Bitch Doctrine: essays for dissenting adults


Read 23/11/2017-02/12/2017

Rating: 4 stars

I often used to read Laurie Penny’s articles in New Statesman and the Guardian, partly because I felt that I should because here was a young woman writing about the experience of being female and queer in a patriarchal world with no holds barred, and also partly because her self-absorbed, earnest approach to journalism wound me up in a way I enjoy. (I have a tendency to project the irritation I feel about things that seem beyond my control onto unconnected subjects.)

I’m Generation X, sister to a Baby Boomer woman, daughter of a War Baby mother. Penny is Generation Y. It seems to me that there are differences in how each of these demographic inventions think about feminism and live or express their feminism. So while I recognised that a lot of Penny’s thinking matched my own, her way of expressing it often turned me off, to such an extent that the weird pleasure I initially felt in being annoyed by what I saw as her millennial angst and unproductive ranting eventually became pure irritation. So I stopped reading.

Five years down the line, I read Weezelle’s excellent breakdown of Penny’s book Bitch Doctrine, which led me to think I should give her writing another try. So I asked my library service to buy a copy. I read Cathy G’s take on it the day I picked up the copy I’d requested from my local library. My review isn’t going to be a standard review, so if you’d like something less convoluted and personal, I commend these two reviews to you.

As I started to read the introduction, Bitch Logic, I knew I was going to like this book. My husband had raised an eyebrow that I was reading it. He had recently talked to me about Penny’s articles on her immersion into the alt-right movement in the US, and I had shared my dismissal of her as a writer on my prejudiced grounds that she was an angst-ridden millennial. False notions of sisterhood don’t appeal to me, you see. And I’ve never said I was nice.

When I started reading Bitch Doctrine, I thought it might fire me up and cause Mr Hicks to suffer a few days of extreme ranting (which is an example of my subconscious compliance with the reduction of feminism to strident women vs beleaguered men).

I am fired up, but instead of ranting, I’ve been thinking about how I need to challenge myself and my assumptions. I think I need to be kinder to myself and others. I’m working on giving myself permission to be myself, rather than trying to be the person who will please others, and I know that I have to extend that permission to other people, too. I also need to change my belief that mansplaining is the default expression of all men.

Bitch Doctrine not only made me think about my personal feminism, it made me laugh out loud at Laurie Penny’s use of humour to pop the inflatable monsters currently in public life. Particularly the 45th President of the USA and his cohort of fascists.

The essays don’t say anything ground breaking to me, because I have come to similar conclusions myself, but the fact that someone working in the media has committed thoughts that chime with mine to the page is refreshing. Mainstream media veers between stirring up anger at perceived wrongs, sharing misinformation in line with the strategies of the technocrats and autocrats who own their platforms, and acting as apologists for the heinous. I find it increasingly difficult to find reporting that is factual and informative. I can understand Penny’s suspicion of the notion of objective journalism, because sometimes what’s making the news is too awful to be objective about, but I do think objectivity, or balance, in journalism is important if people are to be able to weigh up the facts for themselves, rather than being spoonfed opinion and bias dressed up as fact.

Occasionally, the essays chosen for a section are repetitive and some feel more like a bunch of words on a theme submitted to meet a requirement than they do a considered think piece. They lack development, remaining stymied in the rage of unjust oppression without a clear route towards what can be done to remove that oppression. They are rants, but not very stirring rants. Mostly, though, this is a useful commentary on feminism as lived and expressed by one woman.

I would like to quote the entire introduction to the book. Both Penny and I are older than we were. She now expresses her ideas with more humour, I have worked to reduce the meaningless irritation I feel about things. I like her current voice very much. In the introduction, almost everything she says is an expression of how I think. The parts that aren’t a reflection of my sociopolitical attitudes have provoked me to think differently. In particular, I took time to ponder what she says about different generations of women and how far they have been permitted to push against the white male privilege of western society.

