If I had a pound for every time I’ve been called ‘opinionated,’ ‘bossy,’ or ‘difficult,’ I’d have been able to pay off at least 0.8% of my student loans by now, or treated myself to a few slightly flashier bottles of red wine than what’s ‘on offer’ that day. The point is, it’s a) not unusual for me to hear these words mentioned when someone is describing me and b) it’s not something I tend to take great offence to, anymore. That’s not to say that I think it’s necessarily a compliment to be brandished ‘bossy’ but what I do know, is that it means I’m being listened to and that my point is coming across.
I can remember, vividly, the first time I was called ‘difficult’ – in one ridiculous R.E. lesson in 3rd year, we were asked to write down what we considered to be poor (from what I can recall, the module was called something like ‘Christian Family Life’ and given the fact I attended a DUP voting, predominantly middle-class protestant Grammar school in the heart of Co Down, it was pretty clear to me that ‘Christian Family Life’ meant “combined income of £50k+ and at least two holidays abroad per year.”) I also knew the economic situations of many people in the class didn’t put them in this bracket, in fact far from it, additionally, I didn’t see what the relevance was between personal wealth and ‘Christian Values’ – but that’s neither here nor there. I told the teacher, a rude, angry and sectarian little man that I didn’t feel comfortable answering the question when I knew that the disparity between rich to poor within this classroom alone was pretty severe and that I didn’t want to run the risk of offended anyone without just cause. Being a hysterical and unempathetic little hobbit, the teacher brandished me ‘difficult’ sent me to the head of year, and demanded that I repeat myself all over again. Luckily the head of year, a gracious and understanding woman, related to my position, and let me off detention free, but it didn’t stop said R.E. teacher mentioning to my parents on the dreaded Parents Evening, that I was a ‘difficult’ and ‘disruptive’ pupil and that I stopped others in the class from carrying out their work. ( I must add that at this time in Northern Ireland it was totally legal to teach R.E. purely from a Protestant Christian viewpoint, so that ‘work’ consisted entirely of a select few questionable beliefs as it was.)
After that encounter, I felt like the ‘difficult’ label was more something to be proud of, than to take offence to, that being called out as difficult for standing up for something that I deemed unfair, as minuscule as the scenario was, was something I was okay with, if it meant I had earned the title by being associated with speaking out. Since that day, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been called one of the above; terms; increasingly so. Sometimes it’s not as harsh as ‘difficult’ perhaps just, outspoken, blunt or vocal, each one, I can’t help but feel comes with an undertone of being ‘difficult.’ Like my outspokenness is making someone else’s job a lot less simple. I don’t want to seem like I’m one of those ‘Please may I speak to the Manager?’ type characters, that’s always looking for something to be offended by, but I do wish to draw attention to the importance of speaking out in a situation that needs another perspective.
Earlier this week Ken Clarke, a Conservative politician brandished Theresa May, the UK Home Secretary as a ‘bloody difficult woman‘ – two or three days before this, in a totally unrelated event, Radio 4 Woman’s Hour had on air poet and ‘difficult’ woman Helen Mort, whilst on air she recited her poem ‘Difficult’ which offered advice to men who have been unfortunate enough to experience ‘difficult’ women and tips for spotting them. Whilst the poem had a tongue in cheek sentiment, it approached a very genuine and relevant topic, the putting down of strong and ambitious women by a patriarchal elite – in other words, men that are used to being in charge, not knowing how to deal with women with opinions and minds of their own, other than keeping them ‘in their place’ through a system designed to shame and embarrass any women that dares to step out of this trajectory, any woman that decides to be ‘difficult.’
In the run up to the recent EU Referendum, I began to ask my close female friends about whether or not they were voting. I guess rather obnoxiously, I was expecting a “what difference does it make to me” response; not a disenfranchisement with politics, more, a general lack of engagement for everything political, by choice. I was struck then, to find that rather than a total lack of awareness of the importance of politics in our everyday lives, there was far more of a sense of not knowing who or what to vote for and why. One friend even admitted she wished she knew what politics meant to her. This at first, was admittedly a bit frustrating, however, it soon led me to wonder why so many women of my age feel that politics and often even global and current affairs, makes so little difference to them. Of course, there are many men in the same position, but given the nature of this writing and the gender I can relate to, I want to focus on women more so. I have noticed since leaving school, where we measure intelligence in a very linear and rigid manner, through maths and spelling tests, that often women put political awareness on a sort of intelligence pedestal. In so far as, because it’s something only men do and only men are seen to be involved in, that it’s somehow something they won’t, and should never bother trying to understand. I have female friends that run business’ trading across the EU, friends that wish to work within the EU in later years, friends that hope to join the military, heavily dependent on cross EU intelligence sharing, that all have intellectual qualities I could only dream of possessing, that still believe that the pinnacle of measurable intelligence comes down to men that ‘do’ politics, and that are therefore often cutting themselves short, and lacking in self-belief and validation, due to this disillusion of what makes someone smart. I wish I could say I didn’t think it was a very well implemented strategy by these ‘elite’ men to keep us women in our place, but the evidence for this sways overwhelmingly in favour of it being so.
Calling women difficult, bossy, loud, aggressive, opinionated or even the dreaded ‘feminazis’ alludes to an unattractive, unappealing, grotesque caricature of a woman; (think spinster extraordinaire Miss Trunchbull in Matilda) an ‘undesirable.’ And what are women for if not objects of male admiration? We see it everywhere from the media to advertising to female career choices to the music charts. Being an intelligent, self-assured and confident woman isn’t attractive, and therefore, it’s better for us to remain disengaged with whatever is going on globally as being a ‘difficult’ woman makes it harder for you to date, harder for you to find that all important husband and ultimately harder for you to fulfill the three goals of femininity; look good, marry, reproduce. We are reminded time and time again that being an attractive woman is all that matters in life and that once we’ve hit peak attractiveness and secured our first born, it’s probably time we move into the kitchen and spend our lives orgasming spontaneously over Glade air fresheners or restricting our diets to retain our youth so much so that we lose our minds and laugh hysterically every time we enjoy another limp salad – the point is, it’s good not to be described as difficult, it means you’re doing well at being the woman ‘they’ have set you up to be. It’s good not to be the only one to raise your hand and ask why? because it means all the boys will fancy you more in that 3rd year class. It’s good not to be told to smile by a senior male colleague in work whilst waiting for the lift on a bleak Monday morning because it means you’re doing a really great job of living up to the male ideal that you’re nothing but a cheerful and perky female from dawn to dusk. And it’s good not to be called “too fu*king feminist” by a male counterpart after you call them out for pointing out they could see your breasts at the top of your t-shirt. It’s good for patriarchy, good for routine and good for keeping women in the male dictated gendered roles we’ve kept them in for centuries upon centuries, and whilst I’m yet to decide whether Theresa May will be good for the country and good for society, what I can be sure of, is that it’s a good thing to have a fellow difficult female being called difficult by her peers, because it means she’s being listened to, not for being a woman, but for being a person with an opinion and an agenda, and it’s about time men like Ken Clarke realise that there are a lot more of us difficult women out there than they would at first like to think.