New article: the return of the female serial killer

In February 2014, a judge at the Old Bailey sentenced Joanna Dennehy to a whole-life prison term after she pleaded guilty to three murders and two attempted murders. Dennehy has now joined the select canon of ‘female serial killers’–in Britain its only other members are Myra Hindley and Rose West. But Joanna Dennehy’s story is different, not least because all her victims were men. The media reporting was confused and contradictory; here Debbie Cameron offers an alternative feminist analysis.

Setting the terms 1

Delilah Campbell ponders Facebook’s new approach to gender

Heinz comes in 57 varieties, grey comes in fifty shades, and gender, according to Facebook, now comes in 51 different forms. The social media giant announced this month that in future, account-holders (at least, those whose language is English) will be able to choose from a menu of 51 terms describing gender identification. Subscribers in the US can already access the new options, which include ‘androgynous’, ‘bigender’, ‘genderfluid’ and ‘intersex’ as well as the more predictable ‘trans’, ‘trans*’, ‘transsexual’ and ‘man’/‘woman’ prefaced by ‘trans’ or ‘cis’.

Cartoon by Cath Jackson - 57 varieties of Facebook genderThis move towards greater diversity and inclusiveness has been hailed as—in the words of one source quoted by the Independent ‘a milestone step to allow countless people to more honestly and accurately represent themselves’. This speaker, described as a ‘human rights activist’, went on to express the hope that others would emulate the example set by Facebook in ‘supporting individuals’ multifaceted identities’.

I will pass over the question of what ‘supporting individuals’ multifaceted identities’ has to do with human rights, and ask instead if Facebook’s policy, overall, would actually qualify as ‘supporting individuals’ multifaceted identities’. To describe identity as ‘multifaceted’ is to acknowledge that gender is only one element of it, and that others are in principle no less important. But Facebook profiles are not constructed on that principle. Gender is the only personal characteristic that has to be specified explicitly, and displayed publicly, on a Facebook page. You do have to give your birthdate, but you can choose to keep it hidden. You are not asked to select a category from a menu of ethnic labels, or social class labels, though ethnicity and class are also facets of identity; and displaying your educational or relationship status is optional rather than compulsory. So, it’s hard to see the new policy as a sign of Facebook’s commitment to making users’ profiles more fully reflective of their multifaceted identities. It’s more a manifestation of the contemporary obsession with gender identity, gender categories and gender distinctions.

It’s also an illustration of another contemporary phenomenon, the power of the drop-down menu. In a world where we are constantly required to fill in online forms, where you can only proceed to the next screen if you click on one of the options provided (not several, not none, not an alternative of your own devising), there is a tendency to take those options as a map of reality. Like the boundaries marked on an actual map, the lines they draw between this category and that become reified, treated as objective facts to which we must try to fit our own subjective experience.

Facebook’s 51 gender labels are a case in point. There is nothing objective about them: they don’t represent a single conceptual scheme or comprise a scientific taxonomy, they just reproduce as many terms as the designers could think of which are currently used by some subset of English-speakers to describe some kind of non-traditional orientation to the traditional male/female binary. The glossaries which various ‘experts’ have hastily produced to explain them suggest that many of the new categories overlap or duplicate one another: ‘androgynous’, ‘bigender’ and ‘genderfluid’, for instance, all denote an identification with both masculinity and femininity. But once they appear as discrete options in a drop-down menu, there’s a good chance people will treat them as definitive, and if necessary create the semantic distinctions that are needed to make them coherent. Just as having the choice of ‘Miss’ ‘Mrs’ and ‘Ms’ has persuaded many English-speakers that ‘Ms’ must denote a distinct category of ‘others’ (older unmarried women, divorced women and lesbians) rather than subsuming (as it was meant to) the previous, marital status-based categories, so asking people to choose between ‘genderfluid’ and ‘bigender’ will prompt them to invent criteria for distinguishing the two. Meanwhile, some people will inevitably feel that the available options exclude them, or fail to represent them fully, and will lobby for new ones to be added. As if any nomenclature, however many terms it included, could possibly capture all the nuances of our lived and felt experience.

Facebook’s new nomenclature certainly doesn’t work for me, because it presupposes that there must be some form of gender that I feel a positive identification with. In fact, as a radical materialist feminist my position is that gender, like ‘race’ and class, is essentially a system of domination and subordination, and as such I am politically opposed to it. While I acknowledge its existence as a material social fact, and accept that it has shaped my own experience and sense of self, I do not identify positively with any form of gender, either actual or imaginable. Being willing to call myself a woman (again, in recognition of a material social fact) does not mean I have a positive identification with femininity. My relationship to both femininity and masculinity is entirely negative. Facebook doesn’t provide any terminology with which I could ‘honestly and accurately represent’ that position. It allows me to list my gender as ‘neither’, or the more arcane ‘neutrois’ (glossed as ‘people who do not identify within the binary gender system’), but the problem with those terms (also ‘gender non-conforming’ and ‘gender variant’) is that in this scheme they all denote identities: they define you as a certain kind of person, rather than as a person (of any kind) who takes a certain political stance.

Though from my point of view Facebook’s approach to gender is more or less apolitical, the company evidently wants to be seen as a champion of progressive attitudes. The spokesperson quoted in the Independent presented the new policy as part of the company’s commitment to equality and diversity, as well as a sign of its openness to concerns expressed by users (in this case, LGBT groups who campaigned for new terminology). However, anything Facebook does in the area of user profiling is liable to be interpreted in the light of our knowledge that its money is made by selling data to advertisers. I always assumed that the real reason why your profile had to specify whether you were male or female was the importance accorded to that information by Facebook’s real customers, the marketeers. Some commentators have suggested that the new gender nomenclature will serve their purposes even more effectively: by getting people to define themselves in less blandly generic terms (or as one comment put it, ‘finding 50 more ways to violate my privacy’), Facebook can help businesses to target a more specific market niche.

On that point, I’m slightly sceptical: it’s hard to see how this confusing set of labels could be mapped onto the consumer preferences that are of interest to the niche-marketers. Are there products which appeal more to the ‘gender variant’ than the ‘gender non-conforming’, or services for the ‘androgynous’ as opposed to the ‘bigendered’? If you identify as bigendered, will that just mean you get a double helping of spam?Cartoon by Cath Jackson - 57 varieties of Facebook gender

Yet at a deeper level I do think the revamping of Facebook’s gender options shows the influence of consumerism on what is now thought of as ‘political’ action—the idea is that people are empowered by having as much choice as possible, and that minorities in particular are empowered by the public validation of their choices. ‘Put my preferred gender identity label on your drop-down menu so that I can display it in my profile’ is the kind of political language that Facebook understands, but in the real world, arguably, the effect is pretty trivial. (How often does anyone even look at what genders their Facebook friends have specified?) Other political demands, for instance that Facebook should stop hosting pages which promote violence against women, have not been so easily accommodated (though they have sometimes been successful when accompanied by actions that threatened the site’s advertising revenue).