Women writers aren’t supposed to be too brave, too sure of ourselves. Instead, we are supposed to dissemble, to approach with one knee bent, supplicant, to thank the men who helped us on our way, to blush and prevaricate if anyone asks what we hope to achieve. We’re taught, as women – especially as women – that before anything else, we must make ourselves likeable. We must make ourselves agreeable. We must shrink ourselves to fit the room, and shave down our ideas to fit the times.

This, oh this. This is my lived experience, handed down from my mother’s generation. When I was a teenager thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, my mum imparted to me the very serious instruction that I would need to be harder working and higher performing than the men I would share the workplace with, despite being as intelligent and capable as most and more so than some. I would have to behave differently and prove my worth if I was to have a share of what is naturally taken from the world by men. I was to be sure of myself, but aware that my self-confidence would do me limited favours. This instruction stemmed from my mum’s experience of being a working woman in the late ’50s into the ’80s. My family background on both parental sides is working class. We have always had to work, in order to survive. My mum also wanted to work, to contribute to society in the workplace, to have a level of independence from her other role as wife and mother.

I don’t always make myself ‘likeable’ in Penny’s terms. I’ve always known my abilities are high and have never agreed with the notion that I should behave differently to a man with the same qualifications and experience as me. And yet, sometimes, I have steered away from being seen as a challenging person. In my professional sector, the majority of the workforce is female. It is changing slowly, probably because there are fewer men than senior positions now, but when I started out as an archivist, the majority of leadership jobs were occupied by men. In most of the places I have worked, the ratio of female to male has been 2:1. In one office, it was 4:0. I’ve only worked in one place where the ratio was 1:1. I am the manager of my service. There is one man on my team. I have lost count of the times men have come into the archive, seen my junior colleague, and assumed that he is the manager. Even when I introduce myself and take on the conversation, they talk around me to my colleague, who sees nothing unusual in this. He’s ten years my senior in age, but I have twelve years professional experience on him. In parallel information and heritage sectors, I’ve had my job explained to me by men who have zero expertise in my field. Only this week, this happened to me. Part of the reason I rarely bite back is because I don’t see the point in getting into a pointless conversation about professional respect, because I don’t expect the men involved to listen or learn. I choose to let them think they’ve done a manly thing, and get on with doing my job well. It’s a choice that I know is rooted in that expectation on women to not be disruptive in the workplace.

I’m not writing as everygirl, because there is no such thing. The idea that any person could speak ‘for women’ is cartoonish in its misunderstanding of what feminism is, what women are. No man is ever asked to speak for his entire sex. The experiences of men are acknowledged to be broad, varied, complex, but women are always women first, no matter what else we are.

I am in two minds about this. Logically, I know Penny is correct. On an individual level, all human experience is broad, varied and complex. On a collective level, though, people of my gender have a broadly unifying experience of the established male-centric norms. Feminism’s aim is and should be to bring about a society that is gender blind when it comes to how we live and work and love and play. Men and women should be working towards that aim. Perhaps this is where generational perspective comes in, though, because I believe that, on certain collective experiences, any person can speak ‘for women’. Which sort of leads on to my next quote.

It has become commonplace to speak of ‘waves’ of feminism. I’ve never seen it that way. Feminism, for me, is not a set of waves, but a great grumbling tsunami, moving slow, sweeping across a blighted landscape of received assumptions, washing away old certainties. The big wave has hardly begun to hit, and already all of us are changed. This pace of change, of course, is rather frightening to some people, and the backlash is on.

I like Penny’s analogy. It’s one that I’m going to adopt. I have complied with the notion of waves of feminism. It’s something else that I draw from different generational attitudes to and expressions of feminism. I can appreciate and am thankful for the women who fought for our rights as a gender as part of first wave feminism. I can appreciate and am thankful for the women who broadened feminism out in the second wave, ordinary people like my mum and public figures like Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer. Although third wave feminism is technically my feminism, I have read very little feminist writing from this period. Riot Grrrl, its sort-of UK equivalent Ladette, and ‘Girly’ Feminism are things that happened around me and within me. If I had to define myself by my generation’s feminist constructs, I’m girly on the outside, riot grrrl on the inside. I shave my armpits and legs, I dye my hair, I wear makeup, I like shoes, but woebetide you if you dare to suggest that I do any of those things to be acceptable to a man or to conform with ideals of femininity. Equally, I don’t always shave my legs or armpits and I go out without makeup, because it doesn’t fucking matter, and woebetide you if you try to make me feel ashamed for not conforming with ideals of femininity.

