Book projects – No Fallen Angels: 3: The Angel Factor

The notion that women need ‘protection’ at all times is one of the more enduring and destructive myths of our culture. There can be no doubt that some women – particularly pregnant women, or women caring for children or others – do need some protection some of the time. But to demand, or even enforce, that protection when it’s not needed, is not protection at all: there are other, more subtle, issues behind it.

‘Protectionism’ is, as several feminists have argued, one of the keys to sexism. Put simply, it provides men with an artificially-manufactured sense of purpose, and a definite ‘male’ role: that of ‘protector of women’. It leads, all too easily, to a patronising view in which all women, as ‘the protected’, must be treated as fragile children, to be controlled and managed at all times. That the ‘protector’ rôle is sometimes more like a protection-racket – that it’s necessary only to protect women from other ‘protectors’ – is a point that few feminists have missed…

Do you think, or feel, that you need ‘protection’ in this society? If so, when? What from – or who from?

Does men’s social ‘protector’ rôle seem to you to be little more than a ‘patriarchal protection racket’? Or are there some aspects of it that you value?

If that were the whole of the story, as some feminist writers such as Rosalind Miles and Heather Formaini have argued, then the problem should be handed back to men to deal with – it’s their ‘patriarchy’, their socialisation, their issue, and they should leave women out of it.[1] But it isn’t quite as simple as that, because whilst many women understandably resent it, many – often the same women – also demand it: “make the world safe for women”, says a graffito near my house, evidently expecting that it’s someone else’s responsibility to ‘make the world safe’. There are important advantages to women – or apparent advantages, at least – from this myth of protection, and these need to be tackled before the fact that it so obviously stifles women can be fully resolved.

The two rôles – the ‘protector’, and the ‘angel of purity’ – form a classic co-dependent pair: each traps the other in their rôle. Sam Keen summarised the problems, and the payoffs, thus: “Men got the feeling of power; women got the power of feeling. Men got the privilege of public action; women got the privilege of private being. Men got responsibility and the guilt that goes action; women got innocence and the shame that goes with passivity. Men got the illusion of control; women got the illusion of security.”[2] Or, as someone else put it, even more succinctly, “Men do; women are“.

In what ways do these stereotypes impinge on, or reflect in, your own life? What disadvantages do they bring to you? What advantages? If you’re aware of their effects on you, and you wish to break free of them, in what ways does society as a whole – through men, through other women, and through cultural imagery such as advertising – constrain you in this?

In this sense, the culture’s stereotype is that the perfect woman should not have to ‘do’ anything at all. As an ‘angel of perfection’, her every wish should be everyone else’s command. The payback, for men, of placing women ‘on a pedestal’ in this way is that it would – they hope – gain them the ‘angel’s attention, and hence some kind of reflected glory. The power-dynamics (or, all too often, dynamics of violence) in this kind of relationship can be extremely complex: we can see, for example, how women can wield enormous ‘power’ over (or, more accurately, ‘under‘) men without doing anything, but simply by withholding, by not doing. And we can also see the ways in which many so-called ‘pro-feminist’ men’s groups create self-justification by telling genuinely powerful women that they ‘should’ be fearful of the evils of other men, effectively disempowering and entrapping those women back into the ‘protected/angel’ rôles – which, to my mind at least, could hardly be called ‘pro-feminist’…[3]

The history of this ‘angel’ myth in Western thought is similarly complex. For much of the later Middle Ages – particularly in the troubador period – ‘women of quality’ were portrayed as ‘angels of purity’, the kind of woman “loved pure and chaste from afar” by Cervantes’ anachronistic Don Quixote. A century or so later, in what is sometimes referred to as the Burning Times, it was not women but men – and usually only some self-chosen ‘elite’ group of men at that – who were described as ‘on the side of the angels’: it was considered ‘obvious’ that women were the ultimate source of ‘original sin’, and were usually depicted as the willing, or at best unwitting, servants of the Adversary. In largely – but far from only – male-dominated imagery, the portrayal of women oscillates between that of ‘angel’ and ‘demon’, with very few human shades of grey between. In large part these images were derived from confusions about sexuality: confusions which supposedly ‘Christian’ ideology did much to foster, projecting them outward onto others as the ‘evils of paganism’, or simply the evils of women. These confusions are particularly evident in the sermons of the Puritan Philip Stubbs, published in 1583:

Against May, Whitsonday, or other time, all the yung men and maides, olde men and wives, run gadding to the woods, groves, hils and mountains, where they spend all the night in plesant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assembly withal… They have twentie or fortie yoke of oxen, every oxe having a sweet nose-gay of flouers placed on the tip of his hornes, and these oxen drawe home this May-pole (this stynkyng ydol, rather), which is covered all over with floures and hearbs, bound round about with string, from the top to the bottome, and sometime painted with variable coloures, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it with great devotion. And thus beeing reared up… they straw the ground round about… and then fall they to daunce about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols, whereof this is a perfect pattern, or rather the thing itself. I have heard it credibly reported… that of fortie, threescore, or a hundred maids going to the wood over night, there have scarsely the third part of them returned home againe undefiled.[4]

It’s obvious that Stubbs’ own prudery will not permit him to describe blatant sexuality as anything more than “plesant pastimes”! But how do you interpret that last phrase, that “scarsely the third part of them returned home undefiled”? Is it, as Stubbs implies, rapacious males ‘defiling’ the “yung maides”; or the other way round; or what? Where are the choices? Who has the power? For that matter, what is the power here? If ‘power is the ability to do work’, what ‘work’ is being done?

There’s no exact present-day equivalent – no context in which all ages within the community jointly and overtly celebrate their sexuality. But think of a particularly wild party, perhaps: who has the choices? What is the power? Who has it? Would you incline to Andrea Dworkin’s view, saying that men always have power over women, hence all sexuality involving any male is rape? Or more to Camille Paglia’s view, that women have the real power in sexuality?

Compare the context of that Bacchanalian party to the setting of the original event, with its mixture of “plesant pastimes” and “great devotion”. What are the differences in context? How useful – if at all – is a present-day feminist ‘power-over’ analysis, such as Dworkin’s, for interpreting the original event in its own cultural context?

