To Have and to Have Not would have taken its place in the canon of B movies were it not for one of the most explicit and iconic movie lines ever. Lauren Bacall, in total control of herself, her sexuality and Humphrey Bogart, first seduces him, then leaves him with the words "You know how to whistle, don't you? You just put your lips together and blow."
Incredible then, that this time-honoured form of expression – the whistle – has come to symbolise the oppression of women. If you buy into the “everyday sexism” debate, that is.
In that debate, at least one respected woman commentator has attested that a serious sexual assault on her began with a wolf whistle; others hint at it. I know of a serious sexual assault which began with a woman teaching an illiterate adult to read. Should we then outlaw adult literacy programmes? Obviously not.
In all of these cases the women were unfortunate enough to come up against a criminally violent abuser in an everyday setting, the scenario which was the actual theme of the book Everyday Sexism.
In the couple of years since its publication, the discussion has been debased to what Joan Didion would call “wounded bird” feminism, where compliments are discriminatory and wolf whistles endemic to a culture of rape. The wounded birds should know a compliment from a colleague of the same or opposite sex is often the only bright spot in a bleak workplace. And until the evidence that wolf whistling leads to rape is produced, we cannot demand that building sites censure a form of communication which has always been recognised as conveying emotion.
Leaving aside the class bias – it’s builders generally who do it – there is a question of displacement. How can so much print and online space be devoted to wolf-whistling when everyday misogyny is alive and kicking? The daily spites of the unmannerly world are a reality for Irish women artists, writers and politicians.
Feminism achieved great things where the legislation, customs and practices had been discriminatory. But all these years later, the invisible woman is still a phenomenon in Irish public life. Women are largely absent in two of our greatest institutions, parliament and the national theatre. Apparently men are six times better at politics and 10 times better at writing plays. They are also, apparently, 10 times better at engineering.
Before the very serious charge of discrimination is levelled, one fundamental question has to be asked: is women’s invisibility in these areas a result of men’s clear superiority. If the answer is no, then it’s reasonable to suppose some form of discrimination is at work and, if so, something must be done about it. This time, the culprit is not discriminatory legislation, but something more amorphous. Leaving aside the engineering, bitter experience suggests that men are no better than women at politics and anecdotal evidence avers the same about women in the arts. Why the imbalance?
The rationales are circular – women haven’t the experience, are not ready – and strike me as reflective of the argument about the paucity of black actors in the entertainment business. The parts are not written for black actors, say producers, besides we need more funding to train them. “Try casting them,” says spokesperson Lenny Henry. “They don’t need more training, They need a break.”
Women need the break too. Gender quotas, sensitively executed, work. The reasons are psychological as opposed to legislative: women themselves mobilise, the international community is respectful, a communal sense of pride kicks in. The current constituency melees surrounding female candidate selection demonstrate yet again the pitfalls of positive discrimination. By implementing the quotas with punitive legislation women feel undermined and men victimised.
The feminine mystique, envisaged all those years ago, was not supposed to be enforced by legislation, but was to flow from an instinctive recognition of sexual differences. It was about changing hearts and minds. And the natural forums for such change are politics and the arts. It cannot be coincidence these are the very areas most closed to women. Is there an instinctive reflex in men to protect the buttresses of patriarchy? Is it that men view women as a risk because because they are more subtle and more rational?
Or is there another explanation? Could it be the original women’s movement, like the suffragettes, drew its energy from fighting powerful visible injustices but, those battles having been won, foundered on a plan for the peace? Certainly, the new feminists are fighting a more mercurial injustice in the form of invidious bias.
It doesn’t really matter if the bias is conscious or unconscious. Some positive affirmation intervention is needed to widen our thinking. Because wilful ignorance is the obstacle to freedom of choice. And thinking, to paraphrase Shakespeare, is what makes the reality. We all need to change our thinking. And some of us need to access our inner Lauren Bacall.
Una Mullally is on leave