory. At least one of the assaults (Forest’s account) happened in Germany. Germany’s rape laws are notorious as a carte blanche for rapists. Even if that wasn’t the case, by asking the victim to contact law enforcement, you’re asking them to deal with a legal system that is unfamiliar to them, in a language they may not speak. Depending on whether they’re resident in that country or not, you’re potentially asking them to put that at risk too.

So here’s the thing, TOR: as a woman who is also a digital rights activist, my mistrust of law enforcement does not come from my involvement in digital rights activism. Yes, it’s exacerbated by that, and surveillance is something I have to think about on a daily basis. But in this very specific intersection of circumstances, my mistrust of law enforcement goes much deeper than that, and is much more visceral. You suggesting otherwise is insensitive at best, and shows a remarkable level of ignorance of the reality of the situation at worst.

At the same time we need to recognise that the fact that the people Appelbaum attacked are digital rights activists does make it even more difficult for them to seek justice through law enforcement. In this way we are a vulnerable, marginalised community, making it easier for predators like Appelbaum to operate with impunity. Saying victims should talk to people they trust and do what they believe is best for them is not enough. It’s not a how a community should operate. It undermines our work and our reputation on the issues we have come together to address.

We need to get better at this. We need to believe the first person that reports an assault, not wait until there are ten of them. We need to set up structures that allow us to deal with abusers in a timely and effective way. We need to support survivors. Your move, TOR.

[Ada Lovelace Day] The Truth

[Content Note: Contains references to sexual assault and rampant misogyny.]

It’s Ada Lovelace Day today, and over the years I have profiled various women in the sciences, technology, engineering and maths to celebrate. But this year, Ada Lovelace Day follows close on the heels of the publication of an article exposing decades-long sexual assault by a leading astronomer at Berkeley and the complete failure of the university to deal with this in anything even resembling an appropriate manner. And this has made me realise that while the work Ada Lovelace Day does in inspiring girls to pursue careers in STEM is hugely important, it is also absolutely vital that we tell girls the truth.

And the truth is ugly. The truth is that Geoff Marcy is far from an isolated case. The truth is that Nobel laureates in your field may feel entitled to make you the punch line of a joke. The truth is that in a corporate career in technology your boss may ask you when International Men’s Day is. The truth is that you will be offered as a perk in job adverts, that you will be (illegally) asked about your childcare plans in job interviews, that in all likelihood you will be consistently underpaid compared to male colleagues with the same amount of experience doing the same job as you just as well. The truth is that these things happen to middle class white women, and god help you if you’re marginalised and oppressed on another axis as well. The truth is that all those micro- and macroaggressions add up.

The truth is that your best bet is to invest significant amounts of time and energy to keep yourself and other women safe. Not because this should in any way be your responsibility, but because no one else will. You may have to stand up to your boss in front of your younger and more impressionable colleagues and tell him that International Men’s Day is all the other 364 days of the year. You may have to walk out of job interviews in tears. You may have to pass on applying for that start-up job because it would involve working with dickbags who see you as a perk. You may have to seek out other women in departments you’re applying to to find out which of your prospective male colleagues you should avoid. (Or later, you may have to be the one warning younger women.) You may have to make a choice between filing a complaint for sexual harassment and finishing your thesis.

The truth is also that you’re not responsible for the shitty state our society is in, or for the behaviour of entitled male colleagues towards you or other women, and that you can’t single-handedly fix it. The truth is that standing up to your boss, or filing a complaint may hurt your career, and may cause you even more distress than the original incident, and you would be fully justified not to do it. The truth is that neither choice will make you feel good about yourself.

This is not to tell you that you shouldn’t pursue a career in science, technology, engineering or maths. It’s not even to tell you that these fields are that much worse than others: we’ve seen similar bullshit in politics, investment banking, the legal profession, and pretty much any male-dominated field. The corollary is that any field which somehow becomes female-dominated also automatically becomes devalued. So, you know, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But please please do pursue careers in those fields! The only way anything might change is if enough of us bang our heads against those brick walls that they (the walls!) eventually crack. Be aware, though, that chances are that your head will crack first. Walk into this with your eyes open, do what you can to keep yourself safe, seek out and build support networks around you, try to help others where you can. That’s the best you can do. That’s the best any of us can do.

