Remarks for panel discussion (‘Equality: does it really / still matter?’) marking International Women’s Day, Bath Central Library, 8 March 2011
(This public discussion panel followed the ceremonial planting of a tree (an Austrian Pine) in Royal Victoria Park, Bath, to commemorate the now-vanished arboretum in Batheaston that was planted by and for Suffragettes. More information about The Suffragettes’ Tree is available via this Facebook page. My thanks to Elaine Chalus, Bobby Anderson, Kristin Doern and Katie Akerman, the organising committee at Bath Spa University, for inviting me to speak – and to Cynthia Hammond (Concordia University, Montreal) whose research made these events possible.)
When I accepted Elaine’s generous invitation to speak as part of this panel, I have to admit my first thought was a slightly guilty one – that I would be taking a place that would be better occupied by, well, a woman; or more exactly my wife, Karen, for example; or my colleague Dr Fiona Peters (both of whom read a draft of these remarks). For isn’t speaking in place of women what men have successfully managed to do throughout history, that very history of appropriation and domination that the Suffragettes, their predecessors and descendents, sought to challenge?
So if I felt a bit of a usurper, it was not so much a feeling of being ‘out of place’ as such, since it could be claimed that everything about me – white, middle-class male that I am – signals a silent but all-too assured privilege, that of ‘being at home’ everywhere. Intermittently conscious of this rather over-represented universality, I was worried rather that I might be appropriating someone else’s place, someone ‘better qualified’…
But no, Elaine assured me, she wanted me to speak on our shared topic of equality as a man and from my own experience of being one. And quite frankly, that’s the most terrifying thing anyone has ever said to me!
But she was quite right: I can’t but occupy this place and can only ever speak from it – and that’s what matters.
So I’ve been thinking about this heading of equality – whether it ‘really’ or ‘still’ matters – and reflecting on my experience as someone who teaches in a university, particularly in a field (cultural studies) where the history of ideas and the politics of everyday life (of gender, class, ethnicity) are persistent themes… Perhaps this experience is what might make me ‘qualified’ to speak about equality on this one hundredth anniversary of the first International Women’s Day. (And perhaps particularly when its theme, as it is this year, is education.)
But then again, I’ve been a husband and a father longer than I’ve been a teacher. Writing a PhD takes time and support, and I must admit I took a lot of both… So it fell to Karen, a Geography teacher, to bring in the money – and to set me the ultimate non-negotiable deadline for finishing my research: our first daughter was born at the end of 1999, just over two months after I had finally submitted my thesis.
So when I began my first part-time teaching post at Wolverhampton nine months later, I was already looking after our daughter at home when Karen returned to work full-time. That is something for which I can never be grateful enough, although it took me a while to realise it: going to playgroups, watching Teletubbies and reading her extracts from Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook in preparation for a seminar the following day… I have never been so tired as I was during that time, to the point of sleeping when she slept in the afternoon. Not much ‘housework’ got done, I have to confess. But it was Ella who made me realise what a birthday really meant – why my mother, for example, has always sent me birthday cards that have in some way always seemed half-addressed to herself – I think I began to understand something, a little, of that then and subsequently with the births of our second daughter and our son. They aren’t ‘bits of me’, but rather all something in me that’s more than me. Three children: two girls, one boy. Each one of them quite different, each of them – as we like to say – equally loved.
So what does equality mean to me? According to my gender, my class, in fact given everything about my social and political ‘place’, perhaps it would be most truthful to say that equality has never been an issue for me. I’ve never had to request, demand or even fight for equal treatment – nor, for that matter, have I been denied it. I think I’ve learned it second-hand, as it were, in the ways Karen has had to fight her way back into the workplace as a ‘part-time mother’ to enable me to take up the full-time job. (A sobering experience when I reflect on how my own relative novelty as the ‘stay-at-home father’ at playgroups and elsewhere was often met with indulgence and platitudes – ‘Oh, how good you are!’ – when there should be nothing extra-ordinary about it.)
I wonder how will it be for our children, particularly for our daughters, but for our son, too. How ordinary will such equality be?
It would be safe to say that they will, in common with each of us here today, assume an equality with everyone else; and insofar as we have inherited this expanded awareness of equality, we owe a considerable debt to those who have had to – and still have to – struggle for it.
But insofar as we assume it, there lies another crucial relation with the struggles of the Suffragettes and of every individual or group that demands equality: for what they demand isn’t necessarily equality in the future, or as an aim to be achieved, someday… Instead, those who demand equality are in fact already presuming equality – we might say that they are staging their equality in the very act of demanding it. (At least, this is what I think the striking photographs in this exhibition show us: the demonstration of equality in discrete acts of creating this Wood as a living, commemorative institution.) In other words: those who struggle for equality do so because they are already equal – and their struggle or demand is, in each instance, the demonstration of that equality and of the injustice that denies it. For what they demand is that this equality be recognised, here and now, in the face of its denial.
So when it comes to a question of whether equality ‘still’ ‘really’ matters, the answer for me lies in the way we presume equality each time we speak to one another – even (or perhaps) especially when we disagree. Here, now, I not only presume my equality with each and every one of you as soon as I begin to speak and hope to be understood. Equality is demonstrated in all communication, even in the failure to understand, even if the protest ‘fails’.
I’m not arguing that we stop trying to achieve equality as a political aim. Quite the contrary. Where inequality exists – whether it is women denied education or subject to domestic violence, not only around the world but within our own society, or the barely disguised misogyny of much contemporary culture – it must be countered and overcome. But there is a tendency (particularly from the outside of these struggles) to see equality as an aim, an objective, something to be achieved – and once achieved, to be put aside or put to rest. Now, on to the next ‘problem’, they say…
The Suffragettes who lobbied for change, who disrupted closed meetings, who planted trees for the future, were demonstrating their fundamental equality with those who denied them. Namely, that they could be imprisoned for their actions, but still be denied the vote as ‘full citizens’ – thereby demonstrating a contradiction in their position under the law.
What I’m pointing to is that there is politics only when there is this assumption of equality at work. Anything else is domination and tyranny of the people by ruling elites. We see this demonstration of equality in the yet-to-be-decided struggles taking place in the Middle East, but it is just as much at work in the claim by anyone ‘not qualified to speak’ who takes on that right by talking back or speaking ‘out of turn’. This is where emancipation begins.
The lesson we might extract today from all these demonstrations is that not only does equality still really matter, but arguably it is only in demonstrating the equality of anyone with everyone else that a truly emancipating, democratic politics begins to matter.