What has been labelled as third wave feminism is, to me, lived feminism, and it doesn’t feel like a coherent thing, perhaps because it’s part of my living memory, perhaps because I don’t like labels. After reading Penny’s tsunami analogy, I’ve realised that the superficial division of feminism into distinct waves isn’t helpful, and has probably created divisions within feminism, so that you have people like Germaine Greer behaving with a sense of entitlement and a lack of respect for other expressions of feminism, and ‘girly’ feminists, myself included, thinking badly of second wave feminists like Mary Beard for appearing to look down on women for playing the glamour game.

And then you have the fact that the pace of change has frightened men who prefer it when women are unthreatening to their comfortable position, and are being more vocal in their rejection of women’s right to occupy the same space as them as equals. Much of Bitch Doctrine is a reaction to this recent development. Like anyone else, I witness how this fear is playing out in public life, in the resurgence of social behaviour that is violently misogynist, in the baying and bullying that happens on social media. My direct experience of it is limited to hearing my twin nephews, who are in their mid-twenties, lecture their mother, who is the main breadwinner in their family and has made personal sacrifices to ensure her boys have a level of privilege that she and I didn’t have access to growing up, on how the world works. The most sickening example was when they expounded on how Ched Evans should be forgiven for his behaviour and accepted back at Sheffield United despite his assertion that he had done nothing wrong. It made me vividly aware how men of all ages still believe that the responsibility lies with women not to provoke rape or other sexual assaults. Even well educated ones with feminist mums and aunties. I’m all for forgiveness and second chances if someone shows remorse for their behaviour. Before I’d read the ins and outs of the case (I’m not interested in footballers), I’d made a similar assertion, thinking he’d served his time and made reparation. But no. Yes, his rape conviction was quashed, but Evans still took advantage of a woman, involved himself in her humiliation, cheating on his fiancée in the process and showing himself to be no respecter of women as people. Earlier this year, Evans took it upon himself to offer women some advice on how to avoid provoking non-consensual sexual interaction. No remorse, you see. To me, forgiveness and second chances in such high profile situations send out a message to other men that it’s okay to behave this way to another person. My sister and I both argued this, but my otherwise lovely nephews couldn’t grasp what we were saying.

As I continued to read the essays that followed the introduction, I started to think about my personal feminism and whether there was anything else I needed to challenge myself on. I started by trying to articulate what my feminism is.

I am an individual with a right to exist and hold opinions but no right to trample on or railroad other people. I have a right to think I’m correct, but also the right to change my mind and have my mind changed through discourse. I have a right to oppose anyone who tries to dominate me, and also to ignore them. I believe this is true for all people, regardless of gender.

Feminism is about respect for the individual and respect for the group when we organise for the greater good. It’s about equality. It’s about not making assumptions and about finding out who people are before judging them against some spurious benchmark. It’s about shouting when necessary, in opposition to injustice and prejudice.

It’s called feminism because the first fight was binary. It was about getting women the same social, political and economic rights as men. It’s about more than female and male now.

I thought about my attitudes and how I express my feminism. I’m political but I’m not radical. I’m a union member, but I don’t go to rallies. I strike, but I don’t picket. I believe in the personal more than the collective. I exercise my democratic rights, I try to influence through voting and asking questions of my MP. I try to live by my principles and hope that they have an effect on those I know.