[TW rape & sexual assault] A solution this is not

The New Statesman today had yet another run-in with Poe’s Law. Caroline Criado-Perez apparently thinks that suggesting women learn self defence is the opposite of victim blaming.
I happen to have some personal expertise on this matter, being both a survivor of several sexual assaults and the holder of several martial arts qualifications, including a black belt in kickboxing. For the sake of accuracy, I should point out that the assaults predate my learning martial arts, but there is no correlation, let alone causation here. So let me tell you a few of the things I’ve learned over ten years of practicing martial arts.

  1. I am not a small woman and I possess a fair amount of physical strength. Particularly when I’m training regularly, I have the muscle mass that allows me to pack quite a punch. Even when I’m not training regularly, my technique is good enough to make my kicks and punches quite effective. (This is something I am proud of.)
  2. Men tend to be stronger than me. Obviously, most of the men I practise martial arts with are likely to be stronger. But often even the newbies have more muscle mass and a stronger grip than me. I may be able to kick head-high, but if they really want to hurt me, they can easily do so. (This took me a while to realise, and still upsets me.)
  3. Martial arts is not the same as self defence. I have done both, and they are very different things. Self defence moves tend to be simpler and more practical (if your instructor is any good). Martial arts moves have more potential to truly hurt – if you can get them right. Having said that, sometimes the difference is as subtle as your hand position: a fist indicates an offensive move; a strike with an open hand is legally classed as a slap and is therefore defensive. If I actually landed a martial arts kick or punch, even in the heat of the moment of a self defence situation, I’d probably get done for assault. (The reader is invited to make their own comparisons to men who “in the heat of the moment” can’t stop themselves from raping.)
  4. While self defence moves are simpler, self defence is still fucking hard. Not the moves themselves – they tend to be straightforward. What’s hard about self defence is practising it to the point where it’s muscle memory – where you don’t think about it, you just react. Not only do you need to be able to just react, you need to be able to get yourself out of the situation. That means disable your attacker and either run or call the police. You need to be able to deal with all sorts of eventualities. How good’s your wrestling, if you both end up on the ground? How good are you at continuing to fight while injured? (I know for a fact that I’m not there.)
  5. And then there’s the small matter of the practicality of self defence when dressed for a night out. I have yet to see (and I have occasionally looked) a self defence class that asks participants to wear high heels and tight skirts; or for that matter to show up tipsy; or to practise in anything other than a safe, well-lit environment on a flat and even (and sometimes cushioned) floor. Any and all of these factors are likely to affect how you react, even if you have practised to the point where you can do the moves in your sleep. (Reality, alas, bites.)

