Yearly Archives: 2016

Whose story is it anyway? 1

The stewardship of feminism’s collective memory raises all kinds of ethical questions. Can our approach be based on trust alone?  Frankie Green shares some thoughts on feminism, archiving and accountability.


No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you, I write myself anew. I am still author, authority. I am still the colonizer, the speaking subject, and you are now at the center of my talk (bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics).

The context in which bell hooks writes is very different from mine. Yet her words resonate strongly with me, illuminating some questions I want to explore here.

Archiving the history of the WLM is well-established, as we who experienced that era believe it crucial to ensure that our movement is not lost to history. The importance of taking this task seriously has been elucidated by Jalna Hanmer, and many have worked tirelessly on collecting and cataloguing information, making it available to new generations of activists, students and historians. Our collections provide insights into the aims, achievements and processes of the movement and show how it was sustained at grassroots level by thousands of women – many of whom did not become well-known, since they never attracted the attention of the mainstream media.

We want these archives to be seen not as reliquaries, but as resources in our ongoing struggles, useful in the continuing quest for the ending of women’s oppression. As I said when speaking on behalf of the Women’s Liberation Music Archive (WLMA) in the workshop ‘Archives and Activism: Knowing our Past – Creating our Future’ at 2014’s Feminism in London conference, they ‘are not about preserving history in aspic, or rosy-tinted nostalgia.’ WLMA documents feminist music-making in the 1970s/80s, and is the fruit of discussions among musicians and activists who generously donated time, money and material in the belief that it’s important to illustrate the role of culture within political movements. It complements other feminist archives.

But while there’s a consensus that such archiving is important, I haven’t come across much discussion regarding the subsequent use made of these archives. I have become interested in issues raised by this usage, the value created by it and the process of its production.

Ethics and interpretation

The ethics of archiving appear self-evident: responsibility to those who make the collections possible; respect for the holdings and their provenance, integrity and placement; adherence to written or verbal agreements between parties; good practice regarding a professional standard of behavior (including amongst amateurs/volunteers). Such codes of conduct are affirmed by various professional bodies, including the International Council on Archives, which states:

archivists should not collect original documents or participate in any commerce of documents on their own behalf. They should avoid activities that could create in the public mind the appearance of a conflict of interest

What recourse is available to us if such codes are not adhered to? Are there additional, specific principles that feminists need to incorporate into our practice?

These questions point to some wider issues relating to the interpretation of feminist history.

In her 1966 essay Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag said that interpretation

presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy … Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he [sic] can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning.

Interpretation creates another layer of temporality and text. Print media acquire legitimacy, being mostly less ephemeral than other forms, bestowing a mantle of authority on writers. Published books acquire credibility, as anyone who’s challenged the texts used on Women’s Studies courses knows. Myriad implications are involved, meaning that this creation of a secondary layer of theorizing and analysis is worth attention. How is this creation achieved? What does it leave out or invisibilise? What checks can be used for verification of data presented? And the age-old question: cui bono – who benefits?

It is unfortunate that amongst people who have contributed oral or written histories to collections, the experience of having their work or words  misrepresented or quoted without permission seems to be quite common. I know of some who feel exploited by researchers who have behaved less than honourably or betrayed the trust placed in them. Donors have cooperated with authors only to find the ensuing publications disappointing or inaccurate. If people have not been consulted or if they feel their own narratives have been taken from them, they are left with a sense of disillusionment.

Disputes frequently arise, and enter public discourse; one recent example concerned a book about the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands which was produced without consulting his family about the accuracy of the portrayal of his life. The cultural appropriation of people’s history on a greater scale is a longstanding unethical practice affecting indigenous people, exemplified by the use of sacred Native American myths in Peter Nabokov’s publication ofThe Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo. The issue of ownership arises, as in the question asked of me by a woman who found herself quoted in a book by an author who had misled her: ‘whose story is it anyway?’

Claiming our own histories

Many of us have had to assert a claim to our own histories. It is understood that memory may be fallible, narrators unreliable and, of course, the field of oral history contains many pitfalls. The standpoint of personal experience has been challenged for its claim to epistemological privilege and authenticity. Nevertheless, there is significance in the fact of having been there: of being present at, participating in and causing actual events to which we ascribe meaning and of which we have clear recollections. Having our stories regurgitated in an unrecognisable form is a galling experience. As a mature student in the 1980s, I found myself disagreeing with tutors confident they knew the truth about WLM events of the previous decade – events in which I had taken part. Lived experience lost out in competition with what had become received wisdom. It is disorientatingly unpleasant to feel like a ghost in one’s own story; a kind of cognitive dissonance occurs.

Those of us from that era hope to ensure our stories are accurately represented. Which begs the question of whether we need others to tell those stories and republish them into the world. We were there; we are the experts in our own lives. Do we need interpretation to ‘disclose … true meaning’? And what do we do if an interpreter fails to consult us or has an outlook with which we disagree?

Perhaps the campaigning maxim of ‘nothing about us without us’ needs to be borne in mind. Many people now insist on a caveat ensuring that they retain the right of veto, that they see what is written about them prior to publication. To provide that option may seem a matter of common courtesy, but it does not always happen. In such cases, as with an unauthorised biography, readers need to be aware of issues arising from the lack of consent and that the veracity or reliability of the account may be in question. Editors and publishers rely on their authors acting in good faith, but perhaps they also have a pro-active role to play. Do authors have a responsibility to inform people and organisations that they are being written about? How do our moral criteria as feminists differ from general notions of ethics, if at all?

Of course, the meaning of stories cannot be controlled, and it is not necessarily desirable that they be so; we need to be able to let them go, and hope they will be treated ethically. We can disassociate ourselves if an account is found to be inaccurate or misleading, though of course pre-empting such a thing happening in the first place would be preferable. Feminist projects frequently depend on goodwill; it is to be hoped that negative examples are rare.

We can adopt guidelines, codes, standards of behavior, but the question of enforceability remains. How do we resolve moral dilemmas, rather than rigidly policing, if we wish to work non-hierarchically? How can problems be addressed, not to punish, but to prevent unethical behaviour, and in a professional way, taking care to avoid a descent into trolling and trashing?

Academic careers and capital can be built on the work of others, both original creators of material and those who have collected and curated it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this; indeed, the desired outcome of making material publicly available is that users will find it valuable for exploration and exegesis. WLMA has constructive interactions with students who find us useful, as we hoped. There’s reciprocity involved and it’s positive when they make their writings available to us in turn to be archived. Less responsible researchers can cause disillusionment. Perhaps the need for funding can be corrupting, in the scramble to secure it corners are cut, principles relaxed. We expect exploitation from the capitalist marketplace ripping the world apart as it monetises every last thing, but can only hope it does not prevail in the sphere of feminism.

To see one’s writings reprinted or actions written about, when one would not wish them to be so used, is to feel colonised. Under colonisation, a territory’s original inhabitants’ inherent value is less than that which they produce for those taking it over. This throws into sharp relief the difference between intrinsic worth – dignity, rights, inalienable personhood – and extractable, appropriated value. Attitudinally, it’s like the difference between respect and contempt, care and indifference. The momentum that carries colonisers along normalizes their actions, but they make conscious choices for which they are responsible.

A coloniser likes to take over not simply a terrain’s resources and the labour of the inhabitants, but control of the narrative, inscribing their own being into the story that is already there. Setting themselves up as expert and writing in an ostensibly authoritative manner allows disregard for the subjectivity of the people of whom they write. The colonised subject struggles then not only to regain material control but for recognition of more nebulous aspects of the problem: attachment to their history and culture, the personal meaning of an era in a lifetime – the emotions which inform their resistance against exploitation.

The coloniser also casts themselves as the discoverer, intrepid explorer opening up unknown realms, an academic maverick boldly going where no researcher has gone before. For the people who are already there of course this knowledge is not new, as they are already know it, indeed created it. Sometimes the person already there is friendly, not sceptical, having no reason for suspicion, only later regretting the openness which facilitated their own exploitation. Then their resistance to being taken over is an obstructive nuisance; they have the temerity to be insufficiently grateful.

Feminists are not a dispossessed ethnic group, our memories or memorabilia are not sacred texts or artefacts, our narratives are not arcane. But it can widen our debate to consider different ways of regarding intellectual property ownership that co-exist in the world. There are models which augment the western legal one regarding protocols, wherein the less technical aspects are valued, elements harder to quantify – intangibles like respect, trust, integrity. Publicly available material can be used under the principle of Fair Use, but that does not grant license to plunder it at will regardless of people’s feelings and wishes. Having no compunction about assuming an entitlement within such narrow strictures, leaving out these other factors, would be self-servingly convenient. Challenging the right assumed by Nabokov and other white authors to retell Acoma Pueblo stories, Fred S. Vallo Sr., discussing cultural property rights, concludes that ‘we like to tell our own story. Let us do it.’

Still here

The contents of archives can be viewed as part of what Bernard Steigler has conceptualized as constituting the ‘already-there’, using a theoretical framework drawn on, for instance, by Deborah Withers in the book Feminism, Digital Culture and the Politics of Transmission. But however useful such analyses may be, in relation to the documentation of feminist history perhaps what needs to take priority is the ‘still-here’: us. Real women engaged in active processes of being, women who embody the political consciousness of that time, who inhabited the ‘structures of feeling’ of its lived experience, to borrow Raymond Williams’ phrase. Though sadly some of us are no longer here, many of us are still alive and very much kicking, carrying on doing what we’ve always done – and archiving our own history.