I have what I think of as a ‘male’ approach to life, but actually it’s a human approach that has become gendered because men have held the power for so long. Thinking about some of the ‘male’ stereotypes that apply to me, if I can get someone else to do something so that I can laze around reading or watching TV or sleeping in or doing something I’m more interested in, I will. I don’t like people telling me what to do, or diminishing my abilities. I don’t like people removing my autonomy. I particularly don’t like it when men do it. In fact, I’ve realised recently that I have a real problem with men telling me what to do. Even when they have more knowledge than me and I’m there specifically to learn from them. I find it patronising and I struggle to believe that they actually know better than me, because I assume they only believe they know more than me because they are male. Sometimes I feel guilty about these things, because the gendered norm that women are the helpers, the carers, the nice people influences me and makes me feel selfish when I do things to please me. Penny covers this well in the second group of essays.

She also covers aspects of how I feel in the article that opens part four of the book. In it, Penny talks about how she has never quite felt like a woman, but has never wanted to be a man, either. Her struggle with society being unable to accept her inbetween-ness led to an eating disorder and an attempt by the doctors to persuade her that she was a repressed homosexual and needed to come out. Penny identifies as genderqueer. She sees sexuality and gender as fluid. So do I. I identify as a woman, although I have joked from time to time that I might be a camp gay man in a woman’s body. Sometimes, though, I feel like I’m both male and female. It makes sense to me that we’re all both male and female, to one degree or another. Society’s insistence that some human attributes are distinctly male and others distinctly female is what causes some men to have difficulty expressing their emotions and seeking help when they need it, and some women to bottle up how they feel in order to be seen as acceptable and low risk in the world of work. It makes people ill, it prevents people from doing the things they want to do and are suited to, and prevents people fulfilling their potential. It’s ridiculous.

As a child, I was described as a tomboy. I preferred dungarees to dresses. My long hair irritated me because it got in the way of doing things. I preferred to play out with boys because they did practical stuff like climb trees, jump brooks, build things out of Lego™ and talk about cars instead of playing house. Sabrina was my favourite Charlie’s Angel. Wonder Woman was the superhero I wanted to be. Princess Leia was amazing. The Bionic Woman was better than the Bionic Man, but Action Man was better than Cindy or Pippa. I liked helping my dad out with mechanical and DIY things just as much as I liked baking, sewing and reading with mum.

As a teenager, I was uncomfortable with the way my pubescent body was headed, all curves and hips and boobs. I hated the way teenage boys reacted to me and adult men stared at my body before they noticed me. If they noticed me. I over-ate to make myself unattractive. I shrouded my overweight body in men’s clothing. I cut my hair short. Some people made and voiced the assumption that I was a lesbian. I know that I’m not. I also know that it doesn’t matter, because I’m me and everyone is different. That’s why I think feminism is about more than just female versus male now, and I agree with Penny that the attitude of second wave feminists like Germaine Greer, but also Suzanne Moore, Julie Bindel and Julie Birchall, towards transsexual and transgender women is disgraceful. The focus needs to be on the right for everyone to be treated with decency and respect, without their gender being used as a filter to keep one section of society in a position of power.

What Penny says in the book about marriage, motherhood and the emotional work that goes into them expresses much of how I feel, too.

… marriage and babies have always been way down my list of priorities … There’s too much else I want to do. I’ve made the same choice that men my age have been able to make for centuries without being scolded by society, or even having to think about it too much … As women writers around the world open up, for the first time in generations, about regrets they have nursed in private over marriage and motherhood, the work involved in both is finally becoming visible. The key phrase here is ’emotional labour’. Emotional labour … is not just the cleaning and the cooking and the wiping of snotty noses, but the organisation of households and relationships, the planning of marriage and fertility, the attention paid to birthdays and anniversaries, the soothing of stress, the remembering of food allergies – all the work, in short, that goes into keeping human beings happy on an intimate level. Someone has to do it, and the burden has fallen onto women to such an extent that it has been naturalised, made invisible by the assumption that women and girls are just built to take care of all this stuff, if not by God then by nature, with a great deal of pseudo-scientific hand-waving over the specifics. The idea that we might not be, and that we might furthermore be fed up of doing so thanklessly and for free, is profoundly threatening to the smooth running of society as we know it.