The same oscillation of stereotypes has continued from Puritan times to the present, being particularly prevalent during periods when prudery has dominated. (At other times, such as during the Restoration period and the mid-eighteenth century, there’s been a rather more brutal honesty about sexuality – such as the mutual exploitation depicted so vividly in Fielding’s “Tom Jones”.) By Victorian times, these had stabilised into two polar-opposite stereotypes which the feminist scholar Anne Summers describes, in her book of the same name, as “Damned Whores and God’s Police”. The titles of these stereotypes come from two quotes which she gives at the beginning of the book. First – though second in the book – is by Caroline Chisholm, one of the ‘mothers’ of Australian history, in roughly the middle of the century:

If Her Majesty’s Government be really desirous of seeing a well-conducted community spring up in these Colonies, the social wants of the people must be considered. If the paternal Government wish to entitle itself to that honoured appellation, it must look to the materials it may send as a nucleus for the formation of a good and great people. For all the clergy you can despatch, all the schoolmasters you can appoint, all the churches you can build, and all the books you can export, will never do much good, without what a gentleman in that Colony very appropriately called ‘God’s police’ – wives and little children – good and virtuous women.[5]

That, at least, was the theory – and Caroline Chisholm went to great lengths to put it into practice, arranging the emigration, if not quite the enforced ‘transportation’, of many women to the new colony of Australia. There can be no doubt that many women, both then and now, would see themselves as ‘God’s Police’; and many a ‘gentleman in the Colony’ would echo that same idealised view of women. Anne Summers’ other quote, though, from the diaries of Ralph Clark, an officer of the First Fleet, back in 1788, is rather less idealistic:

the damned whores the moment that the got below fel a fighting amongst one a nother and Capt Meridith order the Sergt. not to part them but to let them fight it out…[6]

The difference, perhaps, is that while Chisholm argued her case for the theory of women’s ‘virtuousness’, Clark had had rather too much experience of the practice… In any case, despite Summers’ evident disapproval of the term, she herself shows that ‘damned whores’ was in many ways an accurate epithet: the rôle to which virtually all women brought into the early colony were ‘damned’ was that of compulsory whoredom and pregnancy, without even the choices of present-day prostitution.[7]

Few women would willingly described themselves as ‘damned whores'[8]; yet the sanctimonious moral superiority of the ‘God’s Police’ stereotype pervades current feminism, often in most peculiar ways. Anne Summers, for example, on the one hand expresses concern about its return:

What a cruel irony it would be if feminism in the 1990s were to succeed in reimposing a stereotype, one that so chillingly resembles Caroline Chisholm’s model woman, and justifying it in the name of human progress. Once we espouse model behaviour we logically create categories of deviance from it. We see this already in the shrill moralism surrounding the new imperative of political correctness in thought and deed: the condemnation of those who are deemed not to be ‘PC’ are as tyrannical (and often as arbitrary) as the denouncements of damned whores used to be.[9]

… and yet she was herself primarily responsible for the drafting of the 1992 revisions to the (Australian) Sex Discrimination Act, which conform exactly to the ‘shrill moralism’ – and vindictiveness – of the God’s Police stereotype.[10] Elsewhere in the book she argues that no woman should ever be considered guilty of any crime – because her ‘status’ as “colonised person within the patriarchy” absolves her of all responsibility – yet should still being able to accuse, with impunity, all and any others of the now-serious crime of ‘discrimination’: an odd combination of the ‘protected person’ and God’s Police stereotypes.

Do you believe – or feel – that you deserve special protection simply because you’re a woman? And do you believe, or feel, that you’re morally superior to others – especially men – because you’re a woman? Explore those two notions for a while. What do you think about them? What have you seen others say or write about them? As you explore those notions, what do you feel about what these notions say of you – and others?

Now merge the two notions, into the stereotype of the Angel Factor, the ‘broken-winged angel’: woman as especially fragile, especially deserving, especially important, inherently ‘good’ and ‘nice’. Is this an honest description of your own life – or that of all other women? What are the advantages of such a stereotype, for you, and for others? What – if any – are the apparent drawbacks?

If you were to were to take on this ‘perfect angel’ self-image as your social persona, believing it to be ‘the real you’, how do feel you would react if others failed to treat you in the way this stereotype supposedly deserves? Would you still be able to remember that this is only a ‘persona’ – literally, a ‘mask through which you sound’?

That’s the Angel Factor: a tangled web of notions of women’s perfection and women’s fragility. In essence, it’s a middle-class myth mainly of Victorian, and mainly of Anglo-Saxon, origin. Within its mythology, for example, for a woman to have to ‘do’ anything would be to soil the hands of angels with the sins of humanity: it would be demeaning to the perfection of womanhood. (This kind of imagery is particularly evident in a famous series of advertisements for dishwashing liquid.) In reality, of course, women have always had to work, just like everyone else – though even this is ignored far too often. And beneath the surface veneer of respectability demanded by the ‘Angel’/’God’s Police’ stereotype, most women are just as coarsely sexual as any man.

Is this true for you? In what ways is this so? In what ways is this not so? How much do you hide – or hide from – your own sexuality? Why?

Notice the differences between the public and private expressions of sexuality. As with men, a little alcohol tends to loosen some of that ‘surface veneer of respectability’: so watch, for example, what happens at a ‘hen night’, when there are no men around. What do you see in others here? What do you feel in yourself?

If your usual sexual orientation is towards men, try going to the ‘gay’ area of town. What does it feel like to be around men who you know are unlikely to want you sexually? And to be around women who may well desire you for that reason? What is the power here? And if ‘power is the ability to do work’, what ‘work’ is being done? What do you learn about your own sexuality?

If your usual orientation is towards other women, make a point of going into a ‘straight’ environment, where desire and being desired crosses gender-boundaries. What do you see about how other women here express their sexuality towards men – a sexuality which many men may not even recognise? Once again, what do you feel, in yourself, and in acknowledgement of others in their choice of context? What do you learn about your own sexuality?

