I HAVE, in my time, been called a Feminazi, but if a man had praised my photo on LinkedIn (suspend your disbelief for a moment) there is no way I’d have publicly shamed him in the way barrister Charlotte Proudman shamed Alexander Carter-Silk. I would have inwardly cringed, I might even have told friends about the creep making online overtures, but I doubt I’d have sent him a snippy reply, never mind posted the exchange on social media. The reasons for this are many and not ideologically driven.
Firstly, who has the time to call out every example of sexism they encounter in a day? Should we take the licence number of every taxi driver who calls us “love”? Or post the picture of every man in a pub who assumes we don’t understand the offside rule? Or put a call in to HR every time some Young Turk assumes his opinion carries more weight than ours? How would we have time to get on with our jobs, our families, and, you know, running our worlds?
Secondly, I am aware that in the nether regions of my Twitter account, there is evidence that could be held against me. It wouldn’t take long for someone with a vendetta to root out photographs of Jon Hamm with an incriminating comment like “ooft” attached; and, while there’s no equivalence between salivating over a famous actor and coming on to a randomer on a networking site, I understand how these things work and I’ve no desire to go there. Mostly though, I’m just not comfortable with the ritual humiliation of human beings for minor misdemeanours that appears to have become a national sport. Even where the sexism is blatant – think Sir Tim Hunt and his comments about “girls in the lab” – there are better ways of dealing with it than placing the offender in the stocks (or destroying their careers). But there are also men who are “more sinned against than sinning”. I don’t think a scientist who has landed a spacecraft on a comet should be reduced to tears because he has a questionable taste in shirts. That’s not feminism, it’s playground bullying. As for Carter-Silk, he may, as Proudman suggests, have been “[eroticising her] appearance as a means of exercising power”, but he’s also just a sad, middle-aged man for whom the 21st century is a strange and bewildering place.
If Proudman’s reaction to Carter-Silk’s comments was disproportionate (he also described a picture of his own daughter Ellie on Facebook as “hot”), however, the reaction to her reaction has been nothing short of grotesque. Sure, she could have been kinder, more tolerant of human fallibility. But can this justify the invasion of privacy, the smears, the double-page spreads that have appeared on her since she publicised the senior law partner’s breach of etiquette? I mean she was right, if overly-vocal and hyperbolic, about his impropriety, so why is she the one having her life trashed? The answer is obvious: because the world is still stacked against ambitious young women like her. By trying to draw attention to what was – by most people’s standards – low-level sexism, she has inadvertently exposed a much nastier and entrenched misogyny, the kind that means it is seen as acceptable to give vile men’s rights campaigner Mike Buchanan a platform to rubbish her.
Buchanan is a man who hands out awards entitled “Gormless Feminist of the Month” and “Lying Feminist of the Month”. Interviewed on Sky, he was allowed to embark on a rant in which he suggested Proudman was suffering from a mental health condition called “whiny feminist disorder”, claimed feminists were shaming men to win “all sorts of concessions” (what, like equal pay?) and said that a teenager had managed to force an exam board into putting female composers on the music syllabus (“Have you ever heard of a classical female composer?” he asked in disbelief).
Meanwhile, newspapers were trying to uncover dirt from Proudman’s past: her name change, the fact she got her degree at Keele University, not Oxbridge, the “vitriolic” email she allegedly sent to her grandmother, none of which were even vaguely related to the perceived offence of “not being able to accept a compliment”.
Journalist Martin Belam collated some of the insults thrown at her online. In one four-hour period, she was called “a silly bint”, “a ball-busting bitch” and a c*** so often it must have got boring. Many of the responses compounded the original offence by referring to her looks (except in negative terms), for example: “Soon enough you’ll be a … wrinkled prune and no-one will give a f***.”
This questioning of Proudman’s attractiveness was not confined to anonymous tweeters either. Here’s James Delingpole, on the Breitbart news website: “I cannot help noticing that the woman with the mirthless smile and the severe bob… is not necessarily what all people would describe as a ‘perfect ten’.”
The message from this onslaught of criticism was the same as it always is when women speak out: you are an uppity cow who should be put back in your place. And we still have the power to do so. So, while I’m not sure Proudman’s actions reflect well on her, and while, personally, I prefer my heroes to inspire through their own achievements – like Clara Schumann (ever heard of her, Mike Buchanan?) – rather than through their take-downs of other people, she has demonstrated why “whiny” feminists are still so necessary.
Carter-Silk may be a fossil, but behind such clumsy duffers there is an army of haters ready to unleash their misogyny on the slightest pretext, and to convince the world that the “humourless” targets of their attack are getting what they deserve. «