But I’m married, so how can I agree with what Penny says? I can agree with her and be married because my personal attitude to marriage is that it’s a social construct, not a romantic requirement, and I only wanted to do it because I fell in love with someone who, within the male purview that he has inherited as much as I have inherited the equivalent female one, sees me as his equal and not a surrogate mother and doesn’t expect either of us to give up our financial independence in the form of control over what we earn and how we spend it. My choice was made freely. I love him and marriage is a personal statement of commitment to him that feels more significant to me than cohabiting and setting up a joint bank account. As Penny says, “When partnership ceases to be mandatory, it only becomes more special.” If I have any difficulty with marriage as an institution, it’s because of external opinions, attitudes and expectations that I still carry a nagging sense of obligation to. I sometimes catch myself thinking that I’m a bad wife because I do less housework than him and because I believe him to be responsible for himself and don’t take on that role for him any more than he takes it on for me. Social conditioning, eh? It’s a bugger.

The sections called Backlash and Violence are my favourites. These draw on more recently published essays and are stronger because Penny’s developing world view is stronger. As the section titles suggest, these essays don’t make for easy reading, particularly not those that reflect on rape and other forms of abuse, but I’d say they’re essential reading if feminists of all genders and ages are to grasp what needs to happen next in changing societal attitudes to women and girls.

Every generation of self-defined progressives has to tackle the fact that progress doesn’t end with them. Every generation of liberals has to deal with its discomfort when younger people continue to demand liberation.

If what seemed progressive twenty years ago is deemed intolerant today, that simply means that the world is moving on.

The final section, Future, examines how a feminist future has been imagined by female writers like Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, N K Jemisin, and Sherri Tepper, and by male writers too numerous to name but who almost exclusively subscribe to neoconservative patriarchal views. Penny considers, too, how film making is starting to change and women are taking on roles previously the preserve of men. It interested me that much of the way in which men imagine a feminist future involves women behaving in the way men have for centuries – subjugating the opposite sex in a weird revenge on them for their different biology. The women writers, only one of whom I’ve read so far, focus on an equal future, where everyone has a role to play to ensure survival. Neocon men are such babies.

The book ends with these words, which I like a lot.

If you can imagine spaceships, if you can imagine time-travel, if you can conjure entire languages and alien races out of the wet space behind your eyes, you shouldn’t have a problem imaging a society beyond patriarchy. A feminist future may be inconceivable – but it is coming nonetheless. It is already being written and rewritten by those who reject the brostrodamus logic of late capitalism, by those who refuse to cling to the paleofutures of previous times.

7 thoughts on “Bitch Doctrine: essays for dissenting adults

  1. This is a fantastic review, I very much enjoyed it. Thanks for the shout out for my review- it was a struggle for me to be succinct, because like you I found so much to think about my own lived feminism in the book. A lot of your thoughts really resonated with me – thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Cathy.
      I sometimes wish I could be more succinct, but I often find I have lots to say in reaction to the books I read. When I started this blog, I’d thought it might turn into a review site and I might go down the Net Galley route, but I know that I would struggle to write quick-read overviews!


  2. The sign of a good book is how much it resonates, I think. And Penny has obviously made you think! I found that she gave me the language to talk about stuff that wasn’t necessarily part of my experience, but for which I have sympathy (like the discussion around gender queerism, for example). She amazing to listen to live as well, if you ever get the chance.


    1. The thing I’ve taken from it is that you can be passionate about something without needing to be strident. I feel as though I can talk more easily about my feminism and challenge any misogyny that I encounter without becoming over emotional and simply telling people to fuck off, now.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good work! It all helps that feeling of not being marooned, that it’s not just me thinking these things. I take a lot of comfort knowing that’s there’s an ever growing movement of young women who are also very cross.

        Liked by 1 person

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