One interesting example of this clash between reality and middle-class sensibilities occurs in novelist Nevil Shute’s autobiography, in which he describes what he saw in rural Howden, in Yorkshire, while he supervised the construction of the R100 airship during the early 1930s:

We employed a large percentage of our labour in the form of local lads and girls straight off the farms as unskilled labour, training them to do simple riveting and mass production work. The lads were what one would expect, straight from the plough, but the girls were an eye-opener. They were brutish and uncouth, filthy in appearance and in habits. Things may have changed since then – I hope they have. Perhaps the girls in very isolated districts such as that had less opportunity than their brothers for getting in to the market and making contact with civilization; I can only record the fact that these girls straight off the farms were the lowest types that I have ever seen in England, and incredibly foul-mouthed. We very soon found that we had to employ a welfare worker to look after them because promiscuous intercourse was going on merrily in every dark corner, and we picked a middle-aged local woman thinking that she would know how to deal with problems that we had not contemplated when we started in to build an airship. But the experiment was not a success. I forget how we solved the problem; probably we never did, because as the job approached completion the need for unskilled female labour was reduced and we were able to get rid of the most jungly types.[11]

A large part of the feminist struggle of the 1960s was to get this sheer earthiness of women acknowledged, and it’s a struggle that continues to this day – though these days as much against the rigidity of other feminists as against male religious fundamentalists.[12] In the culture as a whole, women tend to receive ‘protected person’ treatment if they conform to the self-effacing, passive Angel stereotype; but will often receive severe abuse – from women as much as, if not more, than from men – if they don’t conform to that stereotype.[13]

Ultimately, the Angel Factor does not help women at all: as Naomi Wolf warns, “if ‘good’ women are not really responsible for their crimes, the flip side is that ‘bad’ women should be penalized disproportionately”.[14] No woman, therefore, can risk breaching the Angel stereotype of ‘femininity’. (If that sounds bad, remember that in many ways men have it worse: they are often penalized severely both for breaching and for conforming to the culture’s stereotypes of ‘masculinity’.[15]) One result is that almost every case of a ‘good’ woman acting in a ‘bad’ way is portrayed in the media as her having been somehow forced into actions outside of her control: “bad things happening to good women”. Much as Anne Summers demanded, it’s now deemed to be almost ‘impossible’ for a ‘good’ woman to act in a criminal manner. And if she does act in a way that for a man would have to be considered criminal, the automatic assumption, in the media and often in her legal defence, is that she was ‘temporarily insane’ – which does, however, reinforce other cultural stereotypes, such as that of ‘woman as unstable and irresponsible child’…

Stop for a moment, and review your responses to the previous section. In what ways do you stereotype yourself, to conform to other women’s expectations of you? In what ways do you use the ‘good woman’ stereotype to shield yourself from criticism?

What have you done in your life that, if a man had done it, would be considered criminal? (If you’re in doubt, remember that the web of law is so complex and contradictory that very few people have not acted ‘criminally’ at some point – even if only by driving that little bit too fast, having that little bit too much to drink, carrying that little bit extra through Customs, or ‘forgetting’ that odd little bit of income for the tax return!) Do you think you should be treated differently, simply because you’re a woman? If so, why? And if not, for what ‘criminal’ acts would you expect, or demand, to be treated differently than men?

This stereotype, in its various forms, permeates virtually all representations of women’s actions – particularly women’s violence – in the mainstream media. For example, look closely at how the Angel Factor comes into play in the following newspaper article. A few months back, the main tabloid newspaper here filled its front page with a horror story of an elderly woman stabbed many times and left for dead in her own suburban home. She was discovered by her son, almost a day after the stabbing took place; while she was rushed off to hospital on the critical list, the police started the search for her assailant. The newspaper made its usual angry platitudes about the evils of idle and violent young men who prey on defenceless elderly women: it had no evidence for this, but said it anyway.

Three days later, the woman had recovered enough to tell her side of the story: the report is now lower-priority, and appears on page three of the tabloid. Her attacker had not been some random youth, but someone whom she said was “a woman from the bank”. Her son expresses outrage; police express surprise and, in a telling phrase, their incredulity “that a woman could do this to another woman“. For a woman to do this to a man, apparently, would be far more acceptable…

With the correction from the elderly woman’s information, her assailant was quickly identified and arrested. The committal proceedings took place about a week later, which the newspaper duly reported under the headline “Mother slave to the pokies”. The report’s news-value is lower again: it now appears on page five:

A pokies-addicted bank teller tried to kill a 92-year-old woman who discovered she was stealing from her account, a court heard yesterday. Melbourne Magistrates Court was told Mrs Sandra Garland, the wife of a policeman, had stabbed the victim 18 times in a “bizarre and extraordinary” murder attempt. The frenzied attack was apparently the end result of a desperate secret poker-machine habit, sparked by a $5000 win last year, the court heard.

Mrs Garland, a mother of four, sobbed yesterday as a detective told the court how she stabbed Mrs Gladys Morris in the chest and back with a butcher’s knife on September 2. He said Mrs Garland then drove to work and went about her normal duties.

Mrs Garland, 45, of North Ringwood, faces 11 charges including attempted murder, aggravated burglary, and intentionally and recklessly causing serious injury. Mrs Morris, of Wantirna, is recovering from the attack in hospital and is expected to be released next week. Police yesterday opposed a bail application by Mrs Garland.

Det-Sgt Alan Clark, of the special response squad, said Mrs Garland worked as a part-time teller at the [named] branch of the National Bank. He said on August 4 she changed the mail address of Mrs Morris’s account to prevent the elderly lady receiving her monthly statement. Mrs Garland then withdrew $1600 from Mrs Morris’s account using bogus withdrawal slips. About two weeks later, Mrs Garland stole $4500 from Mrs Morris’s account.

On August 30, Mrs Morris realised she had not received her statement and contacted [a different] branch [of the bank], which arranged to send out a duplicate. A bank investigation began the next day after Mrs Morris checked her account and discovered the $4500 withdrawal. Det-Sgt Clark said Mrs Garland was told of the investigation by her head office.