If Facebook had wanted to do something really radical, it could surely have gone for the simpler option of taking gender off the menu altogether. Instead of requiring every user to select a label from a predefined set of options, it could have said it was going to let individuals make their own decisions about how to define and present themselves—permitting them not only to use their own preferred terms, but also to decide how far to foreground their gender in their profiles.

I’d just as soon leave it in the background myself; but since that is apparently unthinkable, I’m considering setting up a Facebook group to lobby for some additional menu options—some boxes a radical feminist could tick, like ‘gender indifferent’, ‘gender resistant’, ‘gender hostile’ and ‘nowadays when I hear the word “gender” I reach for my medication’. Anyone want to join?

Cartoons by Cath Jackson

Commodifying women’s safety

Can mobile phone apps help to protect women from domestic and sexual violence? A recent study suggests that they might do more harm than good, as Nicole Westmarland explains.

At Durham University’s Centre for research into violence and abuse, one of our recent research projects  looked at the use of ‘apps’ in relation to domestic and sexual violence (a link to the full report is at the end of this post). When we present this research or talk about it with students, it’s often the more ‘extreme’ rather than the more mundane, everyday examples that get the audience’s attention and the gasps of disbelief. The biggest gasps come when we talk about apps that have been developed specifically to track and harass women, most notably the ‘Track Your Wife’ app which has over 10,000 downloads and enables men to add a tracking device to their partner’s phone and track them in real time anywhere in the world. But, horrible as the existence of this app is,  it is not the focus of my blog post or even the focus of our research.  We were more concerned about apps that claimed to be helping to keep women safe.

An ‘app’ is a small, specialised software program, downloadable and installable onto mobile devices such as smartphones or tablet computers. This research consisted of a systematic app search plus 10 interviews with app developers and 17 with domestic and/or sexual violence practitioners.

We found that the most common app function was a panic alarm/danger alert – when coded by main function this accounted for nearly half the apps (49%). Some of these apps were basic ‘panic buttons’ which — similar to non electronic panic or rape alarms —emitted a very loud noise designed to attract attention and thereby scaring the potential offender away through fear of being caught (e.g. Attack Alarm, Scream Alarm, iPhone Panic Alarm). Most, however, offered additional functions. ‘Red Panic Button’ costs $2.99 (with the option to buy extras within the app), was developed by a UK based company, and has won an ‘app of the day’ award. It offers an SMS, email, Twitter, and/or Facebook panic message to be sent at the press of the Red Panic Button, which sends the user’s current location coordinates. It also offers an emergency dial function that can be customised. In its description it describes itself as an ‘Early Warning and Vulnerability Alert System’ and makes grand claims such as ‘The one call that can make a difference!’, ‘Get out of harm’s way with just one touch!’, ‘In an emergency, information means survival’, and even ‘Red Panic Button is your lifeline!’.

Practitioners from violence support services were largely critical of panic alarm/danger alert style apps, thinking that they did not really ‘add’ anything —a quick text to the same effect could easily be sent or information quickly searched for online. They were also concerned that apps may reinforce ‘victim blaming’ attitudes that excuse  perpetrators’ actions.

We agreed with these criticisms. Apps like these require women to do what Liz Kelly calls ‘safety work’, by which she means we are expected to invest time, energy, and (sometimes) money into ‘keeping ourselves safe’. Some may also perpetuate ‘stranger danger’ myths that mask the prevalence of violence within ongoing relationships. Though these new apps are more sophisticated than ‘old style’ panic alarms, we argue that there is  little evidence to support their bold claims. They are part of the commodification of women’s safety.

Follow @nwestmarland

Read the full research findings at:

New article: Debbie Cameron – Slim Pickings

The T&S  archive makes clear that fat was a feminist issue in the 1980s and 1990s, and that issue hasn’t gone away; on the contrary, the so-called ‘obesity crisis’ of the 21st century has prompted a new wave of moral panic and some worrying new forms of fat oppression. In Slim Pickings Debbie Cameron asks how feminists have responded to these developments, and argues that we need to get more radical.

Celebrity and its discontents

A few weeks ago we were all talking about Angelina Jolie’s prophylactic double mastectomy; more recently we’ve turned our attention to Nigella Lawson’s relationship with Charles Saatchi, after he was photographed with his hands around her neck. Feminists have been active in these discussions, sharing opinions on Facebook and Twitter, airing them in newspaper columns and participating in debates on radio and TV. Some of them have used the opportunity to make good points about women’s health or domestic violence. But even when I agree with what’s being said, I still have mixed feelings about this kind of conversation—the public debate which is prompted by, and revolves around, the personal problems of a female celebrity.

For a start, it feels intrusive, especially when the woman whose experience is at issue hasn’t chosen to make an issue of it herself. In this respect, there’s a difference between Angelina Jolie and Nigella Lawson. Jolie made the choice to go public about her surgery, and she evidently wanted it to prompt debate (though it might be argued that she didn’t have a completely free choice: if she hadn’t released the information herself, it’s a fair bet the media would eventually have got hold of it anyway). Lawson, on the other hand, did not choose to be involved in the incident which was caught on camera, and the fact that she made no public comment on it suggests she’d have preferred it if the story had not become a media sensation.

There’s a dilemma here for feminists. For us it’s axiomatic that ‘the personal is political’, and we’ve always resisted the once-commonplace view (apparently still shared by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg) that domestic violence should be treated as a private matter. At the same time, feminists who work with women affected by domestic violence have been committed to supporting them in making their own decisions. In the case of Nigella Lawson I’m not sure we’re living up to that commitment. Though the media coverage has been generally sympathetic, the fact remains that her life is being picked over by all kinds of people who do not know her and have no idea what she feels. In her place, I think I would regard that as a second public humiliation.

When I’ve made this point, though, I’ve quite often been met with a response along the lines of ‘lie down with dogs, get up with fleas’. If you’ve made yourself famous by courting media attention, you can’t really complain when the attention is unwelcome. For people who make this argument—essentially, that celebrities are fair game—the relationship is one of mutual exploitation; both parties have chosen to play the game, and both must abide by its rules.

But there’s a third party in this relationship: the public whose appetite for celebrity news and gossip keeps the hacks and the paparazzi in business. That’s the other thing that has bothered me about the discussions of the past few weeks. Are feminists critical of the values of celebrity culture, or do we share the popular fascination with it? How far does our own practice reproduce the treatment of celebrities as, on one hand, ‘fair game’, and on the other, exemplary figures whose actions and words deserve a special kind of attention?

I’m sure all the feminists I know would maintain that what happens to Angelina Jolie or Nigella Lawson is neither more nor less important than what happens to any other woman. They would deny that they are interested in celebrities simply because they are famous: the point is rather that because they are famous, stories about them have a high media profile, and that gives feminists a golden opportunity to raise awareness about issues that also affect millions of ‘ordinary’ women. Along those lines, it has been reported that the publicity given to the Lawson/Saatchi incident prompted a massive increase in calls to organizations offering support for women experiencing domestic violence.

