The last place that Lucy Harbron expected to find political solidarity and passion was the ladies changing room at her local gym.
I don’t really know why I pay for a gym membership. My workout routine consists of a 20-minute cycle while I watch an episode of Gilmore Girls or whatever I’m currently binging. When I get bored of that I might get a mat and do a couple of moves I can remember from Pop Pilates videos, maybe pretend I know how to squat, then finish off with a swim. This all depends on the day, sometimes I just go and swim. It’s not even a joke when I say that I spend more time in the changing rooms than on the gym floor, because I do. Perhaps it’s not what every magazine intended when they told me to spend more time in the gym for a ‘new year new me’, but I’m starting to think that’s the most beneficial part of the whole experience; they always have the news on in there. That all-grey room of dated marble doors has become the unlikely centre of my political world.
For probably 20 minutes before and 20 minutes after my ‘workout’ I sit there, wrapped in a towel, drying in the hair-dryer-warm air, bum getting numb on a bench, captivated, along with 5 others women. Back in summer we might have gazed up, kept one eye on the screen as we pulled our leggings on. We dipped in and out then, letting the voices fade into background noise behind the showers and locked doors slamming. But In more recent weeks, we sit in silence. There was an active attention, a clear focus in the air. Hairdryers would click off on cue when the word election cut through, when the familiar faces of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn popped up on the 4 screens dotted around the locker-lined room. I’ve seen women finish pulling their trainers on and filling up their water bottle, only to sit back down at the start of a debate, saw women move to get a better view as they brushed their hair, necks craned upwards not wanted to look away while they wiped their makeup off. One time I came back from my workout to find a woman still sat, same spot, head in hands, that was December 13th. I felt almost from the day the election was announced, a change in the air that felt focussed and thick with a silence that sat like a strange combination of fear, anger and a total loss for what we were supposed to do. Every now and then someone would break it; ‘awful isn’t it’.
Women are less likely to vote than men. According to the house of commons, only 29% of women agree that getting involved in politics is effective, compared to 34% of men. We’re less likely to strike or protest, less confident that we have a solid understanding of politics, yet overall more dissatisfied with the running of the country compared to men. It’s no surprise that the highest proportion of female candidates is only 29%, that the number of female parliamentarians has only risen by 11.3% since 1995. According to the house of commons, we don’t care. We moan about it but we’re lazy, happy to complain about politics on Instagram but too busy to go out and take action. The arguments about why this is are numerous. How is the modern woman expected to find time to protest alongside the pressure to work harder than her male counterpart? How are mothers expected to find childcare? How are working mothers supposed to even find time to cross a ballot box when juggling themselves, their career and their kids? But mainly, how are we expected to care when the system isn’t built for us. We’ve been historically blocked from politics, votes for women are still a relatively new thing in the grand scheme of things having only got the vote in 1928 after hundreds of years of forced disengagement. Even now with a seemingly open door, the political arena is still overwhelmingly male and exhaustingly cruel towards women that step up, so how are we expected to motivate ourselves to care about a landscape that doesn’t reflect us or respect us? When constantly face with a view of the majority male cabinet, shouting over women in debates about our bodies, it’s easy to see why so many of us have chosen to simply turn off and disengage.
But I don’t feel disengagement when I sit there. I don’t see that on the face of the girl opposite me who looks close to tears, jaw clenched as we hear Johnson say Brexit for the millionth time, a word now blurred out of meaning and a word the majority of women voted against. We collectively shudder at it, falling from the lips of a man the majority of women voted against, a man who said women are naturally fickle, go to uni just to find a husband, and simply need a pat on the bottom and to be sent away. That, or he rarely speaks of us at all.
My gym is in the heart of Manchester, a solid labour stronghold that is home to thousands of young new professionals. In the changing rooms, I watch the news alongside my category mates of the 20s and 30s, we’re not disengaged, we’re despairing. By the day I saw the woman head in hands, we’d had weeks of this. Of being bombarded with leaflets begging us to join one side or another, fingers pointed from the portraits of old white men stacking up in our letterbox, wanting our vote without anything back. We’d listened to weeks of debates, watched for weeks as faces of men filled the screen and we saw their voting record; no to abortion, no to human rights bills, no to marriage equality. For weeks we tried, I saw women just like them on my timeline arguing articulately in comments sections begging for more empathy. We voted and lost, we have a prime minister that believes we’re weak and the world keeps spinning. In the weeks since we’ve sat quietly as Donald Trump carries out airstrikes while Australia burns and he tweets abuse to a 17-year-old girl fighting to save the planet.
I don’t want to believe we’re disengaged. Maybe I live in a lovely bubble, being the first to admit that my friends share the same views as me and I live in a liberally aligned city, but in those changing rooms, I’ve seen everything but boredom. I’ve heard passive-aggressive locker slams, loss-for-words laughs, too many sighs to count, swear words whispered under breath. I’ve heard the loudest silence I’ve ever heard, the heaviest eye contact that looks like shrugging shoulders and said ‘I don’t know what to do either’.
And I have no suggestions. I like to consider myself engaged, I vote every chance I get, even hobbled around the corner 2 days post-surgery to vote remain, I protest when I can and when I feel I should, I read, I check the news daily, I try my best. But what am I supposed to do? Because my vote is always spoken over by those older than me or by men, at protests I’ve been harassed while holding a sign and fighting against harassment, and the news feels like a locked door when I listen again to a male reporter tell me a story about a male politician or public figure that’s once again caught up in wrongdoing against women and will once again be just fine. While our voting register remains majority male and while young people, especially women, are still put down and disrespected in political discussions, disregarding our intelligence and experience, our voices shouting protest chants will never be loud enough.
I vote, I protest, I read, I listen and nothing ever changed. That’s what the silence in the changing rooms says. Not disengagement but loss, confusion, the slammed locker of a lack of voice muffled by the male bellow we’ve always heard. Tired, sad, scared, not disengaged. We sit head in hands wrapped in towels, but we’re still watching.
Illustration: Connie Noble
Words: Lucy Harbron