Innocent Victims? Isn’t that just another way of blaming women and girls for men’s violence?

The phrase “innocent victim” has re-emerged to describe Sabrina Moss – a 24-year old teacher who was shot dead in London as she celebrated her birthday in August 2013 – in British bastions of judgemental conservative journalism The Daily Mail and the Express.

It’s a phrase that came in to my consciousness when it was used to describe 16-year-old Jane MacDonald who was murdered on 26 June 1977 by being hit on the head with a hammer three times and stabbed in the chest and back around 20 times. When her face-down body was turned over by police, they found a broken bottle complete with screw-top embedded in her chest.  She was murdered by Peter Sutcliffe and was the fifth woman of thirteen that he is known to have killed.  Before her, there had been 28-year-old Wilma McCann, beaten with a hammer and stabbed to death in October 1975; 42-year-old Emily Jackson, beaten with a hammer and stabbed 52 times with a screw-driver in January 1975; Irene Richardson, 28, beaten with a hammer and stabbed and slashed with a Stanley knife in February 1977 and Patricia Atkinson, 32, beaten and clawed with a hammer and also stabbed, in April 1977.  Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson and Patricia Atkinson had not been described by the press as innocent victims.  Why? Because Jane MacDonald was the first woman known to have been murdered by Sutcliffe who was not in prostitution.  Sutcliffe himself shared this belief that prostituted women were less worthy than none prostituted women.  In his confession, referring to Jane MacDonald, he said

“The next one I did I still feel terrible about, it was the young girl Jayne MacDonald. I read recently about her father dying of a broken heart and it brought it all back to me. I realised what sort of a monster I had become. I believed at the time I did it that she was a prostitute.”

and

“When I saw in the papers that MacDonald was so young and not a prostitute, I felt like someone inhuman and I realised that it was a devil driving me against my will and that I was a beast.”

Leaving aside Sutcliffe’s failure to take responsibility for his actions –  blaming them on being driven by the devil, not his own violent misogyny –  the implication is clear, that beating and stabbing four prostituted women to death was something less than monstrous. He became a monster when he killed Jane, not when he had killed Wilma, Emily, Irene and Patricia.

This week, Oscar Pistorius was found not guilty of the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, the woman he killed.  State prosecutor Gerrie Nel refered to Pistorius as causing “the death of an innocent woman” and again referred to him being “convicted of a serious crime of killing an innocent woman.”  Of course, Reeva Steenkamp, in comparison to Pistorius was innocent, but surely that is almost always the case when comparing murder victims to their killers.    If not innocent, what are they? Guilty? Or perhaps somehow complicit in their own death?

Despite attempts at law reform, some women’s complicity in their own murders is still implied indeed enshrined  in British law.  Academic Adrian Howe has looked at infidelity in the sentencing of men convicted of intimate partner homicide.  She points out that  “For over 300 years, criminal courts have regarded sexual infidelity as sufficiently grave provocation as to provide a warrant, indeed a ‘moral warrant’, for reducing murder to manslaughter.”  and that whilst “ ‘sexual infidelity’ was expressly excluded as a trigger for loss of control in the new loss of control defence laid down in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009”, “sexual infidelity still has mitigating prowess” in diminished responsibility pleas, as does men’s ‘distress’ if they kill a partner who is in the process of leaving them.  This ‘distress’ could just as easily be described men’s entitlement, or their rage that their partner has the audacity to reject them and move on.  A woman’s murder is somehow less heinous, deserving a reduced plea of manslaughter or a reduced sentence, if the court accepts that something that she did contributed to a man’s choice to kill her.

Dead women get no opportunity to defend their character; but even if they could, it should not make a difference.   Victims of violence should not be graded according to their worth, the balance would inevitably be tipped to discredit those not deemed to be ‘good’ women according to a scale reflecting class-biased and sexist values of what a woman should be.  We can see this when we look at the justice system and men’s sexual violence against women.  Women are not equal in the eyes of the law. The concept of ‘lady-like’ behaviour controls, judges and stratifies; acceptable/respectable standards of woman or girlhood align with middle-class standards of conduct and appearance.  Catharine MacKinnon argued  that the law divides women along indices of consent from ‘the virginal daughter’ to ‘whorelike wives and prostitutes’ with women who meet standards closer to the former, less likely to be found to have consented to unwanted intercourse, more likely to be believed regarding rape and sexual violence. Women who are socially or educationally disadvantaged are less likely to ‘perform well’ in the criminal justice system1 and women from working-class backgrounds are more likely to refuse to adhere to the status of victim, more likely to endure/cope and more likely to minimise injury2, as victims is it we who are on trial, we who are judged and the men who attack us who benefit from our perceived innocence.  In Rotherham, Manchester, Nottingham, Oxford and beyond, we’ve seen how labelling girls as slags and troublemakers allows the men who abuse to continue to do so.

