FF 2016 Day 8: Invisible women

Where are all the women?
Erasing women’s creations
‘Women don’t like X’
How we do history

Today’s post is going to look at the erasure of women from various aspects of life. Whether we’re talking about having only the token female character in many films or TV shows, or the stereotyping of certain interests as “male” despite women’s high participation, or the absence of women from our history books, women are constantly being hidden, ignored and erased. The only way to do something about that is to start looking for the invisible women and bringing them back into the light.


Where are all the women?

Of the top 100 grossing films in 2013, women made up only 15% of protagonists, and only 30% of speaking parts (and the majority of women on screen are young and white- 70% of all female characters were under 40, and 73% of all female characters were white). So the question is, where are the women?

The assumption that stories about men have universal appeal, while stories about women have ‘niche’ appeal, seems to be mostly taken for granted. Movies like Avengers Assemble or The Hobbit are considered to be for everyone, whereas female-dominated movies like Mean Girls or Bridesmaids are often dismissed as “chick flicks” which must appeal only to women. We’ll look more at this on Day 14 (‘Women’s Voices’), but for now, consider this: do male-dominated movies appeal to everyone because things that only men do appeal to everyone, or is it that the stories themselves have universal appeal and didn’t have to be male-dominated?





Female-dominated movies tend to have specifically female-oriented stories, whereas most male-dominated movies have stories which aren’t actually male-specific. It seems like they end up male-dominated because of writing and casting decisions which didn’t have to be made that way. Look at the Ghostbusters reboot- there was nothing about the original story which demanded an all-male ghostbusting team, which is why producing an all-female version didn’t require any major changes to the story. On the other hand, trying to produce an all-male version of Mean Girls would require massive changes to the story, because a huge aspect of the movie revolves around the specific pressures on teenage girls in high school.

So: maybe the reason that 85% of protagonists are male is not because both men and women are more interested in men’s stories. It’s because stories which by themselves would have universal appeal anyway are made into movies which are artificially male-dominated.


Erasing women’s creations

Women have been at the forefront of literature throughout history. The first author in the world to be known by name was Enheduanna of Akkada, a Sumerian high-priestess living in the 23rd Century BC. The first novel was written in the early 11th Century AD by Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu. A woman named Margery Kempe is credited with producing, in the 1430s, the first autobiography ever written in English. 23 of the top 50 best-selling books in the UK today were written by women- and 8 out of the top 10 were written by women. This isn’t reflected in the English curriculum at GCSE or A-level, though, which is weighted in favour of “white, deceased, male writers.” Women, and especially women of colour, have been marginalised by literature courses.

Science fiction and fantasy are often seen as a male interest, with women who express interest in sci-fi movies, comics or games often being put down as “fake.” The thing is, sci-fi is something that women created. Mary Shelley has often been credited with the invention of science fiction in 1818, with sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov saying of her: “Mary Shelley was the first to make use of a new finding of science which she blazing-worldadvanced further to a logical extreme, and it is that which makes Frankenstein the first true science fiction story.” Some, though, have argued that the true first sci-fi novel was written by a different woman, Margaret Cavendish, who wrote The Blazing World (a novel about a young woman who discovered a Utopian world via the North Pole) in 1666.

Another thing invented by women: superheroes. The Scarlet Pimpernel was written by Baroness Emma Orczy in 1905 and was the inspiration for later superheroes like Zorro and Batman. It’s strange, then, that action and superhero movies, games and books are also seen as primarily a male interest, and the few female superheroes who get to appear in movies end up being suspiciously absent when t-shirts or children’s toys linked to the movies are produced. The conspicuous lack of Black Widow action figures or other merchandise has resulted in a website, But Not Black Widow, and a Twitter account, @whereisnatasha, recording this absence. This culminated with the superhero being erased from her own scene after the release of the latest Avengers movie:


The toy comes with a Captain America action figure instead of Black Widow

Similarly, toymakers excluded Rey from merchandise produced after the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, after allegedly being told “No boy wants to be given a product with a female character on it.” There are two assumptions here: that boys are not interested in female characters, and that girls won’t be interested in the toys at all. Both of these assumptions are rooted in this idea that sci-fi, action, superheroes, etc. are male interests.

Women’s creations and their contributions to the worlds of sci-fi, fantasy and action are often ignored, and these whole genres portrayed as male interests despite high numbers of female creators and female audiences.


‘Women don’t like X’

What kind of things are stereotypically male domains? Usually what comes to mind is things like sports, fighting, physically demanding work. So is it just that women don’t want to play sports or do physical labour?

‘Women just don’t like sports.’

In England, women’s football was massively popular during WWI, and continued to draw crowds of more than 50,000 after the war ended. 79661745_1917_18_grm_ladies With the end of the war, though, women found themselves being pushed back out off the football pitches (and out of the factories they’d worked in during the war years) and back into domestic life. In December 1921, the FA banned women’s football (though a few teams defied this and kept playing for several years after the ban). Men’s football, unchallenged, could grow to new heights, and the FA ban on female footballers wasn’t lifted until 1971.

Women in sports still face huge challenges today which hold them back in comparison to their male peers. Khalida Popal made history in 2007 as the first captain of the women’s Afghan National Football team, but was forced out of her country after receiving death threats from people who still believe that women shouldn’t play sports. Women in countries like the UK and the US may not face this kind of obstacle, or legal barriers to playing their sports, but they’re held back in other ways, such as a huge wage gap and a lack of equal media coverage.

