What’s in it for men to celebrate International Women’s Day? Quite a lot actually. From doing the right thing and being allies to reinforcing the Lockean ideals of the Enlightenment that allow us all to be individuals capable (ish) of reason and conceptualising the notion of creating a better world…
Nobody would dare suggest women boycott tours of Westminster just because most of the statues and a large proportion of the mainstream history stories concern the other half of society? There were 700 years of parliaments with no women sitting in it, and none even represented near it in Parliament Square until recently.
Only one war-related statue in Whitehall obliquely references women’s war work and that only arrived a decade ago. Yet it would be regarded as small-minded and ignorant if you said that because all the summarising and recording of these male-dominant stories was also done by men, women ought to give the past a miss?
Yet, at Faversham Literary Festival, the number of men in the audience to hear about Jenni Murray’s book ‘A History of Britain in 21 Women: A Personal Selection’ was inversely proportional to the achievements of the characters that people its pages. Are major figures in history only of interest to we men if they also wore trousers?
But apart from the idea that interesting thinkers should be of interest regardless of their genitalia, there’s something for men too in celebrating International Women’s Day. For one thing, it comes out of a push to end the exploitation of workers in general from the likes of Rosa Luxembourg and Clara Zetkin. A little solidarity brothers, with your lesser-paid sisters?
As we experience the ‘post-expert’ era and social media ramps up smears, dogwhistle politics and hate, what better time to celebrate the values of people like Mary Wollstonecraft, sometimes referred to as the ‘Mother of Modern Feminism’? A writer, philosopher and educator, she used rational thinking to approach the issues of the day: propelling men’s Enlightenment freedoms into the realm of women too, using reason.
Religious intolerance is nothing new: Anna Laetitia Barbauld battled it, calling out prejudice and discrimination from the vested interests of the Anglican state that at various points in history marginalised non-mainstream Protestants like her and persecuted Catholics. Celebrating her like, we celebrate the idea of a society based on mutual respect and *real* equality of opportunity, regardless of denomination.
Doesn’t everyone benefit from that? The message transcends gender: a fairer world is a happier world for all of us. Inequality disempowers the weaker group but it also shames the stronger, as Mary Wollstonecraft said:
“They may be convenient slaves, but slavery will have its constant effect, degrading the master and the abject dependent.”
“…the improvement must be mutual…”
She’s talking about women, but the principles could apply to national politics and even the geopolitical arena: does that shirt look so good when you find out it was made by kids?
And that’s before we even get into the issues of how old-fashioned ideas of what constitutes masculinity still lead to many young men being imprisoned for violence to save face, or suiciding because they can’t be seen to be vulnerable.
As a young man I saw boys mercilessly mocked for looking different, being too interested in learning but also for being ‘soft’, ‘girly’, or ‘gay’. Back then we didn’t call it toxic masculinity, but it was awful to watch. As was the treatment of anyone who defied the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ at school and even at work. And the misogyny? I still wince at the violence, verbal and physical, used to assert male authority over female everywhere from the playground to the bedroom.
The only surprise about Me Too, was that anybody was surprised?
For those of us men in a good place now, surely we have a duty to use our freedom of manoeuvre not to pull the ladder up but to hold it in place so that others can join us on this plane of privilege? Should we not be allies to the mothers and partners who have given us so much?
“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.”
Should those of us exploring history not revisit those women passed over because they were the tall poppies of their time in the public sphere? Why wasn’t I taught about ‘local lass’ and ‘first English feminist’ Mary Astell at school? Astell was challenging social conditioning three centuries before Punk.
In the excellent book ‘Watling Street’, writer John Higgs suggests that a more inclusive notion of what constitutes British history, going beyond who won what war and acknowledging our complex social nature and rich diverse roots, may help us transcend the divides of Brexit Britain. Some call this process revisionism, some say it’s just filling in the missing pieces in a national painting that could be so much richer if all the colours were shown.
A statue of Mary Wollstonecraft in Trafalgar Square would speak to me far more than the existing General Havelock, even if we were born in the same town. Mary didn’t kill for Empire riches and domestic prestige. She was busy empowering half the planet. Creating, building, caring.
Like Salena Godden with her rousing call to action ‘Pessimism is for Lightweights’, it is possible to speak truth to power and assert ‘natural rights’ – those post-Enlightenment basics that the giants whose shoulders we stand on fought so hard for – but to do so from a place of compassion and love.
Yes love, that word that we all claim to be so important to us yet shy away from using. It’s a quality that is somehow seen as weakness in a world where men who led wars get statues in Westminster, while a woman who proposed equal rights for half the planet has no monument to her groundbreaking work.
Do we live in exceptional times, like the 1790s? Times of disruption can also be times of great change: perhaps if we heed Salena Godden’s message that pessimism is indeed for lightweights (her poetry will be featured on Saturday’s walk), we can take Mary’s positive values forward and adopt Anna’s bravery in criticising state-backed discrimination and the Empire war machine. ‘Courage is a Muscle’ is another of Salena’s poems.
By realising how we got here today, by remembering the bravery it took for our ancestors to push for suffrage etc, we can hopefully face today’s issues with the moral courage they displayed. And then in our own little way, perhaps we can become living monuments to these ideals which we base our valued rights on.
Important as monuments are – symbols of what our society officially says is worth remembering – a humane legacy of compassionate reason would be of more practical worth than any sculpture. That would be some Vindication for Mary. And a better world for us. Let’s celebrate her and her ilk.
All of us. Together.
Half of the funds from Saturday’s walk go to – because symbols are important -the Mary on the Green campaign and also to the trust responsible for so much good work in Abney Park Cemetery. Book here for the 9th March walk and celebrate International Women’s Day with a focus on the positive. Catch Salena Godden doing her thing at Rough Trade Books on IWD Fri 8th March.