I’m suggesting that  setting up grassroots projects to do this work without incorporating a formal code of conduct–basing the work on trust alone–may not ensure that our history is safeguarded. Stewardship of collective memory needs to continue to be done with care, always bearing in mind the actual women with whose stories we are entrusted, with respect and transparency as guiding principles.

It would be ironic if women whose work is claimed as feminist heritage, who made possible the very context in which today’s researchers work, felt the latter were careless of upsetting or alienating them. What price feminist scholarship or academic careers if they rest on the invisible labour of people who feel they have been treated unethically or indifferently? It would be nonsensical to treat people’s creations as more valuable than the people themselves. If our histories, ourselves, our politics, are worth taking seriously, then surely so must be the moral parameters deployed in chronicling them.

Frankie Green is the Administrator of the Women’s Liberation Music Archive:

Not the revolution…but not the end of the world 2

Britain has got its second woman Prime Minister–and once again, she’s a Conservative. You wouldn’t expect feminists to be hailing this result as a triumph, but why, asks Debbie Cameron, are so many of them proclaiming it a  disaster?   

The first article I saw was in the New Statesman, and I thought: ‘well yes, of course’.

The second was in the Guardian.  I thought, ‘right’.

The third was in the (Scottish) National. I thought, ‘OK, but this is getting a bit repetitive’.

Then three more popped up in my feed in quick succession, from various news and comment websites. I thought, ‘hang on a minute, what is this?’

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, the answer is, opinion pieces dealing with the battle between two women for the Tory leadership. Opinion pieces written by women, and summarized in headlines like these:

A leadership contest between two women is not a feminist revolution.

Don’t confuse the Conservatives’ embrace of women leaders with feminism.

Sub-prime: is May vs Leadsom good for feminism? (spoiler: no it fucking well isn’t)

May or Leadsom? Either way, our next PM will be a disaster for feminism.

This contest is, of course, old news: I’d barely started to write about it when Andrea Leadsom announced she was withdrawing and leaving the field to Theresa May. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to discuss. The point commentators were making when it was May v. Leadsom is still being made now it’s just May; it would be made about any woman who aspired to lead the Conservative Party, and probably about many who might aspire to lead other parties.  And I want to explain why I think that’s a problem.

No, it’s not a feminist revolution–but who said it was?

I don’t disagree with the (obvious) point that these women’s political views are antithetical to the principles of feminism. Leadsom is a free-market zealot and a social conservative who bangs on about God and family values. May is less of an ideologue, but at the Home Office she has taken a hard authoritarian line on human rights, immigration and security.  She has now, as PM-elect, laid out a programme which surprised me by looking much less right-wing than I’d have imagined, but I’m not really expecting her administration to be any better for women than the Conservative-led governments we’ve had since 2010. It could well be worse, if there’s a post-Brexit economic meltdown and her response is to initiate a new round of slash-and-burn austerity measures. If that happens it will be women (as the majority of part-time and low-paid workers, public sector employees, single parents, carers and, of course, users of specialist women’s services which have already been cut to the bone) who will suffer most.

So, there’s no way I’m going to confuse the Tories’ willingness to make Theresa May their next Prime Minister with a feminist revolution. But I still think there’s something a bit odd about this stream of finger-wagging articles telling me not to.

Several of the authors begin by implying that when they criticize May and Leadsom they are departing from some kind of feminist orthodoxy. In her New Statesman piece, for instance, Laurie Penny writes:

I have spent the day being informed that I should be pleased that the future leader of my country will be female.

Really, Laurie?  By whom?  You’re a prominent social justice warrior who works for a left-wing magazine, so where did you encounter all these cheerleaders for May and Leadsom?

Then there’s Kate Pasola in The Skinny, who has somehow been made to feel that the right response to an all-female Prime Ministerial contest would involve

doing handstands on the back of a motorbike, braless, wasted and screaming for joy.

Where, I wonder, did she get that idea?

By the time I’d read four variations on this theme, I was starting to think I must have missed a whole other set of articles by feminists making the argument Penny and Pasola criticize—that the Tory contest was a triumph for feminism. So I started to search through the coverage more systematically. What I found was a further crop of pieces just like the ones I’d already read (i.e., ‘stop telling me this is good for feminism because it isn’t’) and not a single piece making the opposite argument from a feminist perspective. I did find one piece by a Tory who said the contest was a triumph for women, but the point was that the rise of May and Leadsom showed that feminism wasn’t necessary: women could succeed on their own merits without the special treatment feminists were always demanding.

So, if anyone actually had confused the Tory leadership contest with a feminist revolution, I didn’t find the incriminating evidence. Instead I found myself asking what had prompted so many emphatic refutations of an argument no one, and certainly no feminist, seemed to have made.

And that wasn’t my only question.

‘The inevitable barrage of misogyny’

I take it for granted that no one with a serious feminist political analysis could be anything but deeply unhappy with a right-wing Conservative government. But that was always what we were going to get after the referendum: the Tories won the 2015 General Election, and if the nation had voted to stay in the EU we’d have been stuck with David Cameron till 2020. When the result turned out to be Leave and Cameron resigned, the general expectation was that we’d be getting Boris Johnson instead. Replacing, in other words, one smirking, self-serving Old Etonian with another who would follow much the same path.

Then when Johnson withdrew it looked as if we might get the guy who stabbed him in the back, Michael Gove—not an Old Etonian, but a fully paid-up member of the swivel-eyed loon tendency.  However, Gove’s behaviour towards Johnson turned out to be too much even for his fellow-loons. So May became the ‘continuity’, ‘safe pair of hands’ candidate and Leadsom stepped into the vacant loon slot.

In the event of a leadership election someone was always going to fill those positions. The fact that they were both filled by women wasn’t the result of any conspiracy to make the Tories look like feminists. It was more of an improvised solution to the unforeseen problem of men going seriously off-piste.  But what the writers of these endless ‘it’s a disaster for feminism’ pieces seem to be saying is that they’d rather things had gone according to plan, and that we’d ended up with another male PM. That Johnson or Gove would not have been as bad for feminism, or for the majority of women, as May or Leadsom.

The thinking behind this comes closest to being made explicit by Kate Pasola:

Intersectional feminism gains nothing from a female prime minister when the options are May and Leadsom. I’m dreading their policies and their attitudes, as I would with any right-wing leader. But I’m also dreading the inevitable barrage of misogyny these women will endure. I’m dreading their inevitable legacies as iron women and witches; for their evil actions to be tethered arbitrarily to their gender. I’m not excited for a woman to be given the power to represent my gender, only to see it go to sore, heartbreaking waste.

She’s saying that these right-wing women will be judged as representatives of their sex, and that their actions will be presented in specifically gendered terms; like Margaret Thatcher before them, they’ll be remembered as iron ladies and evil witches. And she correctly identifies the reason: misogyny.  But by writing a piece about how terrible the two women are and how much she wishes they had not been chosen, she is arguably repeating the very gesture she claims to deplore.  Adding, in effect, to the ‘barrage of misogyny’.

Of course I’m not suggesting feminists shouldn’t criticize Tory women; but why can’t we do it ‘as we would with any [male] right-wing leader’, on the basis of their beliefs and words and actions?  As feminists, should we not also be critical of the double standard which makes it OK to judge women as more evil than men who think/say/do exactly the same things?

Just before the bit I’ve already quoted from her article, Kate Pasola mentions a friend of hers asking ‘is this what Emily Davison threw herself under the King’s horse for?’  Rhetorically, this is obviously a question expecting the answer ‘no’. But actually I think the true answer must be ‘yes’. Suffragettes like Davison believed that women’s enfranchisement was desirable in and of itself. They demanded political rights for women without attaching conditions. There was no, ‘so long as they’ve got the right politics and vote in the approved manner’.

Some socialists did fear that giving women the vote would only help the Conservative Party, and for several decades it was in fact the case that the Tories benefited most. But would any contemporary feminist seriously suggest that suffrage was therefore bad for women and ‘a disaster for feminism’?  It’s one thing to say that equal rights are insufficient (which second wave feminists did say, loudly), and another to say they are unnecessary or irrelevant.

Maybe this has some bearing on a question broached by numerous commentators on the May/Leadsom contest, including Eve Livingstone in the Guardian:

Much has been made of the fact that, for all its talk of feminism and equality, the left has returned a grand total of zero female prime ministers, in comparison to what will become the Conservatives’ two.  … What is the secret to [the Tories’] success? Is it a strong commitment from leadership to equal representation? A particularly good mentoring and coaching initiative? Positive action strategies?

Obviously not, but the answer Livingstone eventually arrives at does not really get to the heart of the matter.

In a country so entrenched in inequality, it’s no coincidence that our female leaders have come from the right with an inherently sexist ideology of individualism and meritocracy. It’s that very inequality that ensures the system doesn’t fit women leaders of any other ilk.

This seems to miss the point that male dominance is entrenched on the left as well as the right: it’s not just ‘the system’ that keeps women out, it’s the actions of men defending their own interests. I do think she is right to point to the ideology of individualism and meritocracy as a factor which makes things slightly easier for a small number of right-wing women. A woman leader who presents herself as an individual exception to the male norm, and who does not demand equality for women as a group, is not a threat to men’s collective power; they know her ascendancy will only be a temporary blip, after which normal service will resume. So they can afford to be relaxed about the occasional female leader–especially if she steps into the breach when the party is divided or the country is in crisis (May will be dealing with both those situations).

