The Dinosaur in the Room

Sandy Grant on politicians' attitudes to women's equality. 


‘It is a howling joke.’ In these words the Cambridge philosopher Bertrand Russell summed up his prospects as a candidate in the 1907 general election. But what was so very funny?

Russell was making history as the first candidate to stand for parliament on a women’s equality platform. Of course there must be something laughable about a candidate whose main plank was justice for women. If jokes turn on something being in the wrong place there may be something to notice here about incongruity, and how it plays in political claims.

Russell described himself as ‘a passionate advocate of equality for women ever since in adolescence I read Mill on the subject’. Echoing Mill’s conclusion in The Subjection of Women, Russell’s pamphlet stated that ‘the exclusion of women from direct political action is unjust and inexpedient’. Mill and Russell were asking voters to look out from their present, toward the coming future. As Mill said of women’s inequality, ‘this relic of the past is discordant with the future and must necessarily disappear’. So there is the incongruity, the something that should not be there, something out of time. There is a dinosaur in the room, as one might say.

Russell was up against Henry Chaplin, a longstanding opponent of women’s equality. His strategy against Russell was to contend that politics is unnatural for women, and on his poster the ‘average voter’ said:

‘No thanks, my dear. You mind the baby, and leave politics to me.’

Everybody knows that women are made for home life, so advocating for their equality is obviously ludicrous. And crikey, a feminist man, off chair fall now! Against this simply thrilling logic, Russell asserted that women’s inequality is backwards and wrong. Chaplin won the seat, but ten years later women got the vote.

A century on we have no J.S., and no Bertie. Today the prominent men in philosophy are not trailblazers of women’s equality. We don’t see that from them. Instead we have Sophie Walker, the leader of the Women’s Equality Party, standing against Philip Davies, a ‘proud anti-feminist’. He says things that are really not funny. If Davies was doing stand-up, this would be his signature gag:

Q: What do you call a sexist?

A: Feminist

The joke tries to turn the incongruity back upon the opponent. Indeed the joker goes to the max, asserting a categorical incongruity based on the way the word ‘feminist’ is ordinarily taken to mean. But the punchline does not come off, except as an anti-joke. There is not the violation of expectations required for ordinary incongruity. For it’s just an avowed opponent of women’s equality saying black is white in order to oppose women’s equality. It’s just another dinosaur in the room.

Share This

Sandy Grant is a philosopher at the University of Cambridge and tweets at @TheSandyGrant