“We think back through our mothers,” said Woolf, “if we are women.” Men, perhaps, do not. Not as much. I know I didn’t.
It wasn’t until the early months of 2014 that I vividly saw my mother, Liz Brooker, as a person with a life entirely independent from mine and crucially, far longer and richer than mine, with experiences and insights I could only wonder at. It happened soon after her mother, Margaret Stray, died.
It was a Quaker service. Family members took turns to stand up and read, to remember, to say whatever they liked. My mum went first, and she related, in a voice that was sad and steady and resigned, her memories of her own 1940s childhood; from the daytimes, when her dad went to work and her brother was at school, and my mum and my grandma were alone. As she spoke, another world opened that I hadn’t known about, and had never thought to ask about. It was a world where, as she said, it was just the two of them. They went for walks in the morning and my grandma told my mom the names of the plants and flowers they passed, and then they went home and in the afternoon they played games together, like shop. And the whole world, for that time, was just the two of them.
It was a simple speech but one of the most powerful I’ve ever heard. I think the way I saw my mother subtly shifted at that moment, and never quite changed back. I feel slightly ashamed that it took so long.
Toward the end of this year I visited my parents. After a few glasses of wine, I asked my mom for the first time what her experiences of feminism were. I remembered, from when I was a teenager, that she—a primary school teacher at the time—had a stenciled print on the wall promoting a women’s march, with the instruction “wear suffragette colors:” the first time I’d ever seen that word.
It was around 1980, she told me; when we spent a summer in the United States, in Massachusetts. One evening we’d all gone to another family’s house, and as usual I was encouraged to play with the two boys there while my parents had dinner and drinks and got gradually louder until they drove us home. I remember the older boy had a Spider-Man with a battery-powered web-slinger, which I’d only ever seen advertised in comic books before. I played with it too hard and broke it, and hid it before I left. His mother, talking to my mother that evening, was Marilynne Robinson, and she was about to publish her first book, Housekeeping, which was later nominated for the Pulitzer and is now regarded as one of the best novels of all time. So the Spider-Man toy, with hindsight, wasn’t the most important part of that encounter.
My parents aren’t in touch with Marilynne Robinson any more, as far as I know, and she was only one of the women—feminist academics, writers, teachers, mothers—my mother met that summer. It was a catalyst, as she described it. The United States, in 1980, often seemed six months ahead of the U.K., a window into films, toys, and trends that might reach London some time the following year, and perhaps the same was true of its feminism. Perhaps she brought it back to our little street in South East London, because during the 1980s all my friends’ mothers seemed to be having women-only discussions at each other’s houses. I became used to walking into kitchens and seeing a poster showing a toppling pile of crockery, with the slogan “WHY BE A WIFE”, or “I SPENT THREE YEARS AT COLLEGE... FOR THIS.” (I asked my dad if my mom had spent three years at college. He laughed, and said “much longer.”)
I didn’t ask much more that evening in 2014, because—understandably—my mom seemed mildly taken aback that I was even asking and interested all of a sudden, and I started to feel as if I was pressing her, so we wound it down and talked about something else, like cats, until bedtime.
I stayed in the spare room that night, in a room full of books, with my pillow within arm’s reach of the feminist science fiction novels I’d read as a sixth former: Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy, Ursula LeGuin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I’d sneaked them from my parents’ bookshelves in another family home, when I was 16 or 17, and so bored and eager for distraction that I read anything I could lay my hands on. I borrowed those books and sat with them alone in the sixth form block, with a cup-a-soup and a roll. I remember reading LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness like that, in particular: The novel is about a world called Winter, and I looked up from the book in an empty classroom and stared out at the snowy school playing fields, then immersed myself back in the story.
This was the late 1980s. There was no Tumblr, no Twitter or Facebook, so thankfully my reflections of the time are all kept in longhand, in several WH Smiths diaries which are safely in a box in my attic. For a while back then, I thought I was gay. For a long while, I thought I was a feminist. Often, I wanted to be a girl.
I’d wanted that, off and on, since I was about nine years old. I was often mistaken for a girl as a child, and once puberty, which wasn’t pretty, more or less ended, I could sometimes pass for a girl again. One school journey as a sixth former, staying in a French hotel and having consumed a glass of wine or two, I happily let the girls dress me in their make-up and clothes. (I stuck a photo of that evening in a diary and labelled it “the feminine mystique.” My dad saw it and said, “What the hell do you think you’re playing at.”)
I found different ways of making sense of these feelings from childhood onwards, framing them through whatever I found available. At age nine, I fantasized that I could have a switch like the one on my Telstar Pong game that flipped between GAME and TV, except mine would read BOY and GIRL. In my early twenties, when the feelings either didn’t go away or returned again, I had much more freedom to dress up how I liked, and a circle of friends who accepted it. I read comic books like Neil Gaiman’s gender-playful Sandman, the sex-shifting Shade The Changing Man, Doom Patrol, with a hermaphrodite superhero, and Enigma, which concluded with a chapter simply titled "Queer." One Christmas my grandma gave me a £10 check and, subversively, I used it to pay for a mail-order pamphlet called The Transvestite’s Guide to London. That was the vocabulary of the time. Those were the discourses of the time, the early 1990s. Twenty years later, when I did have Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr, I found different words that also made sense of my feelings and experiences.
So by the 2010s I thought I was pretty set. I thought I knew a lot. I thought I knew about feminism. I thought I knew about gender. I had a lot to learn.
