The Soul of Sexism

What The Commitments taught me about playing music

Like most women musicians, I’ve experienced a fair amount of sexism while playing in a band.

It can be insidious. Bands with women in often find they are more likely to put on stage earlier in the night, and paid less than other bands, regardless of skill, experience or size of following.

Other times, it’s entirely explicit. Like when men have shouted GET YOUR TITS OUT while I’m setting up on stage, or RAPE while we’re playing.

Sometimes, I downplay the impact of sexism in music, to focus on the positives. But it always gets to me – that sense that live music is for men and boys, that sense that it’s not for women and girls, that sense that we’re not really welcome – unless we are willing to be objectified and treated less seriously as performers.

I saw The Commitments musical with colleagues during its December 2022 run in Glasgow. After a difficult semester, I looked forward to being at the theatre with new friends from work, and enjoying a night of brilliant soul classics.

The Commitments is about a group of young (white) Irish people who form a soul covers band in the late 1980s. The musical depicts disparate personalities coming together, arguing a lot, playing a handful of gigs, and then going their separate ways. Most of the songs are performed by the cast on stage, although the production also used either off-stage musicians or a backing track.

The Commitments lived up to its billing as a jukebox musical. The band (on stage and off) were great. It was exciting to hear a series of well-known tunes re-arranged for the show, and performed with gusto. The architecture of the stage set was gorgeous, variously depicting a Dublin neighbourhood, small family houses, pubs, and bingo halls. The plot and characters were paper thin at best, but this didn’t detract from the overall experience – or wouldn’t have done, if it weren’t for the treatment of the handful of women on stage.

There were three women in the band. They were portrayed as backing singers, although often they actually performed lead vocals. They were collectively referred to as the “Commit-tits”.

Most of the male characters benefited from some basic level of characterisation: e.g. the drunk “prick” of a lead singer with a great voice, the older guy who claimed to have played in various famous bands, the manager with a grand vision. By contrast, only one woman had a character trait; she was the “hot one”. Literally every male character in the band made various objectifying comments about her. The other two women were implicitly pitted against her, and one another; the randy older guy had sex with all three, eventually resulting in a brief fight where they jealously pulled each another’s hair.

During the first half of the musical, the band members changed into stage wear, which they remained in for most of the rest of the play. The eight male performers wore smart white shirts, black suits and ties. The three women wore sexy black mini dresses.

Their characters were objectified in every sense, existing seemingly only as objects of desire and the butt of every misogynist joke. Meanwhile, I was surrounded in the theatre by the joy and laughter of an audience who enthusiastically clapped and sang along with the (genuinely excellent) music. The cognitive dissonance was wild.

Through the second half of the play, I felt increasingly physically sick.

Once the night was over, I reflect on why I experienced such a visceral reaction to the sexism of The Commitments. None of the musical’s misogyny was extraordinary or spectacular. On the contrary, it was low-key, continual, and passed off as normal: just like the everyday sexism women experience in our everyday lives. This makes it hard to identify as a problem, and hard to address in practice.

When I spoke about my feelings on social media, several people who had seen the 1991 movie told me that I misunderstood The Commitments. They told me this was a story of white working class experience in 1980s Dublin, that the characters’ behaviour was reflective of attitudes at the time, that the characters were represented honestly within a social realist narrative.

My issue is, however, is not with a film I haven’t watched. What I saw in the theatre was not social realism, but a jukebox musical where the story worked to loosely link one song to another. The setting was broad; the characters were one note at best.

The narrative of the play had nothing to say about the constant sexism to which women were subject. It was simply present in the actions and words of every male character. In this way, it was normalised, and legitimised.

The very structure of the play itself perpetuated sexist stereotypes about the roles of men and women within storytelling, within society, and within music. The male characters expressed desires and interests, organised events, played musical instruments, and provided commentary on one another’s decisions. The women sang nicely, looked pretty, and were a device for the characters development among the men who leered at them. That is what women are for. That is what women do.

