Uppity, unladylike, brazen – society has long had its vocabulary aimed at dismissing women who don’t take inequality quietly.
So when Kate Winslet described public conversations around the gender pay gap as ‘a bit vulgar’, she wasn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said before.
“Maybe it’s a British thing. I don’t like talking about money; it's a bit vulgar isn't it?” she said on Newsbeat.“I don't think that's a very nice conversation to have publicly at all.”
It may not be a nice conversation, but if we want to see change, it’s a necessary one. We’re not going to see the gap (14.2 per cent in Britain, according to the Fawcett Society) close up by retaining acceptable levels of feminine modesty and hoping it might in a ladylike fashion. If shyness around talking about money really is a “British thing” – although I suspect it’s more a “British expectations of women” thing - then we need to address that, not use it as an excuse to duck the difficult issues. Otherwise, we simply perpetuate the problem.
Women pushing the boundaries of what society expects from them have long been up against a powerful war of words looking to undermine their expectations as ‘unladylike’ or ‘unfeminine’. From suffragettes depicted on posters as mannish spinsters or wilful eccentrics, to the words ‘Feminazi’ or ‘man-hater’ that obscure many conversations around gender equality these days. There’s nothing Hitler-esque about wanting to be paid the same as our male colleagues for doing the same work, and there’s nothing man-hating in believing we should be given the same reward and recognition for our contributions.
But it’s a powerful weapon, making women feel that in asking for – or demanding – change they are doing something faintly unseemly, ugly, or embarrassing. Something that makes them less feminine than those in society who’d prefer it if women quietly accepted their lot would like them to be. Something that makes them not quite right.
In describing women who refuse to lay down and quietly accept a lower wage for equal work as ‘vulgar’, Winslet, knowingly or not, adopts a well-used approach when it comes to undermining equality: making women feel that in standing up and demanding change our behaviour is somehow inappropriate.
And it’s easy to see how a weapon that de-feminises is an effective one. In a society that feverishly values femininity, beauty and youth as carriers of female worth, we shouldn’t be surprised that many women feel unnerved by the idea of being perceived as trashy, brazen, masculine harridans. In making us feel that conversations around pay are faintly unsightly, Winslet is unwittingly using a tool that’s been used against women campaigning for equality for decades.
She may not have intended it, but by wrinkling her nose at the like of fellow Hollywood actor Jennifer Lawrence’s strident discourse on the subject and dismissing such discussions as ‘vulgar’, she’s doing the same thing. And it’s really disappointing.
If it’s vulgar to talk about money, then I’m vulgar, and proud to be. And if it makes people feel uncomfortable, then that’s good – they should ask themselves why it does. It’s not inappropriate to want to have a conversation in public about it.
Profound social change doesn’t come from staying within the polite boundaries of our comfort zones. It comes from raising our voices and calling out inequality where we see it, challenging it and demanding a different world where we are recognised as equal citizens. We shouldn’t feel obliged by niceties to keep quiet about inequality. Kate Winslet may feel that it uncomfortable, but I, for one, am glad it’s a conversation that’s firmly on the agenda.
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