Armed with this knowledge, let’s think our way through a few scenarios. [Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault, rape and domestic abuse]
You’re a 15-year-old girl. The man who’s abusing you is your uncle. You have trusted this man your entire life. He’s the one you ran to every time you had a fight with your parents as a child. “If you don’t like it,” he says, “all you have to do is slap me. I’ll stop.” Yes, that young woman is me, minus the martial arts training. But all that was “required” was a slap, right? You don’t need any training for that. I couldn’t do it – physically and mentally I couldn’t get myself to do it. And do you think he would have stopped if I had? Even if I had had any martial arts of self defence experience, my mind was so disassociated from my body I couldn’t actually feel anything, let alone lash out and hit him.
Let’s do another one. You’re a black belt in karate. The man forcing himself on you is your husband. Your children are in the next room. What do you do?
Another. You fall asleep at a party wedged on a sofa and wake up to someone pulling your underwear off and pushing your legs apart. What self defence techniques would you apply?
Another. You’re walking home from the bus stop after a night out. You’ve had a couple of drinks, you’re wearing high heels and a cocktail dress. Do you stop to take off your shoes before trying to kick the guy harassing you in the balls?
Another. You fight back. You use all your techniques, perfectly. You kick, you scream, you claw, you punch. You end up with a broken arm, broken jaw, and still raped, for all your trouble. How do you feel about yourself? At least you tried? Not good enough? All your fault?
I have days when I am so angry I imagine kicking in my abuser’s face – in defense or in revenge, I don’t particularly care. But I also know that is not an option – was never an option. I can see the attraction of trying to take control of a situation that’s beyond our control; of doing things that make us feel less at the mercy of others, even if it means investing two nights a week over years and years to learn and then keep up your self defence skills. But in a world where – as Ms Criado-Perez acknowledges – our attacker is much more likely to be our uncle, our father, our brother, our partner, our friend rather than a random stranger, let’s not kid ourselves that this actually makes us in any way safer.
By all means, take up martial arts. It’s a great way to learn to love your body, to stay fit and healthy, to learn how to kick in your front door when it’s jammed, to burn off excess energy and emotion. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun. But don’t feel that it will make you safer from sexual assault and street harassment; don’t feel that if you are attacked you have to physically fight back for it to not be your fault; do not, even for a second, think that it is (in Ms Criado-Perez’s words) a solution. To suggest otherwise is, indeed, victim blaming.

How to clear your name if you’ve been acquitted of sexual assault

Max Clifford has been found guilty of eight counts of indecent assault. I must admit, I am surprised that the criminal justice system has finally managed to deliver justice to the victims in a high-profile sexual assault case where the perpetrator is still alive.
Of course, had the verdict gone the other way (by far the more likely outcome), we would today be treated to a parade of Clifford’s friends and the man himself declaring in the media that the case was an outrage, what a lovely man the accused was, how false allegations of sexual assault should result in harsher punishments for the accusers, and how the accused’s legal fees should be paid by someone else. They would be bemoaning how the accused can never clear their name as people tend to think there is “no smoke without a fire”, how this terrible ordeal will forever be a stain on their life and reputation, how they had been dragged through the dirt.
I have a simple suggestion for the likes of Bill Roache and Nigel Evans (only the two most recent high-profile defendants to be acquitted of sexual assault charges) if they truly want to clear their names. Instead of grandstanding, explaining how you are the victim, sending in your friends to tell everyone how you wouldn’t hurt a fly, throw your energy and considerable resources into ensuring that the criminal justice system is actually fit for purpose when it comes to sexual assault and rape cases.
Right now, regardless of the actual court verdict, statistically [US data, the UK data is similar] there simply is no smoke without a fire with regards to sexual assault allegations. The vast majority of sexual assaults are not reported, of those that are, the vast majority do not go to trial, and of those that do, the vast majority result in acquittals after the victim has effectively been put on trial and dragged through the mud. So yes, even if you are cleared of all charges, the most probable scenario is that you are guilty but got away with it, not that someone made up the allegation.
Having a criminal justice system that can actually deliver just that – justice – in sexual assault cases would therefore be in the interests of anyone who has ever been falsely accused. Lowering the odds that an acquittal means you probably did it anyway should be good news for anyone wanting to truly clear their name. I look forward to the day when Nigel Evans campaigns to make reporting of sexual assault easier, to sack judges who think it’s “inevitable” for the jury to laugh during the testimony of a victim, to re-examine what kinds of “evidence” should be admissible as defence (“He’s a nice bloke guv” just doesn’t quite cut it), to look at whether “beyond reasonable doubt” is a sensible standard of evidence for a crime which generally happens in private between two people, and which affects about one third of the population.
Until that day, I’m afraid, there will continue to be no smoke without a fire, regardless of what conclusion the jury reaches, and I will continue to be surprised at every guilty verdict. My thoughts are with the victims and survivors of sexual assault everywhere. I believe them.

