Why a group of women in a public space is still so threatening

The MoonWalk across London on Saturday night turned out to be political in unexpected ways…

Image by Katherine Leedale

It’s about 11.30pm on Saturday night on Clapham Common. I’m wearing my best bra. Wherever your mind has just wandered to, the next sentence is probably not what you were expecting. There are approximately 15,000 other women (and a smattering of men) who have also received the ‘wear your best bra’ memo, and because wearing your bra on Clapham Common on a Saturday night has not only been sanctioned but actively encouraged, people have gone all out. A sea of fuchsia and glitter, feathers and fairy lights gets ready to unleash a tidal wave across the city: by the following morning, the only remnants of this year’s Walk the Walk, the signature event of the UK’s largest grant making breast cancer charity, would be overflowing bins full of waterproof ponchos and the occasional feather bower decorating the front gates of some plush houses in SW6.

As ever, a gathering of this size, made up of majority women, can’t help but carry a political edge and with 8 and a half hours between the start line and the finish, I had ample time to dissect my observations about an event that shone light on the difficulties that still exist when women occupy public spaces.

Get your bras out for the charity!

Bras raise awareness about breast cancer. I get it. And for many women for whom getting their ‘puppies’ or ‘boys’ out (mine and my friend’s personal choice of nouns respectively) might be a crippling prospect, particularly those who have undergone prosthesis or reconstruction, this event acted as a celebration of a trauma battled and overcome. So, feeling part of a collective can be really powerful and who am I to be the curmudgeonly one to rain on their parade? At the same time, I can’t help but interrogate the journey we’ve made from ‘burn your bras’ to ‘wear your bras’ as a sign of progress, particularly given the handy hints in the pre-walk pack: for the smaller breasted lady, ways to decorate the bra that might enhance the chest and give you ‘the cleavage you may desire’, whilst larger breasted ladies might wish to consider using softer materials that ‘drape and swathe without adding volume.’ Are we not just exacerbating a whole bunch of bodily insecurities that we could do without? What about the power of 15,000 women all wearing really comfy hoodies, a third finger up to the male gaze? Perhaps I’m entirely missing the point of the event. Maybe the night-time setting is what frees us to get ‘em out. But there’s a strange dichotomy in highlighting a cause under the cover of dark, not to mention the fact that if such an emancipatory statement is being made, it’s being made to a couple of drunken people outside a bar and those on the security night shift. Whichever side you come down on, as a small breasted woman I make no apologies for that fact that my boobs are a useless source of insulation and whilst I was wearing a bra (and a very nice one at that) it was concealed by three layers of practical, breathable sportswear. Walking 26.2 miles was endurance enough, I certainly didn’t need to deal with cold nips as well…

Woman x many…

My friend and I are about two hours into the walk when we hit the south side of Westminster Bridge. The narrow passageway which takes us under the river causes a bottleneck and we all grind to a halt. Standing on the bridge are two men, one of whom spits over the bridge onto a group of women standing below. The other, seemingly working in tandem, shouts, “Why don’t you all go home? No one knows you’re here! What is it, some kind of lesbian convention?!” There’s so much to be offended by that I’m conscious that one should yell something back but fatigue prevents me from cultivating anything beyond a hackneyed cliche. My come-back was as punchy as a wet-flannel; “you run the world the rest of the time, you can’t even give us one night?!” Pathetic, trite, completely ineffectual. Particularly because these men clearly didn’t think they ran the world. If they’d felt any sense of worth at all, they certainly wouldn’t have been spitting on a group of sleep deprived individuals walking a marathon to raise money for charity. In a timely fashion, I find myself mid-way through Michael Kimmel’s Angry White Men: American masculinity at the end of an era, a sociological study by one of the world’s foremost experts on masculinity of the rise of what he describes as “aggrieved entitlement”: a sense that those benefits to which men have felt entitled are now being taken away from them.

My amateur diagnosis tells me that that was what we were facing on Saturday night. And because they will have assured themselves that their anger is totally justified, it’s almost impossible to find a come-back. In another time, another place and with a different, non-female body, we might have been able to strike up some conversation in which, having listened to their suffering at the hands of women’s unreasonable demands for equality, I might have responded with, “listen, I get it. You find yourself in a world where a ‘job for life’ no longer exists and yet cultural notions of the ‘male breadwinner’ still sit firmly in many men’s psyches; where the language of ‘inclusive workplaces’ translates to you as ‘nobody ever taking what a white man has to say seriously again’; and, what’s worse, you were a generation for whom societal expectations around the kind of fathers, brothers and lovers you should be changed so markedly without being given the emotional tools to handle such a change. You feel angry and let down. Your anger is totally justified. But what isn’t justified is who you hold accountable. Women are not the reason wages have stagnated and house prices are up. We are not pushing you out of your job, we’re fighting for the jobs side by side with you. We’re angry too. Our anger just often looks a bit different.” If Michael had been there to back me up, he might have put it a little more succinctly;

“White men’s anger is ‘real’ — that is, it is experienced deeply and sincerely. But it is not ‘true’ — that is, it doesn’t provide an accurate analysis of the situation. The ‘enemies of white American men are not really women and men of colour. Our enemy is an ideology of masculinity that we inherited from our fathers, and their fathers before them, an ideology that promises unparalleled acquisition coupled with a tragically impoverished emotional intelligence.”

They got short changed. I don’t like the behaviour it invokes but I understand the reasoning. No part of this conversation actually happened but I wish it had. “You know the sad thing is, no matter what else happens for the rest of the walk, that’s the thing we’ll remember,” said my friend to me as we moved off. But she hadn’t accounted for the imminent joy of….

The public pee

Yes, to my unexpected surprise this became the real political act of the evening for me. It seems no one, however qualified in the field of mathematics, has yet to work out the number of female toilets required to cater for the number of women present. As a rule of thumb, I’d say whatever initial estimation you make, times it by five and you’ll still have women’s pelvic floor muscles on overdrive. At mile 3 I was desperate and having passed the first set of loos with what looked like a half hour wait at least, my friend and I took the executive decision that queue or no queue, we were going to take advantage of a male prerogative to pee anywhere at any time. It was thrilling! First stop was a side alley just along from Tower Bridge. No toilet I’ve ever used before has offered such a vista. Pee #2 occurred just off the Mall in St James’ Park, pee #3 in a shop doorway in Kensington just after the sun had come up. I’m not in the business of committing such public indecency but on this occasion, needs must. The fact that I happened to find it utterly freeing was merely a side effect. Not only that, by the time we got half way, there was a great sense of camaraderie as we all wrestled for a spot behind the nearest tree. Pee #4 was civilised in comparison: a men’s loo at a McDonald’s off the Kings Road. Greeted by a queue of 30 women who had unapologetically commandeered both sets of loos, I saw a man gingerly enquire as to whether this was the queue for the ladies, or the gents as well. He wisely joined the back of the queue remarking, “I guess you all need it more than me.”

It was a charity walk, a completely apolitical gathering but still so unavoidably political. Whatever sense of empowerment inspired people to sign up, whether walking alongside fellow survivors, marking lives lost or simply enjoying the coming together of courageous women bearing their glorious bodies unashamedly, it was an incredibly powerful evening/morning. My sense of power came, completely unexpectedly, from the simple act of relieving one’s bladder. But its power was palpable; for no one would have felt the need to spit on this group of valiant individuals if they hadn’t felt their own power to be threatened. A collective of women still proves a striking and sporadic sight. All the more reason to sign up next year…

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