Saturday, May 25, 2013

Sir Gerald Howarth and the pendulum of history

This Tuesday got off to a bad start when I woke up to the radio replaying Sir Gerald Howarth storming to victory in the parliamentary Ignorant Bigot Championships:

“I fear the playing field is not being levelled. I believe the pendulum is swinging so far the other way, and there are plenty in the aggressive homosexual community who see this as but a stepping stone to something even further.”

Ah, the proverbial pendulum – always a sure sign that you are about to be subjected to the ill-informed chuntering of a person who really needs to check their privilege. To me it’s always seemed like a weird metaphor for debates about equal rights, as if history is somehow an endless ebb and flow between patriarchy and matriarchy, oppression of gays and oppression of straights, white rule and black rule – rather than a slow crawl towards equality for everyone who isn’t a rich, white, straight, cisgender man.

Nobody loves a good pendulum more than those men who bitterly complain that women’s rights have ‘gone too far’, that they are the new underdogs in the workplace. I wouldn’t dream of comparing my own experience as a relatively privileged woman with that of, say, the gay couple beaten up in Bromley two days before Howarth’s outburst. But I did heartily wish that those anti-feminists could have been in my shoes this Thursday.

I’d been invited to speak at a policy event. I was a bit nervous, because there were going to be some very high-powered people in the room, and I was effectively pitching my charity's policy ideas to them. I also knew there were going to be a lot of industry types there, among whom the things I had to say would almost certainly go down like a lead balloon.

What I hadn't quite realised was that the people I was addressing were basically the old boys' network personified. On taking my seat in the audience, I overheard this exchange between two other panellists:

Old white man #1: “I think you employ an old mate of mine...”

Old white man #2: “Oh yes, he's a tremendous chap!”

It was at roughly this point that I started to feel like I was in a badly-written satirical novel.

As I sat and listened to a procession of old white men, it dawned on me that I was the only woman speaking during the entire event. I had a glance down the agenda and totted up the numbers: thirteen speakers, every single one of them male except for me. In fact, in an audience of 50-odd, there were only about six or seven women in the room at all. Just think about that for a second: there were more men speaking from the platform than there were women present in the audience. And it gets worse, because, despite there being a lot of contributions from the floor, only one of those women apart from me actually spoke.

After the event, a slightly less old white man came up to me and said, “I thought you did very well on the panel.” Not 'I thought you were very good' or 'I thought you made some interesting points', but 'I thought you did very well'. I'm sure he was trying to be nice, so I smiled and said thanks (actually, come to think of it, I probably pulled a face and said something self-deprecating, which I guess makes me part of the problem) – but inside I was thinking, do you genuinely not realise how patronising that sounds? Would you honestly have said that to a man? 

None of this is unusual. Last year I was invited to a roundtable with a senior government minister at one of the party conferences. It was a fantastic opportunity - my charity is too small to get regular access to ministers at that level. I spent ages thinking about what I was going to say. Ages wasted, because I never got to say it. Of about twenty people at that event, two of us were women. And, in the course of about ninety minutes, neither of us said a word – despite my embarrassingly ineffectual waving at the chair to try and attract his attention. I left feeling angry and frustrated with myself, all the more so because I didn't even have the courage to go up to him afterwards and complain.

I’m honestly not trying to be self-pitying here. My point is that you couldn’t have been at either of those events without realising the obvious fact that this country is still run by the same clique of privileged people it always has been. The pendulum of history only exists in the bitter and fearful minds of people like Sir Gerald Howarth. All of which leaves me with a worry: next time I hear someone sounding off about the pendulum swinging too far the other way, I think my fist might end up swinging rapidly towards their face...

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