[TW:Rape] Be very careful how you score your political points

The above post has been making the rounds on Tumblr and, more recently, on Twitter. It makes some very valid points about the tendency of our cutlure to blame the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of sexual assault. “She was wearing a short skirt.” “She was drunk.” “She was walking alone in the dark.” “She enjoyed it.” “She wanted it.” “It was her fault.” Victim blaming is one of the biggest obstacles to tackling violence against women, it’s hugely damaging to those who have experienced sexual assault, it’s a major factor in the appallingly low conviction rates for rape, it needs calling out and, frankly, it needs to die in a fire. And yet, something about this post makes me extremely uncomfortable.
Here’s the thing: Some people don’t seem to have read the headline the comments are referring to; some seem to have thought it was made up. It isn’t. It’s a true story. Somewhere in India, there is a woman who was raped; who was subsequently so badly let down by the justice system that she felt this was her only option; and who now will presumably go to jail (or possibly has already gone to jail) for murder. No matter how valid the political points about victim blaming, I feel it is in incredibly poor taste to score them in this particular way off the back of this particular tragedy.
By all means, challenge victim blaming. Challenge the criminal justice system which treats victims like suspects and sees only a handful of cases end in conviction. Campaign, and educate, and do everything in your power to make violence against women history. But do also show respect for the survivors; their stories; their lives. Do not (even in anger – as I suspect the original posts were made) make light of this.

Compare and Contrast

For those of you who haven’t gone out and found the full version of that Chimamanda Adichie talk that Beyonce sampled in Flawless, here it is.

No need to thank me[1].
I watched this just now, and I was painfully reminded of Joss Whedon’s take on the subject of the word “feminist”.

(I am sorry for putting you through this again.)
Here are two storytellers, both incredibly aware of the power of stories and the power of language, taking on the same word. It is almost uncanny how much of the same ground they cover:
– that the word “feminist” comes with a lot of baggage;
– that this is an issue of equality and shared humanity;
– that it’s an issue of language and an issue of culture.
Now look at how differently they treat those points. Whedon throws the word out of the window in some misguided attempt at humour. Adichie reveals the way all that baggage has affected her, the internalised oppression she is carrying and struggling with:

“At some point, I was a happy African feminist, who does not hate men, and who likes lip gloss, and who wears high heels for herself and not for men.”

Whedon declares that “You either believe women are people, or you don’t.” Adichie examines the social structures and systems of oppression that lead to the majority of people today believing that women are not people. She tells us how we are all socialised to see girls and women as less, to assume that any money or self-worth a woman may have will have come from a man, to see women as guilty, to stifle girls’ ambition by making their first priority marriage. (And if you think that last one is an African and not a Western issue, you need to think again. But that’s another post.) She points out how men are the default – how Joss Whedon probably never had to think about what to wear to that award dinner he made his speech at, while Chimamanda Adichie has to expend energy to look less feminine in order to be taken seriously. She talks about how these assumptions are so ingrained in our society that even her progressive male friends do not see them until they are shoved right up in their face.
Whedon seems to think we have solved racism. Adichie, a black African woman, examines the interaction between different systems of oppression (racism and sexism), different types of privilege.
Whedon says if only we had a word that made it clear that believing that women aren’t human was unacceptable, the world would be a much better place. Adichie looks at practical ways in which we can initiate and sustain cultural change: raising children based on talent and interests rather than gender, being aware of the assumptions we make and the messages we send, challenging sexist behaviour when we see it. She is also keenly aware of all the ways in which discussions about gender get shut down and derailed, often deliberately, often by people like Joss Whedon. (“Why do you have to say ‘my experience as a woman’? Why can’t you say ‘my experience as a human being’?” Yeah, that does sound kinda familiar, now that you mention it.)
Joss Whedon makes a speech, throws a word out of the window, throws another one at the audience, and that’s it, job done. Chimamanda Adichie understands that it takes 100 years for killing twins to no longer be part of a culture. She tells us of the barriers she faces in accessing and shaping her own culture. She acknowledges the difficulty of changing our culture, but very clearly tells us that it is not only not impossible, but that it is vital. “Culture does not make people. People make culture.”
I am inspired by one of these two messages, one of these two people. When Joss Whedon tells me “Go forth and use ‘genderist’!” my response is a resounding “Fuck you!” When Chimamanda Adichie tells me to be a proud woman, a proud feminist, and to go and challenge our society’s myriad sexist assumptions every single day, then yes, of course I will. Because Chimamanda Adichie speaks from her experience as a woman, while Joss Whedon lacks the imagination that would allow him to conceive that women’s experiences are different.