But the power of celebrity is a double-edged sword. It’s not just events in the lives of the famous that can set an agenda for political discussion, but also their opinions on the issues of the moment. Last week, for instance, the tennis player Serena Williams was reported to have criticized the severity of the sentence given to the football players involved in the Steubenville rape case: the victim, she said, had been drinking, and so was equally to blame for what had happened. Was this a golden opportunity for feminists to raise public awareness by confronting the rape-myths Williams was recycling? Or would it have been better to not to have dignified her comments with a response? Do we have to go along with the presumption that if someone is famous for anything, then it matters what they think about everything?

If we rejected that presumption, though, we’d logically have to do so not only when celebrities express opinions we disagree with, but also when they endorse our beliefs and support our political causes. Angelina Jolie was in the news last week too, talking about the plight of refugees from the conflict in Syria. Jolie, a UN ambassador, is widely respected for the seriousness with which she takes her philanthropic commitments, and the sentiments she expresses are generally ‘progressive’. Yet it’s still the case that her views get global attention not because of what she knows or what she’s personally experienced, but because she’s an A-list Hollywood star.

That is not to suggest Jolie has nothing of value to say: her example illustrates that women who are famous as actors, singers, supermodels or athletes may also be knowledgeable about political issues and genuinely committed to certain causes. Many feminist campaigns and women’s charities are supported by celebrities, and I know their involvement can make a difference. But without wanting to criticize the women concerned, my feelings about this remain mixed.

In advertising, where celebrity endorsement is a long-established strategy, the basic idea is that people’s consumer preferences can be influenced by the preferences of individuals they admire: they will want buy the products recommended by their favourite stars. This principle has increasingly been extended to charitable and political causes too. Which is fine if what you’re doing is basically fundraising: to the Syrian refugee who desperately needs a tent, it is a matter of indifference whether the people who donate money are principled humanitarians or just fans of Angelina Jolie. But if your aim is to build a political movement, people’s motives and convictions matter more.

For feminists there’s another problem with the use of celebrities as figureheads or spokespeople. One of the goals of feminism as a radical political movement is to give a voice to ordinary women, and to insist on the importance of their experiences. Celebrities command attention precisely because they’re not seen as ordinary. True, an incident like the one involving Nigella Lawson makes clear that they are not exempt from all the problems faced by other women; but we might still feel uneasy about the idea that it will be easier for people to relate to an issue, or that they’ll care about it more, if it’s personified by someone they think of as ‘special’.

It could be argued that the same celebrity ‘dazzle factor’ which has had a positive effect in Nigella Lawson’s case, promoting increased interest in and empathy with women’s experiences of domestic violence, also played a much more negative part in the celebrity abuse scandals which have recently come to light in Britain. The perceived ‘specialness’ of someone like Jimmy Savile was one reason why some of his victims felt unable to complain, why people who did have their suspicions either suppressed them or were not taken seriously, and why the police and other authorities preferred not to probe too deeply. Yet it could also be argued that without the media’s interest in celebrity, these cases would never have been pursued, the perpetrators would never have been exposed, and the victims would not have received any kind of recognition or compensation.

I am back to where I started—pondering my own mixed feelings about celebrity culture and the way we as feminists engage with it. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t engage at all. If we want feminism to have any impact, we can’t just refuse to get involved in the conversations everyone else is having. Commenting on celebrity news stories may be a good way to get our voices heard on important feminist issues. But isn’t the cultural obsession with celebrities an issue for feminists too?

Creating the world we want to live in now

Speakers at the Writing on the Wall festival’s ‘50 billion shades of feminism’ event in Liverpool last May were asked to reflect on Billion Women Rise. Liz Kelly pondered the tension between purist politics and mass mobilization—and asked whether dancing can be a political act.

First, some ground clearing. My minimal position is that feminism is an understanding that women are oppressed and a commitment to change it: a theory and practice, both of which are in movement.  There are many possibilities and variants, not all of which align with the left or other social movements.  But fifty billion feminisms suggests that we can each craft a personalised version, an idea that sits uneasily with women’s movements, which require collective politics, however fractious.

Billion Women Rise (BWR) marked the 15th anniversary of V-day, the brainchild of playright, poet and survivor of child sexual abuse, Eve Ensler.  For fifteen years across the globe, women have performed her Vagina Monologues on Valentine’s Day to protest violence against women and girls and raise money for women’s organisations. BWR was the audacious idea that in 2013, on February 14th, a billion women would dance to recognise that a billion women and girls have been raped and say, as Ensler does in her enraged poem, that we are ‘over it’.

Ensler is a controversial figure, and I don’t find her easy to like, but that is not the point.  What we need to explore is how she has done feminist politics. Critiques of The Vagina Monologues come from many directions, but the most repeated are that she retains control of the content, and that each performance requires paying a fee to the V-Day Foundation.  I too ranted about this until recently, when I asked myself whether other writers allow anyone and everyone to alter their words. How, once something becomes a global phenomenon, could you create a workable way of vetting and approving new texts? Are they just for single performances or do they become part of an accessible collective library?  And at this festival the question of whether writers should receive royalties when their work is performed must be a live and important one.

So my concern here is whether we hold Eve Ensler – and by analogy other feminists, especially those with a public profile – not just to different, but to unreasonable and unattainable standards.  This then places them in invidious positions, available for ‘trashing’, where any misstep or gap in their politics invalidates what they have done.  This play, flawed as it undoubtedly is, has travelled the globe, been performed in places and spaces where it was a revolutionary and dangerous act for women to say those words: in Afghanistan; by Muslim women in the UK; by survivors of sexual violence.

Ensler was arguably already in this invidious position when she proposed BWR.  Here the most articulated contention has been the mode of action – dancing – with a number of impassioned blogs and a piece in the Huffington Post asking what can dancing have to do with ending VAWG.  I was reminded of that quote from Emma Goldman, ‘if you can’t dance, its not my revolution’ and sought out the original, only to find that she never actually wrote those words.  However, what she did write in her autobiography, Living my Life, is even more relevant.

At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha [Alexander Berkman], a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did  not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway.  It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.

I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own  business, I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not  believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and  freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. Iinsisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world–prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own comrades I would live my beautiful ideal. [Living My Life, New York: Knopf, 1934, p. 56]

For Emma Goldman joy and pleasure are not anathema to politics, they must be part of it; we transform spaces and relationships – to others and to our bodies – as we claim and create freedom and liberty now.  Feminism has perhaps understood and enacted this more than other progressive movements and the moments I remember as ‘beautiful and radiant’ were all joyful rebellions, challenging conventions, and two involved dancing!  

  • Dancing without tops at a Women’s Liberation conference in the 1970s.
  • Embracing the base at Greenham Common – after decorating the fence, thousands of women collectively shook the fence down.
  • Trafalgar Square in November 1997, at one of the first November Women’s Action national marches against violence women.  We were freezing, had listened to many stirring speeches and stood in silence with candles remembering women who been killed at the hands of men in the last 12 months.  A sound system them blasted I Will Survive across the square and thousands of women began to dance – both warming ourselves, shifting our mood and taking over the square.

Each was a moment of liberation, embodied not just cerebral.  The charge that BWR was just a moment, that moments do not make movements, neglects the point that those in movement need sustaining moments of joy and collective engagement.How many of you have ‘given up’ a form of politics because it became a trial, a test of your ability to continue despite getting nothing and giving much?  This to me is the lesson of BWR – that in 207 countries countless women, and some men, danced, experienced their bodies strongly, joyfully, collectively – it was a symbolic reversal of the shame and pain which sexual violence imposes.

