Feminism is back, but this time it’s not angry and it doesn’t want to burn your boyfriend’s briefs. (I am referring, of course, to legal briefs).
Oxford University is home to the Gender Equality Festival, a three-week long affair which started on Thursday, and which offers talks and workshops on gender equality issues and is run by the Oxford University Women’s Campaign (affectionately known as WomCam).
This year, the Festival chose to explore the concept of Gender Equality within the context of ‘Fatherhood, families and fairness’ and it was for that purpose that Billy McGranaghan, founder of Dads House and Researching Reform made their way to Balliol College, yesterday afternoon. We had been asked to speak with the students.
Despite the doleful drizzle that accompanied us up the M40 to Oxford, the graceful buildings in the town centre more than made up for the rain and our hostess, Yuan, the Women’s Campaign Officer at the Oxford Student Union, was very warm and welcoming and had even gone to the trouble of organising a truly handsome room for us to use. Replete with wine and sherry, it wasn’t long before both Billy and I had managed to lift our spirits and dull our nerves.
The male and female students who attended were eclectic and curious; from social work undergrads, to ex blue chip company employees, history and PPE majors to phd students and docents, the sheer diversity of interest reminded me just how varied the field of family law is and how much a part of the gender dynamic it has always been. Billy and I thought it would be nice to create an informal atmosphere, so we placed the soft, silk chairs in a circle and once we were all seated, everyone introduced themselves.
Billy opened the debate by talking about Dadshouse, why he set the charity up and the pressing need to help single fathers who were looking after their children. He explained the difficulties men faced when trying to access support services so focused on mothers and their needs, which often unwittingly alienated fathers and left them unsure as to how to cope. Once Billy had spoken, I went on to explain the purpose of Researching Reform and its work and the current concerns inside the system which related to Gender Equality. I spoke about the bias in relation to the possession of parental responsibility and how the law currently discriminates not just between gender but also by creating different ‘classes’ of father: those married and unmarried. I also spoke about gender inequality in relation to women and what I call the policy pendulum; the need to keep that pendulum as stable as possible to avoid extreme shifts which only served to forsake various benefits each party brings to the table by ignoring them and opting instead to run either a mum-centric or dad-centric policy.
The end result, I explained, was that I felt the adversarial process (without meaning to, as its roots are enshrined in criminal law and perhaps never foresaw its extension into the battle of the sexes), forced mothers and fathers to demonstrate to the court who was ‘best’, using an almost ‘might is right’ like approach and thereby creating gender inequality. Just like that.
Mindful that I was speaking with several feminists present, I decided to throw out an idea eager to get an interesting response and the students didn’t disappoint. Having explained that inside the family justice system we see men and women exhibiting certain patterns of behaviour and that these patterns were arguably not just purely society or custom led but also part of a wider picture, involving tendencies amongst the different genders, I went on to suggest that these differences were not necessarily part of the premise for the Feminist movement any longer. A very lovely PPE student tackled the point and spoke about the need to break down societal norms which can be psychologically harmful, in this context in relation to men and their ability to express their emotions. She felt strongly on the issue and expressed the view that women were at an advantage in relation to parenting, and gave the example of breast-feeding as one such home advantage. And then she hit us with it.
The Man Boob. No, not as we know it, but as a contraption designed to be worn by a man, with the ability to simulate breast-feeding and thereby allowing fathers a relatively similar experience to mothers when feeding naturally. I understood her point but having breastfed my own son, I could see how removed from the experience the Man Boob really was and although a humorous suggestion in part, it highlighted the most poignant aspect of the Powerpoint Dilemma – should men and women share power in cycles or is it a linear affair? In other words, should we have a time and a season for skill sharing or is the evolution of our species moving towards a different kind of symbiosis altogether?
Billy was delighted by the proposal and even suggested that he thought it would take off as a trend. I offered to find him the Man Boob online and buy him one.
Yet, the conversation did not just focus on role swapping; many wonderful questions about the perception of gender in the family courts were asked and Billy’s charming and thought-provoking responses made the students laugh and smile in equal measure. A Phd student went on to ask about the way the courts viewed step-parents and their approach towards contact; another young man was interested in how Sweden offered some potential solutions to the gender inequalities inside the family courts and one student even offered us an anecdote about a policy in Mexico where fathers were given equal paid paternity leave to mothers and went on to use that time, not to be with the children but to go out and earn more money – a scenario that may well be rooted in poverty issues.
Before we knew it, an hour and a half had flown by and we stood, dazed, by the drinks table, chatting away with each other. Despite the serious nature of the discussion, we all spoke freely and even lightly, having explained to several students that the night before I had been to Winterwell’s Halloween Party, and had been roped in to (pun intended) being part of the immersive theatre as a matchstick girl and woman of ill repute. The irony of my plight as a Victorian female in light of the current debate was not lost on me.
Yet perhaps what struck me the most was that the ladies at the event that day appeared to represent the evolution of the Feminist Movement . These were women who wanted to incorporate men into their world of ideas and welcome them for all that they have to offer and whilst in the family courts we must deal with ‘what is’ rather than ‘what ifs’, there was a clearly displayed expression of the will to make Feminism what it has always had the power to be: a tendency towards the truth.With that brave thought in mind, we moved to close the debate and released the students back into society.
The Gender Equality Festival turned out to be a truly fun Sunday afternoon and special thanks to Yuan Yang for making both Billy and I feel so welcome; to all the students who came and made the event what it was and the beautiful buildings in Oxford, that nearly got me run over by the number 400 bus, for lingering skyward just a little longer than I should have.
If you would like to check out what’s going on at the Festival for the next few weeks, you can visit their website or catch them, either on Facebook or Twitter.