The everyday sexism of The Commitments also reflected a wider failure of the musical to grapple with the political issues it hinted at. An apparently all-white cast performed music historically written and performed by Black women and men, for an overwhelmingly white audience. The musical’s only nod to this were some vague references to worker’s rights and the assertion by one character that “the Irish are the Blacks of Europe, and Dubliners are the Blacks of Ireland”. While I imagine the play was attempting to comment on class solidarity and the historical contingency of whiteness, the clumsy claim of comparative oppression treated the existence of actual Black Irish people as an impossibility (an assumption made all the more bizarre by a later brief reference to the Thin Lizzy version of “Whisky in the Jar”).

I felt sick watching The Commitments because I saw myself – the expectations placed on me as a woman, the possibilities available to me as a woman, the everyday impact of everyday sexism on me as a woman – in the experiences of those women on stage.

I felt sick watching The Commitments because I saw how my non-white friends are so often treated, especially women of colour – their creative endeavours diminished or appropriated, their experiences of racism ignored and erased.

As a bassist and singer, I saw the norms that have led to male musicians shouting stuff at me and my bandmates when we are playing, demanding to examine my fingers for calluses, and assuming that I am at a gig accompanying a man. I saw the hidden structures that made it hard for me and many of my friends to pick up an instrument in the first place. I saw how and why it is constantly so difficult for women and people of colour to simply turn up and play music in so many settings.

I felt sick watching The Commitments because I was witnessing the operation of power.

The stage musical version of The Commitments debuted in 2013: the same year myself and a couple of friends were organising Revolt, a feminist club night in Coventry which prioritised women and trans performers. We did this in reaction to male dominated line-ups, which perhaps had a token woman singing or (at a certain kind of indie rock show) playing bass guitar. We knew that having numerous women from a range of backgrounds on stage does something important. It undermines the assumption that women musicians can or should only play second fiddle to men, and builds a sense of possibility for women in the audience: that music is for us.

We can be more; we will be more; we are more. Creating space for many types of people on stage changes people’s worlds.

In doing so it threatens white male power, which can sometimes feel threatening for white men.

That is why certain promoters and musicians and audience members make life difficult for others in music, through intentional bigotry or unthinking bias. For women, it doesn’t matter how good we are, how we dress, or how we behave on stage. We are so often an alien presence in a space supposedly for men, not obeying the unspoken rules: shut up, don’t speak out, and don’t take up a male musician’s space on stage unless you’re prepared to be compliant and sexually available.

What does matter is context. I reflected on this, wondering why the clothing the women wore in The Commitments bothered me so much. I’ve worn very similar outfits on stage myself. Men have shouted RAPE at me when I’ve done so. But they’ve also shouted GET YOUR TITS OUT at me when I was wearing jeans, trainers, and a loose black band t-shirt. It’s not about what we’re wearing – it’s never about what we’re wearing. It’s about how male desire, male prejudice, and male power is projected onto us.

I realised my problem with The Commitments was that the women characters’ sexuality doesn’t belong to them. Within the context of the plot, they were only ever given the opportunity to be attractive for the men around them, not for themselves. Sex without power.

The Commitments musical wants women in the audience to enjoy the music while sucking up the sexism and ignoring the depth of anti-racist histories. By contrast, at Revolt we sought to build power for women – all women – on and off stage. We sought to bring into being a world in which we can dress how we want, and dance, and sing, and listen, and play, and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do to diminish us for having and creating a great time. It wasn’t perfect, but it was ours.

I love a good feminist space, but separatism won’t save us. If we want women musicians to prosper, we need an actual commitment to promoting respect in every context.

The biggest onus is on event organisers, writers, and musicians – especially those in a position of relative power. There is no excuse for endless all-male and all-white line-ups at events, for casual sexism or racism in lyrics, in event promotion, or in the lines of a jukebox musical. How many people involved in putting on The Commitments looked at the script or the choreography and thought, “hang on a moment”, but didn’t speak out? How many white men (or women) who put on gigs or tour in bands even bother to think about whether or not there are women or people of colour on stage?

Simply having women or people of colour in the room is also not enough. We deserve to be present without having to worry about discrimination or abuse. Campaigns such as Good Night Out and the Healthy Music Audiences project have loads of resources available oncreating safer spaces for musicians and audience members alike.

Ultimately, everyone can play a part in changing the world – that’s how cultural change happens. You can support minoritized musicians by taking us seriously and helping us to build power. Attend our shows, listen to our music, share it with other people, and have a great time. That, really, is what it’s all about. 