I was teaching all day on February 14th, on a module about sexual violence.  It was another form of pleasure to be able to show a diverse group of students women dancing in Asia, Africa and Latin America – students from those regions were moved and it gave them an immediate window not just on theory but also the practice of feminism.

This is not the whole story though: one of those students is involved in Million Women Rise – the minority women-led march against violence against women that has happened for six years in London – and now other cities – on the Saturday closest to International Women’s Day.  She had a strong critique of Ensler, and especially her work in the Congo, partly due to working closely with a group of Congolese women living in London. Common Cause UK see the V-day Foundation work  – City of Joy  – as a neo-colonial project, in which Eve Ensler assumes a leadership role and fails to challenge the root of the conflict – control over natural resources, especially the mineral coltan.  At the same time 200 rape survivors in Congo chose to live and work in the City of Joy, and appear to have strong relationships with Ensler.  This is where shades of feminism return to challenge and disquiet us – multiple truths jostle for recognition.

So I am left with a conundrum – how is mass mobilisation possible without some simplification? Is complexity and purity of analysis more important? What use is our rage at injustice if we turn it most viciously on each other? My route through this for the last decade is to work in coalitions, and especially the End Violence Against Women coalition. We come together around the issues we agree on, but do not require more.  We debate issues of contention until we arrive at a consensus – it has taken us four years to develop a position on prostitution, for example, since both the TUC and Amnesty UK are members.

Creating the world we want to live in now has always been part of my feminism, spaces where debate can be impassioned AND respectful, where joy and dancing are not ‘frivolous’ extras, where we can be beautiful, radiant and enraged.  For many Billion Women Rise was such a moment, for others not: the shades of feminism.

See Rahila Gupta’s talk from the same event:

Margaret Thatcher, Then and Now

Margaret Thatcher was as divisive in death as she had been in life: when she died earlier this month there were outpourings of adulation from her admirers, while some of her detractors held protests and parties. Her status as Britain’s first woman prime minister was constantly emphasized, whether in positive terms or negative ones. Here, four contributors reflect on their experiences of the Thatcher years, their feelings about Thatcher and what her career might mean for women and feminists today.


Emma Wallace remembers her involvement in Women Against Pit Closures during the miners’ strike

I was born in 1965 and lived until I was eighteen in a village to the east of Rotherham. There were five collieries within a five-mile radius, and a high proportion of men who lived in the village were employed within the coal industry.

For me the most important event of the 1980s was the 1984-5 miners’ strike. When it broke, I was eighteen years old and had been living in Sheffield for several months. Unemployment was already high in south Yorkshire owing to lay-offs in the steel industry, and being unemployed myself I felt that we all had to fight together to prevent the situation getting any worse. My mother was of the same opinion, so we both went to join the Sheffield Women Against Pit Closures group.

I had never been involved with any political organisation or pressure group before I joined WAPC and I was very impressed with the organisation, as it was highly democratic; we all joined in the decisions, and we all took part in activities to support the strike. There were women in the group from all walks of life with differing viewpoints, perspectives and experiences, and it was wonderful how we all managed to get along with only minor disagreements.

The major function of SWAPC was to fund-raise. We also used to go on demonstrations and arrange pickets, and it was these events more than anything else which affected me, as they opened my eyes to many things which I didn’t realise happened in this country.

Before the strike I had always been of the opinion that we had a fair, just and neutral police force. However, as the dispute progressed I began to realise that this simply wasn’t the case. The police were just as violent towards us as women as they were to the men, but in addition they used to treat us with a mixture of contempt and sexual intimidation. The comment was always made that no woman worked down the pit, so we shouldn’t be on the picket line but at home doing the dishes, or in bed with our husbands. They were often obscene, and frequently talked to us like dirt. In the end I grew to accept this, viewing it as part of the job. The only thing that really worried me was the thought of being arrested whilst I was having a period. I’d heard the police tactic with women was to arrest them and not let them go to the loo, and I felt that being degraded in that way would be more than I could take.

The police tactics at the big pickets were really frightening. One night two of us went to Treeton. There were no police when we got there, but they soon arrived in great numbers. They came in from both sides of the village so, being in effect surrounded, we fled in the only direction we couldn’t see blue flashing lights. I somehow ended up in the middle of a field, alone, not knowing where I was. Then the police searchlights began panning out from behind me and I was on the verge of panic. Over to my left was a small ridge, so I made my way to the bottom and then climbed up. As we looked down we saw blue flashing lights and riot shields everywhere. Because of the searchlights we had to lie flat for the best part of three hours before we dared attempt to leave the village. We got out via railway lines, back gardens, and with a lot of dodging police cars in between. It was an incredible night which could have come straight out of a war film, but it happened less than ten miles from the centre of Sheffield.

Trying to explain what it was like to people who weren’t active in the strike was very difficult because most of the time I wasn’t believed. The TV and press were pouring out endless streams of rubbish, yet apparently they had more credibility than I did. Looking back on it now, I can’t help thinking that if I had been a man in, say, his mid-thirties, rather than an eighteen-year-old woman, people might not have been so dismissive.

After witnessing events such as Orgreave, where thousands of police in full riot gear with horses, dogs and armoured vans, fought with unarmed miners who were trying to picket the coke-works, I began to question our society and the assertion that Britain is a free country. In SWAPC there were women from Greenham Common, and women who had contacts in the Black community and Northern Ireland. After I listened to what they had to say, it began to appear to me that only people who supported the status quo were free; anyone who challenged the status quo, or even questioned it, had the powers of the state brought to bear on them. This idea made me feel uncomfortable, but there can never be a return to my pre-strike viewpoint. I know many women who were involved in the strike share that feeling, because for most of us it was the first time we had ever challenged the state.

The strike ended in March 1985. I went on the march back at Silverwood colliery, on a cold damp morning that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Despite the fact that the strike was lost, I wouldn’t have missed that year for the world, and I’d do it all again tomorrow. I learned so much – about politics, about the country I thought I knew but found I had to come to terms with all over again, about people, about myself and about comradeship. The women at SWAPC had been like an extended family. We’d laughed together, cried together, been tired together and in danger together. We’d all experienced so many different things, but for me that was the spirit of the strike – comradeship.

This is an edited extract from a piece that originally appeared in Surviving the Blues, ed. Joan Scanlon (Virago).


As she joins the protestors gathered in Trafalgar Square, Atiha Sen Gupta ponders Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, and concludes that she is more alive than ever

I had been toying with the idea of going to Trafalgar Square. The idea of gathering in the Square on the Saturday after Margaret Thatcher’s death was conjured up by the Anarchist Collective 24 years ago. I had seen tatty stickers bearing this message pegged to adverts along tube escalators years before her passing. But then again, she was a human being, some counselled: was it wrong to go?


