Right now, there are many powerful men who have clearly been making truly terrible life choices for quite some time. Obviously there’s Prince Andrew, who has been stripped of his public duties and accompanying £249,000 salary we can only assume because, in an interview about his friendship with the late Jeffrey Epstein – a man with a conviction for the solicitation of prostitution involving a minor – he managed to come off as both unremorseful and lacking in empathy for victims.
And then there’s our prime minister – Boris Johnson – who, despite his best efforts, is never not dogged by a scandal. At the moment, it’s mostly surrounding Jennifer Arcuri, with whom he may or may not have had a relationship while chucking business her way during his tenure as mayor of London.
When you look to men in positions of power, it’s hard not to feel disheartened. Of course, there are exceptions but so often the stories are of patriarchy protecting privilege. Yet there is hope in the dark. It’s just not quite where you would usually expect to find it.
In various constituencies up and down the country, a practical pushback is taking place.
In Burton and Uttoxeter, a woman named Kate Griffiths is standing as a Conservative party candidate in her estranged husband Andrew’s seat.
In 2018, Andrew and Kate welcomed their first child. In the 21 days that followed the birth, he sent 2,000 sexts to two women in his constituency. In the messages, to a 28-year-old bartender named Imogen Treharne and her friend, Griffiths referred to himself as “Daddy” and asked them to send him explicit images.
Though he was cleared of “wrongdoing” by the parliamentary standards watchdog, the whole affair cost Griffiths his reputation – local Conservative party members would not support his bid for re-election – and his marriage.
Kate, whose daughter is now 20 months old, stood against her husband to be a parliamentary candidate and won. Her representatives told Refinery29 that she is not giving interviews at the moment so that she can “focus on local issues” and because her divorce is still in the process of being finalised. However, she has released a statement saying that she left Andrew on the day he told her about his behaviour and that it was about to be published in the press.
“Our relationship ended on that day,” it reads.
The statement continues in the same steadfast tone. “The last 18 months have been the most difficult of my life but I have found a strength and resilience I didn’t know I had. I have become a single mother and have had to fight to protect my family.”
It has been reported that Kate was inspired by a speech made in the House of Commons last month by Labour MP Rosie Duffield about the emotional abuse and coercive control she suffered at the hands of a former partner. It’s thought that, if elected, Kate will make sexual harassment a cornerstone issue in her work.
The phrase “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” has become shorthand for anything a woman does in the throes of a relationship breakdown, glibly stereotyping an entire gender ever since William Congreve penned “heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned” for his 1697 play The Mourning Bride.
If the devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world he doesn’t exist, then surely men’s was convincing us all that women are mad, bad and sad.
It’s an archetype we’re all familiar with and which undermines the credibility of women’s emotions and actions. Today, as we navigate the choppy and often uncharted waters of what, at times, feels like a full-blown gender war, I think about it often. Women are expected to tell their stories in order to effect change but when they do, they are often dismissed as hysterical, belittled and undermined. If the devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world he doesn’t exist, then surely men’s was convincing us all that women are mad, bad and sad.
The very word hysterical, after all, comes from hysterika, the Greek word for uterus. Hysteria was long considered to be a medical condition from which only women could suffer; men, by definition, were unable to experience it.
Kate Griffiths’ actions resist that tired trope with rational practicality. Whether or not you could conceivably support (let alone vote) Conservative, it’s hard not to view what she’s doing as a poignant rewriting of a script we’ve all been reading from.
“I know people will have questions about my relationship with Andrew Griffiths and I want to be open about this,” she said. “I am not able to say more about this now as legal proceedings are ongoing but I want to make it clear that I have not sought nor do I accept Andrew’s offer of political support.”
This is how the personal becomes political and takes on new meaning. That’s also what Rosie Duffield did by telling her story in parliament.
“Abuse isn’t only about those noticeable physical signs. Abuse is very often all about control and power,” she said.
“But that’s not how abusers present themselves, it’s not how they win your heart. It’s not how they persuade you to go for a coffee, then go to a gig then spend the evening snuggled up in front of a movie at their place.”
