I am a member of the Labour Party. I was a delegate for my local CLP at the Labour Party Conference this September. I am a Corbyn supporter, a feminist and an activist. And I am also the anonymous woman who has lodged a complaint with the Labour Party over the inappropriate actions of an MP who “squeezed” my bum at our incredible conference in Brighton.
Of course, for the past few days the final statement has eclipsed all the others. Because that is how this works. It is the “bum squeezes”, the “knee touches”, the “lift lunges”, the “handsiness”, and then of course the denials, the silencing, the gaslighting that inevitably follow, this is the arena in which men keep women (and sometimes other men) in our bodies and, ultimately, in our place.
Was I traumatised by having my bum squeezed at conference? Of course not. Do you honestly think a bum squeeze gets anywhere near the list of the ways in which men have violated my boundaries, used their and my body against me to exert a subtle, or sometimes violent power over me?
Was it, as an isolated incident, a big deal? Not really no. But mapped as another point into the constellation of reminders that I am first and last a woman, and to be a woman is to be somehow compromised, somehow fair game, somehow never quite in charge of my own body, somehow less worthy of basic levels of respect, it becomes oppressive, frustrating, depressing and eventually enraging.
Over the past few weeks we have seen an explosion of voices speaking out against sexualised abuses of power by men. By strangers in a crowd, by strangers in private, by colleagues, comrades, friends, lovers and relatives. We have been shaken by a collective howl of protest against the way our bodies and minds are constantly and consistently disciplined and held in line.
The online #metoo campaign has allowed each of us to map our own constellations of abuse, harassment, assault and rape onto those of other women across the world, shining a stark light onto just how endemic this is in our culture.
It has not been easy for anyone. We would all rather not have to do this work. We would all rather it just went away. The emotional labour required to speak out can be too arduous. We think of one, then another, then another, then another incident, inevitably leading to the very worst one (and this is actually what triggering means for those who think it has something to do with snowflakes). And we can feel pinned to the floor by the realisation of our powerlessness, staring at all the holes in the sky. Easier to roll over and go to sleep. Easier to roll our eyes and laugh it off. Easier to roll our sleeves up and get on with our job. And for too long, this was how we rolled. But things are beginning to change.
I want to redress the imbalance of representation of women within positions of power within the party. On the whole women are doing very well in the party under Corbyn. Since the last election, a record 45 per cent of Labour MPs are women, which, historically and in comparison to the Tories (21 per cent), is good, but with women still making up just 32 per cent of MPs overall in Westminster, we are still woefully underrepresented in the Palace. Why?
Thinking on this I am reminded of the words of the great feminist art historian Linda Nochlin, who died last week. In her groundbreaking essay of 1971, which questioned the absence of women in the canon of art history – a dearth comparable to what we see in the House of Commons – Nochlin asked: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, and for the past week her answer has been ringing in my head: “The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education – education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful signs, symbols and signals.”
Every bum squeeze, every knee touch, every lift lunge – every time we are returned to our bodies, returned to our place, is part of that education. Whilst this behaviour is tolerated in our institutions, whilst these signs, symbols, signals and hands which keep us in our place, keep us compromised, keep us heavy and exhausted with seemingly insurmountable embodiment are accepted as a benign part of the culture, we will continue to see women discouraged and blocked from accessing real power and effecting real change.
And so, in the interests of fairness, equality, and humanity, I am asking men to hear us and to stop it. Stop now. Show us some respect and just stop it.