[1] It needs to be acknowledged that parts of Chimamanda Adichie’s talk contain heteronormative and cissexist assumptions, and there is one piece that is problematic with regards to sex work. While in an ideal world all of us would be constantly aware of all axes of privilege and all intersections of oppression and speak and act accordingly, this is not the world we live in, and I feel Adichie’s contribution to the feminist discourse is incredibly valuable even with these flaws.

Dear Joss

Dear Joss,
In the interests of full disclosure, I am not a fan of your writing. I am, mostly, not a fan of your writing because you don’t tell the kinds of stories that I enjoy. And that’s fine – my taste is clearly different to yours, and the world is big enough and full of enough stories for both of us to live happily ever after.
Having said that, for some time now I have been concerned that feminists and queer people in particular seem to hold you and your writing up as exceptional and awesome when it comes to the treatment of female and queer characters. To me, this seems more of a reflection on the dire state of the rest of our popular culture than on your genius. But hey, if kids find in your characters role models that they lack elsewhere, who am I to judge? I misspent part of my youth reading Marion Zimmer Bradley, because she wrote the only fiction I could get my hands on that portrayed people like me.
So despite my friends’ accusations, my dislike of you was generally not ideological. Until, that is, you stood up at an Equality Now event earlier this week and declared that you “hate ‘feminist'”. Words, you said, were important (I agree, they are), and the word “feminist”, you said, was the wrong word to use in the current discourse on gender issues.
Forgive me, Joss, if I call bullshit on a straight, cisgender, white, rich, American man with a platform standing up and telling me what words I should use to describe my lived experience.
“Feminist”, you said, implied that believing that all people are people is something that we are not born with, but indoctrinated into. There was no middle ground, you said, between feminism and sexism. “You either believe women are people, or you don’t”, you said. And that, Joss, is how you betrayed your profound ignorance. I would like to break this to you gently, but I don’t think I can, so let me rip off the band-aid. A substantial proportion of human beings alive today – in fact, quite possibly the majority of human beings alive today – do not believe that women are people. Note that I say “human beings”, not men. One of the greatest tragedies of our time is that we are raising girls to believe that they are not people. The dominant narrative in our society today tells us all, constantly, that women are not people.
It starts with pink and blue Kinder Eggs, and Barbie dolls whose entire purpose in life is to be pretty. It starts with the kinds of stories we tell our kids about what boys do and what girls do. You’re a writer, you should know that stories matter. And yet, the vast majority of our current cultural output barely even recognises that women exist, let alone have feelings or agency that extend beyond finding the meaning of their lives in a man.
It ends in a concerted campaign to drive women out of public spaces and public discourse. Ask any woman whether she’s been the target of street harassment, and I am willing to bet she will say yes. Street harassment is just one way for men to make it clear that they own public spaces, and we are there for their viewing (and groping) pleasure and at their sufferance. Ask any woman who has ever dared express and opinion online how many rape threats she has received for her troubles. Because online spaces are public spaces too, and women are there at the sufferance of men. Ask a room full of women if they have experienced sexual assault, rape, stalking or domestic abuse, and in the UK nearly one in two of them will say yes. Ask the two women killed by a current or former partner every week in the UK whether “misogynist” is too strong a word to use for their deaths.
But you, Joss, dare not ask, and you dare not listen to the answers. Instead, you take to your platform and make witty comments about words, as if this discussion is entirely academic and only for your entertainment; as if we are not, quite literally, talking about women’s very lives; as if your considered opinion as a writer trumps the lived experiences of three and a half billion women. I am sorry Joss, but both your words and your actions speak for themselves. And what they tell me is that you, too, in your heart of hearts, do not quite believe that women are people.
I find it hard to blame you for this, Joss. Like me, like every other human being out there, you are the product of a society that does not believe that women are people. You are right in one thing though: words matter, and conversations with people matter. If you truly want to, in your own words, punch the world up a little, as a member of the most privileged group currently living on this earth, here is your job: learn how to be a great ally. Acknowledge your privilege. Listen, understand, ask the questions, have the conversations. Do no harm! And maybe one day, once you’ve done all of those things, once you’ve learned that women live in a different reality to you – one that is more violent, more painful, and more silenced – you can take to your platform again and use the words that women use to describe their lived experience and boost the signal. But until then, kindly shut up.