The next day, Mrs Garland went to Mrs Morris’s home and told her she was from the bank. “Her intention was to steal the vouchers and make the transaction look genuine”, Det-Sgt Clark said. But she did not need to steal them – Mrs Morris allowed her to take all her banking documents to “try and sort the matter out”.

Det-Sgt Clark said she returned the next morning to Mrs Morris’s home armed with a yellow-handled butcher’s knife. “She stabbed the victim 18 times to the upper body,” he told the court.

He agreed with Mr Brendan Casey, for Mrs Garland, that it seemed she had been “hooked” on the pokies since June last year after a $5000 windfall.

Magistrate Mr Brian Walter said he did not believe Mrs Garland should be released into the community. But he bailed her to a private hospital where she could be further assessed. Mr Walter ordered her to return to court next Friday when more details of her psychological condition should be known.[16]

There was no newspaper report on Mrs Garland’s return to court the following week; nor of her trial. We do not know what charges were finally placed, or her sentence, or anything else: the case disappeared completely from public view, as though it had never happened. The only other reference to the incident was in another front-page story a few weeks later, on a burglary and assault by two youths on an elderly man – but somehow, once again, Mrs Garland’s attack was there reframed as a male assault…[17]

A couple of extra pieces of information: the attack took place early in the morning, and lasted about twenty minutes, Mrs Garland screaming at Mrs Morris the whole time. Mrs Morris survived only by ‘playing dead’, which in fact she very nearly was when she was discovered, and rescued, almost a full day later.

It’s worthwhile reading through the article again, because there are points that are easy to miss. First, look at Mrs Garland’s behaviour. The purpose of her attack on Mrs Morris was a murder to cover up a theft of a significant amount of money. She’d treated her victim as an object – nothing more than a source of money. Her violence was not impulsive, but fully premeditated: she first visited the old woman with the intent to steal documents, and then, having been given them, came back the following morning with the knife. And she then went to work, in a sufficiently stable emotional state for it not to have been commented on. But there’s certainly irrationality there: we do not know what was said – if that’s the right word – during the attack, but it was described as ‘frenzied’, yet lasting twenty minutes – a very long time, under the circumstances.

It’s easy to miss these, because the Angel Factor makes it all seem impossible. We learn to believe that women don’t – can’t – behave in this way: but the bald reality is that they do – just like men. Yet even when they do – or rather, as in Mrs Garland’s case, when it becomes impossible to deny that they do – the treatment they receive is completely different to that meted out to men. That’s part of the second point to note in re-reading the piece: that although Mrs Garland, throughout the article, is described as responsible in all other aspects of her life (a ‘mother of four’, a bank-teller) or is deemed responsible because of her partner’s work (a ‘policeman’s wife’), it’s assumed that she’s incapable of managing her own behaviour – she’s described as a ‘slave to the pokies’ – especially when it comes to violence. And she was not remanded in jail – as would be normal in an attempted-murder case – but to a private hospital, for psychiatric observation.

The first report emphasised an image of the old woman as ‘victim’: elderly music teacher, somewhat isolated by choice, but much loved. But comments like those are missing from the report above, which instead portrays the assailant as ‘victim’ – ‘desperate’, a ‘slave’, passively ‘addicted‘, without any active choice. The Angel Factor requires that a woman should always be considered a ‘victim’, no matter what she does, hence a woman’s behaviour cannot ever be considered criminal: the worst she can be is ‘temporarily insane’. Which is not what anyone could describe as equality before the law: and this echoes through our culture in strangely distorted sexist assumptions about violence.

To see how these assumptions influence your own perceptions, read through the article again, making a simple substitution: Mrs Garland is now Mr Garland, a 45-year-old bank-teller. In what ways do your attitudes to the assailant change? Why?

In what ways would you have expected the article to have been written differently? Would you have expected the report to be headlined “Father slave to the pokies”? If not, what would you have expected instead? Would you have expected this imaginary Mr Garland to be described as “a father of four”, or “the husband of a policewoman”? Or to be described as “sobbing in court”? And would you have expected him to be “bailed to a private hospital”?

One of the crucial points here is that Mrs Morris survived the assault. If she had not done so, Mrs Garland would probably have succeeded in covering her tracks: she would have been able to ‘correct’ the bank-transactions without fear of discovery. And the Angel Factor would have acted to her advantage: for example, the initial newspaper report on the case, before Mrs Morris was able to recover enough to describe what had happened, explicitly assumed that the assailant was male; and the police themselves stated that they found it very hard to believe the facts of the case. When even the police are looking in completely the wrong direction for a male ‘perpetrator’, it’s not hard to understand why women’s violence so easily slips past everyone’s notice…

The initial facts of the case were these: a 92-year-old woman is stabbed many times in her own home and left for dead; the motive does not appear to be burglary. Would you have even considered it possible that her assailant was a woman – a middle-aged, middle-class, respectable, ‘normal’, suburban housewife? If not, why not? Use this example to explore your own prejudices…

If your initial response is on the lines of “Well, look at the statistics!”, which statistics exactly are you referring to – or is that response based on cultural imagery such as the prevalence of newspaper reports? Having seen the Angel Factor at work in the article above, how much do you now suppose it influences the apparent ‘statistics’? How closely do those supposed ‘factual’ statistics match your own experience in your own life?

It’s all too easy to allow prejudices to change our entire perception of an incident. In one famous experiment in the States, people were asked to describe what they’d seen in a play-acted ‘assault’. The incident actually portrayed a young black man being robbed by two white youths, chasing after them as they ran away; but the ‘witnesses’ variously described the robbers as black and the victim white, or the black man robbing the two white youths, or all three of them – especially the black man – robbing an unspecified other. Not one witness described the incident correctly: what each saw was what they expected to see, through the sometimes dense filter of their own prejudices. In that incident racial assumptions were at issue: but exactly the same applies to gender.