But I think there are other reasons why female leaders have been more acceptable on the right than the left. One has to do with the ingrained cultural misogyny alluded to by Kate Pasola—the tendency to put powerful women in sex-specific boxes with labels like ‘overbearing mother’, ‘strict nanny’, ‘headmistress’, ‘Iron Lady’, ‘wicked witch’.  These archetypes have currency across the political spectrum: they don’t belong exclusively to either the right or the left. But on the right some of them can sometimes be made to work to a female leader’s advantage.  heel

This is because the right attracts authoritarians, people who respond positively to firmness and discipline. Not all of them like being told what to do by a woman, but they do at least find archetypal female authority figures like Mummy and Nanny familiar and understandable. For some men women’s firmness is comforting, for others it may even be a turn-on—think of Mitterand’s description of Thatcher as having ‘the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe’, or the fetish that’s been made of Theresa May’s shoes (notice that the cartoon I’ve reproduced comes from a pro-Tory paper: the ‘female leader as dominatrix’ idea isn’t only used by political opponents to delegitimize women, it can also be deployed by their admirers). And precisely because they aren’t feminists, right-wing women have fewer scruples about exploiting their femininity by playing up to these traditional sexist stereotypes.

On the left, by contrast, which is ideologically anti-authoritarian, the traditional female authority figures have little or no appeal. In addition, most left-wing women don’t want to play Mummy or the Iron Lady. They’d rather downplay their femininity than exploit it: they believe they should be treated as men’s comrades and their equals. In practice, however, they often find out the hard way that however they behave, their sex affects the way they’re perceived. They get stereotyped (and then resented) by default, because there are no alternative, widely intelligible models of female (or gender-neutral) political leadership.

Purity politics?

Another thing that helps to maintain male dominance on the left is the kind of feminist purity politics exemplified by the articles I began with. The sentiment they express could be glossed as ‘If we can’t have a woman leader who perfectly represents all our political ideals, we’d rather not have one at all. No compromise, sisters! If she isn’t going to lead us to the Promised Land where all oppressions melt away, then she’s an enemy of true feminism and our policy must be zero tolerance’.

Some of this may be virtue-signalling, and some of it may be about expecting more from women than we do from men, and therefore being more critical of women who fall short. But I don’t think those things are the whole story. Feminist ambivalence about female leadership goes back a long way.

The second wave Women’s Liberation Movement was self-consciously egalitarian and anti-hierarchical, rejecting the idea that feminist groups should have leaders or spokeswomen. Individual women who were seen or publicly treated as movement leaders, whether or not they had actually sought that status for themselves, were often subjected to harsh criticism.  In the context of feminist activism the rejection of hierarchy makes sense (even if it has sometimes been taken to overzealous extremes). But it is counter-productive to carry the same attitude over into the context of mainstream party politics.  If you’re working within a hierarchically-structured organization, the only thing you’ll achieve by refusing to compromise on your vision of the ideal feminist leader is an endless succession of male leaders.

But there are now feminists who seem to believe that it’s irrelevant, or even crassly reactionary, to care whether women are represented in leadership positions. The Labour MP Jess Phillips has been attacked by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn for suggesting that her Party’s continuing preference for male leaders is a symptom of its continuing sexism. Some of her critics have said explicitly that Corbyn is a better feminist than any of the available women: it’s the politics that matter, not the sex of the individual who promotes them. Similarly, across the Atlantic, some of Bernie Sanders’s supporters insist that he will do more to advance the feminist cause than Hillary Clinton.

At the centre of this argument is a serious point: that the interests of highly privileged women should not take priority over those of the poorest and most oppressed, or indeed the great majority of less privileged women. Few feminists would disagree with that. If some decided, on that basis, to vote for Sanders rather than Clinton (or Corbyn rather than Eagle), I can understand their reasoning. What bothers me is when feminist women go from saying: ‘given the choice between these two individuals I’m afraid I’ll have to go for the man’ to ‘it really shouldn’t matter to a feminist whether a leader is male or female: the question is whether he or she has the right policies’.

Invariably this is said by a woman who is defending her support for a particular male politician, a Sanders or a Corbyn. But when it’s elevated to a general principle, I think it points to the difficulty we still have in visualising women leaders who aren’t just clones of the ones we’ve already found wanting, like Thatcher and Clinton. Why do we think women leaders can only ever represent the narrow interests of the group they belong to (typically white middle-class professional women), when male politicians—usually also white and from an elite class—are credited with the ability to go beyond that? Why can’t we imagine a female socialist leader, or a working class feminist leader? Maybe the answer has something to do with the fact that we’ve never had one. But if so, isn’t that a serious flaw in the argument that it doesn’t matter who a leader is, only what his or her policies are?

Oddly enough, you don’t hear feminists making that argument about anything else. No one says ‘it doesn’t matter whether women become scientists so long as the men are doing the right kind of science’.  Or ‘it doesn’t matter if there are no women on the Booker Prize shortlist so long as the men’s books present women sympathetically’. On those subjects the feminist refrain is ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. Girls need to know that science or literature isn’t just a male preserve, and to really know that, to internalize the truth of it, they need to see women doing science, or writing critically-acclaimed novels.

Political leadership is no different. If we are ever to have women leaders of the kind we really want, the kind we could not just dutifully support but actually be inspired by, we need future generations to see female leadership as normal and unremarkable. And for that to happen, we need to recognize that the female leaders we don’t like or agree with have as much right to be where they are as their male equivalents. They may be no better, but they’re also no worse. We don’t have to like them, make common cause with them, or refrain from criticising their shitty politics. But nor do we have to condone—still less join in with—the chorus of everyday misogyny. We can point out that the elevation of Theresa May is not a feminist revolution without suggesting it’s the end of the world.

Situating agency 1

Feminist debates on violence against women have often become polarized by conflicting ideas about women’s agency. But in her research on street harassment, Fiona Vera-Gray found that Simone de Beauvoir’s concept of ‘situation’ offered a way to move our thinking forward.

There is a growing need to revisit our conceptual frameworks for understanding men’s violence against women and girls. Recent high-profile cases have raised public awareness of the extent of sexual violence; by using digital media, feminist activists have highlighted the everyday nature of men’s intrusive behaviour. The diverse voices that give feminism as a political movement its complexity and reflexivity have undoubtedly been amplified. But the internet has also changed the way we create, take in and distribute information; often we end up speaking over rather than to one another.

Has our thinking paid the price for this? When we are caught up in the practicalities of provision, prevention, prosecution and policy-making, we can easily miss opportunities to reflect on our differing perspectives and the unresolved tensions between them—to think about how our practice can inform our concepts, and how our concepts can inform our practice. Here I want to briefly sketch my own attempts to grapple with some of these issues – in particular the challenges of theorising women’s agency in the context of men’s intrusion – and share how I discovered an untapped resource in the work of Simone de Beauvoir.

Safety vs. freedom

Across feminist perspectives there is what has been described as a ‘chronic need’ to theorise women’s agency, and in particular women’s embodied agency. That need is felt particularly in relation to debates on issues like prostitution and pornography, where it is often suggested that placing emphasis on the context in which women are making choices is equivalent to negating their ability to choose (a view exemplified in the recent decision of Amnesty International to support the decriminalisation of the prostitution system). It is also seen in the routine rejection of feminist self-defence as a rape prevention strategy, on the grounds that this may encourage victim-blaming in cases where women do not fight back. It seems we have reached a point where suggesting that women can act through our bodies is equated with blaming us for when we can’t.

The absence of a framework which recognizes both that women have agency and that it is limited by the context in which it is exercised can have devastating real world effects. An illustration can be found in the independent inquiry on child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, which revealed systemic failings in the statutory response—many of them rooted in a misunderstanding of what appeared on the surface to be young women’s agency. Instead of being seen as making choices in a context of coercion and constraint, young women were imagined as free and autonomous agents who were effectively choosing their own exploitation.

Focusing on violence against women and girls as a context which structures and limits our freedom often prompts accusations of espousing a ‘victim feminism’ that undermines women’s sexual agency. But that perspective is itself unhelpfully reductive: it does not acknowledge the complex, multiple and uneasy ways in which women, individually and collectively, actually live our agency, and our oppression, within the current gender order.

I came to recognise the need to expand our thinking about women’s embodied agency when I was doing research on what is commonly termed ‘street harassment’, meaning men’s intrusions on women in public space. I struggled to find a way of celebrating women’s skilful navigation of men’s intrusions – looking down, wearing headphones, dressing in dark colours, always sitting near the door – while at the same time acknowledging how this ‘safety work’ limits our freedom.

‘Safety work’ is the term Liz Kelly uses to describe the strategising and planning that women and girls undertake in responding to, avoiding and/or coping with men’s violence. The vast majority of this work is pre-emptive: we often can’t even know if what we are experiencing as intrusive is intrusive without external confirmation. That confirmation generally comes in the form of escalation: he moves from staring to touching, he walks quicker behind you, he blocks your path. This escalation is what safety work is designed to disrupt. Women learn to quietly make changes, continually evaluating the situation to decide what constitutes ‘the right amount of panic’. Such work, repeated over time, becomes habitual: it is absorbed into the body as a kind of hidden labour.

From the perspective of lived experience there is an opposition between taking actions to increase our safety and taking actions to increase our freedom—increasing one means decreasing the other. But from the perspective of theory, how should we conceptualise a woman’s decision to limit her freedom in exchange for an increased feeling of safety? On one hand it does not seem helpful to argue that she has no choice: a feminist argument that denies the ability of women and girls to act does nothing to increase their capacity for action. On the other hand there is something distinctly uncomfortable about claiming women’s ‘safety work’, which decreases their freedom, as an expression of women’s agency.

