As Caitlin Moran puts it, a foolproof way to determine if you are experiencing sexism is to ask yourself: “Is it polite, and is it happening to the men?”
A simple and decisive test, indeed, and one that I am a fan of. But my issue with politeness goes a bit further. And it goes like this: The F-word (feminism, of course) is brought up at the dinner table; a man at the table allies with you immediately; he, too, is a feminist. You grin and bond and, united, you face the rest of the table to show why this movement matters, why it’s vital to our society and societies around the world, and he opens his mouth and speaks about the issues as if he’s basically a woman himself. Except. Except.
“I believe in feminism, so I don’t see why I have to give up my seat on the tube.”
And this is where it ends. These so-called allies agree with the core principles of feminism, they support equal rights. But instead of using this a platform to discuss how, and more importantly, why our sex educations were different – why it’s seen as ambitious when they ask for a pay rise yet pushy when we do, for instance – the debate turns quickly into a rant about how they do not believe a women should be able to call herself a feminist and have the door held open for her. Apparently, we should choose between one or the other, manners or equality.
At university, a few moons ago, I was going out with a 6ft rugby-playing Robert Pattinson lookalike (lovely). On a late night walk home together from a party, I spotted a girl walking alone ahead of us and started to cross the road. I asked “Robert” if this was something he would usually do.
Robert Pattison Lookalike: Why should I cross the road?
Me: Because it’s late and dark and you are a man, which is unnerving when you are walking home by yourself as a woman.
RPLAL: But I would never ever harm a girl. I’m not one of those guys.
Me: But girls don’t know that. To them you are 6ft guy walking behind them. If it were me, I’d have my keys between my knuckles.
RPLAL: But why should I have to cross the road?
Me: It shows that you are aware. It’s a clear sign that you are not a threat.
RP: Could I not just speed up and overtake her?
Me: I’m going to go ahead and speak for all of us girls just the once, and say that quickening footsteps behind you on a dark street are not at all comforting.
This conversation has stayed with me. It’s a prime example of how manners, politeness, awareness and sexism can all come together in an unholy soup of wrongness.
“Why should I cross the road?” Simply, because it’s the decent thing to do. It’s a way of separating yourself from the men who are to be feared. It’s an understanding that you cannot tell what someone might be capable of by looking at them, allowing women to judge people by their actions, not what they are wearing or how they appear. Heck, us girls are asking for the exact same thing.
It is not perhaps a major battle in the fight for equality, but I have seen this aggravate people – usually men – numerous times. If they stand up for feminism, they shouldn’t have to physically stand up for us as well.
So, do manners take a back seat if we fight for equality? I do not believe that because I walk through the door before a man then it’s fine if I get paid less than him. If someone gives me their seat on the bus, then I don’t think that warrants them putting their hand up my skirt. I do believe in manners, but both ways. Of course I will give up my seat for an elderly gentleman, women carrying children or someone who looks like they really need it. I hold the door open for whoever is behind me. I say please and thank you.
My question is: why does this anger so many men? Is it a lack of understanding? As our generation try to redefine our stereotypical roles, do the men who pay attention feel they don’t know how to behave anymore? Even female friends I have broached the topic with get irate when they tell me that men hold doors open for them in the workplace – they feel this action puts them ‘back in their place’ in some way. My question is not so much about the action – but why does it fuel so much anger? What is it about these age-old manners that makes everyone jump to the defensive: is it impossible to be both progressive and polite?
In order for us to progress, we cannot just insert ourselves into a man’s world. We need to carve out a world in which the rules are different, while accepting where we’ve come from already.
My boyfriend holds open the door for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s his choice which ones I walk through. Shouldn’t that be the focus of the fight?
P.S A social experiment, if you have the time
I work in a coffee shop that sits in the centre of London’s financial district. Almost all of our customers are people taking a break from the office. My new game to pass the time is this: When a man and a woman come into the shop together, I address the women first (stay with me, it gets slightly more fun.) Obviously I have no idea what their working relationship is; I don’t know who is more senior, if they have worked together for long, nothing. Therefore I play this game entirely on the basis that one is a man and one is a woman.
I reckon about 92% (yes, that’s right) of the time that I speak first to the woman directly, the man will interrupt me. It could be with his own order, her order, a question, anything. But the majority of the time, he will expect to speak first. Some men will then stop, some boulder on, some interrupt me again halfway through the woman’s order to ask about blueberry muffins, but the expectation is that they come first. Interesting, isn’t it? Not groundbreaking, but I have to say I was honestly surprised at how forceful and how deliberate I had to be for two women to discuss a coffee order before a man interjected. What this says about my original point, I’m not sure – but it feels like it must have some further reaching implications.