Casual Sexism


8th March 2023

Don’t pass us the mic until you’re ready to listen to what we’re saying.

If you’re a gender oppressed person who hangs out in left-wing circles, it’s not uncommon that you’ll find yourself drastically outnumbered by cis men. There's a strong precident for this; historically and even in the present-day, the imbalance of housework would mean that we would have proportionally less time to get involved in activism. Because the majority of jobs across the board used to be held by men, so too were membership of and involvement in trade unions. Their occupation of this space means that of the larger trade unions are still made up of people from traditionally male-dominated industries, and some of them bring banter from the shop floor right into trade union meetings. Younger men, just starting out in left-wing circles, will sometimes take their cue from those in established positions of power within the organisation and who themselves are overwhelmingly male, and the effect this can have includes widespread acceptance of casually sexist jokes and comments. Whatever the cause of this imbalance, however, it is not the result of gender oppressed people being somehow inherently less radical.

Often, the route for gender oppressed people towards getting involved with the left is specifically because they’ve directly experienced discrimination, meaning they logically see the left as being a good way of fighting against that discrimination. This can result in an imbalance from the outset; gender oppressed people can and do have a strong interest in theory in precisely the same way as cis men do, but there's a sense of added urgency for us when the oppression is happening all the time and to us in particular. In my own experience, theory was always secondary to the oppression I experienced, and it was this oppression rather than an interest in theory that led me to the left. The expectation I had was that the leftist scene would be safer for me than the outside world. After all, we're all lefties here, and we believe in equality and solidarity. When you encounter sexism in left-wing circles, it comes as a nasty surprise because there's the side helping of betrayal. We should be better than that.

On the face of it, it’s easy enough to dismiss few outdated jokes about women drivers, but there is a wider danger here that comes from gender oppressed people either not being believed, or having their concerns dismissed. It’s the thin end of the wedge, and often, it acts as our early warning sign; one of many. It also comes in the form of the exceptation that gender-oppressed people will be the ones to take the minutes at each meeting, that we'll be the ones to do the washing up afterwards, and that if we need childcare, that's our issue and our issue alone to sort out. Or it's the lack of recognition that if the vast majority of those active in your group are cis men, the likelihood is that you are doing something wrong, and the failure to proactively consider what that is and how to fix it. Certain voices get heard over others, and for those of us socialised as women, we are trained from an early age to not interrupt, to shut up and to put up. Accordingly, this can make it hard to provide your input and ideas in meetings, and yet there's often limited attention being paid to how meetings could be run differently to make them more inclusive. And all the while, it's often disproportionately cis men who get the glory after an action - the tip of the iceberg - while that action happened and their entire groups are kept running all thanks to the unacknowledged labour of people who are overwhelmingly gender oppressed.

The painstaking and draining labour that goes into accountability processes, too, is disproportionately performed by gender oppressed people. Abuse is all too common among left-wing organisations, and it's the ultimate result of casual misogyny. It’s so easy to fail to act, or to laugh along with sexist jokes, for fear of being thought of as too angry or overly serious, but when placed in this context, failing to call out casual sexism where you encounter it can help to create a progressively more dangerous climate of bullying and abuse.  And for those of us on the receiving end of misogyny in that climate, it's very like the frog in the boiling water analogy. It might not be obvious from the start, but ultimately we'll get badly hurt. 

Of course, this is exhausting on many levels. It is tiring to have to justify your presence at meetings when the underlying assumption is that you’re there because of a man; that you’ve been roped into something when you’d rather be shopping, that you couldn’t possibly have a political opinion or even an interest of your own. That you wouldn’t even have heard of Marx or Kropotkin, so the men in the meetings are doing you a favour by teaching you. The suspicion that you are only welcome in a group specifically and exclusively because you are a woman, because as long as the group has a quota of gender-oppressed people, the group appears diverse enough. The idea that rebellious women are welcome, right up until the point where they rebel against the men in the group. It is tiring even to have to complain about sexism when you’d rather be talking about something constructive and positive, while your male counterparts are able to write about whatever they want, independently of any quality innate to their identity.

On a practical level, it might be difficult for cis men to know what to do in terms of supporting gender oppressed people on the left beyond ‘passing the mic’. But being proactive and speaking up when misogyny happens, or actively stepping up to part in facilitating meetings and accountability processes, while all the bare minimum, is often the crucial first step, and it makes more of a difference and gives us far more power than many men truly understand.

Margaret Atwood wrote “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them”, and in my experience there is still a lack of understanding, even among men who identify as feminists. There’s an underlying assumption among some cis men that we’re all basically starting out on an equal footing and that the problem of patriarchy is not one of oppression but simply of miscommunication and misunderstanding, and meanwhile, it’s not uncommon for gender oppressed people to be raised to see men first as a threat. This then puts more of a burden of trust on the woman when establishing any kind of relationship with a man; your first priority, before everything else, is to ensure that he’s not a threat to you, and this is added to the burdens you already carry due to the expectation that you'll take on a disproportionate amount of the legwork in your organisation. And just as challenging sexism can have you painted as an angry, bitter woman, taking justified precautions for your safety can have you painted as boring, prudish or shy.

The left has no shortage of well-meaning men who will discuss feminist theory with you, recommend book after book to you and attend workshops with you. But all too often, they have their noses stuck in a book while their mate’s beating his girlfriend. The majority are not the perpetrators of violent sexist behaviour, but many are knowingly letting it happen because of their failure to act, and for us, as gender oppressed people, the results are exactly the same. We get hurt, time after time. It is killing us.

Challenging casual sexism on the left isn’t easy, nor does it provide a fast, neat solution to the problem of patriarchy, but making lasting changes to your group's structures and your own learned behaviour is worth doing in the spirit of trying to replicate in these groups the future we want to build for the world. Left unity isn’t left unity until it includes everyone involved, regardless of gender or gender identity. There is no point in passing us the mic unless you’re listening to what we have to say.■

 A member of the North East Flinta Group

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