Clare Mackintosh: The grateful dread
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‘Be loud and proud, and don’t be ashamed of being a feminist’
I don’t remember when I became a feminist. It might have been when I realised the girls at my grammar school did home economics instead of Latin, or it might have been when I discovered my grandmother had been required to leave her teaching job once she was married.
Either way, by the time I joined the police, fresh out of university, I was what is so frequently (and so disparagingly) referred to as a ‘raging feminist’. “Actually, it’s PC,” I’d say politely, when prefixed with WPC. My tutor was aggravated by such unnecessary feminism. “The ‘W’ makes it easy for control room to despatch female officers if there’s a job involving…” he searched for an example... “a lost child,” he finished, triumphantly. Apparently possessing breasts and a vagina by default made me a better parental figure than being a father of four.
The police – by the time I joined – did at least offer equal pay and conditions, regardless of the shape of one’s genitals, and by and large I enjoyed my career without significant discrimination. I accepted that sexism was often a generational issue, forgiving the “here, let me carry that heavy baton for you” offers that came from a chivalrous place, not a sexist one. I bit my tongue when a Charlbury town councillor apologised for not offering me a cup of tea because the wife isn’t here to make it. I was a committed feminist, but a quiet one. And then Me Too happened.
A dozen allegations of sexual harassment at the hands of men in power became a hundred, became a thousand. Women, finding strength in numbers, shared their #MeToo moments, and encouraged others to do the same. It was – it is – a revolution.
So obvious and so necessary does equality seem to me, that although I concede that not all men feel the same, I always assumed every woman was – by some sort of genetic default – a feminist. Who wouldn’t want equal pay? Equal status? Who wouldn’t want their daughters to be treated fairly? And, once accepting such views, who wouldn’t advocate women’s rights in order to achieve such equality? Oh, how naïve…
At a conference recently, I was in the audience as a successful woman was introduced by the male presenter as “someone I’d like to snog”. I heard the ripple of unease around me; the exchange of glances. Did he really just say that? I saw the appalled look on the woman’s face as she took to the stage, her professional achievements exchanged for her physical attributes in one casual sexist remark. I was shocked and angry enough to complain, and glad when it was taken seriously. A printed apology, an agreement that what was said had been unacceptable. Over and done with.
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And yet… There was a backlash. Not from men, but from women. It was a joke, a bit of fun, a compliment, these women said. Jealousy, one concluded. Any woman over 50 should be grateful for the attention, said another. Grateful? I have never felt grateful for attention from anyone. Not in my twenties, when I was confident and nubile, or in my thirties, when I was tired and stretch-marked. I am not grateful now, in my forties, and I will not be grateful in my fifties. If men are attracted to me I hope it is as much for my brain and my sense of humour as it is for my lips and my legs. If they’re not, then I am highly unlikely to feel I’m missing out.
Ladies, have some self-respect. Maybe you don’t want to call yourself a feminist. Maybe you think (erroneously) it’s impossible to be a feminist without also knitting your own sanitary pads and plaiting your armpit hair (neither of which activities would make you a bad person). But do you really believe that your contribution to society is less important than a man’s? News flash: it isn’t. Ladies, be loud and proud, and don’t be ashamed of being a feminist. And never, ever, be grateful.
Clare’s third novel Let Me Lie, published by Sphere, is out now and is a Sunday Times Number One bestseller.