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I have a piece over at the New Statesman on why I no longer wear my “This is what a feminist looks like” T shirt and what it is like to be subjugated not by sexual harassment but sexual rejection.
On Wednesday, a victory for women was won. After 35,000 people signed a petition asking that women remain celebrated on our money (after the news that Elizabeth Fry was to be replaced by Winston Churchill on the £5 note) it was announced that the new face of the £10 note will be Jane Austen. Women of achievement (and no, the queen doesn’t count) will continue to be publicly celebrated on our currency and not ignored.
The woman who spearheaded this campaign was Caroline Criado-Perez. It was a tremendous victory for her, for common sense and for the representation of women. And as a result, she has been put through hell ever since. Rape threats, abuse and the posting of what was believed to be her home address were all used on Twitter to try to “put her in her place”. These may or may not be idle threats voiced by anonymous losers, but they are threats nonetheless and when subjected to this level of abuse, it doesn’t feel very idle.
Can anything be done to stop women experiencing this kind of abuse simply for speaking up? Whenever we start to ask such questions we come up against two immediate barriers – that of the philosophy of censorship and the more practical questions of how it could be done.
The most frequent analogy used about the internet is that of the Wild West. Lawless and ungovernable. But here’s the thing about the wild west – it no longer exists. In the end, it was tamed. The law won. Can the same be true eventually of the internet? I hope so. Just because we cannot currently see a way in which this is technologically possible does not mean we should not try to develop such technological solutions – nor should we stop asking these questions and raising these issues as we do. Tough challenges require innovative and imaginative solutions and for the pressure to be kept up.
The questions of censorship is more thorny. Most people agree with some form or another of censorship – though they don’t tend to call it that. Most of us agree that it is wrong to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre, or that access to violent or explicit material should have age restrictions – however hard that is to police.
The difficult question is where we draw the line. When does disagreement become abuse? How can we tell the difference and how can that line be monitored and breaches measured.
How much does context matter? For example, I may well say things to my friends on Twitter (my language can be quite salty – though less so now my Mum follows me!) that were I to say them to a stranger would be rude and insulting.
Social media – and particularly Twitter – has changed the way we “know” and interact with people. I have lost count of the number of people I have met over the last year or so for the first time who I have “known” for some time online. This blurring of our on and offline relationships and the nature of Twitter leads to an informality of approach that some may find threatening even when the intention is anything but.
But we are not talking about over-familiarity here. We’re talking about a woman subjected to a sustained campaign of rape threats. If there is to b e a line and if we do find a way to enforce it, I think we can all agree that this goes well beyond it.
Women online (myself included) are subjected to sexualised abuse all the time. (apparently as I am “too ugly to be raped” I shouldn’t worry about the issue). It can make building a voice for yourself online an incredible difficult thing to do. You aren’t simply asking yourself “what do I have to say and how best should I express it?”. You ask yourself if doing so is worth the inevitable abuse that will come your way for doing so. For some women the answer is no, and so another woman is intimidated into silence.
The internet is an incredible thing. It allows us to interact in ways we never would have dreamed possible just a few years ago. But it is not always a places where everyone feels safe and equal. We need to continue to examine how we change that.
This post first appeared on LabourList.
A debate in which I represented LabourList on the Tony Livesey show, BBC Radio 5 live from Monday 8th April on Thatcher’s Legacy and impact on women in politics:
“Shut up Menschkin. A good wife doesn’t disagree with her master in public and a good little girl doesn’t lie about why she quit politics”.
Now I’m no great fan of Louise Mensch or lover of Tories in general. But this isn’t football. the point is not simply to beat the other team, but to be better than them. When a Labour MP behaves in this sexist and misogynistic way it cheapens all of us.
Gladly, many other Labour members agreed. Including my Twitter friend Nate Barker, a Labour member in Reading West. Nate took the time to write to Mr Mitchell expressing his concern. With his kind permission, I am reproducing below both Nate’s original email and the response from Austin Mitchell:
Dear Mr Mitchell,
I’m just writing, one party member to another, regarding a tweet sent from your account (or one purporting to be you) regarding Louise Mensch’s resignation & related commentary in the media this weekend.
The tone of this tweet was completely unacceptable. Our political system is already unrepresentative of women in general (our party’s work in this area notwithstanding) and the House still has a “boys’ club” image. As an MP for our party, you have a duty to both your constituents and to Labour to always be in the vanguard when it comes to respecting women.
I appreciate the point you were trying to make – namely, an MP hungry for power & fame using her position to try and make a name for herself rather than serve her constituents, only to cut and run when it became clear no cabinet position was forthcoming. In there is a message of somebody elected to serve, only to renege on her duty and put her own interests first; it may sound callous, but her role was not to be undertaken lightly.