Video: Reproductive Justice for Trans People

Earlier this year I did a talk for the University of Cambridge Reproductive Justice Research Network alongside my excellent colleague Francis Ray White.

We talked about research findings from the Trans Pregnancy and Improving Trans Experiences of Maternity Services projects, plus reflected on the wider context of reproductive justice for trans people, including media coverage, medical racism, abortion rights, and attacks on young trans people’s bodily autonomy.

You can watch a video of the talk here:

(as a quick aside, I’d like to thank my good friend Harry Tunnicliffe for last use minute of his office so I could do this talk while away from home!)

Fantastic “TERF Wars” and where to find them

Are you trying to understand anti-trans debates within and beyond feminism? Wanting to get to grips with the relationship between “gender critical” advocacy, medicalisation, and traditional conservative ideologies?

Cover of the book TERF Wars: An Introduction.

Our Sociological Review edited collection TERF Wars: Feminism and the Fight for Transgender Futures is now more widely available than ever. Challenging the framing of ‘transgender activists versus feminists’, it features a range of peer-reviewed essays from expert writers such as Jay Bernard, Florence Ashley, Julia Serano, and Emi Koyama, on hot-topic issues including gender ideology, autogynephilia, rapid-onset gender dysphoria, detransition, migration, sex work, and public toilets.

None of the authors or editors receive royalties for this work – we simply want to share our knowledge with others.

You can download digital copies of the collection from the Sociological Review website or for free from the Open University.

Hard copies of the book are also available from just £10, e.g. from Foyles (UK), AbeBooks (USA), and (sigh) Amazon. If you can though, please support a local independent bookseller! I am most excited that TERF Wars is available from the amazing Leeds-based queer bookshop The Bookish Type.

Finally, I am deeply honoured to announce that the opening essay of the collection, “TERF Wars: An Introduction” (by myself and co-editors Sonja Erikainen and Ben Vincent) is now also available in Turkish. We are honoured that this version has been published in the latest issue of the journal Kaos Q+. I was so excited to recieve my copy in the post!

Photo of a parcel with a copy of the journal Kaos Q+ sitting on top. The journal cover features a person with blond hair and make-up lying on a table, looking blankly towards two spoons and a knife, their face reflected in a place mat.

If you find this work useful, please do tell other people about it, and feel free to share download links or hard copies with others. We have felt very supported by The Sociological Review, but the publishers SAGE have been absolutely awful at distribution and publicity (if you are an academic, I would definitely recommend against working with them on a book if at all possible). It’s up to use to make this work a success!

Beyond the TERF Wars

For the past couple of years, I have been working quietly on a new edited collection with my colleagues Sonja Erikainen and Ben Vincent. It is titled TERF Wars: Feminism and the fight for transgender futures.

Cover of the Sociological Review Monograph: TERF Wars.

TERF Wars is being published as part of the Sociological Review monograph series. This means it is available digitally as a special issue of the century-old journal The Sociological Review, and will also be available to buy as a reasonably-priced paperback book.

Digital special issue
(available now with a subscription to The Sociological Review)

Paperback pre-order
(Europe only for now – more and better links coming soon!)

Read the Introduction for free

Our aim has been to provide a critical, scholarly response to the growing circulation of both “pro-trans” and “anti-trans” ideas within feminism, especially in the academic context in which we work. As the “trans debate” has grown ever more extensive and complex, newcomers often express confusion around why this has happened, what the fiercely contested language actually means, and how it has all become so polarising.

The collection therefore addresses a range of issues, including (but not limited to) definitions of sex and gender, trans/feminist histories, racism, autogynepilia, “rapid-onset” gender dysphoria, detransition, access to public toilets, and contestation over the “TERF” acronym (“Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism”) itself. We have been privileged to work with a range of amazing authors, including Jay Bernard, Lua da Mota Stabile, Jen Slater, Charlotte Jones, B Camminga, Rowan Hildebrand-Chupp, Florence Ashley, Julia Serano, María Victoria Carrera-Fernández, Renée DePalma, Emi Koyama, Cristan Williams, and Sally Hines.

