Barking Back: New Labour, No Feminism?

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 35, Summer 1997.

Has something got right up your nose recently? Have you a bone to pick or an issue you want to chew over? This is a space in T&S where women (under an assumed name if necessary) are invited to bark back at the annoyances which dog radical feminists. This can be a brief yap or an extended growl, on any subject of concern to radical feminists. Here Debbie Camerontakes a pooper-scooper to nonsensical rhetoric about women in Parliament.

Since the Labour landslide victory in the general election of May 1, we’ve been hearing inces­santly what a triumph the result is for women and for feminism. One hundred and nineteen—count’em!—women MPs; an all time record in this country.

Kamlesh Bahl of the Equal Opportunities Commission called it ‘an historic day for women’. And I suppose it is: a landmark in the history of British democracy, or at least a staging post, given that 119 women MPs still falls well short of 50 per cent of the total. Whether it’s a landmark in the history of feminism remains to be seen, however. I am not holding my breath—though I did draw it in quite sharply when I read some of the sexist drivel that passed for commentary on the subject.

Plumbing the depths

It’s predictable the tabloids should have coined the phrase ‘Blair’s babes’ to describe the 101 Labour women now in Parliament, but the line taken by the so-called quality press has been rather more surprising. A report in the Observer newspaper (May 4), for example, solemnly told us—and it wasn’t untypical—that ‘Westminster will be less of a bear garden with 119 women’. Ah yes, the men will have to mind their manners when there are ladies around.

The report went on to suggest that the most obvious impact would be, quote, ‘visual’: ‘instead of grey suits and grey hair there will be colour’. It’s news to me that women are exempt from the ageing process that turns your hair grey (or perhaps Peter Mandelson has made Grecian 2000 mandatory). I bet some of them will wear grey suits as well, though in photos so far they have tended to go for power-dressed red. But frankly, who cares what they look like? The impression this ‘news’ report gives is that the main role of women at Westminster will be to civilise the place and make it look a bit more decorative. Since that was considered to be the role of women long before we got the vote, it makes you wonder why the suffragettes bothered.

It is a truism that where there are ‘ladies’, lavatories cannot be far behind. And sure enough, national newspapers have worried at inordinate length about where Westminster’s new women are going to pee. This takes me back 20 years to the good old days of discus­sions about the Sex Discrimination Act, when every proposal to give women access to this or that male bastion was accompanied by ritual cries of ‘but what about the toilets?’. As late as 1982 I knew a woman at Oxford University for whom a college actually had to build a toilet, which was then trumpeted—not inaccurately, I fear—as the high point of its equal opportunities policy. I’m not denying that an absence of sanitary facilities in your place of work is a major irritation and a symbolic mark of your exclusion, but on this ‘historic day for women’ would it not be appropriate to lift our eyes for one moment from the matter of the plumbing arrangements?

Wet, wet, wet

If it was only the papers, I suppose you could metaphorically cross your legs and try to ignore the discomfort. Unfortunately, some of the women MPs themselves have joined eagerly in the chorus of banalities. Julia Drown, MP for Swindon South, said: ‘Women are more co-operative in the way they work. They’re not so into scoring points, and more interested in hearing different points of view’. And according to Gisela Stuart of Edgbaston: ‘What we will do is make politics more relevant to people’s lives. Democracy is about consensus rather than imposing will’. In other words, women are keener on consensus than men; henceforth, their presence in numbers will make the House of Commons a kinder, gentler place.

This seems a bit strange when you consider who was the most famous woman MP of the previous two decades. Margaret Thatcher was no more a consensus politician than John Major was a great orator. It all brings to mind that most annoying of pseudo-feminist (post-feminist?) cliches: ‘of course you can be a brain surgeon/welder/ member of Parliament, but it doesn’t mean you have to lose your femininity’.

Some of the new women MPs have declined invitations from journalists to parrot sweeping generalisations, urging caution instead. Usually however this is either because they don’t want to be labelled feminists, or for reasons which are so wetly liberal they drip. Yvette Cooper, for example, told a journalist that ‘all-male workplaces are unhealthy. But the Commons would be just as bad if it were all women. We need a balance. That is especially important now, when some of the most pressing issues facing us are about men—such as male unem­ployment’.

This kind of language—are all-male workplaces really best described as ‘unhealthy’ (for whom?), or might ‘discriminatory’ be a better word?—gives some credence to a remark made by Germaine Greer, who argued in a newspaper opinion piece that since the new intake of Labour women mainly owed their positions to Blairite patronage—often overriding the wishes of local constituencies—they would prove to be even more docile lobby-fodder than the men. Germaine Greer predicted that Labour women would refuse to join a women’s caucus ‘on the convenient ground that it would be sexist to form one’.

Anyone who thinks, like Yvette Cooper, that issues like male unemployment are simply ‘about men’ clearly hasn’t got a clue about feminism as a political analysis. On one hand, male unemployment is not just about men; the economic changes which are causing men’s traditional jobs to disappear have huge impli­cations (some of them, from a feminist view­point, potentially positive) for the way we conceptualise the family and for the balance of power between women and men. On the other hand, many of the most pressing issues facing feminists have always been ‘about men’ (their power, their privilege, the way they abuse those things). If we had looked for a ‘balance’ of male and female opinion on subjects like rape, domestic violence, equal pay and reproductive rights we would not have made much progress.

The ‘we need a balance’ comment also implies that women—and men—are somehow all the same as each other; as though a women’s caucus consisting of, say, Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman, Ann Widdecombe and Virginia Bottomley would be essentially no different from one consisting of Diane Abbott, Tessa Jowell and Clare Short. I’m sure Yvette Cooper doesn’t think the House of Commons should be ‘balanced’ in terms of members’ views on monetarism, immigration and capital punish­ment; I imagine she would find even one fascist in the House ‘unhealthy’. But when it comes to gender, somehow the question is not what our representatives believe or how they act, but simply how many of each sex we’ve elected; how many women, not how many feminists.

