On being an #intersectional #feminist at 50

woman with a gay pride body paint on back
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I turned 50 yesterday, and celebrated by avoiding social media.

Nevertheless it has been impossible to avoid the current swirl of toxic debate on #transphobia and #jkrowling’s objections to being called a ‘menstruator’. So I thought, after a much saner debate with my eldest son on feminism and transgender issues, I would share my thoughts on contemporary feminism after 30 years as an academic and activist.

Like many women, I came to feminism as the survivor of violence: domestic violence as a child and rape as an adult. I was studying law at the time, and as a rape survivor I knew both academically and experientially that the legal system was stacked against me. Feminism, in fact, was the only political and academic ideology that didn’t blame me. And that grounding has always informed my feminism. And this unites most feminists: whilst it is a broad church, we all agree that violence against women and girls is rooted in patriarchy and never, ever excusable.

The thing I have realised in an increasingly polarised debate over sex versus gender is that I don’t agree with either the more radical gender critical feminists or the radical transactivists. I don’t think the evidence stacks up completely on either side – and in fact, that makes sense. Carol Smart always warned us about the dangers of ‘grand theorising’ in feminism: of attempting to find a grand, overarching theory of everything that would explain women’s oppression.

So, on the one hand, some of women’s oppression is rooted in sex. We can see this most clearly in issues like female genital mutilation, forced marriage, childbirth and healthcare, menstruation and period poverty: and more recently in other areas where biological sex matters, such as sports. The physical and material reality of female bodies is a source of our oppression and what unites us as a class is our need to overthrow that oppression.

But sex is clearly not the only source of women’s oppression. Much of it comes from gender: from the socially constructed norms that are linked to sex. Put simply: female people giving birth is biology; female people caring for young children, and the fact that that is undervalued is gender. Female people generally being smaller and less strong than male people is sex: the fact that female soccer players play in single-sex teams who are underpaid and undervalued compared to male teams is gender. 

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So my son asked me what my solution would be. When I told him my answer he asked me to write this blog so it’s clear to other people.

To me, the main problem with the transgender issue is not the complex ideas about sex, gender, identity, rights and oppression that are happening in ongoing debates and conversations in feminism and activism. That’s the nature of feminism: it is a broad church, it constantly re-evaluates the evidence and the theory and constantly questions established and accepted norms. The main problem is that the debate itself has become binary, emotional and dangerous.

At the moment, it appears that you can either be a full on ‘TERFS must die’  transactivist OR you can be a ‘gender critical all men are rapists’ feminist. There is no middle ground. As soon as you question the orthodoxy of either of these positions you are cast out into the other position, regardless of your own beliefs, material reality or experiences. As a rape and domestic abuse survivor the violence that is threatened and perpetrated against women questioning the trans orthodoxy horrifies me. But as an intersectional trans ally, the tired tropes of self-identifying transwomen being rapists waiting in single sex bathrooms to prey on girls also horrifies me. As a feminist, ANY gender orthodoxy that is tribal horrifies me – and it should horrify all feminists. Gender orthodoxy is a very powerful tool for the patriarchy to continue our oppression, often with our own collusion.

As I said above, sex-based oppression is real, as is gender-based oppression. The fact that I – along with 1 in 4 women, and many transwomen and gay men have been abused, assaulted, raped and traumatised, and in 98% of cases the perpetrators were men is gender based oppression. It is, sadly, a shared experience. It’s why I went on my first Pride march at 18. It’s one of the many, many reasons we need to get rid of the patriarchy and make the world safer for women and men. The fact that transmen feel excluded from period poverty campaigns aimed at ‘women’ and face violence from men because they have female bodies is gender-based oppression. Placing criminal  transmen in male prisons means they will be at risk of violence from men because they have female bodies. This is due to patriarchal values which teach men than violence towards women is an acceptable way of creating and maintaining power over them.  Fighting this oppression should create allies instead of enemies because inequality hurts us all, often very graphically and physically.

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It is this joint experience of gender-based oppression that initially drew me to being a trans ally. At the time, I didn’t really realise what a privileged position that meant I was in. Even as a rape survivor being around male bodies doesn’t trigger me. I am very happy for any ‘single sex’ spaces to include people who are biologically male, it costs me nothing and doesn’t threaten me. But as a woman in a happy 28 year old heterosexual relationship, I am very unlikely to ever need to use a domestic violence shelter. I might. The presence there of male bodied people wouldn’t be a problem for me. But it might well be for other women. And I am pretty damned sure it is abusing my privilege if I insist that those women have to accept a situation that they genuinely experience as threatening.

