Once upon a time I worked on the sports desk of an evening paper. One day, at lunchtime, I was going over some page proofs when the phone rang.
Some guy on the end said, ‘Can I speak to the sports editor?’
‘He’s out to lunch,’ I said. ‘Can I help?’
‘I don’t think so. Is the deputy editor in?’
‘No,’ I said.
‘Is Reg in?’ (Reg was our racing correspondent)
‘Is Ray in? Gary? What about Pete?’
‘They’re all out,’ I said. ‘Can I help?’
‘I shouldn’t think so, love. You’re just the secretary aren’t you? I need to know the date of the FA cup final.’
‘May 20,’ I said. ‘Anything else?’
I’d forgotten all about that until I watched Mary Beard’s BBC4 lecture ‘Oh Do Shut Up Dear’, on the silencing of women. I was appalled when she told of the insults (some of them death threats) that she regularly gets whenever she appears on BBC’s Question Time. Somebody actually told her he’d chop her head off and rape it. Most of the hate mail she gets tells her that she’s stupid. Eh? She is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of Newnham College, and Royal Academy of Arts professor of ancient literature. If that’s stupid what does that make the rest of us?
If you’re going to put somebody down effectively, you need to use wit. You have to match your intellect to your intended victim and expose their weaknesses. Trouble is, most of these people aren’t too hot on the intellect front, and all they want to indulge in is some anonymous, venomous bile spilling.
Professor Beard’s lecture was about how we have been conditioned over the last 3,000 years, since Homer’s time, to believe that it is wrong for women to take part in politics, to speak publicly,or to have an opinion on issues other than the home and family. She points out that women in politics these days are tolerated if they have jobs in education or health, but that there has never been a female Chancellor of the Exchequer.
I found her speech riveting, but she fudged it at the end, when it came to how we, as women, should deal with men who talk over us, or who ignore us at meetings, or who tell us to shut up, (as revealed by a distinguished panellist at January’s World Economic Forum). Professor Beard is a reasonable, decent woman and an academic, so her solution was along the lines of analysing and then dealing with the faults causing these problems.
That’s all very well, but it doesn’t cut the mustard in the here and now. We can’t, like Kruschev, take our shoes off and bang them on the table if we are ignored. (Although, actually the idea does rather appeal) because then we play into the stereotype of being emotional and unreasonable. We cannot put up and shut up, so we must just be assertive, and keep going.
And, if the insults get too many, we can always quote Winston Churchill, who on being disturbed in his toilet by a call from the Lord Privy Seal said, ‘Tell him I can only deal with one shit at a time.’