I am proud of what we have achieved, and hope the collection will serve to move some of these debates forward. However, I also believe it is important to emphasise that trans people face far more significant issues than debates within feminism.

I have long felt that the “TERF wars” are a distraction from the endemic discrimination and gross inequalities faced by trans people in all areas of public and private life. There is a reason that my own research and activism has focused primarily on healthcare, both before and during the editing of this collection (which I have very much treated as a side project). Arguing with strangers about sex and gender on Twitter won’t reduce waiting lists or stop doctors from sexually assaulting patients. Equally, it becomes harder to concentrate on the task in hand when vicious anti-trans columns are constantly published in the mainstream media, and when your research plans are derailed by a malicious Freedom of Information requests from anti-trans campaigners hope to access your work emails.

There is no easy solution to this conundrum. However, I urge readers to consider how they, personally, might aim to move beyond the TERF wars. My main hope for this edited collection is that will be helpful for people to better understand this particular realm of transphobic discourse, and to counter harmful and inaccurate arguments. Having done so, I urge you to turn to the real tasks of trans liberation: fighting sexism, racism, and ableism, protecting personal autonomy, building collective solidarity and mutual aid networks, providing services to our communities, and imagining new worlds.

Fighting back in the precarious academy – FWSA address 2019

On 16 October I spoke at the 30th Anniversary event hosted by the Feminist and Women Studies Association UK and Northern Ireland (FWSA). This is the text of my short talk.

Thank you for having me, I am very honoured to be here today.

I was invited to speak about doing feminism in the academy through my research on trans experiences. I am a trans woman known for my research on trans health.

I am interested in how discourses of consent, autonomy, sex and gender circulate between patient communities, activists, and professionals, and how these are shaped by power relations. I also work on new approaches to healthcare that might centre patient knowledges, rather than patriarchal medical authority. At present, I am part of an international study of pregnancy and childbirth among trans men and non-binary people.

This research stems from my wider interest in gender, sexuality, and power relations within institutions. I have published empirical work on equality schemes in Higher Education, focusing specially on Athena SWAN. My research with Charoula Tzanakou shows how Athena SWAN places a burden on the very women it is supposed to help, through expecting them to participate in the extensive work of self-assessment.

I also have been involved in anti-casualisation campaigns, especially while working on hourly-paid contracts for six years at the University of Warwick. I feel it is important to recognise this as feminist academic work too, an argument I expand on shortly.

I am very often invited to speak about trans health. At least as often, I am invited to speak about being a trans woman.

I am very rarely been invited to speak about my wider feminist research or activism.

I know why this is. While our numbers are growing, there are very few trans people and especially trans women working in universities. I am used to being the only visible trans person in the room. I am painfully aware that I am frequently present as a token. I am also aware that if I am not present, often no trans voices are heard at all, let alone trans women’s voices.

I know it is important to talk about how a vast majority of trans staff and students face substantial barriers in Higher Education. These include rigid administrative procedures, plus high rates of verbal abuse, physical and sexual assault. I know it is important to talk about how transphobia is tied closely to misogyny, racialisation, ableism and class, and how the challenges we face are especially compounded for trans people who face intersecting forms of marginalisation, such as Black trans women and disabled trans people.

I know it is important to talk about how we currently face an unpreceded rise in open transphobia. Cis academics talk about stripping our legal rights in public lectures and newspaper columns. Trans studies scholars face constant abuse and harassment on social media, malicious freedom of information requests, and threats of legal action. I know it is important to talk about how anti-feminist talking points from the religious right, such as the supposed threat of ‘gender ideology’, are laundered through anti-trans groups.

Still, there are times I want to talk about other things.

There are times I want to talk about being a woman more than I want to talk about being trans. There are times when I want to talk about solutions as well as problems, about collectivity and solidarity rather than division.

New postgraduates frequently ask me for advice on surviving in departments where they are the only out trans person. My advice is always the same – build alliances across difference. You may be the only trans PhD student, but you will certainly not be the only student who faces marginalisation.

To quote Patricia Hill Collins: “Who has your back, and whose back do you have?

In 2015 the University of Warwick faced scrutiny over TeachHigher, a proposed wholly-owned subsidiary designed to facilitate the outsourcing of teaching at universities. These proposals were defeated by organised resistance within numerous academic departments, led primarily by casualised staff.