Women victims of male violence should not have unequal status under the law.  Whether we have fucked one man or woman or five hundred; whether we pay our bills though prostitution, preaching, teaching or trust funds. Our laws, written by white middle-class men, favour white middle-class men and all women victims of male violence deserve justice, not just those of us who according to some scale of judgement are deemed ‘innocent’.

 

1 Temkin 2002b:6

2 Skeggs, 2005:971

 

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Sorry, I can’t join your campaign to end male primogeniture, I’m washing my hair

Liza Campbell is campaigning to end male primogeniture – the practice of inheritance of estate and title by the eldest male child.  She explains why she believes it is a feminist issue here.  I’ve already written about becoming class conscious before sex-class conscious and self-identifying as a feminist here.  It didn’t take me long to work out how to reconcile class and sex oppression but I will never  forget that feeling of alienation, difference and being “less than”, when I first experienced ‘posh girls’  en masse (and yes, that’s exactly how I saw them and also exactly what I called them) at ‘A’ level college in Yorkshire in the mid-1980s.  So Campbell’s sentence: “ “Why the hell should we care about posh girls?” I hear you say.” gave me a good dose of ear steam.

Of course male primogeniture is wrong.  Of course.  Of course anything that privileges men over women is wrong.  But that doesn’t mean that ending the sex inequality is more important than ending the inequality.  Campbell ends her piece by saying that if we wish to sneer, then we must also sneer at Brahmin women and Senate Masupha too.  She’s right and I will.  I’d also ask her whether she is using cultural liberalism and the fear of appearing racist to bolster her argument in favour of maintaining inherited class privilege.  Indeed, she uses the practice of female genital mutilation, a form of abuse that for years many white liberals squirmed to condemn because of the fear of condemning a harmful practice in a culture subjugated in the UK, to illustrate the problem of female doorkeepers of patriarchy and the difficulty of dissent for a culture’s daughters.  Please don’t compare a girl’s right to survive with her genitals intact to another’s to be called Lady Blah-di-blah and inherit the family mansion.

Campbell describes the dilemma of being someone who “by accident of birth, finds herself the daughter of an earl.” She says that she doesn’t use her title and is deracinated from that life.  She says that refusal to help her struck her as the worst sort of inverted snobbery.  I might just probably be too busy to help her ‘cos I am too busy googling ‘deracinated’ because my life chances haven’t brought that word in to my vocabulary just yet. Though seriously, I am not going to help her because the answer to one form of inequality of accidental birth (male primogeniture and indeed maleness per se) is not to overlook and ignore other forms of inherited privilege.

I do agree with Campbell that everything is connected.  Though where she argues that “every struggle for women’s rights should be supported; every infringement resisted” I cannot agree. No-one should inherit titles. No-one should inherit wealth, privilege and status over others. No-one should inherit a free-pass to a privileged education that will set that person up for privilege for life. No-one should inherit poverty under the benefits-cap, insecure housing, being born in a war zone.  Food, shelter, safety, education  – and world equality in our right to access these – are surely our goals.  I wish I believed that I’ll see a world in which inequality between people has been erased before I die, but I don’t.  However this will not stop me trying to contribute to creating that world.  In my vision of an equal world, women will be liberated from patriarchal oppression,  male primogeniture will not exist, but I am not interested in ending it for the benefit of privileged women.

On becoming a working class feminist and ‘choice’: a personal reflection

history is history of class struggles

I’ve been to two feminist events this year where the issue of class was presented by women who were not working-class or of working-class background. Each woman (three women, two events) was an articulate speaker who raised interesting and valid points but that isn’t the issue, as feminists there is no need for us to make class an anthropological issue.  Sure, feminism has a class problem, but that does not mean that there aren’t any feminists who are able to articulate class issues from a position as anything other than ‘other’.  It’s only as I wrote this that I realised how much I talked about ‘choice’ and how my own story is about the ways that class and sex influence and limit choice.

I’m not going to even try to define class here, I’ll leave that to the sociologists; but rather than continue to gripe about middle-class feminists commandeering class, I thought I ought to talk about what being a working-class feminist means to me.

