The bullying of adult human females
Teaching our kids to stand up to bullies is hollow if we turn a blind eye to its impact on our fellow women
On Monday my primary aged kid wore odd socks to school, to mark the start of ‘Anti Bullying Week’. In our house, we have a basket in the utility room known as the ‘Vat of Socks' and it is a lucky person indeed who can find a matching pair in there, so I’m hoping Odd Socks Day really catches on and becomes, if possible, a daily event. As it was, it was a good start to the week, with at least five minutes of time saved that morning that would usually have been wasted in ‘Sock Hunting’ (say it repeatedly under your breath as you search the Vat and it takes on a new meaning).
I’ve had an awful fortnight. As some of you may have read in my diary ‘Blow by blow’, I woke up in London the morning after the absolute high of attending the Reith lecture with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to a phonecall from my partner. He had crashed the car on the school run. Luckily nobody was hurt apart from our Skoda, Britney Gears, who was a write-off and in the way of all popstars needed to be replaced with a younger model. The next few days were spent on the emotional and practical fall-out, which mainly involved spending more time on Auto Trader than I would have liked.
A few days after that I had to go to the Midlands for the funeral of my uncle, an absolutely fantastic man who I adored. As well as the awfulness of losing such a funny, vibrant person, his loss also marked the passing of the last of the trio of men who were the male grown-ups of my childhood: my grandad, my dad, and now him. I felt a lot of grief, not just for him, but for the passing of the years - all that existential shit. It was hard.
One weird thing that can come as a surprise when you lose people is that real life doesn’t stop. All the same usual trivial crap keeps coming and you have to keep dealing with it, even though on the inside you are hollow and sore. You can still have a laugh, too, as we all did at the wake last Friday at a Working Men’s Club where the price of a round of drinks - two pints and a large white wine for £9 - took you right back to the nineties (which let’s face it, is where many of us often wish we could be).
Grief is a bully, that keeps on showing up and getting in the way of your life, and life is a bully that keeps on showing up and getting in the way of your grief. Neither life nor grief care how you feel or that you might not have time for them right now. They don’t want to know what other stuff you have going on. They don’t give you space or respite. In the couple of days before I travelled to the Midlands for the funeral, the same people who bullied me in November 2020 - and who bullied me on several occasions before that - decided to show up and defame me on a Facebook post from my publisher about my book, The Positive Birth Book. They didn’t stop to ask if this was a good time for me.
In those same days, news was breaking that the Midwifery Council of New Zealand was updating its ‘scope of practice’ to remove the words ‘mother’ and ‘woman’. This triggered a social media debate in the ‘birth world’ about the changes, some of which I found frustrating to watch. Midwives were saying things like, “I’m fully supportive of additive language but this is taking things too far”, and, “I don’t understand why this is happening, it’s shocking!”. In between choosing which black dress to wear to the funeral, I thought about how many of them had said nothing to defend me when I was being called, ‘dangerous’, ‘toxic’ and ‘violent’ for defending the words ‘woman’ and ‘mother’, almost exactly two years ago. In New Zealand itself in August 2021 a petition was launched to deplatform me from a conference by people who described me as ‘the devil incarnate’. Where were these midwives when all this was happening and why were these people now surprised?
Being bullied can make you bitter. The bullies themselves pack a visceral punch; short and sharp, it knocks the wind out of you. But this doesn’t hurt as much or last as long as the silence of the bystanders - those whose legs you see when you have been knocked to the ground or shoved under the bus; very much in the vicinity, very much aware of your suffering, very much still standing. The rational part of your mind can understand they are silent to protect themselves. A deeper part feels they are unforgivable.
I rarely talk about the negative impact of the bullying I’ve experienced. Almost certainly this is because putting on a front of being ‘absolutely fine’ feels like one way of sticking it to the people who tried to destroy me. Not going away, not being silenced, not being upset or hurt - these are all forms of revenge. A hug from Chimamanda on my instagram - as thrilling as it is in and of itself - can also be a giant ‘fuck you’ to the people who tried to ruin my life, perhaps in particular when they realise that the reason this multi-award winning writer and intellectual is hugging me is because she thinks how they treated me was ‘obscene’.
Underneath the front of ‘absolutely-fine-look-at-me-I’m-hugging-Chimamanda’, I’m not always fine. Like grief, the memory of being bullied lashes at you unexpectedly, particularly when other things in your life are not going to plan. The imposter syndrome that is part and parcel of trying to write or create, the low self-esteem I’ve always battled with, the existential crisis of peri-menopause, the times when you have money worries or your kids are unhappy or you can’t find a matching pair of socks…all of these and more make happy bedfellows with the voices of people who have written all over social media that you are a bad person, a failure, a fraud and a toxin.
We teach our children to talk about bullying, to speak out and support each other and get help. But in the meantime, one of the worst epidemics of bullying any of us have ever witnessed is taking place daily on social media, as woman after woman is ostracised, defamed, deplatformed and pilloried for speaking up for women’s rights. Whether you agree or disagree with their views shouldn’t affect your judgement that what is happening to them is disproportionate and unfair. It’s bullying. And to say that this is a problem between gender critical feminists and trans activists is also wildly reductionist. There is disproportionate pillorying of women going on within feminism itself.
And there is disproportionate pillorying of women going on completely outside the feminist discourse. The birth world, supposedly full of cuddly and caring midwives and doulas, turned viciously on high-profile influencer (and midwife) Clemmie Hooper in 2019 when she was caught using a fake profile on a site called ‘Tattle’, apparently in an attempt to defend her own reputation. Everyone, myself included, was made to publicly condemn her. The author Kate Clanchy was recently subjected to a similar demise in the publishing world. In both cases, the women involved had undoubtedly made mistakes. In both cases, they almost certainly had other stuff going on in their lives that compounded their vulnerability. And in both cases, the backlash was completely disproportionate and absolutely horrific, the kind of punishment you would surely not wish on your worst enemy. But even naming and defending them here - not their actions, but their right not to be savagely bullied to the point of possible self harm - will perhaps place me in the firing line for ‘guilt by association’. Everyone agrees they said something racist, and, under the current rules, this means they deserve for their lives to be destroyed, and if you speak up for them, you’re a racist too.
What is the end-game of those meting out these show trials and public executions? Have they noticed that the majority of people in the virtual dock are female, and if so, does this bother them? Do they feel that justice is truly being served? Do they feel the world will become a better place once every wrong thinker has been ‘educated’ or dispatched? How will they feel if one of the recipients of these attacks actually takes their own life? Will this still be just and fair in their opinion? Perhaps this has already happened, perhaps this kind of behaviour has been the final straw for someone whose name I do not know. Being bullied by a large group of people, on social media where unlimited numbers can watch and participate, and having your reputation, career, livelihood, friendships and life as you know it completely destroyed is not something that is easy to survive. The dancer and choreographer Rosie Kay has become a friend of mine as she and I have both tried to navigate the aftermath of this kind of bullying. We have been honest with each other about how it has affected us and this, along with the support of many other women, has helped. Both of us are finding that rebuilding your life after such an experience takes an extraordinary amount of support and resilience. Not everyone who is bullied will have this. The bullies will not stop to check.
Getting our children to wear odd socks to school is an empty gesture if we continue to allow the bullying of adults. Nobody, even those who’s views we find repellant, deserves to have their life destroyed.
Tomorrow I will publish a brilliant piece by Rosie on her own experience of being bullied, and on Friday, we hope to do a podcast together to share our thoughts. Make sure you are subscribing so you don’t miss it.