Women have a way of being disruptive and it makes men uncomfortable

It is not an accident that European languages mix up the words for chaos and female prostitution
Click to follow
The Independent Online
PERHAPS the Chinese are even smarter than we think. The two great gatherings at Huairou and Peking were supposed to be about women. Instead, the coverage has been almost entirely about the horridness of the Chinese hosts, who intimidated delegates, censored their words, treated them generally like plague bacilli and made it rain.

The result is that if radical new ideas about women were expressed during those days, we know practically nothing about them. Instead, we read what Hillary Clinton said about the Chinese organisers, and what Baroness Chalker said about Hillary Clinton. Political abuse is something the Chinese regime can handle. The voice of free women, by contrast, would have been far more disruptive.

Control freaks through the ages have always feared that voice. Take, for instance, the great Welsh pirate and gynophobe Captain Bartholomew Roberts. The most successful of all 17th-century buccaneers, Roberts was in many ways an admirable figure. His men elected him, on the basis of an agreed constitution of mutual rights and duties. They got fair shares (they made about pounds 52m, in modern values), and Captain Roberts ran a shipboard welfare state of pensions and wound allowances.

His piracy was equally enlightened. When he saw a target vessel, Roberts would put on his best crimson silk coat (the French called him le joli rouge, origin of the phrase "Jolly Roger"). Then he would stand on the poop bellowing threats and drinking bohea from a saucer, while the ship's band played fortissimo and the crew screamed like a pack of banshees. This usually induced the other ship to surrender without a shot fired.

But this social-democratic buccaneer, so sympathetic in many ways, had a darker side. Captain Roberts was terrified of women. He never touched liquor, and he never touched a woman either. This was partly because he read the Bible incessantly (his flag was a skull and hourglass). But it was also because he thought women infectious, bringing with them not only pox but disorder and unpredictability.

Roberts was normally tolerant to his crew. They were permitted rum, even though he abhorred it. But the discovery of a woman on his ship was punished by death for the seaman who had smuggled her on board.

I have used the word "gynophobe" for Captain Roberts because it is not the same as "misogynist". The latter means a woman-hater. But the former means somebody terrified of women, which is not always the same thing.

Here I am reminded of an old man I knew when I worked for a newspaper in the north of England. Halebottom (not his real name) was a true gynophobe. Once, on his journey home, Halebottom woke from a doze to find himself alone in a train compartment (the non-corridor sort) with a woman. He opened the door and jumped out, and, as the train was moving slowly, rolled down an embankment into some allotments without serious injury. One of his tasks was to contribute crossword clues, upon which the sub-editors - uneasy about his total innocence - kept an eye. It was just as well. One night he offered an anagram whose clue read as follows: "You Get It From An Irish Tart". Halebottom, puzzled by the commotion, explained that the solution was "Arthritis".

Fear of women is many things, but it is also the fear of what men call "disorder". It is the justified suspicion that women do things differently and, given freedoms and responsibilities, would undermine traditional forms of hierarchy and obedience. It is not an accident, for instance, that European languages mix up the words for chaos and female prostitution, two apparently unrelated concepts, as in the French bordel (brothel or disastrous muddle), the Polish nierzad (with a similar double connotation) or the curious English phrase "disorderly house".

What is supposed to be so disorderly about a whorehouse? Especially about the law 'n' order dungeons equipped with cane and manacles which English judges and legislators still seem to patronise? The answer lies deep in the past. Apart from nunneries, brothels were perceived (wrongly, in fact, but widely) as the only businesses staffed and managed by women. Men, as clients, took off their breeches but were not quite sure that they were getting the respect to which they were entitled.

Look at the history of St Radegund's convent in Cambridge. Used by the rich as a dump or oubliette for younger daughters, its discipline crumbled away as students - no older than modern schoolboys - paid the custodians to let them sleep with their girlfriends. The university authorities eventually diagnosed "disorder", the misrule associated with women in charge. So they threw the women out and turned the convent into all-male Jesus College. It was almost 500 years before women were allowed back into those buildings to share them with men.

Over the years, as a precaution against "disorder", men have been able to recruit a corps of female collaborators trained to apply the rules of traditional hierarchy with frightful rigidity. Women in Victorian schoolrooms or in black SS uniforms, women saying "Nyet!" in Soviet hotels or telling tearful mothers in wartime Food Offices that they were not the only pebble on the beach. "Put a woman behind a desk," said people, not only men, "and you get Hitler in skirts."

How did we believe that for so long? It's only yesterday that it became clear what women were really offering: not the old order, not disorder, but a new sort of order which fits new technologies. For instance, I imagine myself going back 20 years to a newsroom where I used to work. If I had begun to write fragments of up to four different stories at once (rather than finishing one before starting the next), to join impromptu conferences in a corner, to go out for coffee when I pleased, to take turns with colleagues to sub-edit one other's work ... then I would have been arraigned by the news editor for gross disorder bordering on mutiny. But that is how we work now. And that way - collegiate, informal, adapting to rapidly changing multiple demands on attention, in bursts and surges rather than by constant effort over a stretch of clocked time, task-oriented rather than job-oriented - is the way that many women have always found it natural to work.

Why that is so, I am not sure. There is a tempting parallel to the rhythms and the flexible agenda of dealing with small children and kitchens, but the analogy makes some women uneasy. What is sure is that this is the work-pattern of the computer age, that women are much more comfortable with it than men, and that it is "post-Fordist". In other words, it is native to a world in which mass workforces under military discipline give way to small teams planning their own activity.

Not everything is good about that. Mass workforces were also good at self-defence - "one for all, and all for one". Small teams are far easier to isolate, casualise and then underpay or sack. The time for a world ordered by women has arrived, but the collegiate revolution must be carried right through to the top.

It is no good having Portia, Sappho and Mary Wollstonecraft leading production teams while Genghis Khan still holds the boardroom. They network in the new manner; he bullies and pulls rank in the old manner. That is the recipe for deadlock, and it is he who must give way. The true female disorder, c'est lui!

Comments