Back in the spring of last year, I decided that I wanted two exterior walls at our house to be painted white. Not even two walls, actually: one and a half. They were covered in a dirty brown render and I was sick of it.
It didn’t strike me as a particularly complicated or arduous job. I thought about doing it myself, but the tricky issue of ladders and my ever-present clumsiness reared its head and made me think again. So, I decided to get quotes from decorators to see how much it would be.
In the office that week, I happened to bump into the decorator who was currently painting my suite of offices and I asked if he’d pop round and have a look. He readily agreed.
Two days later, he looked at the wall, and then he rang me at my office. During a phone call during which I reiterated several times that I just wanted a quote for the two walls to be painted white, these are direct quotes of the words he said to me.
“I wouldn’t bother. Save your money, mate, and spend it on something else.”
“I spoke to my buddy Jem who’s in the trade, and he agreed with me you’d be better off painting the woodwork white and leaving the wall brown. I can quote for painting the woodwork if you like?”
“It just fits in better with the street, leaving it brown.”
“The thing is, it’s an expensive job, a really expensive job. I’m not sure you’d want to pay what it’d cost you.”
“The problem is, you see, you just can’t paint it as it is. You’d want to get the whole thing rendered again and start from scratch. You’d need a plasterer first, not me.”
(For what it’s worth that last statement, right there, is an outright and outrageous lie. Several houses on the same street already had identical walls painted white, or grey, or pale blue. I myself have painted a similar surface in the past. It requires a special soft roller and the right sort of thick masonry paint. But it is not difficult. And I had already had a quote for the work — from a female decorator, in fact, not that this should matter).
I listened to this man talk and I realized that nothing I said was going to make any difference at all. He was not going to give me a quote for the work I wanted to be done. He had decided that it was a bad idea and that he knew best, and my opinion — as a prospective paying customer — was not relevant to him.
He would rather tell me a lie, would rather fudge facts and bluster, than simply say to me that he didn’t want the job or that it was too small for him or that he didn’t have time for however many weeks, that I might want to try someone else. He didn’t want tactfully to quote an offputtingly high price in the hope I wouldn’t hire him.
What bothered me the most is the fact that he needed me to know that it wasn’t him, it was me. It wasn’t that he didn’t fancy the job, it was that my entire request was wrong, was ridiculous. Somehow, in his mind, he had decided that I was weak enough, stupid enough, or just irrelevant enough that telling me the truth didn’t matter, and that his opinion was more valid than mine.
This happened again just before Christmas. I was speaking to a mortgage broker about financing and he interrupted me so often — explaining why he believed his way was better than what I was actually asking him to quote me for — that I ended up having to politely say “Can I stop you there? I don’t think you’re hearing me.” He did stop, and he did listen, although he was colder with me after that. But it felt good that I had spoken up for myself.
In her gorgeously crafted 2008 essay, “Men Explain Things To Me”, Rebecca Solnit writes:
Being told that, categorically, he knows what he’s talking about and she doesn’t, however minor a part of any given conversation, perpetuates the ugliness of this world and holds back its light.
That is the truth. That is how I felt when I finished speaking with the decorator, and again when I spoke to the mortgage broker. I realized that I had been told categorically, without any room for question, that the man I was talking to knew what he was talking about and that I didn’t.
The world was an uglier place suddenly, darkened for me by the injustice of it. After I spoke with the decorator, this injustice filled me with a rage so blinding that it actually reduced me to tears. After I spoke to the mortgage broker, though, I felt calmer. I felt proud because I had spoken up and asked him to listen to me.
When I spoke to my husband about my interaction with the decorator, he was sympathetic but he was also nonplussed. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “You’re in charge, aren’t you? He didn’t give you a quote, so you move on and find someone who will, and you write him off as someone you won’t bother hiring next time.”
My husband has strong feminist values; he is well educated, sensitive, and has never seen our marriage as anything other than a union of two absolute equals. I don’t doubt this for a moment. But still, he had absolutely no idea why I was so deeply upset.
He is a white man, with all the privilege attendant to that status in society, and he couldn’t possibly ever comprehend — on the level I needed someone to comprehend — how I felt about the encounter I had had.
Because how can I begin to explain? It wasn’t that incident on its own. Of course not. It’s the gradual accumulation over time of encounters like it. It’s all of it.
It’s the “I think you’ll find…” (archly, sarcastically, from a classmate in an English lesson where I’d read the book and he hadn’t). It’s the “Actually, I suspect my guess is rather better,” (from a male colleague when I quipped that his guess was as good as mine).
It’s the indulgent grin from the builder when I asked him to leave a Victorian brick archway visible in our wall as part of the structure of the kitchen extension. (“You’ve been watching too much Grand Designs!” he chuckled, and yet it’s now one of the most beautiful and commented-on features of the building).
It’s the “what were you thinking? Look at this mess. Why didn’t you just move house?” from the electrician fitting out the cables in the same extension. It’s every time the men in the tire shop spit lyrical lists of PSIs and tread depth and car makes at me, rather than giving me the three clear price options and allowing me to choose.
I have my own privilege, which I don’t deny. I am a white woman, healthy, well educated, and relatively successful at work; I have enough of my own money and sufficient wherewithal to make the right choices for my own benefit if I need to make them. I do not lose sight of that privilege. A man cannot say something to me that can affect my wellbeing in any direct way.
But the way I am spoken to, casually, by men every day still matters. It matters how women are spoken to because it speaks to an attitude which in societies less progressive than ours, the casual diminution of a woman’s right to an opinion is so much more serious than me swearing under my breath and grimacing into a phone handset and ranting about it later.
I live in the UK, where the Irish abortion law featured prominently in the news in 2019 because until that year, staggeringly, the law dictated — in essence — that a pregnant woman could not know her own mind. She could not make her own choices. The health of her fetus took legal precedence over her own mental or physical health, and that was that.
The journey to the repeal of the 8th amendment was long and it was arduous, but it happened because women’s voices were heard and their opinions were finally given sufficient weight to effect change.
Contrast this with Lebanon, a country where since 1943 abortion has been illegal under a similar framework to the one previously used in Ireland (ie, banned save some medical exceptions).
In Lebanon, there has been no ceaseless campaign over many years to have the outdated and sexist law changed. Since 1969, it has not been referred to any kind of legal review in the way the Irish law was.
But that is not because the women aren’t asking. “An interview with a representative of the Lebanese Family Planning Association (LFPA, 2001) showed that officials from the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Public Health refuse to put the abortion issue on their agenda though they are well aware of its magnitude”.
The women in Lebanon have opinions. But what they hear is that their opinions are wrong, are irrelevant, are not worthy of debate. That is the fact of their lives.
I am lucky to live in a world where this is not a fact of my day to day life. So many of us, are so lucky in that way. We get a vote and a voice. But in day to day life sometimes it feels that for women everywhere, we’re a hair’s-breadth away from feeling similarly unheard — because somehow men can’t hear us past their own explanations.
I found a different decorator, in the end. And I’ll use a different mortgage broker. But the way I felt in those conversations? The smallness, the impotent fury? That still matters. And I want to remember that feeling, going into 2021 and with all the hope we are pinning on this new year. I need to remember that when I spoke up and politely asked to be heard, I felt incrementally better.
As women we all need to be remember that being heard, having a credible opinion, the right to have a say — those things are currency. We are lucky to have them. They’re our wealth, and we need to be richer.
So we need to keep speaking up.