Similarly, as a middle class woman I am unlikely to end up in prison. Again, I might. Even if I did, having other people there with male bodies would not be much of a threat to me, personally, any more than having violent people with female bodies would be (that is to say, both would be threatening). But to other traumatised women, often the victims of male perpetrated violence, the maleness of a physical body could be experienced as very threatening. Who am I with my privilege to tell those women that their fears are unacceptable? No-one, that’s who. No feminist ever has the right to tell a woman that her material reality based on her experiences and fear of violence is not real or not valid. Ever.

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It seems to me that the reason the transgender debate has become so polarising is not just that we have forgotten that compassion and empathy for experiences that we might not share should be the root of our feminism. It is that it has been framed as a binary debate. This is based on the – to my mind false and damaging – idea that gender, like sex, is binary. That you either have your sex and gender line up, in which case you are cis, or your sex is the opposite of your gender, in which case you are trans. These are binary exclusive categories that means that there will forever be competition for identity, for resources, and for things like physical and legal protection. Like it or not, saying transwomen are women and deserve exactly the same rights and protections as women born female is potentially threatening some of those hard-won sex-based rights.

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If we take an empirical approach and actually look at the evidence, it doesn’t support a strict binary division. Yes, sex is binary apart from rare intersex conditions. But gender identity and gender based oppression quite clearly are not binary. As a White bisexual cis disabled woman, my experience of gender based oppression is highly contingent on the fact that I have been raped, I have had children, I have experienced menstruation and menopause, I have been a parent and a carer, I am disabled and so on. The material reality of my sex is binary, but my sexuality is clearly not binary, nor is my experience of being both a carer and a cared for person, nor, as a White person with Jewish family, is my experience of the intersectionality of race and gender. It is all very complex.

And yet, as young people and teenagers are exploring their own identities, where they fit in the world, and who their tribe is, they are at the moment constantly being asked to make binary choices. Are you Black or White? Gay or straight? Cis or trans? Sane or mad? Arts or sports? Goth or metal? Scottish or British? Rich or poor?

I was lucky. I was Gen X. Boomers didn’t care and millennials hadn’t come along  yet. We were free to explore our identities. Boy George could be gay and have gorgeous skin and be a man. Annie Lennox could sing like a soprano angel and look like a gay robot. David Bowie, Prince, Madonna and countless other cultural icons constantly blurred the edges of gender and sexuality and empowered us to do the same. Our fight was about sexuality and the right to be gay or straight or anything else, not about whether to be a man or a woman. Some of us emerged from our young adult years clear about our identity and tribe, and some were still confused. But almost all of our choices were flexible and non binary.

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Now it seems that choices over gender identity are being made constrained and binary, in a patriarchal world where gender is socially constructed, and the value of men and women are unequal. In this bifurcated system, everyone is pitted against each other, rights and protections are finite and it’s a zero sum game: therefore, giving rights to transwomen who are not biologically female takes them away from women who are biologically female.

But what if we looked at the reality of lived experience and gender oppression? We would soon see that binary distinctions are often meaningless and unhelpful. Intersectionality has taught us that it is not just being female that oppresses women: class, ethnicity, disability, care, age and many other factors affect the experience of oppression. It should also teach us about the dangers of binary approaches to gender and gender identity. Women have sex-based protections because many of the oppressions they face are sex-based. But many oppressions are gender based. Transwomen in particular are facing multiple oppressions. Rejected by some feminists because their biology does not match their gender identity, rejected by some sexuality activists because their same-gender attraction does not equal same-sex attraction, rejected by mainstream culture and society because they do not fit in any binary approach, they are subject to violence and exclusion from all sides.

To me as an intersectional feminist the solution appears to be that we need to include non-binary people as a protected category under the Equality Act. Instead of forcing a group of women who feel threatened by male-sex people claiming to belong to the category of ‘woman’ rather than ‘man’ to accept that definition, we should accept that there are many people, particularly young people, who do not fit either. Some may well be transwomen on the process of transitioning and making a permanent decision about wanting to be and live as a woman. Some may not. Some may be transmen in the process of making a permanent commitment to living and identifying as a man, some may not. Some may wish to make themselves as close to possible to being biologically female or male, some may not. Some may end up deciding they are same sex attracted rather than trans, or are both, and some may not. Some may choose to permanently reject binary gender categories and stay non-binary, and some may not. The point is, all of these people deserve rights and protection, and we need to offer it without threatening the sex-based rights and protections that are already there for a good reason.

