The girl the boys can’t hear…

Arabella Weir’s classic Fast Show character, prefigured from the annals of American Marxism. The following paragraph comes from The Bustelo Incident by Myra Tanner Weiss. The unedifying episode in question is something I intend to come back to by and by, but for the time being, take it away, Myra:

The oppression of women always included silencing us. The ways in which this was done were myriad. The broad historical ones we are all familiar with. The bourgeoisie has the power. It controls the media. It can and does say what is to be published, seen and heard. To this we can add that men predominate in these positions of power and all others – the labor bureaucracy, the Churches and other cultural and scientific institutions. So women get a double whammy. All this affects the most ordinary human relations in our patriarchal society, even our conversations. The men are talking and a woman says something. The talking politely stops until she finishes. Then it resumes as if she had not spoken – as if the discussion had just experienced an interruption. The men address each other and just ignore the women present. Or if the woman expresses a disagreement, dares to contradict the men, she must be prepared for a real bashing. And so her participation finds a thousand defensive clauses to ward off the blow. I may be wrong. Of course, I’m not sure. It may not pertain. I hope I don’t sound silly. You may be right, but. And when a woman meets the man as his equal or superior in whatever field, all the alarm signals go off. It’s not just ordinary competition. From a woman self-confident assertion is almost castrating to the male – as if sexual competence is threatened unless the man is confident of his “superiority”.

Call me cynical, but I’m fairly confident there are a few lefty women out there who have just experienced a shock of recognition…


  1. Ken MacLeod said,

    June 19, 2008 at 8:37 am

    I’ve been a member of the IMG, the old CP, and (for a couple of years in the early 90s) the SWP, and I don’t recall any such pattern of behaviour. I’d be the first to admit that I’m not the most sensitive and perceptive of guys, even as guys go, but a big part of my memory of these organizations is of self-confident, assertive women. The American far left in the 60s, and particularly the American SWP (which is where I guess this story is coming from) is hardly a fair sample of the far left today. After all, the women’s movement and the changes in the position of women in society over the decades since the 60s did have an effect. One can argue that they didn’t have enough effect, but that’s a different argument.

    I suspect that some people in academia have a view of the existing left based on what they’ve read in documents from the sixties about the grossly male chauvinist American far left (of which the American SWP was far from the worst in this respect).

  2. Madam Miaow said,

    June 19, 2008 at 10:18 am

    “I’m fairly confident there are a few lefty women out there who have just experienced a shock of recognition…”

    And, of course, none of the men will.

    ” … I don’t recall any such pattern of behaviour.”


  3. Harpymarx said,

    June 19, 2008 at 10:44 am

    Well, I can related to what Myra is saying and have experienced it. Undoubtedly there have been changes through political activism such as the feminist movement that indeed have had an impact on the consciousness and awareness of the Left (though there is hostility still towards feminism on the Left). But the point is that the the Left is not hermetically sealed when it comes to women’s oppression and will reflect those power relationsips that exist under patriarchal capitalism.

    So instead of thinking it can’t happen, it does happen, women are marginalised and invisible. But the blokes are too busy talking to notice.

  4. Charlie said,

    June 19, 2008 at 11:09 am

    I’ve seen this happen a few times, in contrast with Ken’s experience, but I gotta say I really do think us young’uns are better at inclusivity on gender issues.

  5. Doug said,

    June 19, 2008 at 11:54 am

    The idea of some of my women comrades in Leamington in the 70s and 80s being cowed into submission by the men is absolutely hilarious. In fact I remember young working class men drawn to the Left at the time being intimidated by assertive well-educated middle class women. Perhaps some people need to remember that class is still the bottom line.

    I’m not hostile to socalist feminism but I’m irritated and frustrated by the ‘toilet seat’ feminists on the Left who fly off the handle at, say, someone referring to ‘manning’ a picket line. Particularly when the root of that word has nothing to do with gender anyway.

  6. ejh said,

    June 19, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    “This happens, but you don’t recognise it. Therefore if you don’t agree it happens, it’s because you don’t recognise it.”

    It’s an argument, but it’s not a very good one.