Now read through the story twice more, first with Mr Garland attacking a Mr Morris. In what ways do your attitudes change? If this seems more ‘normal’ – even acceptable – than a woman attacking a woman, why is this?

Finally, re-read it as Mrs Garland as the assailant again, this time attacking an elderly Mr Morris: would this seem more, or less, strange than her attacking an elderly woman? Do you find yourself misreading the article on this occasion, framing it instead as a younger Mr Morris attacking an elderly Mrs Garland?

We all do this: we each see ‘reality’ in a different way. Since each of us sees our own truth differently, it’s part of what makes each of us special: but it can also be a problem, especially when we allow other people’s ideas, masquerading as ‘the truth’, to get in the way of our own knowing. And we do have responsibility to distinguish between truth and falsehood, to the best of our ability: which under these circumstances may not be very much…

The Angel Factor is, at root, just one part of our culture’s morass of gender-stereotyping, assigning one set of human characteristics to one sex, and the opposite characteristics to the other. Feminists have long since described notions such as “a woman’s place is in the home” as sexist, and rightly so; yet a surprising number fail to recognise that similar ‘essentialist’ stereotypes, which occur often in feminist theory and which portray what are deemed to be ‘essential’ differences between men and women, are just as sexist – and ultimately just as destructive to women’s interests:

Men invented war and technology Women developed agriculture
Men worship destructive, divisive gods Women worship nurturing, ecological goddesses
Men are death-worshippers – servants of Thanatos Women are life-worshippers – servants of Eros
Men are naturally aggressive Women are naturally peaceful
Men compete Women co-operate
Men are insensitive Women are empathic
Men are thing-oriented Women are person-oriented
Men are hierarchical Women are egalitarian
Men manipulate and dominate Women share power
Men are the problem Women are the solution[18]

Each of these stereotypes does have its own truth, of course. But there’s a common confusion that often arises here, perhaps derived from that other stereotype of “men do; women are“: the stereotypes are certainly reflected in the tasks our culture still assigns to each gender, but they don’t describe what the genders are – the differences within each gender are far greater than the differences between the genders. Yet in forms like these the Angel Factor provides a false sense of self-congratulatory innocence for women, assigning all blame and all responsibility for all problems onto men. The cost is a sense of powerlessness, of not being in control – which quickly becomes a downward spiral if the notions behind the Angel Factor are accepted as ‘fact’ without awareness of the consequences. This reaches its extremes, as we might expect, in those forms of feminist theory which define violence as ‘male’:

At least three further requirements supplement the strategies of environmentalists if we are to create and preserve a less violent world. I) Every culture must begin to affirm a female future. II) Species responsibility must be returned to women in every culture. III) The proportion of men must be reduced to and maintained at approximately 10 percent of the human race.[19]

We’re told, in those stereotypes, that only women are empathic, only men are insensitive: yet it takes a peculiarly insensitive unawareness to describe the systematic and continuous murder of almost half the human race as “a less violent world”…

Go back through that list of stereotypes – remembering that these are promoted not by men about women, but as feminist ‘fact’ about women’s experience and women’s lives. What feelings arise as you explore its division of characteristics into rigid compartments labelled ‘men are bad’/’women are good’?

Exploring the truth of these stereotyped characteristics is easy: the evidence for them is everywhere proclaimed throughout our culture, especially in the media. So, for a change, explore the inverse of each of these stereotypes – for example, “men co-operate, woman compete”. To what degree are these equally true – especially in your own life? To what extent are these inverse stereotypes true of men and of other women in your own life? In your own experience, to what extent are both sets of stereotypes ‘true’? Under what circumstances does each stereotype and its inverse apply to everyone – especially yourself? In your experience, does each of these stereotypes describe how men and women really are? Or is it more what you and they have learned to do, in order to conform to the required stereotype?

And explore the cost, to you, of these ‘essentialist’ stereotypes. If women are deemed to be always, and only, ‘people-oriented’, what does that say about your ability to work with things, with machines, with the world at large? If women are deemed to be always, and only, ‘egalitarian’ and ‘co-operative’, what restrictions does this place on how you must interact with others? What are the feelings you experience when you fail to conform to these stereotypes of you-as-woman?

These stereotypes of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are so all-pervasive in our culture that it is hard to challenge them – yet extremely powerful when we do so. One excellent example of this was the initial stages of the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common; yet it’s also a depressing example of how exactly the same stereotypes can return in a different guise, wiping out all – or almost all – of the gains.

The Peace Camp arose out of a decision by a group of Welsh women churchgoers to object explicitly and visibly to the siting of American ‘cruise’ nuclear missiles in Britain – the latter being the result of a personal invitation by Margaret Thatcher and her government, overruling considerable dissent even within her own party. So in August 1981 the group, calling themselves Women for Life on Earth, walked from Cardiff, in southern Wales, to the Greenham Common site, in southern Britain, to make a personal protest as mothers, stating their belief that the missiles were not defending them, but putting their families and their children at very real danger. Men were not excluded from the protest, but were asked to help by looking after children, and generally supporting in the background. The whole aim was to challenge cultural stereotypes about militarism as ‘protecting’ women and children, and to disable the cultural stereotypes of ‘men against men’ by entangling them with the equally dominant stereotype of “it’s not OK to hit a woman”. For almost everyone there’s something deeply challenging, and deeply confronting, in the image of an elderly woman in a wheelchair carefully, painstakingly and neatly cutting her way through the fence of a military establishment with a pair of bolt-cutters…[20] Even so, very few women were arrested:

Police were instructed not to arrest the Greenham Common demonstrators yesterday, and instead moved hundreds bodily from the gates around the base. … At the end last night, only two women and a man had been arrested and all sides were claiming a success.

Assistant Chief Constable Wyn Jones … said hundreds of women had committed arrestable offences during the day but they were not ‘vindictive or malicious’. They were not the sort of women who would normally come to police attention and he did not expect them to do so again.[21]

If men, rather than women, had carried out the same ‘arrestable offences’ – as had happened elsewhere – there would have been far fewer scruples about arrest. But here, with reflex male-on-male conflict deliberately made impossible, and using the Angel Factor to its maximum advantage, the women were able to present a mirror to the tangled notions of military ‘protection’ in an age of nuclear weapons – with considerable impact on many decision-makers’ thinking.