So there you have my position on one of the current issues facing feminism. Sadly for all of you who would wish us to stick to our opposing camps and refuse to associate with the other side, I am neither a TERF nor a radical transactivist. Sex is real and sex-based oppression is real, but so is gender and socially constructed gender oppression. Both types of oppression are caused by patriarchy and a society where this didn’t happen would benefit everyone. Nothing ever, ever excuses actual or threatened violence, particularly against women or girls. And we need to stop being so bloody in/out and tribal about our feminism. We can include (nearly) everyone in the sisterhood.

You can disagree with me and still be a feminist and still be my sister (or brother or sibling if you prefer) and I will fight and die on the hill for your right to do so. As long as there are hugs and gin and compassion on that hill, everyone is welcome. I will never ever silence, or condone the silencing of any of you. And I have no desire whatsoever to live in a little tribal bubble and throw anyone out who disagrees with me, because how on earth do we move forward if we aren’t constantly listening, arguing, and learning? I am an intersectional, complex, fifty year old feminist and proud of it.

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See my latest short video on care and #covid19 here

#Covid19 shows how much we need #feminism

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We can see women’s hidden labour everywhere now

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hands up if you are working from home, at 150% of your capacity because you are having to work remotely and/or online without the skills, equipment, training or experience to do it – AND you are in lockdown with you children and partner, and depending on their age, trying to homeschool, parent and do childcare whilst your partner works – and your partner has said something along the lines of ‘gosh there’s a lot to do around here’.

Yes there bloody well is. And it’s news to precisely none of us that the bulk of it is done by women, unseen, and definitely underappreciated. Now our partners are working from home with us they are *seeing* a lot of the hidden labour.

But it isn’t, luckily, just our partners. In my world it has been noted that hardly any women are submitting research papers for review, whereas submissions by men are up at least 50%. Why? it doesn’t take a genius to work it out. Women in academia are bearing the emotional burden of caring for and about our students and our colleagues. We’re bearing the burden of the homeschooling, the working from home without childcare, we’re at the forefront of providing emotional and practical support for our friends, families and neighbours. We’re working 16 hour days just to keep all the plates spinning, to keep everyone safe and well and alive. We’re EXHAUSTED. Meanwhile our male colleagues are holed up in their shed, churning out research papers free from sticky toddler hands or teenage mental health breakdowns, letting their wives or sisters worry about their frail parents, filling in spreadsheets demonstrating their increased productivity ready for the next round of REF related promotions.

That is probably a huge oversimplification and unfair to the many men who ARE taking up some of the unpaid burden of care here. But it’s also replicating the inequalities that we know exist: that women are over represented in the unpaid parents and carers, and men are over represented in the paid sectors of the economy.

We need care now more than ever

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And yet, who is saving us in #covid19? Overwhelmingly it is the carers. The paid carers in the NHS and social care, keeping us alive and well to the best of their ability in the face of the abject failure of political leadership. Paid care workers in the community, overwhelmingly female, most of them barely earning a living wage, risking the lives of themselves and the disabled, frail, elderly people they care for because of lack of support, PPE, equipment and planning. The unpaid carers, already filling in the widening gaps in support, coping with the sudden withdrawal of what little support there was, keeping themselves and their families alive and well, and probably the ones keeping their friends, wider family and neighbours well too.

I have PTSD, fibromyalgia, psoriatic arthritis, diabetes and retinopathy. 6 sets of NHS care have been abruptly withdrawn, with no online replacements or any idea of when the support might return. I am in physical agony and mental distress with nothing but some medication and my own coping mechanisms to get me through: I am losing mobility and hard-fought for sanity every day. That’s just me. I have a clinically depressed son – he has no health or social care support at all, and the fragile support he was getting from school has disappeared, along with his ability to rely on his friends. He barely speaks. My daughter has ADHD and social anxiety – she was due to be seen by CAMHS, but that was cancelled, as was her only support network in school. She is in tears every day, unable to cope without the structure of school, missing her friends terribly, terrified to take part in activities online in case she gets it wrong. Most of my emotional energy is taken up supporting them, keeping them safe and alive, trying desperately to use my own mental health coping skills to help them, and doing it very very badly. My eldest son has Asperger’s Syndrome and is currently finishing his final year of undergraduate studies at home: he’s a useful test for me for what my own final year students are experiencing. He’s working 16 hour days to try and get his dissertation finished, uncertain about online exams, missing his tutorials and his fellow students, and he won’t get to graduate properly.