Bringing back Beauvoir

For me, it was Simone de Beauvoir’s understanding of the self as a situated embodied subject that provided a framework for understanding this tension. It might seem strange to talk about ‘bringing back Beauvoir’, since her groundbreaking work The Second Sex is referenced constantly in feminist theoretical discussions. But Beauvoir’s ideas have often been misrepresented or misunderstood. In recent debates on sex and gender, her work has been invoked to support both the voluntarist conception of gender favoured by queer theorists, and the opposing view that emphasizes the biological realities of the female body and the role of social processes in gendering it. In fact, both of these views are incompatible with Beauvoir’s understanding of our culturally inscribed, material embodiment. The ‘objective’ body described by biologists simply does not exist in Beauvoir’s account. Her thought is located in a phenomenological tradition that tried to limit abstraction and instead describe experience as it is lived. We can never experience the human body outside of it being someone’s body, a lived bodily-self situated in a particular place and time.

Historically, a major obstacle to English-speaking feminists’ understanding of Beauvoir was their reliance, for over fifty years, on an extremely problematic translation of The Second Sex. The translator, a male zoologist, cut a third of the original text, and had no understanding of the philosophical tradition that shaped Beauvoir’s own linguistic choices. There is now a new translation which, though not without its own problems, goes some way towards giving the English-speaking reader a truer sense of Beauvoir’s ideas about the situation of women. But when her work is fragmented, reduced to the occasional quote dropped into an argument to support one or other of the orthodox positions, we are missing the uniqueness of her insights overall, and how they can help move us forward in our conceptual thinking about men’s violence against women.

(Re)located in its original philosophical context, The Second Sex provides a map for building theory that speaks to the commonality of women’s experience of men’s violence without losing sight of the way our varying social and personal histories shape the way violence is individually experienced. Beauvoir offers us a theory of embodied selfhood that also accounts for the different meanings given to the individual and generated by the individual through their socio-historical location. Crucially, her account of the self as ‘always uniquely situated’ acknowledges the way agency is rooted in real, and often restrictive, contexts, without suggesting that any acknowledgment of the limits of particular situations effectively denies women autonomy.

The situated self

Beauvoir credited Jean-Paul Sartre with originating the idea of ‘situation’, but correspondence between the two of them that was published after her death revealed this as a misrepresentation. Rather what the letters contain is a series of disagreements about, and developments of, the work of German philosopher Martin Heidegger on the concept of ‘being-in-situation’.

For Heidegger, human existence has the inescapable characteristic of ‘thrownness’. We are thrown without knowledge or choice into a world that was there before us and will remain after us, and in this thrownness we find ourselves in the world always already in a particular situation, again one that is not of our own choosing.

For example, I was born as a white, able-bodied female in the early 1980s, in a small logging town on the North Island of New Zealand. None of these material conditions, their socio-historical meaning, or indeed my entry into the world itself, are expressions of my freedom; but my freedom nevertheless depends on them. My situation is what makes my freedom possible, as well as being the starting point from which I choose my projects. The influence of our situation on our choice of projects is seen in the way that situation acts to expand our possibilities in the world. A change to my birthplace would have changed my possibilities; a change to my body would have altered the starting point for my perspective on the world. From our situation we make choices from which in turn we derive our meaning. Our situation does not determine us, yet it does give us a location within the world through which it becomes meaningful – through which it becomes ‘ours’.

Beauvoir developed Heidegger’s concept to talk about how this situation that we find ourselves thrown into, a situation which includes our embodiment and the associated meanings and possibilities, is both the point from which we make choices—and thus the basis of our freedom—and the source of our limitations. Human ‘being’ is such that we have the ability to act on the world, and to make it our own through the taking up of projects we find meaningful (the project of ending men’s violence against women, for example). At the same time our situation is constituted by forces that are not of our making, forces that may act to limit the projects we choose and the meanings they have for us (would we have chosen the same projects if we did not have certain lived experiences—e.g., for many of us, experiences of men’s violence?)

For Beauvoir we are both free and constrained, with neither lived reality cancelling out the other. Her philosophy insists on the ambiguity of human existence, rejecting simple binary oppositions between freedom and constraint, subject and object, actor and victim: it is not a question of either/or but of both/and.

Situated agency

Beauvoir’s work offers important insights for current feminist theorizing about women’s agency, especially though not only sexual agency, as it is lived under patriarchy. Her concept of situation provides us with a theoretical tool that enables us to explore the ambiguous, ‘both/and’ position of the ‘victim-survivor’. It helped me to see that safety work is an expression of the way women are both acted on by, and capable of choosing to act within, the patriarchal gender order. The idea of situated agency, agency that is simultaneously free and restricted, can help us resist the temptation to see women’s responses to male violence and intrusion as evidence of their lack of agency, without feeling obliged to go to the other extreme and suggest that their actions are expressions of absolute freedom.

There are connections here with Evan Stark’s theorisation of the constraints imposed on women by controlling partners as limiting women’s opportunities rather than their capacity to enact their life projects. Stark states that in reconceptualising domestic violence from an assault-based model to one of experienced reality, ‘no challenge was more formidable than conveying the extent of women’s resiliency, resistance, capacity and courage in the face of coercive control without minimizing the comprehensiveness of the strategy’. Such a claim connects to Beauvoir’s idea of ‘situation’, referring to the total context in which and through which we choose our projects and so give our life meaning. For Stark, as for Beauvoir, freedom and agency are situated.

The ideas developed by Beauvoir open up a space for feminists wanting to talk about Liz Kelly’s concept of the continuum of sexual violence as a constraining context for women, without denying women’s autonomy and our acts of resistance and resilience. Our choices, our actions, and even our desires are not free-floating: they spring from our material bodies, which are located in ways that open up some possibilities to us while closing down others. All agency is situated.

In the frame 1

Debbie Cameron takes a critical look at the linguistic framing of current debates on prostitution.

Let’s start with a question. Are you pro-sex or anti-sex?

Maybe you’re thinking: ‘of course I’m not anti-sex, who the hell would be against sex?’

Or maybe you’re thinking: ‘Hang on a minute, aren’t those terms a bit loaded?’

And of course, they are. But that comes with the territory. It’s in the nature of political arguments to be conducted in loaded language. The proverbial ‘battle for hearts and minds’ is always, among other things, a war of words.

‘Pro-sex’ (or ‘sex positive’) and ‘anti-sex’ are shorthand labels for political positions on a set of issues (including pornography and prostitution) which have divided feminists since the 19th century. ‘Anti-sex’ is what the ‘pro-sex’ camp call the people on the other side of the argument: it’s not what the other side call themselves. (Because who the hell would be against sex?)

But the competing terms in a political argument aren’t always straightforward opposites like ‘pro-/anti-sex’. In debates on abortion, the opposing camps are most commonly labelled ‘pro-choice’ (supporting women’s right to choose whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy) and ‘pro-life’ (defending the sanctity of human life and the rights of unborn children). Each side has chosen a label that suits its own argument, and both have been relatively successful in getting others, including the media, to respect their terminological preferences.

There’s more to these preferences than just the words themselves. As the linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff explains, ‘every word is defined relative to a conceptual framework’. For instance,

If you have something like “revolt,” that implies a population that is being ruled unfairly, or assumes it is being ruled unfairly, and that they are throwing off their rulers, which would be considered a good thing.

So when the people in a suburban street complain about the council’s new parking restrictions and the local newspaper reports this under the headline ‘Residents in parking revolt’, that implicitly directs us to judge their action in positive terms, as if they were downtrodden peasants courageously resisting tyranny. If instead the paper had called it a ‘parking squabble’, that would frame the residents’ grievance as trivial and petty.

The power of framing to shape perceptions of an issue is what makes the choice of terms tactically important. Lakoff has written extensively about the way this works in arguments between conservatives and progressives in the USA. One of the cases he examines is the argument about cutting taxes for the wealthy—or as the conservatives who favour this measure put it, offering them ‘tax relief’. Progressives oppose tax cuts, but they also use the term ‘tax relief’, and in Lakoff’s view that’s a tactical mistake. The word ‘relief’ frames paying tax as a painful affliction—a frame that reflects the conservative view and so gives them an advantage in the argument. When the progressives declare themselves ‘against tax relief’, they are accepting rather than challenging the conservative view of tax as an intolerable burden. And when tax is framed as a burden, the politician who offers ‘relief’ will be more popular than the one who doesn’t.

What Lakoff thinks the progressives should do is frame the issue in a different way. Like, ‘paying taxes is paying your dues to your country’. If rich people take pride in their ability to pay the hefty subscriptions charged by exclusive country clubs, they should also be proud to pay for their membership of what so many of them like to call ‘the greatest country on earth’. More generally, he argues that whoever controls the framing of an issue stands a better chance of winning the argument. It’s a mistake to accept terms which have been chosen by your opponents to serve their own interests, and to let them define your position for you.

In the case of abortion feminists haven’t fallen into that trap. But on other issues, especially issues which feminists are divided on, the situation is rather different.

Prostitution/sex work: framing the debate

The current debate on what to do about prostitution (or ‘sex work’—different terms, different frames) is a case in point. On this issue there are two competing arguments which both claim to be progressive. The first is that commercial sex should be legally available in the same way as other personal services: the state should treat the (mainly female) purveyors and the (overwhelmingly male) consumers as equal, autonomous agents, and should not limit their freedom by making the buying or selling of sex a crime. Wanting less state interference and fewer restrictions on free trade is a position typically associated with the political right, but in the case of the sex trade it’s more common on the left. It’s also the position taken by some feminists.