Instead, you risk contributing to the Mensch narrative of a good MP driven out by her familial duties – and in the midst of an election campaign!
We’re better than the Tories, but we still have to convince the country – and setting a good example at the top is part of that.
I hope you take my comments in the spirit in which they’re intended – concern from a grassroots member who knows the best hope for our nation is a Labour victory in 2015.
the response from Austin Mitchell came back:
Dear Nate Barker
Thank you for your reprimand. It was my tweet. It was meant as a joke but it`s been taken seriously by hundreds, resulting in a tonne of abuse descending on my head. Indeed yours was the mildest and best expressed.
Political correctness never was my strong point but I don`t see that incorrectness is going to have any effect on Labour`s standing votes, or reputation, by turning a passing tweet into a monstrous assault on womankind.
I`ve written the clobbering up in the next edition but one of The Oldie since many of the people who tweeted back opposed sexism by ageist attacks on me as geriatric.
At the time, lots of people tried to blame the instant nature of Twitter for Mitchell’s “mistake”. And here Mitchell is trying to do the same while also employing the “It’s just a joke” meme.
I hate the “it’s just a joke” meme. It’s the most sly way of constantly denigrating a group of people. It’s a socially acceptable form of kicking down. As the excellent Everyday Sexism project demonstrates these aren’t “just jokes” they are weapons used to keep women in their place by undermining them on a daily basis.
So yes, Austin, your “just a joke” is a part of the daily assault on womankind. It’s part of the culture that diminishes us that thinks such a joke is funny. It’s part of the culture that diminishes us to think that Politcal Correctness – or being polite as sane people call it – is not a standard to aspire to but something to be avoided.
Equally, this issue isn’t just about Labour’s reputation, standing or votes. It’s not just about winning. It’s about being worthy winners.
However, if people have genuinely been attacking Mitchell for his age, that too is wrong. There is plenty enough to criticise him for, his age is neither here nor there.
I am – in many aspects of my life – privileged. I am a youngish, white, middle class, well educated, employed, able-bodied, straight, cis woman. It is only in the last of these areas that I find myself disadvantaged by society. Perhaps it is because I am so used to being in the priviledged group in all other areas that I am so concious of gender discrimination. Beacuse I recognise the advantages I have in life, I try to check my privelege when discussing issues that do not effect me personally.
So do some of the men – feminist or otherwise – I discuss sexism with. Sadly some of them don’t and try to waste endless hours of my time explaining exactly why I think they’re being sexist and patronising without undertaking the most rudimentary attempt at self-examination. Frankly, from now on, my life is too full to check others privilege for them.
But Austin Mitchell is a representative of my party. Like it or not, he is the face and voice of the Labour Party in Grimsby. As an MP he has an audience I do not and his words have a power mine cannot. If he will not understand why what he said was wrong, then I will not stop criticising him for saying it. Because these jokes, the attitude behind them and the culture they foster have no place in the modern Labour Party.
Trigger warning: this post contains descriptions of the aftermath of a fictional rape – there are no descriptions of a rape event.
The aftermath of rape is different for every victim. I don’t want the anger I am feeling at present to lead me to generalisations. I do not know how I would behave because I have not been raped. On this occasion, I cannot write from experience. I don’t want anyone to read this and believe I am making light of their experiences to make a political point. I am trying extremely hard not to do so, while also trying to release the feelings that have been building up in me over the last week. This isn’t the first time I have spoken of my disgust with the hypocrisy some of those on the left show when turning a blind eye to the unadmirable actions of those they admire before. Sadly I suspect it will not be the last.
The events I allude to in this post clearly centre around the Asaange case. In the interests of balance & justice, it is important to note that no charges have yet been made in this case.
What would happen if I were raped by a man of the left? That’s not a question I’ve ever felt the need to ask myself before this last week. Now, it’s a question that is haunting me.
What if the man who raped me had done great things? If were an incredible orator, a superb thinker and writer? A man by far my intellectual superior? A man whose achievements in life I could not hope to equal. A man who was put on a pedestal by many of those whom I myself admired.
Would I feel any less violated? Would he be any less guilty of violating me? Would I be any less raped? Would he be any less a rapist? NO! NO! NO! NO!
But after what I have seen this week. I believe that if I were to suffer such an attack, there would be those who believe themselves to be my comrade in the fight for equality who would seek to deny me justice, to denigrate my claim, to make me not just the victim but the perpetrator of a greater crime. They would name and shame me. They would show how I have been open in my past about my sexuality, about my sexual history and about my feminism and championing of women’s rights as trumping religious and cultural customs as if they had any bearing on the case. As if my sex life had any bearing on my rape life.