The ONLY way I have found to cope is through the care and compassion I extend to my family, students, colleagues, friends and neighbours. And the care and compassion that comes back at me. Running mindfulness classes online for my stressed out an anxious friends (I am a qualified mindfulness teacher and it’s wonderful to actually be able to give something back) helps me a lot. The kindness of friends. Someone who dropped by a book without ringing the bell and setting the dog off. The neighbour – herself struggling with her mental health but physically a marathon runner and cyclist – who texted me to ask if we needed any help. The colleagues who poured out their grief and tears and concerns in a supposedly ‘professional’ online meeting and showed me how much care and compassion get us through. The pharmacist who, unasked, delivered my meds and checked on a refill knowing I had forgotten to do it and was struggling to walk. The friend who knowing damned well I wouldn’t pick up the phone left me a very long message telling me how much she loved and supported and – best of all – respected me for what I do, privately and politically, every day. The student who wrote in the acknowledgements section of her dissertation how much she felt she owed me and how inspirational she found what I did for women’s rights (and believe me, when you get the amount of shite women get on social media just for being women, let alone being feminist, you will appreciate how precious that sisterly support is).

Compassionate leadership

Jacinda Ardern - Wikipedia

It’s no accident that many of the leaders we are currently finding inspirational are women. Jacinta Arden in New Zealand, Angela Merkel in Germany, Katrin Jakobsdottir in Iceland and others  have demonstrated that cool, compassionate heads are the ones you want in charge in a crisis. It isn’t just that they are women: in order to achieve political power in a sexist world, they have had to be demonstrably better than all the men around them. They have also succeeded in political systems that have fairer electoral systems than the UK, systems that favour co-operative rather than adversarial policy making. When Jacinta Arden tells you to ‘be kind’ it is not a trite slogan: it is a fundamentally ideological statement about the kind of politics and leadership we need. Bluff populists, overpromoted mediocre men (and women), people who are part of elite networks because of their schooling are, it seems, not much use during a pandemic. Hardworking intelligent practical and compassionate leaders are showing us how to get through.

We need feminism now more than ever

What, I hear you ask, does feminism have to do with all this? Well, it is feminist scholarship that has taught us:

  • That caring and parenting are fundamental to a functioning society;
  • That care work is undervalued because it is seen as women’s work;
  • That women are undervalued because they do the care work;
  • That capitalism and patriarchy are damaging to our society if they are not mitigated by care and compassion;
  • That we need care and compassion in our leaders and in our societies to survive.

If we can take that lesson through to life beyond #Covid19 – if there even is a life beyond #Covid19 – then we will emerge with a more resilient, kinder, fairer society. Even, perhaps, a feminist one.

Practising compassion

Here’s a useful 10 minute loving kindness mindfulness meditation I recorded for you, it helps to focus the mind on cultivating that feeling of compassion we need to function.

Surviving working from home

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If working from home is a new experience for you due to Covid19 then WELCOME TO MY WORLD. As part of the ‘reasonable adjustments’ to my work because of PTSD and fibromylagia, I spend about 80% of my time working from home. I am going to share some of the rules I have learned that work for me, so you can save yourself the four years it took me to learn them.

  1. Have a designated work space, even if that is just the corner of a desk

This is not the time to carry your laptop around with you, and definitely not the time to start working in bed. If you can, keep all your work stuff OUT of your bedroom. Otherwise the boundaries between work and sleep get very confused, and you’ll find yourself with anxiety-induced insomnia. In fact, now is a good time to adopt a clean sleep routine

It doesn’t need to be neat or tidy, although if you are the neat and tidy type, choose somewhere that no-one uses or it will drive you nuts. In fact, if you are OCD, don’t look at these pictures, because this is what my desk in my living room looks like right now:

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On the left you can see a pile of articles I have been using to write my latest article, plus some notecards I have been using for analysis. This is the other side:

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Here you can see my coffee cup (important: see later), a pile of student dissertations, and my daughter’s taekwondo kit. Why am I showing you this? the crucial thing is that the article and the dissertations are what I am working on right now. As soon as these are finished, I will clear those away and the next ‘pile’ will replace them. Never leave things to pile up beyond the immediate task otherwise you spend half your morning clearing your desk, then the other half clearing up the room. Which leads me to:

2. Do not let the procrastination monkey get you!

Have you ever met this guy?