Other feminists, however, view prostitution as a fundamentally exploitative institution which depends on and reproduces inequality between men and women. From that perspective there is nothing ‘progressive’ (or as Jeremy Corbyn recently put it, ‘civilized’), about making it more easily accessible and more socially acceptable. Supporters of this argument do agree with the opposing camp that the state should stop punishing prostitutes. What they favour is the ‘Nordic model’ (so called because it was pioneered in Scandinavia, though it has recently also been adopted in France), in which the law defines purchasing sex as a crime, and it’s the buyer rather than the seller who is penalized.

This second group of feminists has struggled to present itself as ‘progressive’ and to resist being labelled ‘conservative’ by the first group. In Britain last August, a YouGov poll found that the majority of respondents thought ‘consensual sex work’ should be legal—though the overall majority in favour wasn’t large (around 54%), and there was a significant difference between men and women. A clear majority (65%) of men were in favour, with only 15% opposed; most women, by contrast, were either opposed (27%) or undecided (30%), with 43% in favour.

The reasons why people hold the views they do are likely to be multiple and complex; but one relevant consideration may be the way language has been used in this debate. Feminist opponents of prostitution have arguably done the same thing Lakoff criticizes progressives in the US for doing in the argument about tax relief: they’ve accepted terms that favour the other side. In particular, they’ve accepted that what they’re arguing about is most aptly described as the ‘decriminalization’ of prostitution.

One immediate problem with this is that it’s confusing. In reality, both sides want to decriminalize the selling of sex: the point they disagree on is whether buying sex should be legal. Sometimes, campaigners for the Nordic model try to get around this confusion by explaining that what they oppose is ‘full’ decriminalization (meaning, of buyers and sellers alike). How well this works depends on how aware the audience is of the details of the competing legal proposals (for those who are not deeply engaged with the debate, the difference between ‘decriminalization’ and ‘full decriminalization’ is probably obscure). But in any case, there’s a more general issue about the way the term ‘decriminalization’ frames the question being debated.

Whenever there’s a proposal to ‘decriminalize’ something, the implication is that its current status as a crime is arbitrary and unjust. The fact that it has been ‘criminalized’–made into a crime–is either a reflection of conservative social attitudes from which most people have now moved on, or else an expression of the state’s need to control its citizens, especially those it perceives as a threat to the existing order (e.g. youth, the poor, and members of ethnic or sexual minorities). This was the argument that led to the decriminalizing (under certain conditions) of abortion and sex between men in the late 1960s. These were/are said to be ‘victimless crimes’, acts which do not harm others, and which therefore should not be forbidden or punished.

For people on the political left, who pride themselves on their tolerant social attitudes and their resistance to authoritarianism and injustice, the term ‘decriminalization’ works like ‘revolt’ in Lakoff’s example: it frames the proposal in positive terms, as the obviously ‘progressive’ thing to do. Conversely, the label ‘anti-decriminalization’ frames the people it is applied to as the opposite of progressive. The label says nothing about their political motives; it merely suggests that they are standing in the way of change, and so endorsing a right-wing ‘law and order’ agenda. In fact, feminist critics of prostitution reject the traditional conservative case against it (that it flouts the religious/moral norm prohibiting extra-marital sex, and that the women involved in it are ‘dirty’); but they do not believe it is ‘victimless’ or harmless. However, the ‘pro-versus-anti-decriminalization’ frame does nothing to help feminists get that argument across.

Could feminist opponents of prostitution take Lakoff’s advice, and use different terms to put the issue in a different frame? Some campaigners do call themselves ‘abolitionists’, thus placing themselves in the tradition of earlier struggles to abolish slavery. Another possible reframing is suggested by the writer Rae Story, a former prostitute who now describes herself as a ‘sex-industry critical feminist’. Discussing the support recently expressed for decriminalization by the left-wing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Story comments on the paradox of a committed socialist taking this position. The sex industry is run on capitalist principles: the argument for ‘full decriminalization’  is, she says,

in effect an argument for the full industrialisation of prostitution. It opens the way for businesses to be able to leverage their wealth to build large brothels and chains, thus consolidating potential industry profits and hiving them off into smaller and smaller numbers of hands.

This isn’t just wild speculation: the proliferation of mega-brothels run on super-exploitative, neoliberal lines is what has happened in Germany since the sex industry there was decriminalized.  Would leftists find the cause so obviously progressive if it were described as ‘the industrialization of prostitution’, or in other terms which activate a ‘neoliberal capitalism’ frame, like ‘deregulation’ and ‘free market’? Would people who associate ‘decriminalization’ with campaigns for social justice feel the same about a campaign for ‘legalized brothels’?

But being labelled ‘anti-decriminalization’ isn’t the only problem for feminist opponents of prostitution. Another problem is the framing of their position as ‘anti-sex’.

From prudes to pearl-clutchers: the rhetoric of ‘anti-sex’

Attitudes to sex are a major dividing line between modern conservative and progressive ideologies. Whereas conservatives see sex as a socially disruptive force which must be regulated and contained, progressives regard it as positive and socially liberating. Because of this, anyone who expresses concern about any kind of sexual behaviour is liable to be described by progressives as ‘anti-sex’, meaning conservative, moralistic, intolerant and prudish.

Feminists of my generation have been hearing this accusation for nearly 50 years—originally it came from anti-feminist men, and now it often comes from younger feminists, who maintain that female sexual agency and pleasure were not part of the second-wave agenda. In reality, these were key questions for the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s. One of the most-read texts produced by the early WLM was Anne Koedt’s ‘The myth of the vaginal orgasm’ (1970):  after observing that women had been ‘defined sexually in terms of what pleases men’, Koedt asserted that it was time for them to insist on their own right to sexual pleasure:

We must begin to demand that if certain sexual positions now defined as “standard” are not mutually conducive to orgasm, they no longer be defined as standard.

What Koedt and her contemporaries were against wasn’t sex, it was men dictating the terms for sex. And men dictated the terms just as surely in the ‘progressive’ counter-culture of the 1960s as they did in the most conservative family homes. The terms themselves were different, but men’s entitlement to set them was the same. And feminists had had enough of that.

Unsurprisingly, some men were less than delighted by the prospect of sisters doing it for themselves—defining their own desires, making their own demands, saying no to sex they didn’t want (and in some cases, to heterosex in general). That kind of female agency wasn’t what men had in mind when they talked about sexual ‘liberation’. (An apter word than ‘agency’ might have been ‘availability’.) Calling feminists ‘uptight’, ‘frigid’ or ‘prudes’ was a way of dismissing the challenge feminism posed to traditional, male-centred ideas about sex. Terms like ‘anti-sex’ and ‘pearl-clutching’ do the same job today. The vocabulary has changed, but the framing is the same.

On some issues, feminists have succeeded in changing the frame. 50 years ago, for instance, you could be labelled ‘uptight’ for expressing concern about rape. Today you can disapprove of rape without being labelled ‘anti-sex’, because rape has been reframed as an act of violence rather than sex. But feminist criticisms of prostitution have not had the same impact. On this topic we still hear all the old arguments about men’s sexual needs, and even the claim that if prostituted women did not provide an ‘outlet’, the rest of the female population would be at greater risk of rape. We also hear a newer set of arguments about the ‘empowering’ nature of commercial sex work for women. Feminists who disagree are called ‘whorephobic’, and accused of denying other women agency and choice.

Of course, feminists have contested these arguments and accusations; they haven’t just retreated into silence. But Lakoff would say that engaging in debate with an opponent on their terms, using their preferred language, is a less effective strategy than redefining the issue in your own terms. If you want to change the picture, change the frame.

How have we come to this? 1

Yasmin Rehman reviews Christine Delphy’s Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror

The sociologist and theorist Christine Delphy has been one of the most influential figures in French feminism since the 1970s, when she was active in the Mouvement de libération des femmes (Women’s Liberation Movement), and co-founded the journal Nouvelles questions féministes with Simone de Beauvoir. Separate and Dominate is a collection of ten essays which she began writing in 1996. Originally published in French in 2008, this is the first English translation, and it contains an opening chapter written specifically for this volume.

I read the book in the midst of the fierce social media debate surrounding the Charlie Hebdo cartoon featuring Aylan Kurdi, in which those who criticised the satirical magazine for using an image of the dead toddler were accused of failing to understand satire and/or the French.[1]  I was aware that my own lack of inside knowledge might affect my understanding: Delphy makes repeated reference to details of French governance, political controversies and pieces of legislation with which I am unfamiliar. But the issues and arguments raised by the book—terrorism, racism and imperialism, identity—are relevant and timely for British readers too.

I’ve taken the title of my review from a question Christine Delphy herself asks (p.65), though it has also been asked by politicians and policy-makers, academics, community activists, faith leaders and others in different parts of the world. With each terror attack in the West and each new report of Western-born Muslims and/or converts travelling to join Daesh (ISIS), the inevitable question is: how have we come to this?