Modernisation v. feminism

The other theme Labour women have harped on is ‘modernisation’. Julia Drown declared in The Guardian, ‘it’s time to modernise Westminster’, and a number of candidates interviewed before the election by (oddly) the upper class glossy mag Harper’s and Queen made the same point: that putting more women in the House of Commons brings it up to date, rather like hooking up MPs’ offices to the internet. Women also function a symbol of the modernising of Tony Blair’s ‘New’ Labour, like the red rose logo or the decision to use people’s first names rather than titles at Cabinet meetings.

In the first week of the new administration, most newspapers printed a publicity shot of a smiling Tony Blair surrounded by his new female colleagues, most of whom appeared to be gazing at their leader with something approach­ing adoration. Handmaids of the Lord? Even if that’s a bit over the top, the carefully-staged photo opportunity was, like a lot of the election campaign that preceded it, all image and no substance. What it said to me was that although more than 100 women cannot be considered tokens, they can still be used merely as symbols, representing not women’s revolution but Blair’s.

As with claims about ‘an historic day for women’, there is doubtless some truth in the idea that the advent of a large number of women will help to ‘modernise’ the institutions of government, making the Palace of Westminster operate less like a gentleman’s club. But I do get a bit impatient when sexism (a word seldom on the lips of the women MPs who have been quoted in the media) is talked about as if it were an archaic remnant of a past age, and capable of being swept away by the mere presence of women. (Worse still is the idea that women’s presence is proof that sexism no longer exists.)

The sexism that continues to afflict half of every MP’s constituency is not going to be swept away because Westminster gets a creche, a unisex hairdresser, more women’s toilets and a less ‘gladiatorial’ style of debate. My question is, what will this more woman-friendly Parlia­ment actually deliver for women in the country at large? And the answer that leaps to mind is nothing much, unless at least some of them are prepared to use the f-word and organise so that women make a difference, not only to the conduct of politics but to its agenda.

What have you done for us lately?

When I lived in the US, a feature of their legislative process I found interesting was the way women representatives, both in state and federal assemblies, would caucus across party lines to get so-called ‘women’s issues’ on the statute books and to oppose initiatives that were clearly detrimental to women’s interests (such as laws restricting abortion). One of the best-selling women’s monthly magazines in the US, Glamour, has for several years run a regular monthly column titled ‘what have they done for us lately?’ in which the efforts of women legislators on women’s behalf are listed. There’s a real sense among the kind of fairly mainstream women who read Glamour that women in the Senate and Congress are in some sense their representatives, and should be held to account as such.

With a massively increased number of women in Parliament now, I hope that we in Britain will quickly learn to feel, and act, in a similar way. I don’t expect to see cross-party alliances of the American kind, since there are still major ideological differences between the two main parties. But the enormous majority now enjoyed by the Labour party puts its women MPs in a position to act as an effective caucus if they choose to do so.

Assuming that at least some of them do have some kind of feminist commitment, the first thing they need to do is wake up to the fact that their leader and his government are not going to take the feminist initiative for them. Everyone agrees that the new administration has done a startling amount in its first days and weeks; some of the initiatives they have announced (e.g. banning landmines, signing the social chapter, ending the jailing of fine defaulters and probably banning handguns) will doubtless meet with feminist approval. But this government which announces a dozen new policies every day has had little or nothing to say on most of the specific issues feminists campaign actively on.

Home Secretary Jack Straw has spoken about alcopops and curfews on children, but not about the under-provision of refuge places or measures to tackle the huge attrition rate in rape cases. More depressingly, we’ve heard barely a squeak out of our minister for women Harriet Harman. The main thing she has said about women is that single parents (read, mothers) will be helped (read, coerced) to take up waged work. When she said this, Harriet Harman was wearing her other, more important hat as social security minister. A number of women (often identifying themselves as single, full-time carers for their children) wrote to newspapers pointing out the apparent conflict between the minister’s two roles. How can she defend women’s interests while simultaneously presiding over a welfare state that discriminates against them, and fully intends to intensify that discrimination in order to reduce the amount spent on state benefits?

Another worrying sign is that Tony Blair is importing all kinds of outsiders—people no-one has elected—to oversee key policies like the minimum wage. Most of these people come from business, and all the high-profile ones are men. If the women who we did elect are not to be sidelined, they are going to have to find a voice and make some noise.

Sugar and spice and all things nice?

I don’t want to be churlish: in some ways it is an obvious advance for women to have 119 women MPs at Westminster. Then again, in some ways it was an advance for women when Margaret Thatcher became, first leader of her party, and then Prime Minister. Mrs Thatcher was no feminist and she did nothing to advance women’s cause, but her example showed that a woman could wield power at the highest level.

That, in a nutshell, is what I want to hear more about: women MPs recognising their power and accepting a responsibility to use it for something. Not all of them will want to use it for feminist ends, and to the extent that Parlia­ment is meant to be a representative body that seems fair enough. All women are not feminists, either inside or outside the Palace of West­minster. But what I really can’t stand is all the oh-so-feminine disclaimers that women could actually want power (as opposed to consensus and efficient modern management); and I swear I will throw up if I hear one more woman repeating that our unique contribution to politics is niceness.

The waffle we’ve heard from media commentators and women MPs alike reminds me of another contemporary phenomenon which is all image and no substance: the ‘girl power’ touted by the Spice Girls. Sugar and spice and all things nice is not what I want from women politicians. I want them to make a difference to women’s lives. I want them to make trouble. And I want us to make trouble if they don’t.

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