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This is the proscratination monkey.

Basically we all are looking for immediate gratification rather than to do the thing we actually need to do that might take time and concentration. So we get easily distracted. In the office we are surrounded by things and people that remind us what we are there for. At home there’s just us, and a myriad of things and people that demand our attention. So, have a schedule. Use something like Outlook Calender which I like because it syncs with my work email, and I can easily populate it with the documents I need for tasks. Schedule things in 90 minute chunks (or less) and for that 90 minutes DO THE THING. And DON’T DO:

  • the hoovering;
  • the childcare;
  • the organising of the cupboard under the stairs;
  • the laundry;
  • the playing with of the cat;
  • the loading of the dishwasher;
  • the ordering of the shopping off the internet;
  • Facebook, Twitter or any social media;
  • coffee making (you can DRINK coffee while you work. In fact it’s mandatory).

Guys, I realise, you have drifted off because you don’t do any of these things anyway 🙂 but seriously WOMEN, particularly MOTHERS, I am talking to YOU. This is WORK. You need dedicated space and you need childcare. Even if childcare is your teenager next door with Finding Nemo on repeat. Teach your kids to respect your work time and your work space. Those of you middle class enough to have an office or a shed, use it. The rest of us, develop selective blindness and deafness. Do. The. Work. Do NOT do the Other Things.

3. Keep to your routine

Get up. Get dressed. If you would wear makeup to the office, wear it at home. If you would shave and wear a suit do that (particularly if you are going to do zoom or skype meetings. Have a thought for the rest of us. No one wants to see your sweatpants Jeremy, or your pyjamas, Karen.) Use your commuting time as your lie-in but be at your desk when you would be at work. Otherwise – and I speak from experience here – you will stay in bed all morning looking at Twitter on your tablet.

4. Take breaks and get outside

If in COVID19 isolation times you aren’t ill but you can’t get to the gym, get outside anyway. I got a dog specifically for this purpose

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If you haven’t got a dog, go for a walk or run around the block even – especially – if it’s raining. If your neighbour is self isolating and has a dog, take them. (the dog, not the neighbour). Seriously. Your mental and physical health will thank you. I do this at lunch time then eat last night’s leftover dinner for lunch when I get back. This is one of those unspoken perks of working from home. Get good at using tupperware. Otherwise lunch will consist of your 4 year old’s gummi bears and you’ll order in pizza. DON’T DO THIS. That’s what the weekend is for.

5. Use social media sparingly

I treat Facebook and Twitter as my coffee break. After actually getting up and making coffee (and if you like coffee now is the time to invest in a proper coffee maker. I personally like the Tassimo – yes, Bosch, you can send me free stuff – because you can make nearly-as-good-as-Costa cappucinos and also get a load of decaff stuff for it) or tea (ditto, go mad on proper tea if you are middle class enough, T2 – yes, you may also send me free stuff, any version of Early Grey will do – is my go to for this. Make a ritual of it because you aren’t going to cafes with your friends. Treat yourself) sit yourself down for 10 mins, catch up with your friends on Facebook, start an argument with a stranger on Twitter. Then STOP AND SWITCH IT OFF. That was your water cooler moment. Don’t switch it back on again until the end of the work day or your next 10 mins break.

6. Don’t start the day with emails

I should have put this first. Have a 90 minute task set up at the beginning of the day that doesn’t involve email or social media and DO THAT FIRST. Then have coffee or tea, your Facebook break, THEN your emails. Sort these into a) things that take less than 5 mins to sort, do these immediately b) things that take more time but are urgent-ish – attend to these after your next 90 minutes productivity time and c) things that take more time but aren’t urgent – schedule these into your Outlook Calendar or whatever for the end of the week. Trust me. This is adapted from the amazing Getting Things Done approach and if you are, like me, constantly anxious about the list of things you are sure you’ve forgotten to do, check it out.