  7. June 19, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    Splinty, you have a copy of “The Bustelo Incident” … probably in a digital format? … I always wanted to read that text … unfortunately, sexism (and even patriarchal violence) is still a problem in many leftist organizations …

  8. Andy Newman said,

    June 19, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    Well I am suprised that anyone would not have noticed this.

    It is not just the left. As a bloke have you never noticed the number of times that a man in a shop answers to you, even though it was your woman companion who asked them a question?

    My wife used to always point out to me occassions when we were both in the SWP when there would be whole conversations with other comrades, and she was never spoken to. This would be most obvious when meeting someone by accident in the street for example, where certain male comrades would say hello and chat to me, and simply ignore her.

    Interestingly, Sarah, my wife never resigned from the SWP. They simply assumed she was no longer a member when i resigned. they never bothered to contact her about – and they stopped sending her party Notes.

    There are the slight put downs as well. I remember when the SWP organised a womens’ economics class jointly with labour party lefties in Bristol, afterwards one woman who had been studying marx said “I love economics” and a male comrade lent over and said “don’t be too excitable”.

  9. June 19, 2008 at 10:01 pm

    [...] Sunrise has a post on his blog about the invisibility of women and how oppression has a tendency to silence women (and [...]

  10. Mike said,

    June 19, 2008 at 10:56 pm

    I’m not sure if there was a pattern of women being discriminated against in the SWP circa 1976 to 1987 when I was a member. Although some female partners of male comrades were not given much of a hearing by the more senior male comrades. Some women comrades however did cmmand a hearing from the branch leadership. Mostly the university educated women from the better off sections of the clas or from petite bourgeois backgrounds. Frankly some of the middle class ‘Marist-Feminists’ I have come across should be silenced for talking such arrant garbage.

    Come to that young male workers and youth were not given much of a hearing either and precious little encouragement to develop themselves politically. I suspect the same to have been true in many SWP branches for the smple reason that sme ‘leading elements’ are themselves very uncertain of both their knowledge of Marxism and are awkward cncerning their class origins so if a female cmrade of a younger comrade challenges them they retreat into a stale quasi-orthodoxy and treat the offenders as heretics. Hence, in part the high fallout rate back in the day.

    I note in passing that the SWP (US) was also very restrictive in terms of personal relations between white and black comrades. See for example Charles Denbys book.

  11. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 20, 2008 at 9:06 am

    That’s actually true about interracial relationships in the US SWP. I know Clifton DeBerry married one of Dobbs’ daughters, but he was definitely exceptional.

    entdinglichung, I do actually have “The Bustelo Incident”, and very good reading it is too, but only in paper format. I can’t scan and transcription takes a while.

  12. Phil said,

    June 20, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    It’s an argument, but it’s not a very good one.

    Perhaps you just don’t recognise how good it is…

  13. Phil said,

    June 20, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    To be fair to HM, I think the argument is more like

    “This happens, to women and not to men, but you (a man) don’t recognise it. If you don’t agree it happens to women, it’s because you (a man)don’t recognise it.”

    And if “it’s because” was replaced by “it may be because”, I think it’d be a good point.

  14. Ken MacLeod said,

    June 20, 2008 at 3:07 pm

    I’m not saying it doesn’t happen!

    I’m saying that in these three very different organizations, in the times when I was in them, and in the branches and fractions that I was in, there were plenty of assertive and confident women who simply would not have tolerated being ignored in the ways that Weiss describes. They were certainly not marginalised and invisible. Maybe in this respect, like many others, the left has gone backward since the counter-revolution. I don’t know.

    I have no axe to grind on behalf of these organizations, or on behalf of socialists generally. But the socialist women I knew were fighters.

  15. ejh said,

    June 20, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    And if “it’s because” was replaced by “it may be because”, I think it’d be a good point.

    If ir were, it would be: but it was not, so it was not.

  16. Mike said,

    June 20, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    Yes Ken the far left has gone backwars since the counter-revolution. Such a pity that the counter-revolution ended prior to the activism of any of the activists and former activists on this list.

  17. June 20, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    Ouch Mike, that’s a bit harsh!

  18. Ken MacLeod said,

    June 20, 2008 at 8:53 pm

    I stand corrected Mike. And there was me overlooking the vast upsurge in class confidence and combativeness since the obstacle of Stalinism was swept away in 1989-1991. Damn, how could I have forgotten the Red Nineties?