Key “left-leaning” newspapers might hire one of my rapists greatest champions to make his case over and over again. Leading feminists will argue that I can’t have my justice because that isn’t what the case is really about. If I am lucky enough to see the police pursue justice to the fullest of their ability, my fellow feminists – both female and male, despite being largely supportive, will publicly voice their discomfort at the lengths being taken to achieve justice. Will argue that this pursuit of justice is not about my rape, but about my rapist’s politics. Robbing me further of my power and bolstering his once again. And there will be those who either deny my claim outright or who belittle the importance of my experience next to the importance of their great man and his great cause. Some will trample all over my rights in their commitment to their champion.
I know too that the vast majority will not be like this. That there will be many hundreds and thousands who do believe in my right to justice. Too many to link to every one. The left, of which I remain a proud part, have not been shouted down by their small malignant minority.
But, just as it is not when the innocent are put to death but when the terrible are that you find out how you really feel about the death penalty., it is not when a villain commits rape that we find out how women’s rights have advanced but when it is a hero who stands accused.
The sad, terrible and shocking truth is that there are parts of the left who have been exposed in this last week, not as champions of equality, but as defenders of a patriarchal hegemony that denies women politically inconvenient sexual equality. And I now know, with a sad and shocked certainty, that were I to be a victim in these circumstances, my rape would be denied and dismissed by those who DARE to call themselves my fellow champions for equality.
You are not. You will never be. You have bankrupted your right to call yourselves fighters for equality.
So this morning, I was followed by a spam Twitter account with the biog: “Girls want to get f**ked too. Let’s be honest.” Another day, another spam-porn follower.
Amazingly enough, I didn’t click the link. I was on the bus for one thing, and don’t really fancy downloading a whole load of nasty malware onto my phone. If I want to get turned on, there are plenty of better ways to do so than by following unsolicited links.
I’ve written about this before in the context of the Labour Party conference, but it’s a wide spread problem and if anything it seems to be getting worse. Panels at political events are, more frequently than ever, men only affairs. I’m very glad today to be a signatory to a letter in today’s Guardian calling for a stop to this practice.
When I wrote about this last time, I was (yawn, of course) accused of tokenism. I suspect I will be again. Here’s why that’s so much nonsense: in the decade that I’ve been managing successful political events – on topics as wide ranging as the environment, democracy, housing, culture, science and a host of others – I never, not once have had an all male panel.
In fact, I am so confident that it’s twaddle, I challenge my challengers. Find me an all male panel – in fact, find me any topic on which you could reasonably hold an informed public debate – and I’ll give you the names of five women who could hold their own on the panel. It’s not tokenism you see, it’s research.
And it matters. It matters because women are being shut out of public debate. We don’t see other women on panels, delivering their thoughts to a roomful of people waiting to be inspired. Just as when we close our eyes and think of a politician, we think of a bloke in a suit, so too do we picture him when we think of a political speaker.This is taking it’s toll. Women are vastly under-represented in think tanks for example.
Having run events for so long, I know that the easy thing to do is to invite the bloke who was good on this topic the last time it was discussed. But it’s the lazy thing to do. It’s part of what is making our political discourse so stale, jaded and unable to cope with the really big questions of our times.
Giving women a platform to share their thoughts isn’t just good for those individual women, but for all of us – male and female – who understand the true value of diversity in voices and thought.
Let’s be clear – Labour has done really well on issues of Gender Equality. When you look at the Labour benches in the House of Commons the difference is stark between our mixed benches and the swathes of men in grey suits on the Government benches. We have taken and continue to take difficult action to ensure that our party is becoming more and more representative and as I have written before, I think this is not only morally the right thing to do, but is also politically beneficial. I am extremely proud of the work done within the party in this area and the obvious difference between us and the Tories and especially the Lib Dems shows how well these measures are working and how needed they are.
However, I was somewhat disappointed that the organisations who come to our conferences to talk to us have not recognised these as part of our intrinsic values. Too often at this year’s Conference we were faced with all male panels again and again. It’s insulting to our values as a party and to myself as a woman to be presented with 4-5 experts over and over again only to be implicitly told that there are no women good enough. I also know as someone who organised panels at conference that it’s just lazy. I always ensured that at the very least there was a female chair, but I also always strived to ensure there was at least an advertised female speaker (anyone who organises events at conference will tell you of the endless horror of speakers pulling out at the last minute, a practice that is not gender-biased!).
Some friends and I started to talk about this and what we though was the best course of action. We don’t want to stop reasonable people holding meetings on the conference fringe. Proper discussion of ideas is what being a democratic Socialist is all about. However those ideas would be better discussed and represented if a wider range of voices were heard. So in true ConDem nudge theory style, it struck us that we would never seek to ban such meetings, but one way to persuade the organisers to think more carefully about their platforms would be to impose rules on the advertising of these events in the official Labour Party fringe guide. The idea is inspired by the rule the Liberal Democrats have where they won’t accept any adverts for meetings in venues that aren’t fully accessible.