7. Look after your mental health

If this is new to you because of Covid19, and you are anxious about things (and if you aren’t anxious what is your bloody secret, mate??), then now is an ideal time to learn and practice mindfulness if you don’t already. It’s tough to learn: it took me 3 attempts! You have to stick with a 6 or 8 week course and practice every day. But now is a good opportunity: it takes 20 minutes a day. And that’s probably not even half the communting time you are saving. A good online free course is here and there are further resources here. I am the world’s biggest sceptic, and it’s no substitute for proper treatment and therapy for serious mental health issues, but I found it so helpful I trained as a mindfulness teacher so I could use it with my students.

Do little things that make you happy. Try not to make these things involve spending too much money on the internet, eating too much, or drinking too much/taking too many drugs. But find moments in the day to be grateful, to breathe, to light a candle, read a book, phone a friend and actually talk to them, stroke the cat…..

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Be kind to you, and others.

Peace and strength.

 

#Holocaust memorial day and #Brexit

I grew up in Vienna, a city with a long and chequered history of anti-Semitism. I studied history, and part of that we had to visit Mauthausen concentration camp. My present family are Jewish enough that my husband and children would have been sent off to the camps. (I probably would have been exterminated earlier as a disabled and mentally ill person). So the Holocaust is close to me.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The horrors the Allies discovered as always led us to say ‘never again’.

The EEC (now EU) was founded in a post-War spirit of economic co-operation. If we grew our economies together, if we moved and lived in (then) 7 and now 28 countries, then we would see each other as friends and neighbours, not as distant strangers that we could commit genocide against or go to war with. It’s been the single most successful anti-war and anti-genocide economic and social policy experiment since 1945.

And on Friday, we in the UK are going to leave. Already we have seen a dramatic rise in racism and xenophobia. Friends, colleagues and families are leaving because of the toxic environment and those that live here now feel unsafe and unwelcome. This is how anti-semitism started in Berlin in the early 1930s. Not with invasion and jackboots, but with the scapegoating of people for a national economic disaster and the entirely legal systematic othering, blaming, and ultimately genocide.

I am not being dramatic when I say there are clear and worrying parallels here. We see the EU and foreigners being scapegoated and blamed for systematic social policy failure that was the responsibility of the post-2008 austerity regime, not the EU. We see rights and freedoms being taken away and that being welcomed by the electorate. We see opinions and hatred that 10 years ago would have been seen as dangerous and unwelcome as part of the mainstream of policy and media.

German children in the 1960s started asking their parents, what did you do in the war? What did you do before? Did you oppose fascism, did you enable it, did you carry it out?

What are WE going to say when OUR children ask us in 20 years time, what did you do in Brexit? Did you oppose it, did you enable it, did you carry it out?

And I hope to the goddess that we are not living with concentration camps of refugees, that the rights and freedoms being taken away are not extended further, that the unthinkable does not become commonplace.

Because history has shown us where that ends.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-51265139

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy Transfer and Learning

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

(podcast download)

‘Policy learning’ describes the use of knowledge to inform policy decisions. That knowledge can be based on information regarding the current problem, lessons from the past or lessons from the experience of others. This is a political, not technical or objective, process (for example, see the ACF post). ‘Policy transfer’ describes the transfer of policy solutions or ideas from one place to another, such as by one government importing the policy in another country (note related terms such as ‘lesson-drawing’, ‘policy diffusion’ and ‘policy convergence’ – transfer is a catch-all, umbrella, term). Although these terms can be very closely related (one would hope that a government learns from the experiences of another before transferring policy) they can also operate relatively independently. For example, a government may decide not to transfer policy after learning from the experience of another, or it may transfer (or ‘emulate’) without really understanding…

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Travelling as a disabled professor: Ableism in academia and Nordic welfare

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This week I had to ask the Department of Work and Pensions Access to Work scheme to fund me taking my disability assistant to a conference on long term care in Copenhagen. They asked why I needed to go, and to take her. I explained that part of my job as a professor to attend international conferences, and that due to the fibromyalgia I couldn’t navigate my way through unfamiliar places, and I needed help with transport.

My assessor said ‘I didn’t know disabled people could be professors.’

