“Women drivers, eh?” We were standing outside a Victorian brick semi in a small town which now functioned as a suburb for the provincial city which had spread out to encompass it. Leaning on the wall and waiting in vaguely embarrassed company for the estate agent to turn up, we made small-talk about the weather (unusually good, but then it was summer after all), the property market (houses go so quickly that the list they give you is out of date before you manage to organise an appointment) and the town (very pleasant, shops nearby and an effective system of buses.) It wasn’t particularly insightful stuff, we didn’t discuss the economy, the legitimacy of representative government or the decline of literature in the age of the internet. We were mainly, I think, trying to avoid admitting that we potentially in competition to rent this place. So it should have been a surprise when the estate agent turned up and my newly-met acquaintance felt able to offer a generalisation on the differing potential for motor (and thus motoring) skills in men and women.
Of course it wasn’t, though. No doubt it sounds pompous and humourless to describe his gesture towards the agent parking (entirely efficiently) her car and his “Women drivers, eh?” as a statement about gender difference. No doubt most people would tell me to lighten up and accept that he was just being friendly and trying to cheer an awkward moment by making a joke. But that is rather my problem. The fact that he didn’t mean anything by it, that he thought it was fine to try to bond with a man he had literally just met by denigrating women, is rather the point. He didn’t need to be a ghastly misogynist to assume that the right way to be polite to a man is to insult a woman nearby. To be fair to him, he was right. If politeness consists of a set of social codes and conventions, he was being polite. It is generally accepted in our society that suggesting women are inherently inferior is a way of signalling to another man that you are friendly and sociable.
This is despite the fact that women as a group face a continual series of dangers and disadvantages – ranging from the 25% chance of sexual assault over a lifetime to the 20% lower pay on average – which are maintained and carried out by men who do believe that women are their inferiors. Or the fact that thousands of women are kept in abusive relationships with the help of social attitudes which reinforce the idea that they won’t be able to learn to drive, or manage their finances, or generally survive without a man to supervise and control them. Despite the ways that women’s supposed inferiority is used to validate injustice and violence against them, it is still acceptable to start a conversation with a stranger by asking him to agree that women are a lower category of human in some way.
When feminist women are accused of thinking there is a great patriarchal conspiracy, where men meet up and discuss ways to keep women down, it is done to suggest they are paranoid and deluded. But that conspiracy is so big no-one ever needed to call a meeting of it or circulate an agenda paper. Its password is the “women drivers, eh?” between men who have never met. Its secret handshake is the slap on the back after an overheard pub “joke” about drunk girls being easy prey. It meets every time men get together and begin the evening’s fun by jovially agree that women need to be kept in their place. And millions of men are in on the plot without ever realizing.
This isn’t a matter of “political correctness”, or “language policing”. It’s about not repeating the words of the abuser and the oppressor, and then thinking of ourselves as good blokes. It’s about listening to what other men are saying, and taking them seriously. If they tell you they despise women, that they think women need to talk less, that they resent women’s ability to refuse having sex with them, that they want to hit women, that they think the underage girls are sexually available, they may well be telling you the truth. Ask yourself why they would say those things if they didn’t mean them in some sense. Ask yourself why they think you’re safe to say those things to. We’re so used to hearing the small sexism of politeness that we don’t notice it is saying so many things in our name that we would be horrified by. I may be going a long way from “women drivers, eh?” But in a more just world, no-one would know why that man said that to me. It wouldn’t make sense. We’d think he was telling me he thought women were inferior.