Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 12 July 2014

Making reference to my sex is the mother of all insults

Samantha Cameron, pictured visiting a Syrian refugee camp, has stressed her mum credentials

I'm allergic to the phrase "speaking as a woman". Yes, it really does bring me out in a livid rash of indignation. It's so sappy, so soppy, so sentimental. It's usually uttered by the kind of lady – possibly wearing clothing that resembles a bedouin tent – who lays her hand on her heart as she speaks, and fixes you with an earnest, wide-eyed gaze.

I always want to ask – who's talking here, you or your ovaries? Why the need to invoke womanhood, in all its bloody, complicated glory? Couldn't you just come out and say what you have to say, like anyone else?

There is no male equivalent. I've never heard a bloke say "speaking as a man", firstly because it wouldn't even occur to him, and secondly because all his mates would slag him to death for being such a big girl's blouse. And rightly so.

It's meaningless too. I may as well say, "as a woman, I plan to visit an exhibition today" or "as a woman, I'm going to order the steak". It's redundant: it doesn't take anything away, and it certainly doesn't add anything.

The last person to lay the "as a woman" line on me was a young(ish) English playwright, very right-on, who had come over to Belfast to see how the interesting savages live. I encountered her in the back bar of the Duke of York.

Fortunately, this time I was prepared. I knew she was working up to it. All the signs were there – billowing kaftan, serious face, and she had already given me a lecture on important books I should read to improve myself.

So when she came out and uttered the dread phrase, I just got up, excused myself and walked away. She probably thought I was going to the bathroom, but I never came back. Life is just too short.

What's even worse is when you're actually asked what your opinion is, "as a woman". (This has happened to me more times than I can count.) So you're being approached not as a person, not as an individual, but as the owner of an – admittedly pretty nifty – set of gynaecological apparatus.

Yet why the ownership of a functional pair of fallopian tubes should influence my rationally-held views on politics, religion, Syria, Simon Cowell's baby or the price of peas is beyond me. I don't see the world through a special pink lady-coloured glaze.

Another request I frequently get, and increasingly turn down, is to give my opinion "as a mother". While my two children are my dearest pride and joy, and I consider parenting them to be the most important thing I do, it has gradually dawned on me that agreeing to speak publicly "as a mother" has the effect of putting me back in the restrictive, domestic-dominated space that women have occupied for millennia.

I wouldn't mind if it was a level playing field, but I don't see male commentators with children being asked for their views on, say, the price of school uniform, or the dangers of the internet. When editors or producers begin asking fathers about parenting issues, I'd be happy to rejoin the debate.

Some women, especially political wives – 'Mom-in-Chief' Michelle Obama please stand up – invoke motherhood as a weird kind of status symbol, a reassuring guarantor of their maternal wholesomeness, perhaps as a counterpoint to their husband's more warrior-like tendencies.

For instance, when Samantha Cameron recently visited a Syrian refugee camp with the charity Save the Children, she said: "As a mother, it is horrifying to hear the harrowing stories of the children I met today".

I am quite sure that the stories were indeed harrowing, but why would Mrs Cameron be more appalled because she is herself a mother? Would a non-mother feel less? And is compassion thus dependent on personal experience? It's just one more example of the lazy, fuzzy, suspect thinking that so frequently surrounds motherhood – a role that continues to be fetishised yet dismissed, idealised yet undervalued.

Being a woman, or a mother, doesn't erase every other aspect of your identity, nor does it give you the right to speak as some kind of reporter from the frontiers of femininity. Playing it like a trump card just makes you seem pompous, and not very bright. In the end, it comes down to this: you're just you, speaking.

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