“We have today far more practical sympathy amongst the shopkeepers of London than we ever had when we were quiet, gentle, ladylike suffragists asking nicely for a vote,” said Emmeline Pankhurst in 1913, defending the smashing in of shop windows to attract attention to the suffrage cause.
I’m not suggesting we need to smash up shop fronts, slash paintings in the National Gallery or throw ourselves under the hooves of racehorses to draw attention to the scandal that is the gender pay gap (14.2 per cent in Britain, according to the Fawcett Society). But it’s true that you don’t get change by silently hoping things will change while retaining a ladylike composure.
Language has long been a weapon of those who’d prefer women to quietly accept things as they are. And a particularly powerful approach is the kind of language that de-feminises its targets. In a society where youth, beauty and femininity are idolised, it’s no wonder that language that depicts those who want to see change as ugly, bra-burning, man-hating ‘feminazis’ has an impact. So when Kate Winslet this week described public conversations around the gender pay gap as ‘vulgar’, it really rankled with me. Whether she meant to or not, she was using the same tactics as those who preferred to keep women from having the vote adopted when they created posters depicting suffragettes as mannish, unloved spinsters. It’s the same tactic that obscures debates around feminism now – language is powerful. Labelling those demanding equality as ‘vulgar’ is just another way to make women feel that in fighting for change, they’re doing something rather unseemly, embarassing and innapropriate.
So if it’s vulgar to talk about the gender pay gap, then I’ll proudly adopt that label. Because it needs to be talked about. Change doesn’t come from within the comfort zone – it requires bravery, and the confidence to call out inequality where we see it. These are the conversations we should be having in public, and flagging as unacceptable. I wrote a piece about it for the Independent – read more here.