My mother and biological father met working in John Crowther’s Mill, a textile manufacturing mill in Milnsbridge, West Yorkshire. It was 1967, the year that the Abortion Act was passed in the British parliament.  Pregnant at 17 to a married Sicilian immigrant who didn’t speak very much English, my mother married her on-off boyfriend,  I’m not sure how much ‘right to choose’ she really had.  She doesn’t recall knowing that abortion was an option –“I never even thought about it,” –  and the same with the pill, which had been available since 1961 “I never even thought about that either, I might’ve heard of it ….”.  There was perhaps a 50-50 chance that she was marrying the father of her soon-to-be child, but she wasn’t; the best-man, not the groom was the daddy, though it was  much later that I became aware of this.  As far as I was concerned, up until my early 20s, I was the daughter of an ex-mill worker/factory packer/auxiliary-nurse/shop-worker mother and a plumber/builder dad.

Class is not simply about poverty.  We weren’t poor. My mother had been, she’d grown up as the third child and oldest girl of 12 siblings.  I’ve heard stories of six-mile walks in winter by children to borrow coal from relatives; the need to get home early to get the best pick of clothes for a night out; shared beds, not just shared rooms; coats that doubled as blankets and lying to friends about birthday presents that never transpired.  I never went hungry and most of our meals were home cooked, the smattering of convenience foods being more about exciting 70s fashions than anything else.  My ‘dad’ was controlling (tight) with money, though I’d say this was more about control and power than poverty, he drove a flash American imported sports car, but my sister and I grew up in a mixture of new clothes, family hand-me-downs and jumble-sale bargains, but if that was poverty or disadvantage, I was barely aware of it .  My mum’s youngest sister, my aunt, was less than four years older than me and I looked up to her, growing into the clothes that she was growing out of was a welcomed rite of passage,  The annual jumble sale at my primary school a much anticipated event among all my friends.  Memories of a new coat from C&A (for anyone who doesn’t know, by no means an expensive brand) are bittersweet, my mum cutting the price label out and telling me to pretend that it had cost less than it actually had because she wasn’t supposed to spend that much on clothes. Years later,  she told me that one of the reasons she’d returned to work was because ‘she wasn’t given’ enough money for clothes for the children. I remember walking to school with a friend, I would have been any age between 8 and 11, and her telling me that her dad said ‘if he had your dad’s money, he’d spend more of it on his children’, and trying to argue my way out of the stinging indignant humiliation.

I was educated at local state schools, attending one of the country’s first purpose-built comprehensives, long before the concept of choice was widely used in free education.  For whatever reasons, I did ‘well’ at school.  My secondary school was large, I think approximately 1,800 pupils;  some classes were streamed according to ability, so in time, though I wasn’t conscious of this, my peers became increasingly (but by no means exclusively) those doing well at school  and, therefore,  not coincidentally, increasingly those from relatively privileged backgrounds.  Looking back, class meant my subject choices at ‘O’ and ‘A’ level weren’t hampered by the parental influence of the need to build a good career foundation, less pressure to revise and no pressure to stick at learning to play an instrument, things that I experienced as freedoms and which were sometimes the envy of friends from more advantaged backgrounds. So, I picked ‘O’ levels based on a mixture of what I wanted, which teachers I wanted to avoid and some minor school regulations based on what was deemed appropriate –or not – for a bright kid. (Therefore a language and not typing or the wonderfully named ‘office practise’, and physics not general science.)

I didn’t really choose to do ‘A’ levels but picked some because that’s what my peers were doing (again free choice so: Sociology, Geography and Art) and a further education college rather than the  small school sixth form because I’d snogged and was avoiding too many of the boys that would have been in the sixth form.  I wasn’t sure that I’d end up at the sixth form college anyway, I applied for jobs over the summer holiday and remember receiving a lovely hand-written letter from  Batley’s Cash and Carry telling me that I had ‘far too much going for me’ to leave school and work there.  My ‘dad’ asked me why I was bothering, I’d only be having babies, so I was just wasting time.

‘A’ level college was the first time I recall experiencing class making me feel different.  The main intakes were from local fee-paying schools, or so it seemed, maybe it was just that I knew only a handful of similar stragglers from my old school and they were a slightly larger,  but much louder,  pack. I felt silenced by their confident chatter, although also from Huddersfield their accents were different from mine.  I didn’t mix with them. I couldn’t like The  Smiths, ‘cos they did. I dropped ‘A’ level art because I couldn’t find my voice amongst theirs, I had a nagging feeling that I was as good as most of them, better than some, but I knew that after college, if this was what I had to compete with, I would be lost.

Around the same time, I started doing an evening class in psychology.  I hadn’t chosen biology ‘O’ level, so this was my introduction to dominant and recessive genes. The tutor of my class must have been relieved when I decided that my impossible ‘dominant gene’ brown eyes from parents with recessive gene blue and green eyes and my blond and blue-eyed younger brother and sister meant that I must be a ‘genetic throw-back’.  I remember coming home and talking about it, and what now I might call the sound of tumbleweed.