Delphy’s aim, which she sets out in the opening sentences of the book, is ‘to elaborate a materialist approach to not only oppression and marginalization, but also domination and normality’ (p.1). She explores the way social divisions and hierarchies are constructed, and focuses on ‘the oppression of women, of non-whites and of gays’, which ‘divide the whole of society into two categories, two camps …. the Ones and the Others’. Domination relies on classification and separation in order to exert and retain power. Her objective is to demonstrate that hatred of the Other is not a natural, human trait but is socially constructed through concrete material practices, including ideological and discursive ones. She is interested in the way dominance operates and is imposed by the Ones, contrasting this with the ‘psychic suffering’ of the Others.

This juxtaposition of the dominant and the dominated is thought-provoking and challenging, but there are problems with Delphy’s binary opposition. It ignores the diversity that exists within both groups, and particularly among the ‘Others’.

Delphy suggests that Muslims in France are a homogenous group originating from former French colonies. She does not make reference to minorities within oppressed groups, or acknowledge differing cultural traditions (the Pew Forum estimates that there are 4.7 million Muslims in France, and whilst most hail from North Africa, there are also hundreds of thousands from the Indian sub-continent, Turkey and elsewhere bringing with them their own diverse experiences of Islam). She also fails to distinguish between Muslims, Islam and Islamism. She does not discuss Islamism as a political movement which has spread through communities across the world, nor the opposition to Islamism that exists within the same communities. As Karima Bennoune observes, we rarely hear ‘the perspectives of secular people of Muslim heritage concerned with both rising fundamentalism and increasing discrimination against Muslims’.

In Britain since the ‘Rushdie affair’ in 1989 (when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses), there has been a shift away from identity categories based on racial, ethnic or national affiliation, and towards identities based on religious faith. South Asian communities in particular are now divided and identified along religious lines, and there has been a growing demand for more sensitivity to religious values, especially in the light of growing anti-Muslim racism. However, framing a feminist political response to these demands requires us, as Pragna Patel points out, to consider who defines ‘religious values’ and for what purpose.  Although Delphy discusses the war on terror and its impact on Muslims living in the West, she glosses over the conservative, fundamentalist forces which may be at work within these same Muslim minority communities.

To veil or not to veil

Very few issues attract as much attention or public discussion as the niqab or face veil. Is it a symbol of oppression or of minority women asserting their religious identity? In 2004, when France became the first country in Europe to introduce legislation banning the wearing of religious symbols in schools, the law was initially presented as a matter of laïcité (state secularism) and what it means to be French. This ban in schools was later extended to wearing of the hijab in public spaces in 2007. It was followed by a ban on face coverings in 2011 based on security concerns. Delphy puts these events in the context of increasing anti-Muslim racism and growing support for the far right in France. She argues that banning the veil will further marginalise and isolate the very women and girls the State says it wishes to protect.

Other feminists take an opposing view. Marième Hélie-Lucas, an Algerian living in France, argues that

When talking of veils in schools, one automatically refers to the veiling of under-aged girls, i.e. not the veiling of women. The question thus becomes: who is to decide on girls’ veiling—themselves or the adults who are in charge of them? And which adults? This point requires special consideration given the new trend to veil girls as young as 5 as shown in the numerous campaigns going on now throughout North Africa.

Hélie-Lucas locates the debate about the hijab/niqab within a context that once applied to FGM and forced marriage. She asks, who is the adult in charge of protecting the girl-child’s rights? The state already plays this role when it prevents families from performing FGM on girls, or subjecting them to forced marriages. Why should it not also take responsibility for preventing the deep psychological damage induced by wearing a veil before adulthood? Why should the state be seen as authoritarian when it prevents the veiling of girls but not when it protects them from FGM? In the 1970s in Europe and North America there were many on the Left, as well as some feminists, who defended FGM as a ’cultural right’ and denounced efforts to eradicate the practice in Europe as ‘western imperialism’. At no point was any reference made to the struggles of women on the ground to eradicate FGM in parts of Africa. We see the same pattern replicated regarding the ‘right to veil’, which is now seen as a ‘religious right’ despite the fact that numerous progressive interpreters of the Qur’an have stated that it is not an Islamic injunction.

Delphy accuses feminists who support the ban of failing Muslim women by supporting racist laws. She also criticises organisations like Ni Putes Ni Soumises (‘neither whores nor submissive women’), which was established by Fadela Amara—an activist with roots in the anti-racist organization SOS Racisme—to break the silence about violence against Muslim women in French immigrant communities. She commends the group for challenging sexism but accuses it of supporting a racist agenda in order to secure government funds (p.154). This attack on minority women makes me deeply uncomfortable. Delphy fails to recognise the very real risks minority women face when they challenge violence against women and girls and the power structures within their communities. Why should the government not fund organisations to protect those at risk of violence and abuse?

The veil is only the latest example of men in minority communities using the imposition of traditional/religious dress codes to control women and girls. Many South Asian women and girls have spoken in the past about being forced to wear shalwar kameez in order to maintain modesty and conform to community norms. Over the years schools in many areas adjusted their uniform policy to allow the wearing of trousers for girls and/or shalwar kameez in school colours. This accommodation to community dress code demands later incorporated the hijab/ headscarf, but not the face veil.

In 2002 Shabina Begum, a young Muslim girl, took legal action against her school for refusing her permission to wear the jilbab (full ankle-length dress). She claimed that this breached her human right to manifest her religion, and also her right to an education, since she was barred from the school unless she complied with its uniform policy. In 2006 the House of Lords delivered a judgement stating that Shabina’s rights had not been violated, and that any infringement was necessary and proportionate for the protection and well-being of the wider school community. The judges stated that school’s uniform policy already took account of ‘mainstream’ Muslim opinion.

According to Pragna Patel, this decision reflected an understanding of the political context: Shabina’s challenge had been motivated by the desire of others to impose a politicized religious identity on women and girls at the school. Shabina was represented by her older brother, who appeared to be part of an extreme Muslim political group. The group had protested outside the school—not against the uniform policy, but against the education of Muslim children in secular schools.

However, some feminists, like Maleiha Malik, criticised the judgement for failing to recognise that Shabina was exercising her autonomy by wearing the jilbab in an environment where Muslims are constantly demonised and discriminated against. Like Delphy, Malik located the debate primarily in relation to the issue of anti-Muslim racism. But what both overlook is that for a woman to wear the veil is not necessarily an act of individual agency, but is profoundly shaped by political processes that involve the privileging of a religious identity over others.

This is not to deny that Muslim women may wear the veil by choice. Muslim women themselves have talked about wearing the hijab or niqab as a visible symbol of their religious identity, or to protect themselves from male attention and aggression. As Mona Eltahawy says in her book Headscarves and Hymens,  the act of wearing the hijab is far from simple. But let us not forget that some Muslim women face violence and abuse for daring to challenge community norms justified by so-called codes of honour. Both Eltahawy and Aliyah Saleem, an ex-Muslim and former student at an Islamic school, have written about their experiences of being forced to wear the hijab. Aliyah has recently produced a series of videos discussing the challenges she faced when she decided to remove her hijab.

The veil continues to be a source of challenge in both Muslim majority and minority contexts. There is a long tradition of Muslim academics and theologians offering feminist interpretations of Qur’anic verses including references to the veil. The late Fatima Mernissi, a leading Moroccan sociologist and feminist, Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian American scholar, and Amina Wadud are among the women who have argued that the Qur’an prescribes modesty, and not specifically veiling. Delphy, however, makes no reference to these arguments.

Racism, Identity and the War on Terror

Like the debate on the hijab, discussions of the ‘war on terror’ are polarised, with neither side moving towards the other. Are there only two positions? Must we either support the war on terror and recognise the Islamist threat, or else maintain that the war on terror is a war against Islam and an excuse to demonize Muslims?

It would appear that the French Left, like its British equivalent, views terrorism as the result of imperialist interventions in Iraq and elsewhere, or as a result of earlier injustices during the period of colonial rule. Yet the first of these arguments seems unconvincing in relation to France, which opposed the war in Iraq but has still seen terror unleashed on the streets of Paris. If we accept the argument that terrorism and violence are a response to the West’s attacks on Muslims, then as a strategy I would argue it has failed spectacularly. Every act of terrorism, from the bombings of American targets in the 1980s and 1990s to the recent killings in Paris and Brussels, has prompted increased military action by the West and its allies, resulting in further loss of Muslim lives. In the West it has led to increased surveillance of Muslims, fuelled the growth of anti-Muslim racism and promoted the rise of the far Right.

In the context of increasing anti-Muslim hatred and discrimination it is incredibly difficult to raise concerns about political Islamist movements, violations of human rights by Islamists or the oppression of Muslim women, without feeding an anti-Muslim discourse. In Double Bind: the Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Right and Universal Human Rights, Meredith Tax asks:

When US diplomats invoke the oppression of Muslim women to sanctify war, how do we practice feminist solidarity without strengthening Orientalism and neo-colonialism? When the US targets jihadis for assassination by drone, should human rights defenders worry about violations perpetrated those same jihadis or focus on violations by the State?

Conversely, how does one raise the points discussed by Delphy with regard to the war on terror, drone strikes, Guantanamo, and the denial of any discussion about the real or perceived causes for terrorism, without feeding the Islamist agenda and reinforcing the Muslim victim narrative?

In her discussion of Guantanamo Bay, Delphy is right to denounce the utter lack of due process and the incarceration of prisoners without charge, but I disagree with her claim that ‘their only crime is to be of Arab origin or Muslim faith’. The reality is more complex: it is possible to be both a victim of injustice and a supporter of terrorism. Delphy’s portrayal of French Muslims as passive victims of discrimination and prejudice—the Others dominated by the Ones—repeats the very same argument propagated by Islamists. It could be asked whether this helps to give credibility to the Islamist narrative—a narrative which is strongly contested in Muslim majority countries, as Karima Bennoune and others have shown.

