I have always been the kind of woman that does the kind of things that women are not supposed to do. Bored to death by the stifling domesticity of Brownies (they had badges which basically involved making a cup of tea for fuck’s sake), I refused to join the Guides and opted for the Air Cadets instead. I shot guns and flew planes, learnt how to scale 12 foot walls and filled my water bottle with vodka when we went on camp. I gradually realised as I got older that my pacifist vegetarian ways were not particularly compatible with the military life, and my non-conformity came out in different ways. I went raving and shaved my hair off. I became an animal rights activist and began to protest the very authority I had nearly become co-opted by. I woke up and began to misbehave.
In refusing to conform, to fit into the neat little box of what is acceptable behaviour for women, I am not alone. Women’s refusal to do what they are told constitutes a colourful and often hidden history going back to Boudicca and beyond. Boudicca’s response to her own flogging and her daughter’s rape was to mobilise an army and destroy London – a woman not to be fucked with. I have just returned from a screening of a film about the women of Greenham Common (Carry Greenham Home) which sensitively depicts their non-violent resistance in the face of the masculine face of authority. Their constant forays over the barbed wire fence of the camp that housed Cruise missiles, and their continual defiant singing in the faces of the officers who were there to police them, clearly created a total and utter pain in the arse for all involved. Their antics reminded me of the stories of Emily Pankhurst, the suffragette who caused similar mischief at Westminster. Among other things, Pankhurst once threw a hammer through the division lobby window as well as famously hiding in a broom cupboard on the night of the 1911 census so that the authorities would have to record her as resident in Parliament.
It is not easy to rebel as a woman. It is not easy to refuse to lie down and recognise the authority of the man. The women that do so face stigma and ridicule and are judged more harshly than their male counterparts. Women like Aung Sun Suu Kyi have to face questions about why they have abandoned their families to fight for a political cause, just as the Greenham women faced judgement from the wider world. The message is clear – women should prioritise their children and stay at home. To do differently is madness. The women who do such things are met with violence and vilification in return. They are beaten and arrested and ultimately imprisoned.
The chains of gender are wound tightly around us from a young age and it can be difficult to wriggle free. The women that do so are inspiring escapologists and they lead the way for all of us, giving our bonds a tug as they dance away. They show us that another path is possible, each act of resistance building into a general movement. Gramsci spoke of a revolution of ‘common sense’ in which our everyday actions do matter as they are transformative of the world around us. Each one of us has this power within us.
I came back from the screening grateful and inspired. I have been feeling deeply angry and helpless about recent world events and it was heartening to see women taking a stand. The women who did what was so hard to do and fought for their freedoms in a patriarchal world. The women like Emily Pankhurst, but also the ordinary women whose names we don’t know. The women who refuse to bow down to an image of what men think we should be. The women who cut their hair and do not paint their face. The women who scale the fences of military bases and make their voices heard. The women who refuse to stay inside the box.