Liberal sensitivities aside, I went to the Trafalgar Square gathering to mark the death of Margaret Thatcher. It was cold. It was raining. I looked up at the sky and thought ‘Et tu, Brute?’ I started to feel that even the clouds were conspiring against us. Was it not enough that £8 million of public funds was going to finance this woman’s ‘ceremonial’ funeral? Was it not enough that the police were threatening to pre-emptively arrest people who wanted to protest her stately departure? However, according to estimates by the press, 3,000 protestors were in attendance. There were 1,700 police officers present. My maths isn’t great but that’s roughly one police officer to every two protestors. I’m flattered.

Seeing so many people out on such a hostile night was comforting. The right-wing media reports of the disgusting antics of left-wingers in rejoicing at her death state the facts but draw no conclusions from it. What does it say that so many people come out to ‘celebrate’ the death of an old woman? Does it say that the British public is fundamentally nasty? No. If John Major died tomorrow, I am willing to bet money that nobody would be out dancing in the streets. There’d be articles in the press condemning or elevating him but the public reaction would be wholly different and altogether more ‘respectful’. The gloating reaction to her death says more about Thatcher and her style of politics than it does about sections of the British public.

When I arrived, the police had encircled the Square in the hope that the revelry wouldn’t spill out of it. But there wasn’t much revelry. There were women, there were men, there were punks, there were drunks, there were teachers, there were students. There were the miners from 1984 bearing a banner from the North-East who appeared like celebrities. People were shaking their hands and having their photos taken with them. I marvelled at the creativity of the left when across the square I caught sight of a wonderful effigy of Margaret Thatcher made out of plumbing pipes, polystyrene and papier maché. She drifted regally across the crowd with square handbag in hand. Cleverly, her makers had her clutch a pint of semi-skimmed milk. Her hair was made up of bright orange Sainsbury’s bags which filled with wind like the sails on a ship and lit up the grey, drab square.

photo by Atiha Sen Gupta

photo by Atiha Sen Gupta

The much-repeated and tedious idea that Thatcher was a woman and was therefore a fantastic role model for women is a nonsense – often propagated by men, who have no time for feminism or, by women, who have no time for feminism – do you see a pattern emerging? These anti-feminists (for generosity’s sake, let’s call them ‘non-feminists’) emphatically inform you that Thatcher was in fact a woman and that you should at least respect her for that. This ‘you’ refers to me. I have been involved in two virtual Facebook fights stemming from her death last Monday. The first was particularly nasty. A (female) friend on Facebook had written a eulogising tribute to the great ‘Mrs T’. I waded into the stream of comments and put my opinion down on the screen. One young woman had written that Thatcher dying was nothing to mourn. The reaction was hysterical. I then stepped in to support her and the elitist firing squad turned on me. The internet can be a lonely place. I was called a ‘knob’ for supporting the first anti-Thatcher woman (who was labelled ‘knob 1’). As I took over the anti-Thatcher position, I was labelled ‘knob 2’ which made me despair a little a bit. If you’re going to insult me, at least let me come first in something.

It has shocked me to note how many of my virtual friends (many of whom are women and/or from ethnic minorities) have seen Thatcher’s death as something to mourn – posting non-ironic tributes to her or liking others who have done so. This to me reflects the post-modern universe ushered into existence (to some extent by Thatcher) where nothing is fixed, identity is what you make of it and you can be what you want to be. So what if you’re black and you support Thatcher? That’s your free choice and nobody should pick you up on it. It is hard to speak hypothetically, but I doubt that these university-educated individuals (often with degrees in political science) would have mourned the likes of Thatcher 30 years ago. It wouldn’t have been fashionable. Students are supposed to be radical. If you’re 19 and a Tory where do you have left to go?

People who emphasise the uniqueness of her position as the first and, to date, only woman Prime Minister point out what she did do as a woman (i.e. managing to reach such a high level of office) rather than what she did not do (i.e. bringing women’s issues to the fore to enact societal change). Perhaps she cannot be blamed for this, in that her inaction on women’s struggles was consistent with her overall logic. There was, after all, no such thing as society. There were only individuals who were responsible for their own triumphs or tribulations. In her framework, she was a woman, she had made it and now it was up to other women to make it for themselves (or not). This overbearing individualism marked her time in power, but imagine how much she could have done had she understood feminism, social dynamics and oppression. She could have introduced more women to the Cabinet, she could have funded childcare for women who work, she could have criminalised rape in marriage. Should I go on?

photo by Atiha Sen Gupta

photo by Atiha Sen Gupta

Margaret Thatcher was a capitalist first, and a woman second. She was the Jesus Christ of market capitalism. She pulled her socks up and got on with it so that everyone else could. She scraped and saved and succeeded to give us eternal life (on the stock market). Her legacy is everywhere – in the truisms we repeat to ourselves and to others in daily conversation, in the slogans we chant, and in the types of television programmes we watch. If Thatcher commissioned TV drama, she would have programmed The Apprentice (I have to admit – I loved the first two series). Everything about it embodies the spirit of Thatcher’s hopes for Britain: the suave, easy freedom of the boss to fire employees, the mad dash for profit at any cost, the backstabbing and the competitive individualism.

At Trafalgar Square on Saturday, apart from the odd punk shouting ‘Maggie/Maggie /Maggie’ and then answering his own call with ‘Dead/Dead/Dead’, there was a strange unease and dampness to the day that had nothing to do with the rain. If the ambience could be condensed into a question it would read ‘What now?’ I came away with the sense that the biggest tragedy of yesterday is that Thatcher is more alive than ever.


A female role model who shattered the glass ceiling, or a ruthless elitist who treated other women as subordinates? Bea Campbell knows which side she’s on

Let’s begin with the tribute paid to Britain’s first woman Prime Minister by the United States’ first black President Barack Obama: Thatcher, he said, ‘stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.’

But by then the prospects of a woman leading the Conservative Party in the House of Commons were as remote as before her election as leader in 1975. (Scottish Tories, however not only elected a woman leader in 2005 (Annabel Goldie) but a gay woman in 2011 (Ruth Davidson).

Obama’s comment was misleading.

Whereas Obama’s election mantra ‘Yes We Can’ was an affirmation of the electorate’s collective will, and a vindication of black Americans, Thatcher’s mantra might have been ‘Yes I Can’. She was an elitist, not an egalitarian: equality evaporated from her lexicon once she was elected leader in 1975 – ironically UN International Women’s Year.

She always addressed women as something she was not: as subordinate, as homemakers and private people. Women may have enjoyed her performance of power, but even her supporters regretted that she did not empower women or expand their room for manoeuvre in the party or politics generally. At the time of her death, the Conservative Party’s once awesome Women’s Organisation had shrivelled. It did not influence party policy. If individual women were inspired to become MPs, Thatcher had not encouraged her party to select them. Women comprised a pathetic 16 per cent of Tory MPs – below the 22 per cent average among European conservative parties, and well below Labour’s 30 per cent – the outcome of intrepid reform initiated during Thatcher’s tenure of Downing Street.

The notion of a glass ceiling presupposes that like Humpty Dumpty, once broken it could not be put together again. But if the ceiling is a structure, it works like a membrane that can expel or absorb an alien and spontaneously heal over. And so it was with Margaret Thatcher. The concept implies that individuals’ success or failure requires not social change, but merely an ability to withstand the institutions’ metabolic resistance to hitherto foreign bodies. The concept is as problematic as its partner in political crime: the role model.

