May, the Nanas and Jodie as Doctor: on being a woman


Photo by Mikaela Morgan Photography

I’ve been reflecting on being a woman. My husband Leslie thinks I’m at the far end of feminine – in spite of my bald head and black CAAT campaigner’s hoodie – and I agree. I’m happy with that. But I’m not a helpless sidekick and I’ve freed myself from fear of what the mirror shows. Like my female friends I can be all action with a purpose and real drive. But many of my characteristics, like shyness (yes, I just hide it better these days), empathic listening, a tendency to tears, anxious lack of confidence in certain situations and compliance or self-blame in order to avoid or end conflict, are still attributed more commonly to women, and fit these friends too. We say sorry a lot. We’re free with our kisses on the ends of messages. We lie awake at night if we’re afraid we may have annoyed or upset someone. There are many roles for which we feel ill-equipped and certain areas in which, rather than claiming like POTUS to know more than anyone about everything, we admit inadequacy. Are there men who’d claim the same traits? I’d like to think so. Because when I look at the Trump-Kavanaugh-Weinstein alpha male, I’m frightened.

These are men who believe that only power counts – and wield it over women, using and abusing, belittling and scorning. Full of angry self-belief and self-justification, they see sensitivity, compassion, respect and kindness as weakness, as ‘snowflake’, as ‘girlie’, as ridiculous. See the disturbing portrait of the American male in Boyhood. Consider the word ‘scoring’ as a rite-of-passage goal for teenage youths. Re-evaluate that housewives’ favourite Danny from Grease, and the lyrics in Summer Loving: Did she put up a fight? In the light of #MeToo and Dr Ford’s courageous testimony, this seems like dangerous family fun. Now, as we embrace diversity of all kinds, it’s time we scrapped gender stereotypes and looked instead at common humanity and how best to relate to each other across all divides. Because Trump doesn’t relate to anyone. He is pure ego, using others only to serve himself, and confident of his right to ‘grab pussy’ whenever he chooses. No wonder he’s unfazed by the many accusations against Kavanaugh. In his eyes, the new Supreme Court judge’s track record simply makes him a heavyweight, a red-blooded guy. For Trump, anyone who has a problem with this is a liar, a leftie, and guilty of a witch hunt – a word, incidentally, that in itself says a great deal about such men’s attitude to women who don’t conform to their expectations and threaten their own power with something they don’t understand.My female friends are without exception carers and bridge-builders. We are a mutual support system. Sadly, Britain’s current female Prime Minister has lost touch with values expressed early in her career, long ago stopped using the language of compassion, and began as Home Secretary to create instead a hostile environment for those most in need of support. Asylum seekers, those with mental health issues or physical disability that prevents them working, child refugees, the Windrush generation of immigrants and their children born here, those forced by poverty to use foodbanks… all have been betrayed by a woman who doesn’t seem to care any more than the men who manoeuvre to usurp her power. And just recently her colleague Claire Perry mocked as a “travelling circus” the movement against fracking led by the Nanas – a committed, creative, good-humoured and generous group of women motivated by love of their grandchildren, or yours, or mine. They’re also known as Protectors, and it’s these nurturing, protective qualities that are dismissed. Haven’t these women, a man wrote on Twitter after their Parliament Square protest, got anything better to do? Like serving their men, perhaps? It’s noticeable that the remarkable determination and resilience that make them, as a band, so tough, so indomitable, are not recognised by two ‘successful’ women who see themselves as superior. Because toughness only counts when it makes money, wears an expensive suit, looks down on others and muscles through any human collateral damage. When it’s the toughness of sacrificial, altruistic love, it’s deeply suspect and subject to scorn. Women in power who adopt alpha male attitudes and behaviours are as disturbing as the men with whom they associate and compete – raising the question of whether those feminine attributes I acknowledged at the beginning are innate in the female child-bearer or the result of social constructs. I would argue, however, that no society would benefit from sacrificing supportive, reflective female ways of interacting for a dog-eat-dog battle which is sometimes seen to characterise the world of business, and thrives in the current Republican administration. It was good to see, in last night’s first episode of Doctor Who as a female, a heady mix of ingenuity, eccentric individuality, fearlessness, generosity and sympathy, doggedness and endurance – a strong, honest woman who leads but also protects, encourages, understands and walks alongside.

I’m very well aware that there are men in the world who practise the gentleness, active listening and self-criticism we associate with women – men who are neither aggressive, nor arrogant, neither bullies nor predators. I know many such men, and count myself lucky not to have a story like Dr Ford’s to tell. I taught many kind, sensitive boys who were not assertive, big-headed or even competitive. As a writer I like to create such boys, along with boys who don’t or can’t fit in because of challenges they face. My girl characters are NOT all young versions of me but may show confidence as well as commitment, and think – as I try to do – for themselves, rather than conforming to society’s rules about how they present themselves and see their futures. What some men fail to appreciate about well-behaved women like me is that some of us are motivated by deep conviction that makes us stronger than we look or believe – which brings me back to those Nanas. It’s surely hugely important that girls reading fiction meet female characters who care about more than boys and shoes, like my young eco activist Daisy Waterhouse, like Lia who in my world of the future becomes a key figure in the Green movement, like Kim whose toughness takes a new, more understanding shape as she learns to forgive, and like Poppy who has to make peace between adults. But sometimes it’s necessary to show a young victim too, like Fizzy, manipulated by one father figure and bullied by another.

I hope the era of Trump will soon be at an end, that Kavanaugh’s time on the bench is short-lived and that politics and the media will offer us men who care about what’s right, who respect women as equals along with all other human beings who are different from them in other ways. I hope women will all embrace transgender women and men will respect transgender men – both of whom have much to share about the nature of misidentification and the meaning of the change they need to live in terms of the gender within and gender roles in the world. See the TED talk by Paula Stone Williams about how differently women are treated in the world. I hope that women in power will teach men who need to learn about conciliation, co-operation and protecting the vulnerable – including the Earth. Because whoever we are, we cannot allow the bullies, abusers and predators to rule, to suppress, to shame and to diminish. Now, as never before, is the time to unite with respect and develop empathy not just to restore peace and humanity in the present but in order to work together for future survival. Some men ‘in charge’ will have to rethink, relearn, say sorry and be better men. And if they can’t, they will have to step down, because love is the only kind of power that will save us.

Please share…