Delphy identifies the centrality of racism to a construction of Muslim Others as backward, patriarchal and oppressive. That racism is fuelled on a daily basis by media portrayals of Muslims as oppressed women, rapists, terrorists, child abusers, illegal immigrants and benefits cheats. However, it is also unhelpful to deny that some people in Muslim communities do fall into those categories. To move forward, we need a more open and honest debate, including women and men, those of faith and of no faith, whites and non-whites, gay and straight people and all minority groups. We should heed the call to action with which Separate and Dominate ends:

We all need to revisit our way of thinking about the articulation and imbrication of patriarchy and racism, as well as the way we ‘do’ activism. The feminist movement cannot survive unless it becomes truly universal, taking all women, all their situations and all their revolts into account.


[1]  The cartoon shows Aylan Kurdi – the child whose picture, lying face down on a beach, highlighted the refugee crisis – with a message “What would have happened to little Aylan if he grew up?” The answer, “A groper of women in Germany.” Under the headline “Migrants”, the cartoon shows two men with their tongues out and arms outstretched running behind a woman. It clearly alludes to the recent incident in Cologne, Germany where mass sexual assaults were reported on New Year’s Eve, allegedly perpetrated by refugees.


Christine Delphy, Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror,  translated by David Broder, published by Verso Books, 2015.

Find Yasmin Rehman on Twitter @RehmanYasmin



Party Lines

With elections coming up in May this year, Holly Dustin gives us a briefing on what the Women’s Equality Party is all about.

Without a doubt, the British political landscape has shifted significantly since I was trudging through a Politics degree at the University of Nottingham 25 years ago. It was, in some ways, a simpler time for those of us interested in who has power and what they do with it. Margaret Thatcher was still in office (until 1990), and you were either for her or against her. Nelson Mandela was still in prison on Robben Island and the Cold War dominated geo-politics. You voted in elections and in between time you could make your voice heard by going on a demo or wearing a t-shirt (I did both). There were no smartphones, no epetitions, no Facebook likes, and definitely no lobbying your MP on twitter.

There were few women in Parliament then and Thatcher, known for ‘pulling the ladder up behind her’, only ever promoted one woman, Baroness Young, to her Cabinet in all eleven years of her premiership. The Politics Department at Nottingham was an all-male affair too (my memory is of a micro-Cold War between the Thatcher supporting majority and Marxist minority). Politics (capital P) was black and white, and did not appear to include feminism.

Twenty five years later we can say for sure that British politics is less blokey, though still too white and male with only 29% of MPs being women and less than 7% of MPs being from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, and there is a new wave of feminist activism both in Parliament and outside it. Furthermore, British politics is fragmenting; the three-party system is breaking up with the collapse of the Lib Dems in Parliament and the rise of Nationalists around the UK. and smaller parties, such as UKIP and the Greens, gaining electoral support even if first-past-the-post means that support doesn’t translate into seats.

WE: the beginning

Emerging onto this new political terrain is the Women’s Equality Party (or WE as they prefer), led by journalist Sophie Walker and forming in the blink of an eye from an idea discussed by her fellow journalist Catherine Mayer and BBC presenter Sandi Toksvig in March 2015 (it was registered with the Electoral Commission by July). A political party with the sole purpose of advancing women’s equality would have been unimaginable to my teenage self and it is, of course, no coincidence that it has happened at this juncture of a surge in feminist activism and the breakdown of traditional party politics. Indeed, UKIP, which has pulled mainstream parties to the right on immigration and forced a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, are constantly referenced in discussions about WE. Unlike UKIP, WE say they want to be put out of business.

Having been to an early public meeting at London’s Southbank Centre in March 2015, one of the things that struck me was the name and framing. It was decided early that it would be the Women’s Equality Party not, for example, the Feminist Party as in Sweden (Feminist Initiative), and, whilst the F word is used liberally by Walker in media interviews, it is absent from the official Party blurb. This may be intentional in order to make the Party more palatable for those who feel they can sign up to women’s equality but not feminism (see recent Fawcett research on this) and to attract a membership that can potentially be drawn from the whole population. The strong message is that the Party is for both women and men, and that men will benefit from a more equal world for women (which they will, of course, but will also have to give up their social, economic and political privileges along the way.)

WE quickly made a splash when it launched, securing media attention well before it had a set of policies. It attracted many thousands of members before anyone really knew what they were signing up to beyond the concept of ‘women’s equality’ and ‘more women in parliament’. It already has over 70 local branches across the UK and a membership of more than 45,000 (as of October 2015). This in itself suggests a huge appetite for something more inclusive to women, less traditional and less alienating than the usual political fare. Hardly surprising when there are no female party leaders sitting in the House of Commons and Westminster politics looks increasingly stale and out of date when compared to the rest of the UK, especially Scotland where women head up the Scottish Government and lead the three largest parties.

WE policies

After considerable work by themed committees, WE launched its policies across six areas in October 2015. These are; equal representation in politics and business, equal pay, equal parenting, equality in education, equal treatment of women in the media, an end to violence against women. With violence against women and girls (VAWG), the area with which I am most familiar, there are a range of strong policy positions, including scrapping the married couple’s allowance and shifting £800m of savings to legal aid and specialist support for women experiencing domestic and sexual violence. WE has also come out in support of the Nordic model of tackling the harms of prostitution whereby the selling of sex is decriminalised and the buying of sex is criminalised.

Rightly, WE aims to be ‘transformative’ but it does not yet have transformative policies in place. Party leaders have said that its remit is narrow and that WE candidates will be required to sign up to its core policies but free to hold positions on other issues. This seems to me to be unsustainable in the long run (and, sadly, I think we will need WE in the long run). In the first instance, it is unhelpful, not to say inaccurate, to send a message that women’s equality is a narrow issue, limited to six policy areas, not least when two of the biggest priorities for voters, the economy and foreign policy, are not amongst the six. Indeed, Walker herself has written coherently about sexual violence in conflict and the disproportionate impact on women of war in relation to Britain’s participation in military action in Syria and the refugee crisis in Europe. Likewise, it is difficult to justify not having a comprehensive economic policy when, a) it is the government’s top priority and b) the mainstream media and main political parties in Westminster routinely overlook the disproportionate impact of austerity measures on women and women’s poverty meaning that WE could have a real influence in the debate here.

Secondly, the positions of candidates on other policy areas might well conflict with the Party’s core policies. For example, immigration, also a top concern for voters, is not one of WE’s six policy areas and yet immigration policy has a real impact on the safety and equality of migrant and refugee women in the UK (and outside it). A WE candidate could conceivably find themselves in the position of supporting certain immigration policies that conflicted with WE policy and aims.

The policy-making process itself raised issues for me. Whilst there was a laudable intent to create policy from the grassroots up, such consultations have of course been carried out by other parties for many years so there is a risk of reinventing the wheel. For example, in relation to violence against women and girls, experts in the sector worked together for years to secure a cross party-commitment to a VAWG strategy in Westminster which the then Labour Government published in 2009. This was followed by the Coalition Government publishing its own Strategy in 2010 and a refreshed strategy is promised by the current Conservative Government this year. At a time when child sexual abuse and exploitation dominates the news headlines, this work continues to be championed by the Home Secretary and there is considerable engagement with the sector. The Strategy is far from perfect, but I would have preferred to see WE review and consult upon what is already in place and work with experts and specialist women’s services to improve it. Starting from scratch risked appearing to erase the hard work of the women’s sector, and indeed women in other parties, in getting government and other parties to the place they are. Hardly the collaborative approach WE espouse.

The Party has said that it wishes to appeal across the political spectrum and that it is non-partisan but I am not quite sure what this means in practice other than it does not accept the labels ‘left’ or ‘right’; mainstream parties are normally pretty happy to welcome defectors from other parties, and WE themselves have already shown that they are not above taking a well-deserved pop at other parties (see, for example, Walker’s astute dismissal of Jeremy Corbyn’s consideration of women- only train carriages to deal with sexual harassment).

Furthermore, whilst Party leaders consistently say that representation in politics matters and has an impact, the dominant image we have through the mainstream media (it may be different at meetings) is of a highly intelligent, but narrowly drawn group of women. The Party will be conscious that it will be under the spotlight on diversity, particularly now as it is selecting its candidates for elections this May for the London Mayor, London and Welsh Assemblies and Scottish Parliament.

These are all serious issues for the Party to address. However, when I look at the balance sheet I can’t help but think that WE is, overall, a pretty good thing, especially in a macho Westminster context. On the plus side, WE are very media savvy, as you would expect. Walker, Toksvig and Mayer are regularly quoted and interviewed, Walker in particular has commented on a range of subjects from the ‘tampon tax’ to the proposed removal of feminism from the school syllabus. The website is appealing and social media activity is engaging, including from local branches which sprang up with impressive speed. Bearing in mind that only a quarter of candidates who ran in the General Election in 2015 were women, WE’s application process for becoming a candidate in this May’s elections looked refreshingly accessible and welcoming, and included four days of free childcare.

What can WE do?

WE have been criticised for focusing on women’s representation as an end in itself (it supports quotas for the next two General Elections to herald in 50/50 representation in the House of Commons). I think this criticism is misplaced. If WE can help secure concrete shifts in the political representation of women of all backgrounds and fast forward us to a time when the insults ‘Blair’s Babes’ and ‘Cameron’s Cuties’ are no longer misogynistic currency it will have been worth it in my book. In fact, we know from past experience that significantly increased numbers of women has a direct impact on law and policy-making. When Labour used all-women-shortlists for the 1997 General Election there was a huge increase in women MPs, mostly Labour, and there followed a raft of policies on issues ranging from domestic violence and childcare to equality legislation.