  19. Madam Miaow said,

    June 20, 2008 at 9:19 pm

    Of course, Harpy and I could have been asked about our experience by our comrades and we could have debated in a comradely fashion how best to counter the uncomradely New Sexism (I know, it’s not new). But it’s easier to argue semantics way over our fluffy heads.

  20. Ken MacLeod said,

    June 20, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    Madam Miaow, please do tell us about your experience. Likewise Harpy, if she wants to.

  21. harpymarx said,

    June 20, 2008 at 10:15 pm

    Madam Miaow: “Of course, Harpy and I could have been asked about our experience by our comrades and we could have debated in a comradely fashion how best to counter the uncomradely New Sexism (I know, it’s not new). ”

    Indeed. But they have to be prompted to ask something as basic as this.

    Ken, if you want to know my experiences, chapter and verse, then read my blog. It is simple, just listen and take seriously what is said by women.

  22. Andy Newman said,

    June 21, 2008 at 8:48 am

    Who was ejh resposnding to at #6?

  23. Ken MacLeod said,

    June 21, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    Well Harpy, I have read your blog (and the F-word link) and don’t see much to disagree with. If your experience of the SWP was as bad as that, what can I say? It was your experience. And I long ago read Madame Miaow’s account of her ‘bad case of the Trots’.

    For my own take on the Trots, there’s this and this. Madame Miaow might have something to say about this.

    Anyway, both you and Madame Miaow are now on my list of Readable Reds.

  24. Mike said,

    June 21, 2008 at 10:43 pm

    Not sure what your point is in post 18 Ken. From what I can tell it was the threat of working class action that largely swept the Stalinist regime away – a regime that originated in a counter revolution lets not forget – and that regime was bitterly opposed to womens equality. A reading of Trotskys Revolution betrayed speaks to the point well. Good riddance to a viciously anti-working class regime.

  25. chris y said,

    June 22, 2008 at 9:33 am

    Coming in late here, but I was in the IMG at the same time as Ken, and yes, the extract in the post is right on target. Sure, there were a lot of powerful assertive women in and around the organisation, but they had to devote an appallingly disproportionate amount of their energy to kicking the men into line.

    I recall John “Socialist Action” Ross writing an internal paper which suggested that women comrades who emphasised feminist issues were in some sense deviating from the main priorities of the group. This elicited a brilliant riposte from Margaret Coulson, Hilary Wainwright, et al. (I wish I’d kept a copy), which predictably sank without trace.

    I recall a branch meeting where a woman member of the branch committee volunteered to represent us at some event, but one of the male heavies proposed that somebody “with more nous” – ie. one of them – should go instead. I was in the chair and it was all I could do to prevent a fight breaking out.

    Has it got better or worse? I neither know nor care, as I lost patience with the “organised” “left” decades ago. BUT THERE WAS NO EFFING GOLDEN AGE.

  26. harpymarx said,

    June 22, 2008 at 11:27 am

    Chris Y: “I recall John “Socialist Action” Ross writing an internal paper which suggested that women comrades who emphasised feminist issues were in some sense deviating from the main priorities of the group.”

    Yeah, I think that’s mentioned as well in the Beyond the Fragments book in the chapter about how the left perceive women’s liberation and feminism (including CP, WRP, IMG, IS/SWP).

    And agree with the point about there being strong and assertive women but (and talking from experience) it is spent kicking men into line. It was/is an uphill struggle just to get a basic understanding (it’s not rocket science) and gets demoralising and you end up thinking nothing much changes. And finally, I understand completely what you say about losing patience with “organised left”.

  27. Lobby Ludd said,

    June 23, 2008 at 12:03 am

    “I recall John “Socialist Action” Ross writing an internal paper which suggested that women comrades who emphasised feminist issues were in some sense deviating from the main priorities of the group.”

    That could be true, though, couldn’t it? Political context matters here. (Given that it was John, magical thinking, Ross, then he was likely to be wrong – but that’s not a sure bet.)

    The relationship between a group’s public propaganda and its ‘personal’ internal life is complex. John Ross’s claim of an overemphasis of feminist issues does not demonstrate the sexist nature of the ‘internal’ organisation.

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