Our campaign relied on recognising how the economic precarity of casualization is also about the myriad ways in which many of us are additionally oppressed. As my comrade Christian Smith passionately argued, “TeachHigher is sexist, and TeachHigher is racist”. We knew that women and people of colour are disproportionately represented within the pool of casual labour on which our institutions rely. We knew that increased casualization only exacerbates conditions in which those who are already the most privileged are most likely to thrive. This was a feminist campaign, an anti-racist campaign, a campaign about class, a campaign against ableism, homophobia and transphobia.

In my department, where over 40% of teaching was undertaken by people on hourly-paid contracts, we organised a teaching boycott. None of us would sign up to teach the following year unless the department took an active stance against TeachHigher. This could only work if all of us agreed to openly sign a letter announcing the boycott – otherwise, we could be played off against one another. It took many careful meetings and discussions to organise. Many of us relied on this work to pay our bills, and in some cases, look after families.

In response to our letter, the Head of Department disparaged us in a departmental meeting, calling us “childish”. He proposed replacing our labour with PhD students from other universities. He said we would never win, that the university would never back down.

A week later, the university backed down.

So how do we claim space for feminism in the precarious academy?

By remaining aware of our differences, working with and across them to build alliances.

By campaigning through formal and informal unions as well as our research.

By speaking out and supporting our colleagues, especially if we are in a more secure position than them.

The university is not built for us. We know this in our hearts when we see the statues and paintings of worthy men around campus. We know this in our bones when we the climb steep steps to lecture theatres designed to centre a patriarchal pedagogy. We know this in the sharpness of our breath when men known for sexual abuse talk over us and claim responsibility for our work in departmental meetings.

It’s time for change on our campuses. Let’s make that change together.

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Interview on Acadames podcast

webfront8Earlier this year I took part in an interview for Acadames, a super-cool podcast “that explores whether being a woman in academia is a dream, game, or scam”. The episode is now available! I really enjoyed speaking with Whitney  Robinson about my work, and hope you will enjoy our conversation just as much.

Today Whitney speaks with Dr. Ruth Pearce, a social researcher and feminist scholar based at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. Ruth discusses her current work with the Trans Pregnancy project, why gender equity schemes are so important in academia, and offers tips for resiliency when facing online harassment and political backlash. Along the way, she shares stories of her life as a trans woman, how academic institutions in the UK differ from those in the US, and the similarities between organizing a concert and organizing a conference.

Click here to listen.

Gender equality, ambivalence and Athena SWAN

This morning I was delighted to see that an article about Athena SWAN I co-authored with Charikleia Tzanakou has been pre-published online.

Entitled ‘Moderate feminism within or against the neoliberal university? The example of Athena SWAN‘, the article reflects on findings from research undertaken by Tzanakou in 2013-2017 and myself in 2017, looking at the experiences of individuals involved in Self-Assessment Teams (SATs) for the Athena SWAN gender equality scheme. It will eventually be published in a special issue of the journal on the topic of ‘moderate feminisms’.

You can read the article here (for free!) in the journal Gender, Work & Organization.

Something we thought about a great deal when writing the article was our own ambivalence regarding Athena SWAN.

On the one hand, we found that the scheme tends to play an undue burden on women, who are disproportionately represented on SATs and can face hostility from colleagues and managers for undertaking the assessment process. Some women even reported being threatened or turned down for jobs if their department, school or faculty failed to obtain an Athena SWAN award, even though this typically reflected the failings of the institution rather than the SAT. Women experiencing intersecting forms of marginalisation were particularly vulnerable, and trans people were rarely acknowledged at all. We regarded this as a consequence of the neoliberal context in which Athena SWAN operates, in which the scheme may be regarded as “just another metric”, a box-ticking exercise with a reductionist notion of womanhood.

On the other hand, several participants did argue that Athena SWAN had helped to raise awareness of gender inequalities in their institution, leading male colleagues especially to take the issue more seriously. In some cases, SATs used the scheme to push for important changes, such as better support mechanisms and financial support for new parents, more diverse and intersectional curricula, and gender neutral toilets. Of particular benefit for this purpose was the requirement for continual re-assessment every few years should institutions want to retain their Athena SWAN award, or upgrade from Bronze to Silver or from Silver to Bronze. This requirement for re-assessment gives the award “teeth”, meaning that institutions can sometimes be actually held to account for actively pursuing the action plan they have to draw up in order to obtain an award.

