To the man on the train,
I was sitting near you on the 7:58 this morning. I was trying to read my book, but you were talking so loudly that I ended up listening to your conversation instead.
You were with your friend and her teenage daughter, who is doing work experience in London. You and your friend were going to the Chelsea Flower Show. I hope you had a good time. You don’t seem like a bad person.
But I thought you were a little dismissive of your friend’s daughter when she spoke so enthusiastically about her work experience. When she said, “They’re a kind of design company who, like, design websites and stuff”, you cut across her, saying, “They’re kind of a design company, or they are a design company? Do they like design websites, or do they actually design websites?”
I’m sure you didn’t mean any harm, but that was kind of rude. She is young, and a product of her time. She may not have spoken very eloquently, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t worth listening to. But you embarrassed her, and she shut up. Criticising the way she speaks will not make her more articulate; it will simply discourage her from speaking at all. She is not Eliza Doolittle, and you are not Henry Higgins. I wish you had encouraged her to talk about her ambitions, rather than belittling her.
A little while later, I overheard you say the words “Miss Brown”, and I tuned in again, because I know Miss Brown. In fact, her name isn’t Miss Brown at all, but something very unusual and distinctive. She was my teacher at the local primary school, where she has taught for nearly thirty years. To be fair, you were saying how wonderful she is, which is true. She is an inspirational teacher who has taught a generation of children in the local community.
But then you said something which outraged me.
“I could never understand why Miss Brown was a Miss, and not a Mrs. She deserved to be a Mrs. Not like Mrs Smith. Now, she was a dreadful woman. She deserved to be a Miss.”
I don’t think you quite realise this, but that was pretty insulting towards the “lovely” Miss Brown, as well as “dreadful” Mrs Smith. You thought you were saying something complimentary about Miss Brown, but actually, it was really quite demeaning.
Miss Brown has had a long and extremely worthwhile career. She has helped shape the lives of hundreds of children, many of whom have gone on to achieve great things. And yet, you seem to regard her as some kind of tragic spinster, doomed to a life of loneliness. An person to be pitied. But maybe she never wanted to get married. Maybe she is a lesbian. Or maybe she just never met the right person, and preferred to live on her own terms rather than settle for a mediocre relationship with Mr Wrong. Maybe she has a varied and fulfilling social life, and is far less lonely than she would be if she were trapped in an unhappy marriage.
Mrs Smith also taught at the school for a very long time. She may not have been as universally beloved as Miss Brown, but she also made a very valuable contribution to the school. I know Mrs Smith too, and she is a good person. She has been incredibly supportive to her daughter, who got pregnant at eighteen and raised her little boy as a single mother, whilst studying for a university degree and eventually getting a good job.
You clearly don’t know either of these women well, yet you chose to make judgmental remarks about them in a public place, where the chances of being overheard by people who knew them were very high. We live in a small community. Almost all the people in that train carriage got on at the same station. Your voice carried a long way.
Reducing two highly-respected professional women to their marital status is patronising and wrong. Expressing surprise that a woman should be single, despite being “lovely”, implies that marriage is a reward for being charming and attractive, whereas spinsterhood is a punishment, reserved only for those too unappealing to be “chosen” by a man. (The very word “spinster” has connotations of lonely old maids, crazy cat ladies and Miss Havisham. By contrast, the word “bachelor” suggests a worldly and carefree man who enjoys the finer things in life, free from any obligations or commitments.)
Unfortunately, you are not alone in holding this view, which is why so many great women who happen to be single past the age of thirty believe that there is something wrong with them. Why else would they not be married yet, when so many other perfectly ordinary people are? I wonder how much views like this encourage young women to rush into marriage with the wrong man, because they’re afraid of being “left on the shelf”? How many of these couples end up divorced ten years later, fracturing their children’s lives as a result? (For many such children, a teacher like Miss Brown or Mrs Smith might be the only stable influence in their lives.)
Young women have more opportunities available to them than ever before. But we haven’t achieved equality yet. Girls frequently outperform boys at school and at university, and there is evidence that at the beginning of their careers, women are beginning to out-earn men. Yet men still enjoy much greater prospects for promotion, and in the long term, still earn far more. Having children has very little impact on their career trajectories, because society still believes that the mother, and not the father, should give up work or go part-time when children are born. Even women who do not intend to have children find they struggle to compete for jobs against male candidates, who are seen as being lower risk by potential employers.
Women are far less likely to push for a pay-rise or promotion than their male colleagues, and they tend to be more modest about their achievements when it comes to appraisal time. (Modesty has long been seen as an attractive quality in a woman, whereas assertiveness is often seen as a negative.) Women generally do not occupy positions of power and are notably underrepresented at senior levels, both in politics and in business. This feeling of being less valuable than men sets in at an early stage, when girls are encouraged to choose career paths which are more “family-friendly”. Are we really teaching girls to curb their ambitions on the assumption that their careers will naturally grind to a halt the moment they pop out their first child?
In 2013 Hillary Rodham Clinton said that women are “the world’s most underused resource”, echoing an earlier very similar statement made by Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister. They are absolutely right. Imagine what we could achieve as a society if all children were truly given the opportunity to achieve their full potential, regardless of gender or background.
I wish you had not made those unhelpful and unkind remarks on the train this morning, particularly in front of your friend’s daughter. In doing so, you inadvertently told her that what she has to say isn’t worth listening to, and that having a successful career is less important than finding a man who wants to marry her.
Sometimes the most seemingly benign remarks actually cause the most damage. What you said was relatively harmless, on the face of it. But the fact that you weren’t being overtly sexist makes what you said appear more acceptable. I realise that you’re not responsible for your friend’s daughter, and that your influence on her life is probably negligible. Other people have said, and will continue to say similar things to her, and none of these comments would be particularly damaging in isolation. But each one is like a drop of water from a leaking roof, dripping away relentlessly until it becomes a flood of low self-esteem.
Individually we make very little difference. But collectively we have a responsibility to think about what messages we are sending to young people. We should try to speak to them in a way that encourages them to be the very best that they can be. Only then can we finally rid ourselves of these damaging and archaic attitudes which have no place in the modern world.
Pépère the Cat (a 28 year old spinster)