As a result, we have drafted the letter below to Margaret Wheeler – chair of the Conference Arrangements Committee:
Advertising of fringe events with no female speakers in the Labour Party conference guide
Over the past few years the Labour party has made massive strides towards gender equality – not least with the make-up of the Shadow Cabinet, making our party being far and away the most diverse in Parliament.
We are however concerned that these values are not always reflected in some of the fringe events, organized by third parties, at Annual Conference. Too often we have attended events where the line-up is all male, with no thought having been given to presenting a representative platform – despite the number of vocal and interesting women in the party.
We understand that the freedom to assemble (in whatever form people choose) is a fundamental human right, and we would not seek to ban such meetings. However we do not believe that there is an equal fundamental right to advertising. We also believe that the Party can and should seek to encourage organizations to reflect Labour’s values more closely when they choose to host events at our conference and as such would like to propose that the Labour Party adopts a rule whereby no event can be advertised in our fringe guide if there is not at least one woman represented on the panel of advertised speakers (accepting that last minute changes occur). We believe there is precedent for this in the rule by the Liberal Democrats that no fringe can be advertised in their guide if it is does not have full disabled access.
We believe that provided sufficient notice was given to potential event organizers, adopting such a rule would not result in the loss of advertising revenue to the Party, but would instead awaken organisations to the causal and lazy sexism of presenting all-male platforms, and will make them more innovative in their invitations – thus improving the fringe overall.
If anyone would like to be a co-signatory of this letter, please get in touch with me, or give me your name and CLP etc in the comments. I will be sendingthe letter in early January as I know such a move would take time to implement and want to give the party as much time as possible to make this work.
I hope that this move will be accepted by the party as the positive step it is intended to be and that we can all work together to make our annual conference as interesting and diverse an event as possible.
I consider myself a feminist.
I don’t however identify with the stereotype that the tabloids and lazy media (and some radical feminists) perpetuate. I don’t hate men. In fact I love men – one man in particular. I also believe that men and women are different. I am not as physically strong as most men. Most men don’t have as high a threshold for pain as I do. I enjoy sex and I enjoy sex with men. I don’t feel violated (or if so, only in a good way!) I feel a participant in an act of fun/lust/love (delete as appropriate).
For me, feminism is about recognising and celebrating the differences between men and women, and then working within society to ensure that the genders are equal. Equal in representation at all levels. Equally educated. And over their lifetime, equally compensated for their work, or the work done in and around the home in supporting a family.
Feminism is about raising the game for women, not lowering it for men. I believe in a positive form of feminism, where women are enabled to the level that men enjoy in society. Feminism can also not be separated from class, and the class struggle. A working class woman will enjoy a far lesser degree of choice or opportunity than her middle class equivalent. She will also remain poorer, and the gap between the two will increase dramatically once they reach retirement age. Only about 16% of women qualify for a basic state pension as opposed to 78% of men, and these will – by and large – be middle class women, who are more likely to have a private pension as well.
So Feminism is not about attacking and hating men, but celebrating and helping women.
I don’t think France’s banning of Burkas is the right move, because i think it would simply criminalise behaviours rather than try to rationalise them.
As a feminist, I believe veiling women is simply wrong. It speaks to a woman’s lesser position in society, and tells of her position only as an object of sexual desire for men, and the need to cover her up for the sake of those men.
However, I don’t believe I have the right to tell another human being what to wear or not wear, so I wouldn’t legislate to tell a woman she could not wear a veil, but I would ask us all as society to examine our attitudes towards women, their clothing and their bodies. Women have every right to show their faces, and if anyone believes there isn’t a certain amount of cultural pressure within section of the Muslim community for women to be veiled, pressure coming largely from community leaders – nearly always men – then they are being naive.
But where does my belief in spreading liberal values end and cultural hegemony begin? Should the pressure to accept and live alongside communities who’s beliefs are so different from my own on issues of gender politics mean I should accept the position of women within section of Muslim society? Should I understand that they do things differently? Should they understand that I do and respect my beliefs?
Ask 100 people where to draw the line and I suspect I would get 100 different answers. I also suspect that about 15% would be sure we should spread liberal values by whatever means necessary, 15% would believe we shouldn’t interfere in other cultures whatever the cost, and that the other 70% are – like me – groping around for answers somewhere in the middle.
I don’t know the answers, but what I do know, is that these questions are possibly the most important that will be asked in the 21st century, and that if progressives don’t ask them, others will impose answers upon us.
For now I will continue to campaign as a feminist for better rights for women within all communities, so that those women who do reject the veil are free to do so.