Of course, without quotas, our First-past-the-post system for elections to the House of Commons is a barrier to WE winning seats but it is surely not impossible, as some argue, that one or two high profile candidates might win seats in 2020 if they have made progress in electoral support between now and then? And, as Caroline Lucas has shown for the Greens, one high profile MP can secure a lot of attention for the Party. The criticism that WE will split the progressive vote if they target seats where the sitting candidate does not support women’s equality is clearly a risk, especially in Westminster elections, but as WE say, nobody owns the votes of progressives.

I also believe that WE could have a strategic role in setting the standard for other parties on specific issues, as it has on tackling the harms of the prostitution industry where its support of the Nordic model sends a powerful message about the need to entirely transform gender relations including ending men’s right to buy women’s bodies. It is a controversial policy though and spokespeople will need to be confident in making connections with other areas of inequality including poverty, racism and sexualized sexism in the media. Likewise, WE will need to be astute in the positions it takes and arguments it makes about discrimination, harassment and violence towards trans women and men. These are important issues but they are currently at risk of being subsumed by calls for changes in equality laws and policies which would threaten specialist women’s support services and undermine monitoring of sex discrimination. It is a rocky time for feminist politics and debate with deep splits on these increasingly dominant issues and WE’s approach will be critical.

Britain has not had a female Prime Minister since 1990 and there has never been a permanent female leader of the Labour Party. The current Conservative and Labour leaders in Westminster are unable to shake off the perception that they struggle with women’s equality and endless scandals attest to a deeply ingrained culture of sexism across the political spectrum. It is a shameful state of affairs to be in in the 21st century.

So whilst we debate WE’s politics, whether to join and shape it from the inside, challenge from the outside, or even be inspired by it to set up our own feminist party, I believe that WE has a real contribution to make both to British politics and to women’s equality in Britain.

Holly Dustin is former Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition and co-Founder of the Centre for Gender Equal Media. @HDbrighton


Catherine Mayer of WE responds….

Dear Holly,

I’ve closely read your piece on the Women’s Equality Party in order to give you the thoughtful response your own thoughtfulness deserves. You and I agree on much, not least on the urgent need for this party. One of our founding aims is to galvanise older parties into recognising and fixing their own failings on gender equality. In the same spirit I’m happy to learn from you—and there’s much to learn. There’s nothing like doing politics for real to understand the huge obstacles to transformational politics. The costs of politics are ludicrous and anti-democratic; the bureaucracy is stultifying; the electoral system is designed for stability but instead does a really good job of blocking change.

In spite of that, as you point out, the Women’s Equality Party continues to grow and flourish. WE are running candidates in the London mayoral and GLA elections, and for the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament. WE have 45,000 members and supporters and more than 70 branches, all of this from an impulse less than a year ago, on March 2 2015, when I stood up at the WOW Festival and said maybe a women’s equality party was needed.

That’s the name I used right from the outset, and the name we debated at the very first meeting you attended later the same month. As you’ll remember, quite a few people argued we should drop the word “women” in order to widen our appeal. Others argued we should drop the word “women” because they believe gender equality can only be achieved in lockstep with other forms of equality, by dismantling all existing power structures.

You make the point that we don’t call ourselves a “feminist” party. I am a feminist. You’re also correct that WE believe men essential to achieving gender equality. WE need men—their votes, their money (please!), and yes, their perspectives. WE aim to be inclusive and diverse as a party and a movement, not just to advocate for inclusivity and diversity. Yet if a fear of alienating men had guided our decision not to call the party “feminist”, I’d also have shied away from the word “women”. I am confident that WE will resonate with men—and men are joining in substantial numbers—because gender equality is better for the vast majority of men than the current status quo. You mention that gender equality means men have “to give up their social, economic and political privileges”, but more gender equal countries have lower rates of depression and divorce, higher rates of well-being and enjoy enhanced economic growth.

The reason we’re called the Women’s Equality Party is because women are a little over half the world’s population and yet nowhere on the planet are we on an equal footing to men. It seemed to me from the beginning as it does now that the name of the party should proclaim unapologetically and unequivocally our overarching aim. It’s not just that “equality” is too huge a term to avoid ruckuses about whose equality we might mean. It’s not just that there are already parties of the left making the wider argument for equality—while often doing too little to practice what they preach within their own parties. If only I had £1 for every woman I’ve seen undervalued and overlooked by so-called progressives, or told to get in the queue behind other “interest groups”… I’d give it straight to WE.

I’m an intersectional feminist and have always been of the left, but I long ago lost faith in the parties of the left to deliver gender equality without external help—or pressure—to concentrate minds. I also do not believe the left exclusively owns gender equality or can deliver it without support of the centre and centre right. When I conceived the Women’s Equality Party as a non-partisan party, I freely admit that I was thinking to some extent in strategic terms. Just as we need men to vote for change, so we need the broadest spectrum of support possible. I made efforts from the start to build political diversity into the organisation along with other kinds of diversity. But the party model also reflected my growing conviction that urgent action was needed to re-engage the people who voted at the last election while holding their noses, turned off by all the political parties, or who chose populist parties not because they really supported them but to protest, or who didn’t vote at all. Nine million women and eight million men stayed home at the general election last year.

These people were turned off by the sense that none of the parties represented them. They were turned off by the political culture that put party interests and, in David Cameron’s phrase “Punch and Judy politics”, before national interests—and you and I both know that improving gender equality could not be more firmly in the national interest. They were turned off by seeing parties pay lip service to promoting women—all the main parties are in theory signed up to gender equality—but somehow not quite managing to do so. These people, switched off by traditional politics, have fuelled the growth of WE. Although many of our members are also members of the older parties, the biggest single group are regular voters who have never before felt moved to join a political party.

You worry that our model is unsustainable and that our policies are not sufficiently transformational, because in your view creating a party around six core objectives (equal representation, equal pay, shared parenting and caregiving, equal education, equal treatment by and in the media and an end to violence against women and girls) is too narrow. Well I don’t think the party would now be thriving as it is if we lacked clarity and focus. The older parties have competing priorities and gender equality too often takes a backseat.

At the same time I dispute that ours is a narrow remit. On the contrary, each of those six objectives covers huge and interlocking areas of policy, foremost amongst them the economy, health and an internationalist outlook. WE’ve approached the migration debate in a way that highlights the vulnerability of female migrants, too often ignored in the clamour. The starting point for any economic debate is the disparity that sees women on average poorer than men, in lower paid jobs if employed, carrying out far more unpaid caregiving work and therefore more vulnerable than men to a tightening of public finances. These are realities all the big parties regularly ignore.

Our first policy document, published in October, not even three full months after we registered with the Electoral Commission, contains practical policies to fix these imbalances that all the big parties should be able to sign up to. Most of them don’t even cost anything or are funded by better deploying existing budgets. Policies are transformational only if implemented.

The document is an amazingly strong piece of work because of your input and the input of many other people like you who helped funnel time and expertise into formulating the policies. It was to avoid reinventing the wheel that we consulted as widely as we did—and indeed took on board the existing VAWG strategies of other parties and organisations. But WE aim to be a forum for voices that find it hard to make themselves heard in traditional political cultures so we also reached out to our activists and asked them to reach out further still.

It was particularly important to do this because we are so new. The core group that got this thing up and running had to build structures for internal democracy and then adapt them and adapt them again to keep up with the crazy speed of the party’s growth, from kitchen table to full-on campaigning organisation. WE are looking forward to holding our first party conference later this year and to ever-more collaborative decision-making taking in an ever-wider range of views and experiences. Our members will ultimately decide our policies and the scope of our remit.

In selecting our candidates for the May elections we not only deployed the wisdom of our branches in the shortlisting process but also enabled members to decide the outcome in a free vote. The turnout was very high indeed. And as you’ll have seen, we now have an exceptionally strong list of candidates. That list is also pleasingly diverse though there are some protected categories that we would want to see better represented in future elections. We wished to take positive action to ensure diversity and discovered that the laws to protect against discrimination also prohibit a new party such as ourselves from doing so. However that list goes some way to answering your concern that the party is formed by “a narrowly drawn group of women”. WE have worked and will continue to work very hard to broaden and open and extend, to all backgrounds and economic groups. The hardest to reach are those most in need of being reached—and listened to—people working several poorly paid jobs in order to survive, and people who have no work at all, people who are marginalised, exhausted and excluded.

Incidentally I’m not surprised that you assumed WE to be a bit of a clique. The meeting you attended in March 2015, a few weeks after I first proposed the idea of the party, drew heavily on my personal networks, though it did attract you and quite a few other participants I didn’t yet know. WE had to start somewhere. The whole thing was organised via a Facebook page I set up without any firm expectations that anyone at all would come. As you’ll recall, about 250 people crowded into the room.

The reason the Women’s Equality Party has grown so fast and diversified far, far beyond my friends and friends of friends and their networks is that WE speak to a conviction, a passion, an impatience: to get on with making gender equality a reality. You and I share that conviction, passion and impatience. I hugely appreciate your help and advice and I look forward to continuing the debate.

Yours in gratitude,


Catherine Mayer is a journalist and one of the co-founders of the Women’s Equality Party. @catherine_mayer