Thatcherism’s patriarchal priorities are often excused as a problem of critical mass – there just weren’t enough women for her to promote; she would not have been allowed to get away with promoting women’s issues.

This is not sustainable.

Feminist political scientists have queried the notion of critical mass by showing that impact depends not only on numbers, but acts – exemplified by Thatcher herself: she triumphed, she was robust and ruthless.

The difficulty also derives from Thatcherism itself: its triumph was to enforce the lore of the market as the language of life. But that also marked the beginning of the end of the gender gap in favour of the Conservatives.

In the wake of almost obsessive national media attention after her death, Labour was 12 percentage points ahead of the Conservatives but 26 percentage points ahead among women voters. Research showed the complexity of women voters as a category, and the primary importance to them of social support, for relationships, for dependents, health and welfare – the very themes that were imperiled by the free market legacy of Thatcherism.

This is an extract from the introduction to a new e-book edition of Beatrix Campbell’s Iron Ladies, to be published by Virago in May 2013, reproduced by permission of the author and publisher.


Feminists opposing Thatcher were always faced with a dilemma, argues Debbie Cameron.
If not ‘Iron Ladies’, what do we want powerful women to be?

In 1979, the year the British first put Margaret Thatcher into 10 Downing Street, I was a student in Newcastle, and just beginning to get involved in non-student feminist politics. In the north east at the time that meant socialist feminism; many of the women I knew were union activists and members of the Labour Party. It went without saying that we opposed Thatcher’s politics, but we struggled inconclusively with the question of how to do it without endorsing slogans like ‘ditch the bitch’, or pandering to the sexism which said a woman could not be Prime Minister.

This last week has been déjà vu all over again, as ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead’ ascended the charts and street parties were held to celebrate Thatcher’s demise. Despite my history as an anti-Thatcher activist, I found these responses disturbing. Not because of their disrespect for the dead or their insensitivity to other people’s grief, but because of their casual misogyny. Bitch, witch, Iron Lady — now as in the 1970s, the epithets are gendered. So is the visceral loathing behind the words: I can’t recall a male politician whose death has inspired proposals to go and dance on his grave.

It’s the Tories who’ve been emphasizing Thatcher’s gender, speaking openly about the prejudice she confronted when she started out, to make the point that she was a trail-blazer, someone who advanced the cause of women. (The BBC commentator on the funeral echoed the point, describing the Queen as ‘a woman who inherited her position honouring one who fought her way to the top’). What feminist commentators have mostly emphasized, meanwhile, is Thatcher’s difference from other women and the way her policies harmed women as a class. She was not, they insisted, ‘one of us’.

It’s possible that Thatcher herself would have preferred the feminist assessment. She was, after all, a rampant individualist, famous for her dictum that ‘there is no such thing as society’. But she was wrong about that, and the feminists who have suggested that her gender was an irrelevance are also wrong. Whether she liked it or not, she was judged as a woman; the hatred felt towards her was not gender-neutral. Rather it exemplified the general principle that when men act in ways we consider morally reprehensible they are condemned, but when women do the same things they are demonized.

Margaret Thatcher attracted the particular kind of loathing reserved for powerful women who exercise their power without apology or subterfuge, and are therefore seen as usurping men’s prerogatives. ‘Not a man to match her’, ‘the best man in the Cabinet’ — such assessments might have been offered as praise, but they still depended on the tacit assumption that legitimate authority is male by definition. For her detractors, the same assumption could be used to portray her as unnatural and monstrous. In the satirical TV programme Spitting Image, for instance, she was literally a woman in men’s clothing, her puppet dressed in a suit and tie; in many sketches the joke revolved around the way she emasculated the men in her Cabinet.

The undercurrent of misogyny that swirled around Thatcher throughout her career has been airbrushed out of the eulogies, presented only as one of the many obstacles she had triumphed over in the early part of her career (despite the fact that she was eventually removed from office not by the will of the British people, but by the men of her own party). But feminists should not forget it. Nor, however deeply her political legacy offends us, should we forget that Margaret Thatcher actually did do something that no woman before or since has done: she won power in her own right, and used it unashamedly to pursue her own agenda. She served no master, and feared no opponent. If feminists give her no credit for that, I think that isn’t only because we despised her brand of politics, it’s also because of our own ambivalence about powerful women.

What do we want, as feminists, from our female politicians? If not Iron Ladies, what kinds of women should they be? When I think about the available role models, it drives me almost to despair: loyal female lieutenants with no vision or personality (Margaret Beckett or Theresa May), self-promoting nonentities (Nadine Dorries), women who owe their political influence to their dynastic relationship with a man (Marine Le Pen, Alessandra Mussolini and — in case you think this is just a fascist phenomenon — the saintly Aung San Suu Kyi)—and don’t even get me started on the unelected ‘First Ladies’ who get so much attention in the media.

One female politician who seems to have acquired something of a feminist following is a fictional character: the Moderate Party leader who becomes Prime Minister in the Danish TV drama Borgen. To me, though, she is a depressingly reactionary figure: politically she embodies the ‘feminine’ desire for consensus, and in the course of two series her personal life goes to hell — her husband divorces her and her daughter has a nervous breakdown.

How did we get from Margaret Thatcher to this? Since she died I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard someone piously intoning that she ‘did so much for women in politics’, but when you look at women in politics what’s most striking is how little they resemble her. And I don’t mean that in a positive way: I mean that old habits have reasserted themselves, so that male dominance and misogyny are as entrenched in today’s political culture as they were before 1979. In office Thatcher was no token woman, but history might yet turn her into one. If so, it will show how little difference she really made to the underlying structures of patriarchal power.

New article: The Trouble with “Hate”

In her article The Trouble with “Hate”, Liz Kelly weighs up the arguments around the usefulness of the category of “hate crime”. To many activists fighting racism and homophobia, this recognition is welcome, but what value does it have for feminists dealing with violence against women and children? Is “hate crime” a useful concept, or is it ultimately divisive and unhelpful?

Women of 2011 1

After reading that the BBC had chosen a panda as one of its women of the year in 2011, and that half the actual women on its list were notable only for marrying or shagging powerful men, I thought T&S could do better. So, to start the ball rolling, here’s my own roll-call of the year’s most memorable women:

World politics: the women activists of the Arab revolutions (and not only those whose names we’ve learned because they speak/write/blog/tweet in English).

National politics: Angela Merkel. The Eurozone crisis might not have been her finest hour, but she still advanced the cause of women political leaders by being so much less appalling than Berlusconi, Cameron, Sarkozy et al.

Local politics: Pauline Pearce, the woman who took issue with some rioters in Hackney. She talked more sense in a few minutes than politicians and pundits managed in hours of heated debate and pointless waffle.

Feminist campaigners: Tristane Banon, the French woman who told the world that Dominique Straus-Kahn had form even before he was accused of sexual assault by a New York hotel chambermaid; also

Tanya Rosenblit, who challenged the growing religious pressure for sex-segregation in Israel by refusing to sit at the back of the bus; and

Laura Nelson, who got Hamley’s toy shop in London to organize their toys by category rather than by gender (she also inspired a columnist for an Irish Sunday newspaper to rant under the immortal headline ‘SEXIST MY ARSE’).

