The term “token woman” was first used, to my knowledge, on Question Time in the early 1990s to describe the single female panel member, put there to show ‘balance’. Token women soon started to appear on other current affairs programmes, and on “Have I Got News for You”. Broadcasters seemed to believe that one woman on a panel of four or five showed diversity and that girls were just as good as boys – this despite the glaring fact that the proportion of women to men in the UK is around 50-50 with a slight bias in favour of the ladies.
But to analyse the hows and whys of token women in TV would take ages and ages. It’s a complex issue, and any discussion about it would involve Germaine Greer at some point.
Anyway, I was thinking about how I’ve frequently ended up as Token Woman, in one way or another. At work, I’m the only girl at a desk cluster of five. Of my best friends, only one is a girl, and she is also a Token Woman. At university, I shared a house with five men. I first noticed this one day, whilst walking down Spring Bank Avenue in Hull. I was going into town with three housemates. Two were over six feet tall, and all looked fairly intimidating, if one were inclined to find three computer science students intimidating.
I realised that, from the back, I probably looked like a small child surrounded by protective uncles. A (female) friend, who’d seen me that day, suggested to me that the reason I hadn’t been picking up as many chaps as I’d have liked was because I was frequently surrounded by what must have resembled bodyguards.
I must stress, Token Woman is not ‘honorary boy’ or ‘honorary girl’. The ‘honorary boy’ is either a fag hag (a noble calling, tainted by “Sex and the City” – now every single independent woman with too many uncomfortable shoes wants a pet gay) or a wannabe lesbian. A “honorary girl” is a non-threatening man who’s shot himself in the foot by being pleasant, friendly and attentive towards his female acquaintances. Effectively a eunuch in their eyes, the honorary girl’s lot is usually a happy one, as long as he keeps his baser urges to himself. Both honorary boy and girl have chosen their situation – the Token Woman (or man, there are some), just seems to have ended up like that. Token Woman can keep her gender identity secure, although she tends to pick up some male traits like “knowing about computers” or owning a set of screwdrivers… and using them.
Token Women have made their mark on history. Apart from the redoubtable Professor Greer, there are many famous women from history and fiction who have somehow ended up surrounded by men with whom they are not sexually involved (this can be an option for Token Woman – sadly honorary boy and girl lose their status if they do). Queen Elizabeth I surrounded herself with male advisors. Deborah, the only female Judge in the Old Testament, is a pseudo-mythical Token Woman, as is Miriam. One could count Mary Magdalene, but let’s not.
Mina Harker in Dracula was one – Elizabeth Bennett, of course, was too busy being feisty in Empire line dresses to be a Token Woman. More recently, Anne from the Famous Five was Token, George being Honorary. Hermione from the “Harry Potter” books is blatantly token and too good to be true.
Hermione brings Token Women up to date and shows the flaw in having just one major female character or personality. Because, rightly, writers and broadcasters want to have positive female role models, the Token Woman becomes overloaded. In real life, unless Token Woman is Melanie Phillips, who takes copious notes whilst her co-panellists are speaking and then talks extremely fast to get everything in, she gets ignored.
Having to represent her entire gender, Token Woman has to be much better than the men she’s with in order to impress. There’s only one of her, and three or four men. Whilst she was playing with dolls and learning to communicate and listen, her male colleagues were shouting at each other and ripping heads off Action Men. So unless she’s Melanie Phillips or Germaine Greer, the Token Woman often ends up sitting quietly in the corner, hands neatly folded in her lap, waiting her turn to speak. Hermione is better than her male friends at everything apart from Quidditch, but she’s not the focus of the books.
In real life, it’s much easier. You soon learn not to bother waiting for other people to finish and allow you to speak – you simply speak over them and increase the volume (and lower the pitch, vv important), until you can be heard.