That was the start of the Peace Camp: people aware of the power created by challenging stereotypes, especially within themselves. The women became aware of their power by understanding and expressing their own responsibility; their male partners, and also many of the soldiers, became aware of a subtly different power which arose from not trying to take on an inappropriate ‘responsibility’. For example, Lynne Segal comments, “It was, interestingly, while patrolling the peace women at Greenham Common that one army officer recalls, in Tony Parker’s recent collection of interviews with soldiers, that ‘a number of soldiers who were usually the jolliest and noisiest were at Greenham very quiet and seemed to have been preoccupied with their thoughts’. The interviews tell us that many of the soldiers felt not only respect and even sympathy for the peace women, but were also led to question their own role as soldiers.”[22] (Much the same kind of response came from many of the workers at the site, who were painfully aware of the dilemma they themselves faced – their conscience and social duty, against their families’ immediate requirements for income.) In the specific sense that it created the power for change in attitudes in a wide range of people, that single action was immensely powerful.

What followed wasn’t. As a result of the march, Greenham Common became a focus for women’s anger about war – and then, inevitably, about men. A permanent tent-city – the Peace Camp – developed, both at Greenham and at Molesworth (the second cruise-missile base in Britain). And as a permanent camp, it limited the involvement of those women with families and jobs – and became a magnet for women who didn’t have those responsibilities, and who often had very different agendas. In a matter of months, the public statements made at the supposed ‘Peace Camp’ became fiercely separatist and fiercely anti-male, portraying militarism in general, and nuclear weapons in particular, as the epitome and prime example of a deliberate male ‘war against women’.[23] The initial request to men to support the action, but stay in the background, became increasingly reframed as a clear statement that men were not welcome: by February 1982, men were banned, because a specific group of women “felt that the way they wanted to run the camp would be jeopardised if men continued to live there”.[24] It was an exclusion that rapidly also applied to almost any woman acknowledging any man’s contribution, or any woman who dissented in any way from the supposed ‘consensus’ of the action or the group’s underlying beliefs. And having forbidden men to be present, the absence of men at the ‘peace’ actions was then argued as evidence that all men supported the siting of the missiles, and hence the ‘war against women’ – a classic example of a circular proof. In short, far from continuing as a challenge to cultural stereotypes, the camp became a crude restatement of the most simplistic ‘them and us’ stereotypes, of peace-loving women against violent, war-making men – stereotypes which were all but indistinguishable from those that many other feminists had long since dismissed as ‘patriarchal’ notions about women.[25] In other words, the Angel Factor, all over again…

The reality is that women, in general, have been just as much involved as men in the promotion of war – even though it seems to please everyone to pretend that they’re not. There’s no doubt, for instance, that women routinely used the Angel Factor not as a tactic for peace, but as a weapon of war: for example, Serbian women using their privileged position of ‘protected person’ to blockade United Nations food trucks en route to Bosnia. And the white flowers and yellow ribbons come out in every war, as women try to force, entice, cajole or bully men to fight on their behalf – in London in 1940, for example, my father and his fellow medical students were so much harassed by women calling them cowards for not being in uniform that they had to be given armbands to wear to prove that they were on essential duties.

And militarist women leaders – such as Margaret Thatcher, or Golda Meir, or Indira Gandhi – are not ‘fake men’: they’re women – embodying indisputably female archetypes. They’re no less ‘womanly’ than more obviously feminist-oriented politicians such as Gro Bruntland of Norway, Vigdas Finnboggadottir of Iceland or Mary Robinson of Eire. Thatcher, in particular, typifies a bloodily voyeuristic mindset that can be seen in women throughout Conservative Britain, which would best be described by a ‘game’ which psychologist Eric Berne defined as “let’s you and him fight”.[26]

For example, I have bleak memories of listening to two middle-aged women on a train, coming back from London, soon after the poll-tax riots: “and next time”, said one to the other, with gleeful vindictiveness, “they’ll bring the tanks in and they’ll machine-gun the lot of them!” They were keen to benefit from the theft – forcing the poor to pay for the rich – that the poll-tax represented; they had no qualms whatsoever about demanding that someone else – but certainly not themselves – should fight a war to protect that theft. And judging from the tone of their conversation, they’d have had no qualms about branding as ‘a coward’ any man who did not wish to fight on their behalf: a classic example of ‘power-under’ rather than ‘power-over’. Women are every bit as involved in maintaining war as men: they just happen – courtesy of some none-too-truthful gender-stereotyping – to be more easily able to conceal it…

The full complexity of the problem is illustrated in three extraordinarily self-contradictory sentences in a recent essay about ‘the men’s movement’ by an influential American anti-war activist, Starhawk (Miriam Simos). Dismissing Robert Bly’s factual comment that more American Vietnam veterans have committed suicide since that war than died in it, she places responsibility on men alone for the misery of the Vietnam war, blaming the soldiers themselves for being “deceived … into thinking that they were fighting for values when they were fighting for profits”. A paragraph later, she argues that ending war is entirely men’s responsibility: “Hey guys, you could end war tomorrow, simply by refusing to fight in it.”[27] But she’d started this essay by stating that “feminists dream of men who will be … fearless defenders of all people’s liberties”[28]: in other words insisting that men should fight, as long as the cause is described as “all people’s liberties” – which is what was originally said about Vietnam…

No particular point to make here, but what do you think about those statements of Starhawk’s? Do they make sense to you? From a man’s perspective, how would you feel if these things were said about you?

How do you sense you would feel about yourself if it was expected of you to be a “fearless defender of other people’s liberties”, probably at the cost of your own liberty, and possibly at the cost of your own life? Would you be willing – are you willing – to do this on behalf of anyone else? Of a child? Of another woman? Of a foreign woman? A foreign man? Any man? Explore the limits to how much you would be willing to risk yourself and your life on others’ behalf.