I’m sure everything about my account above is steaming with privilege, with confidence, with complacency. Books, travel, toys, cool parents, even famous family friends. It’s hard to quantify how much of that is due to factors like class and ethnicity, but I think I willfully ignored how much of it was to do with being born and raised as male. Whenever I imagined myself as a girl or woman, I saw myself as a high school Supergirl, as Elle Woods from Legally Blonde or Cher from Clueless: popular, smart, sharp, a perfect balance of charmingly charismatic and self-effacingly adorable. I imagined it happening like magic. I imagined, but I didn’t really think. I didn’t think about what it would really mean to grow up that way, under those conditions, and to become a woman within our society: a warzone, effectively, with women as the constant target.
Just as I was self-centered enough to never have considered my own mother as someone with a richer and more fascinating life than my own, I’d denied the fact that, despite my research, despite my reading, despite my good intentions, I had been successfully trained up as a boy, and then a man, within patriarchy. Yes, as a white middle-class man; but it was patriarchy that did the most work on me. Yes, I often felt so uncomfortable within the frameworks of masculinity that I dodged desperately to escape and become something different, but still, patriarchy did its work, and when it suited me, I embraced it and I accepted its benefits.
I’m still glad social media didn’t exist when I was a teenager. But it was social media that put me in contact—initially, in conflict—with women who pointed out what I should have seen years ago. I made demands of women online that I wouldn’t make of men. I challenged them, expecting answers, in a way I wouldn’t challenge men. Some ingrained, entitled part of me expected them to provide me with information on demand. I expected women to shush when I spoke. I expected to hold the floor. I expected to be thanked and praised for gestures in their direction. I expected to be the hero.
Then I talked to women who didn’t let that happen, and it briefly shocked me. Maybe social media, with its anonymity, enables more direct, no-nonsense responses to strangers than I was used to in real life, where women might be more inclined to raise their eyebrows and keep their peace: but I was told to hold my tongue, to butt out of conversations, to go away and read.
And, surprising myself a little, I did what I was told. I went away and read. I read a lot. I read blogs written that morning, and books anthologizing feminist pamphlets from the 1960s. I read pieces that contradicted each other, and I followed debates, and thought about them. But more importantly, I genuinely backed off, for one of the first times in my life. I accepted the role of a minor, almost-insignificant supporting character, rather than the hero, for once. I sometimes asked to join conversations between women and I was ignored, and it smarted but I swallowed it. So instead, I read: and online, of course, that’s a form of listening. Social media has many flaws, but one of its strengths is that through reading, you can listen and learn without bothering anyone: You can read and absorb, without feeling the need to interrupt and give your opinion. That’s an important instinct, I think, for a man to overcome: the feeling that everyone is waiting for your opinion. And because I was given no choice, I managed it. And then after a while, I sometimes spoke up, and when they had time, the women listened and responded, sometimes cautiously, but for the most part generously and encouragingly.
Perhaps with hindsight, my long-term, helpless yearning to be a girl, or later a woman, has always been more about not-wanting to be a boy or man. But it took me a long time to understand what not-being a man, on a social level, has to involve. In many ways, throughout my life, I’ve tried to evade gender roles and stereotypes; but in very many ways, gender still got me. It trained me. It worked me over. A man who wants to resist and subvert the frameworks of gender must engage in a deep process of reprogramming, recognizing that training and trying to work against it.
That process, for me, is by no means over. Quite possibly it will never be over. Every day I benefit from operating as a man within patriarchy and have my status confirmed in a thousand ways, in every interaction. Every day that I agree with a feminist idea intellectually, I fall instinctively back into patterns that make life easier for me as a man. I can study women’s writing all day, and then in the evening I can walk alone down a deserted street or into a crowded bar and my experience will be entirely different to that of any woman I know. For all my good intentions, I can never step out of this framework.
And I don’t, any longer, feel that dodging and evading and escaping that framework on an individual level is my solution: For what good would my escape be, if it leaves the gender cage in place? To style myself until I slipped out of the structures, declaring myself free from gender, would now feel like a case of I’m alright Jack: see you later Jill, Joanna, Marge, Margaret, Liz, all the suckers left behind.
For those who find patriarchy a kind of prison, there are many possible routes and roles and forms of resistance, and often they don’t feel like a choice at all: I never chose to grow up feeling in-between, longing to switch sides and slip out of the cage. But men can also work from the inside. They can learn to identify the structures, and join the struggle to change them. They can try to bend the bars from within, aiming for a broader benefit. There’s a deep political value in refusing to conform while still recognizing your responsibility as someone socialized as male within the system, rather than trying to deny it: It holds a revolutionary potential.
And while men are trained to see action as heroism, I think we also need to resist that urge, and to understand that, difficult as it is at first, being quiet on the sidelines sometimes is a different kind of heroism: Shutting up and sitting down is a different kind of act that demands a different kind of strength.
We can start by listening to women when our training tells us to speak; by not interrupting, not arguing, not assuming—as we’ve been implicitly taught all our lives—that women are an audience, just waiting for male opinions. We can start by patiently thinking when our lifetime of training tells us to talk. It’s difficult at first, but it can be liberating and revelatory. We can start by realizing the obvious truth, so successfully and shamefully denied in our society, that women have interior lives at least as complex and vivid as men’s; that every woman’s stream of consciousness is as rich and detailed as a Virginia Woolf novel.
And we could start by realizing that the woman on the margins of many men’s lives—our mum, that comforting presence who brought cups of tea and tidied up while we were writing our angsty teenage diaries—was having incredible adventures in her life and in her head long before we were born. We could sit down and shut up, and focus on her for once, and listen to her stories.