"Take a breath” instructed Barrister Andrew Hochhauser QC. Allison Bailey, the black, lesbian barrister he had been cross-examining replied, “I don't need to take a breath — don't patronise me.” Without waiting to inhale himself, Hochhauser called Bailey, “angry,” an accusation she neatly rebuffed with well-practiced composure.
This small exchange was loaded: a white man tried to goad a black woman, and when she responded by asserting herself and drawing attention to his tactics, he cynically pulled-out the “angry black woman” trope to undermine her credibility. As a witness in her own case, Bailey was not afforded the space to express how she may have felt, though her resolute rebuttal was exquisite. It spoke of a lifetime of having to politely correct bigoted bores without rising to their bait.
Whatever our color or sexual orientation, any woman watching that exchange would doubtless recognise to varying degrees what Hochhauser was trying to do. In Bailey’s case, there are dimensions of racism and lesbophobia. But, more broadly, male abusers the world over use similar tactics to undermine the credibility of women. Often this is accomplished by zooming-in on the incidental, the small details — after all, who would interpret advice to “take a breath” as hostile?
Acts where men assert their dominance are presented as gifts. The kindly neighbor who believes that having matching chromosomes means one needs help backing into a parking space. The “compliment” from a stranger who remarks we “look so much prettier when we smile.” The instructive lesson on politics from a dullard at a party who assumes his female would-be interlocutor has been hitherto trapped in a walled convent, with no knowledge of current affairs. Objecting to such male beneficence would be churlish and hostile, but the impact of biting it back with a smile is a soul-crushing death by a thousand slights.
Sometimes, powerplay isn’t sanitized by a veneer of chivalry or humor but, in those instances, politely excusing it is still deemed the only socially acceptable option.
Five years ago, I worked with a man who oozed such obvious contempt for women I found myself timing breaks to avoid being near him; his gaze was enough to leave me wanting a shower. On my way to work one day, he leaned out the window of his car and, in full view of our male colleagues, he hollered, “Hey sexy.”
Burning with anger and humiliation, I ignored him and headed into the building where I promptly made a sign reading: “You clearly have a problem seeing me as an equal. Sexism is not acceptable. Get over it. - Jo.”
Confrontation was never an option; the men would’ve banded together and I’d have been told to take a joke, and there were no grievance procedures at the tiny organization. So, I placed the sign in his office for him and his colleagues to read.
Half an hour later, a female colleague ran in to castigate me and to explain. “He didn’t mean any harm, it’s just his way,” she said, explaining that I was over-reacting. Eventually, I was taken aside by the male boss who advised me “not to take my feminism into work.” As ever, the unacceptable behavior of a man was reframed as a woman’s fault — his actions were never addressed. This is of course just a snippet, but one I’m sure will be depressingly familiar to any woman reading this.
That women haven’t snapped in fury and gone on a mass castrating spree is a testament both to our resilience and to the prohibition on women expressing anger.
Today it feels like there are scant opportunities for women to vent about the small injustices we face at the hands of men. Moreover, the tools used to smear and silence us have been given an ideological upgrade. Left-leaning spaces have been colonized by those who insist that to speak out a woman must have accumulated the correct number of oppression tokens — otherwise, she risks being a whinging "Karen." (Of course, those points don't count if, like Allison Bailey, your opinions are considered heretical). Conversely the anti-woke culture-war warriors on the right ridicule women who complain about small but insidious acts of sexism. We are told to consider ourselves lucky we’re not in Afghanistan.
On the rare occasion that redress is sought for ‘small issues’ the coverage will be twisted; it will be presented as an affront to civil liberties, as ‘political correctness gone mad.’
Last month the UK saw a highly publicized case of a man who was convicted after intimidating a woman by staring at her intently on a train and refusing to move. Obviously, this attracted the “you can’t do anything nowadays” brigade like a bloodied tampon in a pool of sharks. Headlines in anti-woke papers blared “man jailed for staring” and The Spectator ran a comment piece that disingenuously claimed, “people-watching is becoming suspect, and even criminalised.”
The fact that the man was recently out of prison, despite being described by the investigating officer as a “danger to women and girls” and a string of previous convictions, attracted less outrage.
Ultimately, whether done with malice or mindlessly mouthed as part of the male social script, these tiny knocks serve to remind women of our social position as lesser. Whether one chokes back the anger with a fixed smile or snaps back with a snarl, confronting such sly sexism can be tough. But what Allison Bailey did last week, as she reasserted her boundaries, was a reminder to women everywhere — we don’t need patronizing men to tell us to breathe, we need them to stop suffocating us.
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