Many women chose to go to Vietnam with the military, especially as medical staff: and like the men, they suffer still. But imagine being told that you have no choice but to go there: you’ve been conscripted, and you are now required to ‘protect’ someone else’s ‘liberties’ with a gun – and you have no way of knowing whether any of what you do is right, in any sense. You’re still only nineteen: barely more than a girl. Three years later, back home, barely sane from the horrors of what you’ve seen and what you’ve done in that demanded defence of other people’s liberties, someone mocks you and blames you for your predicament, saying, “hey, gal, you could’ve ended the war any day, simply by refusing to fight in it!” What do you feel in these – fortunately for you – imaginary circumstances?

One of the tragedies of our world is that men do indeed respond all too well to this aspect of the Angel Factor: caught up in the myths and machinations of the ‘protector’ role, men take on responsibilities which are not theirs at all. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these confusions also help to maintain the myth that only men are. violent.

One form that this takes is where men attempt to ‘stand up’ for ‘their’ woman partner – if she’s been insulted perhaps – in the belief that this is actually protecting women, and also what the woman really wants. It’s questionable in many cases as to whether either of those assumptions are correct, but we see the resultant chaos everywhere in our society.

For example, a week or two ago a friend of mine, an American, was walking in the park with his partner, a New Zealander of Chinese extraction. Another woman comes towards them, pushing a pram, and accompanied by a large man. She makes some not-quite-audible comment towards them as they pass; my friend, not knowing what was said, asks her to repeat it. The woman suddenly starts screaming, not to him, but at his partner, “Chinese see-yoo-en-tee, Chinese see-yoo-en-tee!” “Hey, lady, you mind your tongue!” says my friend, taken aback. “You don’t bloody well talk to my wife like that!” yells the other man, leaning forward, fists raised. “Okay, okay, cool it, cool it, you win, you say what you like”, says my friend, holding up his hands, palms open, “it’s all right, we’re moving on”. And they do so, the other woman still muttering under her breath. Half an hour later, still recovering from that totally unexpected verbal – and only just not physical – assault, they walk towards the park exit: and as they do so, in the far distance the other woman can be seen running towards them, pram wheels spinning, the man nowhere in sight, but still screaming as loudly as she can, “Chinese see-yoo-en-tee! Chinese see-yoo-en-tee!”…

My friend’s partner had made no move, no comment. Neither of them had any idea what sparked off the women’s wildly racist attack; “just one of those things”, he said later, in his usual laconic style. Yet to any outsider, watching from a distance, it would have seemed as though it had been the men – and only the men – who were fighting – apparently about nothing. Without being asked to do so – and hence in some ways without the authority to do so – each man had taken it upon himself to ‘protect’ his companion: which in the other man’s case included ‘protecting’ his companion from facing the consequences of her own verbal violence.

Have you seen incidents like this – or been involved in one? What do you feel when you’re under verbal attack, from a man or from a woman? What do you feel when someone else – especially a man – takes over, supposedly to protect you? What do you gain? What do you lose?

It’s sometimes difficult to explain to men – or, for that matter, women – that this ‘protection’ doesn’t actually help women to claim their own power from within in frightening incidents like these. There’s no doubt, too, that some men -perhaps the majority – are so dependent on women’s approval that they will do almost anything in the hope of gaining that approval: and that includes putting themselves at risk both needlessly and inappropriately.

Another complication is that the Angel Factor’s notion of “it’s not OK to hit a woman” is so strongly accepted by most men that, if assaulted by a woman, they’ll often try to blame another man instead, to justify assaulting them in turn, rather than the woman. As I mentioned earlier, I nearly lost an eye because of that kind of confusion. In psychology, the process is known as ‘displacement’, and it’s also often seen in animals or birds: they’ll attack a piece of grass, for example, rather than an unassailable opponent in front of them. Once again, the result in these incidents is that men appear to be the only ones fighting – and once again, over what seems to be nothing. The woman can – and usually does – disclaim all responsibility: to which the men, on the surface at least, will usually concur. But it simply is not honest, on anyone’s part: and power – for everyone, but especially for the woman in that kind of incident – ultimately arises only from honesty.

For example, one friend described how she’d been at a party, decidedly drunk, and in sarcastic conversation with some arrogant oaf of an equally drunk young man. He made some comment to which she strongly objected: so with the usual thoughtless spontaneity of the alcohol-laden, she promptly emptied the contents of her beer-glass over his head. He was furious: but he reached past her, to another man who happened to be standing nearby, and yelled at him, “Is she with you? If she is, I’m gonna do you!” My friend was (just!) sober enough, and also aware enough, to realise what was going on: she stepped between them, saying “No, no, I did it, I did it, wasn’t it a terrible thing to do, look, let’s dry you off, here’s a towel…” and so on – distracting his attention away from his reflexive wish to assault a man in response to a woman’s action. She knew that, drunk or not, he was still extremely unlikely to hit her, no matter what she’d done, and she used that knowledge wisely; but he wanted to let off his anger at someone, and when she left the party ten minutes later, he was still trying, for the third time, to start a fight with yet another man…

It doesn’t take much to understand where a great deal of ‘male violence’ actually starts – especially as some women do seem to take great pleasure in provoking it. “Violence has a fascination for most women”, once commented Germaine Greer; “they … are always precipitating scenes of violence in pubs and dance-halls. Much goading of men is actually the female need for the thrill of violence”…[29]

Would you agree with Germaine Greer on this? Have you seen that happen, in your own life? Or, looking closer, have you done it yourself? Reflect on some incidents like these that you’ve seen or know about… explore the full complexity of the ‘response-abilities’ within each incident.