Of course, I only thought of Professor Stephen Hawking twenty minutes after that – at the time I was too gobsmacked that the someone working for Access to Work (whose purpose is to support disabled people IN WORK) was surprised that disabled people could be academics. It, after all, a job that involves a lot of sitting down, and lends itself to the kind of practical and physical support that Access to Work can easily fund.

But the ableism didn’t stop there. Because I needed her to be with me at the conference to help me find my way around, and negotiate things like lunch queues and taxis back to the hotel, my disability assistant needed to be registered. Access to Work were obviously not going to fund her full conference fee: she was there to help me, not listen to papers on long-term care policy.

However, there was no way to register an assistant. At a conference designed specifically for academics to share research on care policy and practice, no-one had considered that a disabled person *needing* care might attend.

As part of preparing for her attendance, my assistant checked whether the boat trip planned as a social event would be accessible for me. Yes, she was assured, the gangplank was level, and there would be assistance on and off the boat. Well, good job she checked, and decided to accompany me, because access to the boat was down some very narrow and dangerous steps which I could not navigate without her help.

Copenhagen is the capital of a country which prides itself on its universal welfare state and delivery of long-term care. Citizens of Denmark have the right to access support services if they need them: unlike in the UK there is not a presumption that families will provide care and the state will only step in if families are not available or able to care.

However, in my experience of navigating airlines, transport and generally being in public as an obviously mobility-impaired disabled person, this meant Copenhagen was, in fact, curiously inaccessible. This inaccessibility stemmed, I think, from the assumption that a disabled person should not be *out*, working, but should be at home being cared for. And that if they were out, they would have a professional care worker with them.

Shops were frequently inaccessible due to steps, and when I attempted to enter using my crutches (and at times shuffling upstairs on my hands and knees because honestly, my desire for Danish pottery to take home as a present for my daughter is far stronger than any sense of personal dignity or shame), NO-ONE offered to help me. At cafes, noticing that I couldn’t balance a tray and crutches, not a single server offered to carry my tray for me. Taxi drivers seemed genuinely puzzled as to how to accommodate me and my crutch, and in fact I didn’t see a single wheelchair user or wheelchair accessible taxi the whole time I was there.  Disability assistance at Copenhagen airport seemed to rely on the presupposition that you would have a carer with you to phone the wheelchair operators when you entered the building, as information directed me to line up in an enormous queue to check my luggage in and then ask for assistance at the check-in desk. ‘The WHOLE REASON I have booked disability assistance is that I CANNOT queue or stand for long periods’ I irately told the airline staff, who seemed to think this was not their problem. ‘Could you PLEASE call disability assistance here RIGHT NOW to help me before I fall over and block the queue?’

I have travelled extensively since my mobility and memory have worsened, and in my experience, this is very common in Nordic welfare states, and very UNcommon in neoliberal Anglo Saxon regimes. In the UK, Canada, the USA and Australia, in similar situations, shopkeepers, waiters, taxi drivers, airline workers and other customer focussed personnel fall over themselves to help me. Not only that, but they seem to be able to speak to me and ask me whether they can help, and what kind of help I need, rather than either assuming they know, or asking my disability assistant.

It’s a good job that intellectually and professionally the conference was amazing, because from the point of view of an ethnographic participative study of ableism in action, it was first class. I only wish I had thought to get funding and ethical approval to write it up.

I campaign and research and write extensively about the need for a comprehensive social care system to support disabled people. If we could rely on proper support, I often argue, just as we in the UK can rely on the NHS to treat and where possible heal us without bankrupting us, then disabled people could work, could volunteer, could parent, could participate as full citizens in society without having a burden of gratitude to a piecemeal network of families, friends and supporters. If we could rely on properly funded care we could flourish.

I still wholeheartedly believe that, and my research and personal experience still supports that belief. But every time I have an experience like that in Copenhagen (and similar ones in Oslo, Stockholm, Gothenburg and Helsinki, just to prove it isn’t a uniquely Danish thing) I wonder if the paternalism of the Nordic universal welfare state isn’t somehow stifling co-operative and support in civic society. Shops don’t need to be accessible if disabled people have carers doing their shopping for them. Staff don’t need to be helpful if everyone has a paid helper with them. And I wonder if somehow we have lost the idea of *mutual* care and support: the emotional part of caring that links us all in a harsh world.

I think we all have an obligation to be caring and respectful towards each other, and not just assume that is someone else’s job.

woman on black folding wheelchair
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