Political violence is patriarchal

I have often wondered — as a law grad — why studying law seems to be so disproportionately popular amongst women. I think part of the answer lies in what law represents: under the law, there is formal equality between citizens. A lawyer’s arguments are (in principle at least) judged by their objective strength. Not on the basis of the lawyer’s ‘likability’, their ‘charisma’, the ‘connections’ they have to the audience or anybody else, or their ability to intimidate or dominate. The law is powerful in its promise of rights, as it does not require a decision-maker to feel concern for the women’s interests. A woman who expects a man will care about her interests — economic, career, family, or even her basic dignity — is liable to be disappointed. But a woman can demand he abide by her rights. A woman who expects a man to willingly listen to what a woman has to say is liable to be disappointed. But a woman can force him to listen to the ruling of a court. That is the profound quality of law that makes it such a potentially powerful tool for those who lack social power — its formal equality.

It is also law that safeguards each and every individual’s place within a democracy, as part of the body politic. The basic premise of democracy is no single individual has a right to demand the agreement of another. Our ability to coerce others (through violence) is pooled and deposited into the state, which is then accountable to the people on an equal basis — one person, one vote. We do this so that the limits to our freedoms (for example, our freedom of speech) are determined with the formally equal input of all individuals in a society. Generally the substance of those limits is determined via our representatives, and ideally following some reasoned discussion. Certainly the process is imperfect. But it is also vital to our freedom.

Women in particular rely on this formal equality to have a voice, and a seat at the table. Absent law, there is unregulated private power — and the neutralisation of that private power beyond a certain point is the bare minimum condition for women’s liberation. Men cannot use physical force to stop women from speaking, from associating, from voting. This is also clearly relevant for minorities vulnerable to domination by a majority. The deliberate redrawing of electoral maps in certain US states to disenfranchise ethnic minority voters, for example, allows for the entrenchment of already powerful groups in government, free from the burden of having to justify themselves to all the constituents they supposedly represent. But what is particularly important in the case of women is that physical domination is especially likely to occur one-to-one. Women lack the physical power to enforce their interests over men not simply structurally, but also often individually. Almost all men are stronger than almost all women, and both men and women are aware of this. It can and does colour their interactions with one another. If an individual man is determined to stop a woman standing before him from speaking, the only thing that is likely to stop him — absent a gun, a knife, or self-defence training — is (a) fear of legal sanction, or (b) surrounding people, particularly men, who are willing to stop him. It is far more of a physical risk for a man to attack another man than it is for a man to attack a woman. Thus, women in particular rely on a legally protected sphere of liberty, buttressed by public power.

Absent women’s legally protected right to speak, women’s speech depends directly or indirectly on either men’s absence, or their acquiescence. This is the reality of women’s experience as a sex class. This was vividly demonstrated at an event last weekend, MoveOn’s ‘Big Ideas Forum’, attended by a number of candidates for the Democratic Party nomination for President. Three women of colour, including Senator Kamala Harris, were having a discussion in front of an audience, until suddenly a man launched himself onto the stage, and took the microphone from Harris’s hands.

While Karine Jean-Pierre bravely stood between Harris and the stage invader, she ultimately had to wait for security to arrive before Harris was able to recover her mic, because he refused to give it back willingly — and he had the physical power to enforce that refusal. Three different women, attempting to discuss (in this case) the Gender Pay Gap, were literally silenced by one determined man — who declared he had a ‘Bigger Idea’ than the one the three of them had chosen to discuss — up until the point that other men stepped in to stop him. That is the profound impact of men’s physical force within a discursive space. To legitimise political violence is to take away the right of all women to speak, and turn it into a liberty granted by men.

Not just ‘bad’ women. But all women. You, reader, might take the view that radical feminists are simply terrible, evil people. Fine. But the next man, whose violence against us you have legitimised by declaring that political discussion can be shut down as soon as it becomes ‘harmful’ or ‘provocative’, might come to that conclusion about a completely different sort of woman. Or just the individual woman he happens to find distasteful, annoying, ‘naggy’, at a given moment. Or maybe he hates all women. The point is: once male violence against women is legitimised, it is not your opinion on who is terrible that matters, it’s his. And his, and his, and his.

As someone who witnessed the attack on Maria Maclachlan at Speaker’s Corner in 2017, I remember vividly the atmosphere of terror that existed leading up to and following the events. The crowd were chanting “Kill TERFs”, apparently unironically. A man was screaming into the megaphone of the organiser to drown her out. It was in that atmosphere that another man felt empowered to snatch a 60 year old’s camera from her hands, and another to strike her in the face as she struggled to get it back. I remember crying shortly afterwards, after the adrenaline wore off, and certain others in the crowd declared that Maria ‘deserved’ what she got. I felt ashamed at that, because Maria herself (that I saw) didn’t shed a tear. Maria got up and declared, calmly, that she was fine. But I had not experienced that sense of sheer vulnerability to male violence since certain events experienced throughout my teen years, and it brought me back vividly to those times.

However, the most disturbing part of the events of that day I only saw afterwards, when looking at the footage taken of the attack. You can see it at 01:25 here.

In this video, you see a female protestor try to pull the attacker away from Maria. That protestor was not one of the ‘evil TERFs’ — it was a protestor on the same ‘side’ as Wolf. But what does he do? He turns around, shoves her, and walks towards her menacingly until finally she backs off. This in a nutshell is the misogyny of political violence. Once it is declared that a woman who is politically unacceptable is fair game, the only ones who can determine the boundaries of that acceptability are men themselves. Even a woman who is supportive but only up to a certain point becomes fair game. The limits of her own freedom are not hers to determine. When women no longer have a right to be free from male violence, the political rights of every single one of us are rendered defeasible by men.

I have not addressed in the above paragraphs the growing “trend” of assaulting people with milkshakes for holding right wing views. It is not “progressive”, it is abhorrent. Nobody should feel as though they cannot voice their genuinely held political views because they fear assault. What these people should fear is that if they voice those views they will hear strongly worded, confident rebuttal from their opponents and be held to account for any bigotry that they may express. There are limits to ‘free speech’ — in particular, incitement to violence. Incitement to racial hatred. And certain others. But those limits are determined via a constitutional democratic process, including discussion by elected representatives and careful, reasoned interpretations by courts. They are not to be determined on the ground by threats and violence. That is to create the absolute opposite of a free state.

To legitimise male violence against women, anywhere, is to make patriarchy real. It was real that day. It was real when “@TownTattle” physically attacked Julie Bindel last night. It is real in every environment where political violence is even a possibility. The fear of violence is used routinely to make women stay silent, to stop talking, to be polite, to know their place. Male violence against women is patriarchal terrorism. And if you legitimise it, if you forgive it, if you advocate it, you are complicit.

The above article was written by a member of the Cambridge Radical Feminist Network. If you would like to write an article for the Network, please get in touch, and please follow us on social media.