Media personalities: Sue Perkins. How many women on the telly are equally at home presenting a baking competition, conducting a brass band and displaying their wit and erudition on QI? And how many of them are lesbians?

Light entertainment/satire: Princess Beatrice. Who knows if it was deliberate, but she made the royal wedding look even more ridiculous by wearing a giant pretzel on her head.

The mighty fallen: Rebekah Brooks—not that I’m applauding her, but she’s a rare case of a powerful woman being brought down for sins of some actual moral consequence, and not just because of sexism and double standards. The cardinal points of her wonky moral compass went beyond the usual female repertoire (‘slag, adulterer, gold-digger, bad mother’).

The late lamented: Cesaria Evora, singer; Amy Winehouse, singer; Christa Wolf, novelist.

And finally…IMHO, the female animal of the year (not to be confused with a woman) is not Tian Tian the panda, but the nameless polar bear who was judged too dangerous to film for Frozen Planet, thus sparking a row about reality and fiction in nature programmes.

Note to the BBC: I’ve managed to find enough human women to list without even touching on art, business, science or sport… Feel free to add your own nominations, sisters, and may 2012 bring joy to one and all


Dick-ipedia 5

A recent article in the New York Times revealed that women make up less than 15% of active contributors to Wikipedia. This has sparked a debate about why women are so underrepresented. Claims that it has something to do with the technology being more congenial to men do not stand up, because the 85/15 split is pretty typical of traditional media too. And don’t even get me started on the ‘brain sex’ argument that men are bound to dominate the world of amateur on-line encyclopedia-writing because they’re basically a bunch of autistics, hard-wired to collect facts and obsess about trivia.

But these explanations have not been the most popular ones. Many contributors to the debate, including some ‘experts’ commissioned by the Times, have suggested that women are deterred from participating in the Wikipedia project by their (unwarranted) feeling of inferiority. Unlike men, most women do not feel entitled to set themselves up as experts, or if they do take that role upon themselves, they lack the confidence to defend their views against contributors who have other ideas.

I am always suspicious of any argument which boils down to ‘women are their own worst enemies’, because in truth, they very rarely are. In this case, for instance, I would say that in general it is men rather than women who think that women are inferior. An extraordinary number of men seem to be genuinely convinced, often without even being consciously aware of it, that they must know better than any woman they find themselves in an argument with. This is not some innate characteristic, it’s an effect of the way they’ve been socialized. But to me it is undoubtedly a reason to steer clear of an enterprise like Wikipedia, which is set up on the assumption that there will be arguments among contributors—and whoever wins the argument gets to delete the loser’s contribution. No woman with any self-esteem wants to spend time and energy writing something if she thinks there’s a good chance that some dickhead who just assumes he knows better will come along and erase it.

Does it matter if Wikipedia is an overwhelmingly male creation? Since the Times article that question has been getting a lot of play on feminist discussion lists, and the consensus seems to be that it does matter. Everyone, it is argued, uses Wikipedia all the time: if the vast bulk of its content reflects only men’s knowledge, men’s interests and men’s perspectives, then the millions who regularly go to it for information are getting a seriously skewed picture of the world.

But some of those who make this criticism have a peculiar idea of what the world would look like if women’s perspectives on it were better represented. One example of gender-bias given by the Times was the dearth of material on Sex and the City by comparison with The Sopranos. Another was the lack of an entry for—I’ve forgotten the exact details, but I think it might have been friendship bracelets. (Writing the last sentence, I had to pause for a moment to retrieve from the recesses of my brain what friendship bracelets actually are; on the question of why anyone should care enough to look them up in an encyclopedia, my brain returned ‘page not found’.) If these really are the kinds of subjects women are interested in writing or reading about, then we probably shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a computer. Not that they are any more trivial than the stuff a lot of male contributors write about, but equal airtime for girly trivia is one feminist cause I feel no great need to champion.

If we really want an on-line encyclopedia which represents our collective knowledge, I think we should probably leave Wikipedia well alone, and go for the separatist option. Dykipedia, anyone?

New article: Brain Wars

In her new article, Brain Wars, Debbie Cameron reviews two recent books that challenge the idea of a sexed brain: Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, and Rebecca Jordan-Young’s Brainstorm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference.

Gagging on WAGS 1

So, this morning’s news is ‘it’s Samantha (Cameron) versus Sarah (Brown)’: the new election strategy is to involve the party leaders’ wives.

This whole ‘first lady’ thing is hideous, like a throwback to some age we’d hoped was over when women were automatically just men’s appendages, helpmeets and decorative trophies. Though in other ways it’s very modern: a symptom of the celebrity culture which politics now inhabits just as much as football or pop music. 

Possibly the reason the campaign managers are encouraging it is partly because they think female voters are turned off by all the men in suits and would appreciate some kind of female presence in the campaign. And maybe that’s true. But who says that what women voters really want to hear is the WAGS of male politicians telling us how great their husbands are? Is this what the suffragettes chained themselves to the railings for–so we could vote for the man with the most adoring, most personable wife?

Then again, when a woman does get some press because she is herself a political candidate, it’s quite likely she will be newsworthy for the wrong reasons–perhaps she will be someone of the ilk of Anna Arrowsmith, the Lib Dem candidate who used to be a porn director. Cue saucy innuendos from the tabloids and a thundering sermon from Ann Widdecombe.

Anyone else out there thinking of taking to their bed and hiding under the covers until this celebrified, testosterone-driven electoral contest is over?

Libbers 8

I’m not quite sure what to make of tonight’s Libbers episode of the BBC Four programme Women.

I’m trying to figure out who the target audience is intended to be. For women familiar with the women’s liberation movement, there is potentially some interesting history and archive footage, but I can’t imagine what women unfamiliar with the politics and history of the movement might make of it.

As a history of the origins of the movement, it didn’t quite hit the mark, as it focussed on a few (famous, white, middle class) (mostly) writers: Robin Morgan, Kate Millett, Marilyn French, Germaine Greer, Sheila Rowbotham, Ann Oakley, Susan Brownmiller, and Lynn Alderson.

As an exploration of early influential feminist writings, it also didn’t quite work. For example, the programme gave varying amounts of background to Brownmiller’s Against Our Will, Greer’s The Female Eunuch and French’s The Women’s Room, but didn’t mention any of Rowbotham’s writings and gave short shrift to Millett’s Sexual Politics.

The writer/director Vanessa Engle seemed to have a checklist of things to question her subjects about, regardless of whether it arose naturally within the context of the interview — most bizarrely asking each of them if they had vaginal or clitoral orgasms. WTF?

Media watch–reviewing feminism 2

Last week BBC 2’s Friday night Review Show was entirely devoted to debating feminism: what was it, what did it achieve, is it dead and if so whose fault is that, you know the sort of thing. Doubtless we’ll be getting a lot more of this stuff in the media as we approach the 40th anniversary of the first British WLM conference, held at Ruskin College in Oxford in 1970. If this Review Show is a sign of things to come, I’m not sure how much more ‘celebration’ I can take.