I also reflected on some of these negative aspects of Athena SWAN and potential benefits in a report published by the University of Warwick Centre for the Study of Women and Gender in 2017: Certifying Equality? – A critical reflection on Athena SWAN and equality accreditation.

Ultimately, Athena SWAN is not simply “good” or “bad”. It is often implemented poorly, and suffers from operating within a neoliberal environment, but has the potential to be used as a tool for real change. Multiple actors are responsible for how the scheme works in practice.

If you are a SAT member, I would urge you to see Athena SWAN not simply as a box-ticking exercise, but as a means through which universities might be required to change their practices and provide additional resources. Think about how your team might take a more intersectional approach to planning actions, and if you receive an award, use it to hold your institution to account.

If you are a Head of Department/School/Faculty or otherwise work in university management, I would urge you to remember that inequalities abound in our institutions; Athena SWAN offers a real opportunity to reflect on and address this. Identifying the problem does not necessarily reflect poorly on your institution, but failing to act certainly does.

Finally, I should note that there is currently an ongoing review of Athena SWAN, which closes on the 28th January. I encourage anyone with an interest in this topic to respond to it!

Athena SWAN Steering Group listening exercise consultation

Staff sexual misconduct: new research and ways forward

Last week I attended an important event on staff-to-student sexual misconduct in UK Higher Education institutions. The event included a summary of new research showing the huge challenges students face in reporting sexual misconduct, and reflections on how best to tackle misconduct and reform reporting mechanisms. It was hosted by The 1752 Group, who are working hard to end staff-to-student misconduct in Higher Education. My talk focused on Athena SWAN. I reflected on how self-assessment teams can make use of the process to push for better reporting mechanisms in their institutions.

One of the most important aspects of the day was the focus on power. The very real power differential between lecturers/tutors/supervisors and their students is rarely acknowledged within academia. By ignoring this power relation or pretending that it is not relevant to sexual encounters, Higher Education institutions and those of us who work in them do our students an enormous disservice.

We heard some harrowing stories from researchers and survivors, but I also left inspired by the commitment of those who gathered to consider how best to create change. For decades now, stories of sexual misconduct have been silenced and covered up, which has effectively enabled perpetrators to continue their abuse. Through bringing together people with a range of expertise to reflect openly on themes such as power, complicity and accountability, we can begin to end the silence and think about practical solutions.

You can read a full account of the day from myself and other Twitter users on Storify here.

 

Report: “Certifying Equality? A critical reflection on Athena SWAN”

Certifying EqualityEarlier this year I organised an event on Athena SWAN and equality accreditation for the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender at the University of Warwick. It was a really great opportunity for attendees from a range of HE institutions to reflect on the benefits and limitations of equality accreditation schemes, and share thoughts on our experiences of Athena SWAN.

I’ve now completed a report on the event, which I hope will be helpful for galvanising discussions in universities that participate in the Athena SWAN charter mark.

You can download the report here.

It includes reflections and insights from the Certifying Equality event, including:

  • Background to Athena SWAN
  • Athena SWAN as a catalyst for change
  • The contradictions of equality accreditation
  • Proposals for change
  • Presentation summaries

If you find this document helpful and interesting, please do help distribute it by sharing with your colleagues!

 

 

Concerts in Coventry: 24th June, 29th July

I’m involved in organising two exciting events at Coventry’s Tin Music and Arts over the coming month.

This coming Saturday sees the return of feminist club night Revolt, complete with bands, DJs, spoken word, zines and our Feminist Library. I’ll be opening the night with my band Dispute Settlement Mechanism.

For tickets and more info, click here.

Revolt #10
On Saturday 29th July we’ll be treated to a performance by CN Lester, who will be performing songs from their new album Come Home and reading from their great new book Trans Like Me.

For tickets and more info, click here.

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Entry will also be available on the door on a donations basis (suggested donation £5, but no-one will be turned away for lack of funds).