The US women’s soccer team are the current World Cup and Olympic champions, and generated nearly $20 million more in revenue than the US men’s soccer team, but are paid four times less than the men. In 2014, Marianne Vos, the overall winner of the women’s Giro d’Italia won just over €500, while her male counterpart received €200,000. In the UK, men’s sports get twenty times more media coverage than women’s sports. It’s not like there isn’t an audience for women’s sports- the women’s World Cup final of 2011 broke the record as the most-tweeted event in the history of Twitter; the women’s final of the US Open sold out well before the men’s final.

‘Women just don’t want to fight.’

We all know about ‘Dad’s Army’- there’s even a TV series with that name- but how many of us were taught about ‘Mum’s Army’?  The Women’s Home Defence was founded by Edith Summerskill in 1940 in response to the government’s refusal to allow women to join the Home Guard- before long there were 20,000 members with 250 units nationwide. By 1942, the government had to admit that there were 50,000 women ‘unofficially’ serving with Home Guard battalions, and in 1943 finally established the Nation Women’s Auxiliary.

It wasn’t just British women playing a huge part in WWII: women in Russia were initially barred from taking part in combat (despite thousands of women volunteering when the Soviet Union was attacked by Germany in 1941) but this eventually changed: Russian women were permitted to join the Air Force and the Land Forces, and 800,000 women ended up serving, but they were still not allowed to fight on the front lines. Some those women who defied this command and went to fight on the front lines were punished for “desertion.”

Women’s struggle to be allowed to fight in WWII has been repeated by generations of women, always coming up against the same obstacle: men refusing to allow women to serve. Years of campaigning by women and women’s rights organisations were needed before the US finally lifted the ban on women in combat in 2015 (despite the fact that women had been fighting, and dying, on the front lines before that, just without official recognition). In the UK, the same ban was not lifted until 2016.

While men’s rights activists often bring up the fact that men have historically been more likely to be conscripted and have been more likely to fight in wars, supposedly as an example of discrimination against men, they usually don’t mention that the reason for this is that men have historically barred women from fighting in the first place.

‘Women just don’t want to do the dirty work.’

It’s undeniably true that men are overrepresented in jobs such as construction, mining and sewage work. However, the idea that this is because women just refuse to do this kind of work is also a misconception.

Female construction workers on Crossrail in London

For example: female sewage workers have repeatedly sued the DEP to try and open the industry up to more women and ensure equal treatment of male and female workers. The same kind of discrimination and harassment has been pushing women out of tunnel work and coal mining. Women are continuing to fight for increased access in these fields, in spite of the abuse they receive from men in those fields.

We should also consider what it is we’re calling ‘dirty work.’ As we saw on Days 3 and 4, women are vastly overrepresented in care work and domestic labour, which are often just as physically demanding as (e.g.) construction work. A study on occupational health and safety risks for the European Parliament’s Committee on Employment and Social Affairs described “agriculture, construction, domestic and cleaning services and health sectors” as “three-D” jobs – “dirty, dangerous, demanding.”

So, is the idea that men predominantly do the ‘dirty work’ based on the assumption that ‘dirty work’ in the domestic sphere doesn’t count as work?


How we do history

Most children in the UK will at some point learn about Sir Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein and their achievements. How many of us were ever taught that it was Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin who discovered what the universe was made of?

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin


“History is not a long series of centuries in which men did all the interesting/important things and women stayed home and twiddled their thumbs in between pushing out babies, making soup and dying in childbirth.

History is actually a long series of centuries of men writing down what they thought was important and interesting, and FORGETTING TO WRITE ABOUT WOMEN. It’s also a long series of centuries of women’s work and women’s writing being actively denigrated by men.”

– Dr Tansy Rayner Roberts


The great silence that Adrienne Rich points out is the removal of women’s existence from history, and particularly lesbian existence- women occupy only 0.5% of recorded history, despite always being half the human population.

The way we do history is not neutral or objective, but based on implicit assumptions. These assumptions have significant effects on the conclusions historians reach.

“Years ago, when I was studying anthropology at university, one of my female professors held up a photograph of an antler bone with 28 markings on it. “This,” she said, “is alleged to be man’s first attempt at a calendar.” We all looked at the bone in admiration. “Tell me,” she continued, “what man needs to know when 28 days have passed? I suspect that this is woman’s first attempt at a calendar.” ”

Sandi Toksvig

Only a recent archaeological discovery broke down previous ideas about Viking warriors. Previously, researchers had assumed that skeletons buried with swords and shields were male (based on their own presumption that only men would be warriors); only revamping research techniques and studying the skeletons themselves revealed that actually, about half of the skeletons buried with weapons were female. The same mistake was made by archaeologists who discovered the grave of a decorated gladiator in 2000, and were shocked by the finding that the bones were female.

Historians approach their work not from an unbiased standpoint but from a point of view tainted by pre-existing assumptions; the absence of women from our history books is partly due to these implicit biases. Historian David Starkey has said:

“If you are to do a proper history of Europe before the last five minutes, it is a history of white males because they were the power players, and to pretend anything else is to falsify.”

Starkey’s “power players” of Europe don’t include the 104 women who ruled as queens in Europe since the 13th Century. His “power players” don’t include individuals such as Anna Maria Von Schurman, a leading academic of the 17th Century, or Mary Wollstonecraft, an 18th Century pioneer in the fight for female suffrage, or Rosa Luxembourg, an extremely influential Polish socialist. It seems that for Starkey and other similar historians, the actions of white men are all that “counts” in their perception of historical significance. It’s like applying a really narrow filter to your search before you even start looking; this filter is so deeply engrained in his view of history that he seems to think acknowledging any other people or events as historically important is “pretending.”


Watching a movie or a documentary? Reading a book? Listening to sports coverage?

Ask ‘Where are the women?’ You may be surprised at how often the women turn out to be invisible.



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