In 2020, Liz Truss, the minister for women and equalities, appointed Jessica Butcher to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Butcher could not be said to be a modern feminist (by her definition or anyone else’s). In fact, she actually describes herself as an ‘old-fashioned feminist’.
Butcher was a controversial appointment for several reasons, not least because she has criticised the MeToo movement for ruining men’s careers. Butcher claims that modern feminism ‘disempowers’ women and is obsessed with ‘female victimhood’. She does not deny that gender discrimination exists, but places the onus on women themselves for dealing with it. In her view, if a woman finds herself discriminated against in the workplace, or in any other scenario, she should adopt a ‘well come on then, I’ll show you’ attitude as a response to the discrimination.
For Butcher to suggest that longstanding systemic inequalities can be resolved with a mere attitude change on the part of those most affected by these inequalities is a sign that Butcher is either not willing to accept the way that discrimination becomes embedded in society or is simply unaware of how complex and multi-layered discrimination is. But the issue is that Butcher’s belief that those who bear the burden for society’s inequalities should simply overturn them through persistence and ‘resilience’ is not unique to her.
For Butcher, the idea of feminism is not so much the notion of tackling the systems which disadvantage women, but of emboldening women to break down these systems and succeed despite the odds. Unfortunately, this type of feminism helps very few – and it is only those who are most privileged anyway who can possibly do this.
Butcher’s feminism is centred around the ‘strong, independent woman’ stereotype. This stereotype has been all-pervasive for the past few decades and is often used as an example of what a modern feminist woman should be like.
Writing in the Guardian, Barbara Ellen argues that the stereotype is problematic for several reasons. She says that it turns women into over-achieving caricatures and robs them of their human quirks. She describes the woman of the stereotype thus:
workaholic, sardonic, brutal but fair, sarcastic but sexy, probably smokers, even more probably cops, childless (or with children horribly scarred by their working hours), scornful of the male gaze but with a suspiciously great, figure-hugging wardrobe.
Unfortunately this type of woman isn’t just an unhealthy and unrealistic role model; she is also a steely figure without normal human flaws and weaknesses. The idea that she exists and that women who wish to succeed should be like her is often a cruel cultural construction which those who would prefer feminism not to exist use to tell women who show their vulnerability that they’re doing feminism wrong.
The strong independent woman stereotype is a distractor – one that people often use to place the blame for the issues women face on women themselves. So what are the specific ways that this stereotype does that, and how do those ways affect our perceptions of violence against women?
The stereotype absolves systems of responsibility
If we think of the woman described by Barbara Ellen, she is certainly a stereotype. But make no mistake, the stereotypes surrounding her are trotted out with an alarming frequency to illustrate why women can do anything that a man can do. This idea is a reductive notion of what feminism is supposed to be about – usually wielded by those who purport not so much to be feminists but to take issue with feminism.
While women certainly have the ability to do what men can do, there are plenty of barriers that face women and prevent them from having the same opportunities as men – and these opportunities don’t simply concern professional success and recognition – they concern all manner of things – from how women are viewed by the courts to how safe they are in a range of situations.
The strong independent woman stereotype enables those who wish to to manipulate the fact that men hold disproportionate power in this society and pretend that women face an entirely level playing field – just because some women have managed to achieve exactly what men have. But this doesn’t change the fact that someone who embodies the strong, independent woman stereotype is still at disproportionate risk of intimate partner violence or sexual harassment compared with an equally professionally successful man.
Professional success does not signal that there were no barriers to achieving that success, and yet the stereotype is used to pretend that women who may not embody it are simply weak and unable to overcome hurdles that they ought to be able to surpass.
For proponents of the stereotype, when a woman is facing sexual harassment in the workplace, she should be able to brush it off and not allow it to get to her. And yet, this is simply another way of saying that it is the responsibility of those who are victims in particular situations to turn those situations around – this should not be the case. When existing systems and power dynamics are at fault, it is these that should change – otherwise in any situation where an uneven power dynamic exists, we will always view the victim or weaker power as at fault for their own oppression.
The stereotype puts the onus on women for not leaving abusive situations
When people believe strongly in the ‘strong independent woman’ stereotype, it becomes harder to recognise and acknowledge the inequalities and power discrepancies faced by women.
Strong independent women are meant (according to the stereotype) to be able to exercise volition at every turn. But this is not possible for any woman to do in a world where women face distinct power inequalities when compared with men. But when we convince ourselves that women can overcome hurdles simply by behaving in a ‘strong, independent’ way, this means we often fail to offer women the help they need to escape difficult situations.
For many people considering abusive situations, they question why women do not leave. While the manipulative way that abusers often trap their victims in relationships is not well understood, the ‘strong independent woman’ stereotype often convinces people that women (especially in an age of feminism and the push for equality) can ‘just leave’.
Women in abusive situations can rarely ‘just leave’. I have discussed the reasons for this before, and they are many and complex. They might be trapped by emotional or financial dependency, or may have been isolated from all other support sources by their abuser. Women who are being abused may have been gaslighted into feeling unable to trust themselves and so become wholly dependent on the person who hurts them. And yet, the stereotype convinces us that because women have legs and the ability to walk, they can automatically remove themselves from these situations if they truly wish to do so.
When women do not leave, some people’s tendency is to blame women for staying. Again, the ‘strong independent woman’ stereotype convinces us that action against oppression must come from the oppressed – and absolves wider society of responsibility for system change.