[#ALD13] The final frontier

It sneaks up on you, Ada Lovelace Day. I’ve written about a variety of women as part of this over the years: Eve, Lise Meitner, Caroline Herschel, and my mother. This year, I want to take us slightly further afield – I want to take us to space.

Valentina Tereshkova

Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova left school at 16, and then switched to evening classes so she could work during the day. By her early 20s, she was a textile worker in a local factory and an amateur skydiver. It was her expertise in skydiving that eventually led to her selection for the USSR’s female cosmonaut corps. Between February and November 1962, Tereshkova and her four colleagues underwent extensive tests and training, and four of the women eventually passed and were inducted into the Soviet Air Force.

Only two years after Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, on June 16th 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to fly into space, piloting Vostok 6. She was 26 years old. She orbited the Earth 48 times and was in space for nearly 3 days, logging more flight hours than all US astronauts up to that point combined. During her flight, Tereshkova gathered important data on the effects of spaceflight on the female body, took pictures of Earth, and passed within 5km of another spacecraft, Vostok 5.

After her spaceflight, Valentina Tereshkova took the opportunity to continue her education. She studied engineering and by 1977 obtained a doctorate. She became an instructor and test pilot and later a research scientists. She also entered politics and currently serves in the Russian State Duma.

Sally Ride

Sally Kristen Ride didn’t join NASA until the age of 32. Before that, she obtained a bachelor’s degree in English and physics, as well as a master’s and a PhD in Physics, all from Stanford. Her career at NASA was varied: she was the capsule communicator for two early space shuttle flights, and helped develop the shuttle’s robot arm.

On June 18th 1983, almost exactly twenty years after Tereshkova, Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly into space. She was a member of the 5-person crew of the seventh space shuttle mission, on board the Challenger. As part of the mission, Ride used the robot arm to retrieve a satellite.

Unlike Tereshkova, Ride flew again, in 1984, though after the Challenger disaster in 1986 her career took a different turn, and she led NASA’s strategic planning effort. After she left NASA in 1987, Ride became a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego, and later led two NASA public outreach programmes. With her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, Ride also co-founded Sally Ride Science, a company which produces science education materials for children, and co-wrote a number of children’s science books.

Sally Ride died on July 23rd 2012.

Some asides

In the 1960s the US weren’t terribly keen on sending women to space. Whereas other Soviet achievements in the space race, such as the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and Gagarin’s flight in 1961, sent the US into a panic, many regarded the first woman in space with derision.
However, a privately funded programme was established in 1960 to put Jerrie Cobb and a number of other women through the same tests that male astronauts in NASA’s space programme took. 13 women passed Phase I of the tests, with several passing Phase II and Jerrie Cobb passing Phase III while Wally Funk tried to take the Phase III tests after the programme was ended.

The science didn’t seem to match political attitudes of the time which is how it took another twenty years before an American woman flew in space.

Some other firsts

Svetlana Savitskaya was the second woman in space, though she didn’t fly until 1982. She was the first woman to walk in space.

The first American woman to walk in space was Kathryn D. Sullivan in 1984.
The first Briton in space was a woman, Helen Sharman. She was also the first woman to visit the Mir space station.

The first Iranian in space was also a woman, Anousheh Ansari. She was a spaceflight participant on the Soyuz TMA-9 mission to the International Space Station in 2006, and also the first Muslim woman in space.