The first rule of any media debate on feminism is that the participants should all be media celebrities and general-purpose pundits, with a maximum of one of them having any actual experience of or commitment to feminist politics. If there are three or more people on the panel then one should be male, and at least one (who may but need not be the token man) should hold provocatively anti-feminist views. On the Review Show the feminist slot was filled by Germaine Greer, the male/anti-feminist slot by Toby Young, and the other two guests were Rachel Johnson (editor of The Lady) and Zoe Margolis (who writes about sex from a female perspective). They reviewed Natasha Walter’s book Living Dolls, Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow (billed as a ‘feminist’ novel about the sexual/gender revolution, though the reviewers were sensibly not convinced), and a series of BBC 4 documentaries on women which will be shown during March (the clip they showed contained the astonishing revelation that men who describe their marital relationships as equal still don’t clean the bath).

The good news is that neither Rachel Johnson nor Zoe Margolis provided quite what one imagines the producers hoped they would (respectively a conservative and a sexual libertarian view). Zoe Margolis particularly impressed me by describing Martin Amis as ‘condescending’ and slapping down Toby Young when he suggested that since she wrote about sex, she must be in favour of promiscuity and porn. The not so good news is that the only person to offer any properly thought-out political analysis of anything was Germaine Greer. Actually, she was great. But her ability to make cogent arguments while her juniors floundered was slightly depressing: feminism, though not yet dead, appears to be travelling on a senior citizen’s bus pass.

Or maybe not. The only actual example of contemporary feminism with which this programme concerned itself was Natasha Walter’s book. And Natasha Walter’s book represents, among other things, a shift on the author’s part towards a more radical sexual politics than she espoused in her first book The New Feminism. Walter now believes that the liberal agenda she favoured in the past didn’t address some of the more unpalatable and less tractable aspects of unequal gender relations, like the sexual objectification and exploitation of women which is in many ways more intense now than it was 20 or indeed 40 years ago. Once the poster-girl for ‘the new feminism’, Walter is now saying things that sound a lot more like the old feminism; perhaps there is life in the old lady yet.

The less radical TV reviewers didn’t care for this thought. They found Living Dolls too bleak, too preachy or too man-hating. Two of them also dismissed Natasha Walter as a middle class snob expressing high-minded distaste for the culture of working class women—as if Nuts and Spearmint Rhino were (a) as authentically proletarian as whippet-racing and brass bands, and (b) part of the culture of women of any group.

The programme was, all in all, a sort of Cook’s Tour of all the stupid, lazy, uninformed things you can say about feminism in 2010. As we get closer to British second-wave feminism’s 40th the tenor of the media coverage is something worth keeping an eye on: I hope other users of this site will contribute to this ‘media watch’.

Jam, Jerusalem, Feminism? 2

A couple of weeks ago at the university where I teach, I spoke at an event organized by socialist students to debate the future of women’s liberation. One woman in the audience said afterwards that it was a relief to hear something political about women. Recently she had gone to another talk which she thought was going to be about feminism, and found it was actually a pitch for the Women’s Institute.

My reaction was much the same as hers had been—incredulity. Why on earth would 18-21 year-old students be interested in joining the Women’s Institute? But a few days later I read a newspaper report which claimed that women students all over the country are setting up branches of the WI. Or at least, they are trying to. According to the report, some of them are running into difficulty because many students’ unions refuse, on grounds of gender equity, to recognize societies which do not allow both sexes to be members. And so it has come to pass that an organization founded during World War I, and long associated with a very traditional view of women’s role, now finds itself in the vanguard of a movement to reclaim women-only space on university campuses.  What is a radical feminist supposed to think? 

I have my own, not very positive, memories of the WI. In the early 1980s when I belonged to a rape crisis group, I sometimes gave talks to local women’s organizations like the WI, the Townswomen’s Guild and the Housewives’ Register. Invariably the WI women were the most conservative. They tended to be very keen on the law and order aspect—locking rapists up and throwing away the key—but what they understood by ‘rapists’ was monsters leaping out of the bushes to attack some innocent maiden on her way home from church. And it was always a bit surreal giving a talk about rape which was preceded by announcements about jam-making sessions and followed by a competition for the prettiest scarf or the most effective spring flower arrangement. 

But it seems the WI has moved on. Today, the causes it supports include not only fairly uncontroversial ones like Fairtrade, and women’s development projects overseas, but also less comfortable things like the Campaign to End Violence Against Women.

If press stories are anything to go by, such political concerns are not high on the agenda for the new campus WI branches. Their reported activities have included tea-drinking, cake-baking and (allegedly) knitting iPod covers. But as retrograde as this might appear, I think there is something behind it that feminists would recognize and support.

To get to the ‘future of women’s liberation’ event, I had to fight my way through a college bar full of braying young men in what appeared to be fancy dress (they wore flat caps, plus fours and patterned socks, and some of them were carrying leather whips).  On inquiring who they were, I was told that they were known as ‘hunters’, and that one of their recent exploits had been to organize a ‘hunt’ in which female ‘foxes’ were chased by male ‘hounds’. When one woman complained that this sort of thing was all too common, and that the students’ union had ‘a completely sexualized entertainments policy’, it was clear that her words struck a chord.

Women students today inhabit a culture where sexual objectification and predatory male behaviour are normalized, and it seems that quite a lot of them are angry about that. At the same time, they are reluctant to be labelled ‘feminists’ because of the social disapproval that would incur among their peers. If the WI provides such women with an alternative—an acceptable way to spend time with other women, and potentially a space in which to explore their feelings about the way women are treated elsewhere—then on balance I think I’m for it.

it felt empty 1

Celia Jenkins and Ruth Swirsky review the 2009 Clean Break production it felt empty when the heart went at first but it is alright now.

itfeltemptyClean Break’s new production is a complex unfolding of the hopes and struggles of an ‘accidental’ prostitute, whose story is both particular and echoes the narratives of so many more women who have been trafficked or forced into prostitution.

It is gruelling and funny, with sharp writing by Lucy Kirkwood, and brilliant staging. Dijana is a hopeful, exuberant young woman from Eastern Europe who, through happenstance and romantic dreams, is groomed into prostitution by her boyfriend. She knows her worth: 1,000 euros (‘like two and a half i-phones in easy language’) even though she has to ‘pay back’ £20,000 to regain her passport. The theme is familiar; the writing, staging and performance are absolutely fresh. Dijana is tough with a wry sense of humour, vulnerable and damaged by cruel circumstances but not a hapless ‘victim’.

The audience is led through a series of rooms: each act is discrete and brilliantly staged, at one point almost verging on performance art. The first act, in her working room, is shocking, in-your-face, production-line sex for money. We follow Dijana through several rooms where the grim story unfolds, backwards and forwards across time. The sets are magical, the acting excellent, the production is first-rate. The use of physical space at the Arcola Theatre places the audience right in Dijana’s personal space, making you complicit in her experience. The play deserves a much wider audience; hopefully it will both return to the Arcola Theatre after its 3 week run, and travel through the UK.