“When they ask you out they don’t present their rage, and they don’t tell you that they like the idea of strong independent successful women but not the reality.”
These women – Kate Griffiths, Rosie Duffield and Emily Owen – are, all in their own way, sending the message that you can tell your story and not only be heard but respected.
After her speech, Rosie received a tearful standing ovation from other MPs. With the long-awaited and much-needed landmark Domestic Abuse Bill on ice because of this election and Boris Johnson’s decision to unlawfully prorogue parliament, it all feels even more poignant. After all, who we elect to parliament decides which issues are prioritised and which are not.
However, it seems not everyone got the collegiate political sisterhood memo. Rosie narrowly won her seat – Canterbury – in 2017 with a small margin. She’s running again but the Lib Dems are fighting for the area with a male candidate. They’ve received so much criticism for this that the (only female) party leader, Jo Swinson, was forced to defend it while launching her manifesto.
In north Wales, 25-year-old Emily Owen is standing for Labour in Aberconwy. She says she was raped in a “politically motivated attack” by a far-right extremist last year and that they spiked her drink. She shared her story after left-wing columnist, Owen Jones was attacked by “far right activists” outside a pub while celebrating his birthday this autumn.
Despite being unsure about “going out alone” in the aftermath of her attack, Emily now says it only strengthened her resolve to bring about change through politics.
The word hysterical, after all, comes from the Greek word for uterus. Hysteria was long considered to be a medical condition which only women could suffer from; men, by definition, were unable to experience it.
“As Owen Jones used his platform when he was attacked I will use my (somewhat smaller) platform to stand up and be counted, speaking up for those who feel their voices can’t be heard,” she said.
Emily has openly criticised Boris Johnson for endorsing and enabling the far right. “For the first time in our history, we have a prime minister whom the far right regard as their leader,” she said.
“People are being attacked in the street, threats on social media are increasing, hate speech is now common and there is a real feeling of unease throughout the country. Make no mistake, this movement is real and it’s happening now.”
However, she told Refinery29 that she won’t be speaking about what happened during this election campaign. “I was involved with politics way before the attack,” she explained, “and I’m campaigning on transformative policies which will change people’s lives.”
Emily said she got involved with politics because she doesn’t “feel that young people or women are properly represented in parliament, yet decisions that are made there drastically affect our lives. I see firsthand what nine years of austerity has done to this country.”
“We are the fifth richest economy in the world yet we have a huge amount of homeless people, the inequality gap is continuously rising, the cost of living is becoming unaffordable and we have a ridiculous amount of food banks,” she added.
For Emily, getting more women into politics is the only way forward. “Women represent roughly 50% of the population,” she explained. “That needs reflecting in parliament. Current decisions disproportionately affect women and that needs to change.”
Similarly, the Women’s Equality Party has been fielding sexual assault survivors, like Jenn Selby, in various constituencies in a symbolic bid to unseat male politicians whose treatment of women has been called into question.
As Prince Andrew – who failed to acknowledge Epstein’s victims in his Newsnight interview – has shown us, we still live in an era where certain people’s stories are valued more than others, where some people’s power is exploited without reproach. It was telling that when asked “whether the monarchy was fit for purpose” during the first election debate on ITV last week, Boris Johnson smirked and said “the institution of the monarchy is beyond reproach” while Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn said we ought first to think of Epstein’s victims. It was remarkable because he is one of the few men in a position of power foregrounding the women who were abused to please men. That shouldn’t be what shocks us in this scenario, but it is, because it is so rare.
Domestic abuse, coercive control and sexual assault are all attacks on a woman’s autonomy and ability to express themselves. They are all forms of abuse intended explicitly to silence women, to discredit them and to confuse their stories, often resulting in great trauma.
These women – Kate Griffiths, Rosie Duffield and Emily Owen – are, all in their own way, sending the message that you can tell your story and not only be heard but respected. In doing so, they give other women hope that things can change. If they are angry, they have turned it into purpose, they are using it as a catalyst for change. They are not standing by men who have treated them badly, as we have grown so used to seeing women in political life do. They are standing against them.
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