A few years ago I wrote a post in which I compared the policing of online feminist discourse to the use of the scold’s bridle, an iron muzzle placed on the heads of women deemed to be social transgressors. It’s a comparison I find myself returning to again and again.
The purpose of the bridle was not just to shame the individual woman, but to manage the speech of all. The bridle isn’t placed on the heads of all women; it doesn’t have to be, nor is it even supposed to be. If, as Kate Manne argues in Down Girl, sexism is “the branch of patriarchal ideology that justifies and rationalises a patriarchal social order” (her italics) whereas misogyny is “the system that polices and enforces its governing norms and expectations”, then use of the bridle clearly falls into the latter camp.
Looking at pictures of the bridle today, we can see it does more than single out or shame the wearer. It makes her appear ugly, monstrous even, while causing her physical pain. It reinforces the image of her as dangerous, even as others do her harm. Regardless of the validity of any claims made against her, it is the punishment itself that closes the case for the prosecution.
This could be slotted into a well-known victim-blaming narrative, the “look what you made me do” line used by the abuser to suggest the extreme nature of his attack serves as proof of how much his victim deserved it. I don’t think it’s quite that, though (although this line remains widely used and indeed believed). The scold’s bridle represents more than supposed retaliation for past events; it’s actively positioning a woman as a monster in the here and now. What this says to other women is not just “don’t replicate her past transgression”; it’s “don’t transgress, or you will be forced to transgress again and again and again”. The bridle causes not just physical and emotional distress; it enacts a form of moral defilement.
I think we can draw many comparisons between the use of the bridle in the sixteenth century and the use of social media to silence women today. Nevertheless, not all attempts to police women’s speech work in this way. It strikes me that it is particularly when women wish to talk about issues related to embodied experience, sex-based oppression, gendered language and sex segregation – essential topics for feminists to be able to discuss on their own terms – that the bridle comes out.
For instance, some of the most graphic threats I’ve ever had in response to things I’ve written have come from fans of the footballer Ched Evans. First convicted, then acquitted, of rape, he’s become a rape culture touchstone. The underlying motivations of his cheerleaders have never been particularly mysterious. But if I were to share things that have been tweeted at or emailed to me in response to an Evans article, my moral authority wouldn’t be undermined in the eyes of those who saw them; on the contrary, it would be boosted. Look at me, fighting the good fight. You’re not a real feminist until an Evans fan’s wishing you’d hurry up and die of womb cancer, right?
It is not the same if similar threats follow articles on issues such as the language we use to talk about who gets pregnant or possible links between breast binding and body hatred. These are not “good fight” threats; these are “bridle” threats, ones which superimpose the image of – and responsibility for – violence on the target.
I think this is an important distinction. At a time when many feminists are writing passionately and clearly against the silencing of women in general, there is nonetheless a gaping hole right at the centre of their argument. The one form of silencing that is rarely mentioned is the silencing of women who want clarity regarding basic words we use – and need – for feminism to function: woman, man, male, female, feminine, masculine, sex, gender. “Whatever you identify it to be” – a solipsistic argument which sidesteps the relational nature of definitions – is not enough (and I know, some people will be reading this and thinking “hang on, lots of people are saying this. They’re not silenced. It’s just that they’re all TERFs”. Which is kind of my point).
In Mary Beard’s Women and Power: A Manifesto, the academic lists examples of the silencing of women from Ancient Greece and Rome up to the 2016 presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. She also includes examples from her own life. One example she doesn’t mention: a letter to the Observer from February 2015, in which she and numerous other signatories expressed concern at the use of no-platforming to “prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists”:
The feminists who hold these views have never advocated or engaged in violence against any group of people. Yet it is argued that the mere presence of anyone said to hold those views is a threat to a protected minority group’s safety.
I understand that you can’t mention everything, especially not in a short book that is the combination of two separately written articles (and perhaps I only remember this because I signed that letter, too). Nonetheless, I find it a little jarring to write on the silencing of women without mentioning the problematising of the very word “woman”, given that it cannot be something of which you are unaware. It’s easy to complain about Trump-supporter bullies, imposing Clinton’s head on that of Medusa. It’s different when the risk of being morally tainted is closer to home. If signing a letter means you have students accusing you of denying their very existence, maybe it’s best never to mention that letter again. When a woman signs the wrong letter – or favourites the wrong tweet – it’s best written off as a “middle-aged moment”.
Which is what has happened in the case of JK Rowling favouriting a tweet relating to trans politics earlier this week. We don’t know why she did this (WTF is a “middle-aged moment” anyhow?) but here, in any case, are some of the responses to this:
What do you think when reading these? “Wow, here are some people who really get off on the idea of choking a woman who doesn’t agree with them?” Or, “wow, JK Rowling’s really upset the trans community, I’m never going to read any of her books again”? Or, perhaps if you’re a woman, “wow, I’m never going to do anything that leads to me becoming tainted like her”?
I am not asking you to agree with the content of that tweet (although I’d note that it does not recommend choking, beating or any other form of violence). I am asking what the effect of the response to it is intended to be and whether it is driven by misogyny, defined as “the system that polices and enforces patriarchy’s governing norms and expectations” (one of which is that women remain silent, and another of which is that women remain compassionate, giving and without boundaries at all times).
Similarly, what is the purpose of tweets such as these?
To define – albeit ever so loosely, with always room for more – a subset of women whom it is okay to fantasise about beating? To “prove” that any woman who expresses the view that, say, “penis is male” or “lesbians shouldn’t be told they need to be attracted to people with penises”, is morally irredeemable? To show that you – the person who is a feminist (it says so in your twitter bio) – are such a victim that the worst misogynist threats are nothing, nothing, compared to your existential erasure at the sound of a woman’s “no”? To legitimise real-life acts of violence? To walk the woman – who could be any woman – through the market square and make sure everyone sees the monster?
They do all of these things, again and again and again.
You may be thinking “well, I’m not a TERF, so”. I would point out that any of the following things might put you on the TERF radar: using the phrase “male violence”, not wanting to have penetrative sex with someone who has a penis, talking about “sex-based oppression”, being Caitlin Moran or Lena Dunham or any popular feminist writer who happened to look at someone a bit funny on a Friday once, using the term FGM, being someone’s idea of “that old stereotype of lesbians that they are ugly and bitchy and thus can’t get men so they sleep with women”. I would suggest, just to be on the safe side, you never favourite tweets. Or open your mouth. Or leave the house. Just don’t do anything other than say “yes” on command.
Everyone decides what battles they’re willing to fight. But if “women being silenced” is your thing, I would suggest it’s worth asking what exactly is going on here. It’s probably worth doing it soon, too, while you still have the language to do it with any degree of coherence. How long before “silencing” gets earmarked “dogwhistle TERF” and have I contributed to this day getting any nearer?
(Sorry. We’re already there.)