Through sociology, I found a name for the feeling of being different: class.  It was 1984/85, although Huddersfield was a mill not a mining town, the miners’ strike felt alive around us and anyway the job losses were echoed in the decline of the mills.  I discovered Billy Bragg and pop and politics merged in my teenage identity. Sometime after ‘class’, sociology introduced me to the concept of feminism.   “How stupid!”, I thought, how could I ever have more in common with the posh girls from the private schools than a man who worked in a pit? Luckily though, as we moved on to socialist and radical feminism, the ideas of women like Shulasmith Firestone and Sheila Rowbotham showed me how class and feminist politics needn’t be mutually exclusive – and honestly, since the exposure to ideas through ‘A’ level sociology,  nothing has been the same.

I drifted into university much in the same was that I drifted into ‘A’ levels.  My mum had left my dad.  I was the first of my family to go to university, though my grandparents’ twelve children have had twenty-five children between them and several of my cousins and one of my aunts have also since attended university.  I was in the South at the University of Kent. Northern, working-class, from a broken-home, back-combed hair, second hand 50/60s dresses and old men’s coats.  I felt different and I wanted it that way, but when the daughter of a doctor (she was studying law)  told me I was lucky, that I had a credibility that she could never have, I knew she was talking shite.  I stuck with sociology, read more about Marx, about domestic and sexual violence, about patriarchy.  We marched for miners, we marched against Thatcher, against Clause 28 and against the Poll Tax.  I learnt the truth about my parentage and those dominant gene brown eyes.  I wasn’t a genetic throw-back but half-Italian. What I saw in the mirror now made sense. I met my biological dad (if I was expecting Al Pacino or Robert De Niro, I got Danny De Vito) a handful of new half-brothers and sisters and my Sicilian/Italian family.

Having the benefit of a degree (through a free education) and a working-class background places me on a class margin, add to that a sense of always feeling ‘a bit different’ in the home I grew up in but not knowing why.  Neither one thing nor the other, always a bit too much of ‘something different’ to truly feel in place anywhere. If I’d ever doubted it, my work history in women’s refuges and hostels means that I have met countless women and children whose backgrounds and life chances make my own look steeped in advantage and privilege.  I can compare my own life to that of my mum, to my sister and brother and know that I have had opportunities that they have been denied.  But still, attending meetings with people whom I don’t know, especially ‘higher-ranking’ professionals means that when I first open my mouth and speak and my working-class Yorkshire accent comes out, I frequently detect a quick flicker of surprise in their eyes.  Being a woman and working-class means that I am no stranger to hearing an ignored suggestion that I have made earlier,  later  repeated by a man, or in a different accent or both, accepted and valued.  Being a woman and working-class means that only very recently, I stopped telling myself that long-haul holidays, talking on the radio, writing a blog, buying the car that I wanted were not for ‘people like me’.

Unlike age, disability, gender reassignment, disability, marriage/civil-partnership, pregnancy/maternity, race, religion/belief, sex and sexual orientation, class it not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 which sought to protect people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society, replacing previous anti-discrimination laws with a single Act.  It means that the analysis of class, of poverty, of the importance of access to education and their impact on life chances is missing from most equalities training and equality policies.  Its inclusion could potentially have created a tool with which to fight the policies of class-hate, the welfare reforms that disadvantage the poor  and stigmatise poverty,  the erosion of free education pushed through by recent governments of all persuasions.  Many of the accidental and fortuitous ‘choices’ that I made, are now denied to children who are like the child I was.

My mum has told me that she doesn’t know where I got my ‘strong opinions’ but I do: free education, a sociology degree and feminism.  Choice doesn’t exist without the limits of social context.  My life experiences and my education have made me the woman that I am, the choices that I didn’t have are as much part of me as the choices that I made.  Professor Liz Kelly recently made what seemed at the time to be a passing comment, that class was about access to ideas.  Looking at myself, this was absolutely critical.  The thing that changed me was access to ideas.

To those through history who fought for free and compulsory education for all children, for equality for girls and women, for every feminist, class warrior and teacher who shaped my ideas, and my mum –  accidental teenage parent without the choice of the pill or abortion and with a baby to ‘the wrong man’ – thank you for giving me somewhere to grow ‘strong opinions’.  To organisers of feminist events who, rightfully want to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of life opportunities according to class, let us working-class women with strong opinions speak for ourselves. We can, you know; and we have things to say that are worth listening to.