Germaine Greer’s comment seems odd now, perhaps, but it was not particularly atypical for the feminism of 1970, when her book “The Female Eunuch” was published. Then, the thrust of feminism was about claiming responsibility, breaking through the confines of the Angel Factor’s myths; but the same myths have crept in through the back door, so to speak, in the form of the ubiquitous insistence that responsibility for the downside of women’s behaviour always lies with someone else. “Make the world safe for women“, says that graffito near my house; or, as Sandra Horley’s Chiswick Family Rescue collective would argue:

It is society’s responsibility to provide women with protection from abuse and to insist that the appropriate laws are enforced to prevent violence and not to condone it.[30]

This ‘somebody-else’s-problem’ attitude perhaps reaches its extreme in Australia, where, as a result of the National Strategy on Violence Against Women, the legal requirements to protect adult women from violence now have a higher priority than those to protect children. In the long term, none of this helps women: power comes from acknowledging responsibility, not hiding from it. In the present conditions, many women are increasingly finding themselves ‘infantilised’, treated as incompetent, non-responsible sub-adults, much as they were before the 1950s – but this time it’s not being challenged by feminism, but created by it…

Look around for a while at the subtle yet real side-effects of much of current ‘pro-feminist’ legislation and support services: Sex Discrimination Act, ‘affirmative action’ and ‘positive discrimination’, women-only legal defences such as the PMS defence and the ‘battered-wife syndrome’, and so on. These all give women special protections, special support, special treatment solely because they are women. What do you think about this end-result of the Angel Factor? What do you feel about its effects in your life?

Stereotypes are powerful: we can push them out of the front door of our lives, but if we don’t understand how they work within us and our society, they simply walk straight back in through the side-door again. The Angel Factor provides women with a cocoon, insulating them from life’s many and inevitable sharp edges; but it also acts as a strait-jacket, smothering, stifling, constricting, disempowering. Ultimately, there’s a simple choice: be powerful, or be ‘protected’ – you can’t have both. For myself, I’d prefer to see you powerful, for you to live and enjoy your ‘ability to do work, as an expression of choice’: but that choice, and that power, is yours alone.

Looking for an example of this, one comes immediately to mind. The canteen manager at one place I work is a small woman, vibrant, usually bouncy and voluble. She came in one morning looking somewhat subdued, and with one arm strapped and bandaged. I was a little concerned: I knew she had a distinctly physical relationship with her partner – she’d been gaily chattering, with some of her staff a day or two before, about what she called their ‘sexercise’. “Yes”, she said, grinning, when I asked her what had happened, “this is what comes of trying to tackle a woman who’s built like a brick shithouse! I must’ve kissed the ground more often than any other game in the three years I’ve played women’s soccer. It’s a lot rougher than men’s!” Like most men who play contact sports, she came out of almost every game with bumps and bruises – and a great sense of enjoyment and achievement. The two come together, as a ‘package deal’: and the enjoyment vanishes instantly when the Angel Factor’s style of ‘protection’ is applied to it.

Power comes from choice, and from accepting the consequences of that choice – the responsibility for, or at least in, those consequences. Power is the expression of choice, but it cannot exist without responsibility. The Angel Factor tries to offload responsibility for almost every crucial area of women’s lives onto men – with the result that women end up feeling powerless. But it’s frightening to move away from the ‘safety’ of the Angel Factor: the world does have many harsh edges, and there will be many times when hiding in the new ‘feminist’ myths will seem a great deal easier. Yet only by understanding just how much they disempower women can any move toward real power for women be made. Acknowledging that the Angel Factor has to go before power can be reclaimed, the next stage is to reclaim responsibility – and come to understand that ‘response-ability’ does not mean blame.

[1] See, for example, Rosalind Miles, “The Rites of Man” and Heather Formaini, “Men: The Darker Continent”; or, for a far more realistic view, Carol Lee, “Talking Tough: the fight for masculinity”.

[2] Sam Keen, “Fire In The Belly”, p.209.

[3] See, for example, the trademark “Men Rape” t-shirts and literature of the group Men Against Sexual Assault which uses vastly-inflated statistics to create an atmosphere of ever-present danger, against which they present themselves as the ‘defenders’… See also supposedly ‘pro-feminist’ men’s magazines such as XY (‘pro-feminist, gay-affirmative, male-positive… a magazine for men in motion’) for many examples of this subtle restatement of rigid cultural stereotypes.

[4] Philip Stubbs, Anatomie Of Abuses, 1583, quoted in Frazer, “The Golden Bough”, p.162.

[5] Caroline Chisholm, Emigration and Transportation Relatively Considered, 1847.

[6] Lt Ralph Clark, The Journals and Letters of Lt Ralph Clark 1787-1792.

[7] See chapter 8, ‘Damned whores’, in Anne Summers, “Damned Whores and God’s Police”.

[8] … other than a self-declared ‘egomaniac and pornographer’ like Camille Paglia, perhaps! – see her books “Sexual Personae” and “Vamps and Tramps”.

[9] Anne Summers, ‘Introduction to the new edition’, in “Damned Whores and God’s Police”, p.51-2.

[10] Where the original Act was framed in gender-neutral language, the revisions were not: “the test for discrimination will succeed if the woman states that she felt offended or humiliated… the man’s intention [in making remarks – such as an intention to compliment] will be considered immaterial”. (The Act is discussed in more detail later.)

[11] Nevil Shute, “Slide Rule”, Pan edition 1968 [original publication William Heinemann, 1954], p.68-9.

[12] …one of the ironies being that those feminists who still explore this area of women’s sexuality – most notably lesbians – receive intense abuse not so much from men but from other more politically-oriented ‘feminists’: see, for example, some of the encounters described in Camille Paglia’s “Vamps and Tramps”.

[13] Naomi Wolf, for example, gives a chilling comparison of the very different treatment meted out to murderer Jean Harris – ‘the archetypal female victim, the woman who loved a creep too much’ – and attempted-murderer Amy Fisher, who “lost the sympathy of the court by being taped saying, ‘I’m wild… I love sex'”: see “Fire With Fire”, pp.211-215.

[14] Naomi Wolf, op. cit., p.214.

[15] This applies particularly to ‘Western’ nations: consider, on the one hand, the legal and cultural harassment of male homosexuals (and note that female homosexuality has never been illegal in most states) and of others who deviate from cultural notions of masculinity such as ‘the breadwinner’; then consider the fact that about 30 percent of all males have some kind of police reprimand or police record by age 25, primarily

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