End of Equality

Why did the feminist revolution stall, and how do we get it back on track? Those questions are at the heart of Beatrix Campbell’s new book End of Equality. Marina S thinks it’s a timely intervention which should enrage and inspire us all.

Beatrix Campbell, End of Equality (Seagull Books, 2014)

We live in a liberal age. I mean the term in its technical sense: rule of law, individual rights, social contract, John Stuart Mill, the lot. And one of the founding beliefs of liberalism is the progressive paradigm: that the world naturally tends towards more equal and just conditions on a liberal progression towards ultimate equality.

The danger of such a belief is that it could lead to quietism—a passive expectation that the liberal hereafter will arrive on its own and with no need for active political striving on our part. Arguably, this liberal quietism is where feminism was for the two decades leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, and is the key characteristic of the so-called third wave. Against the background of an inexorable march towards liberation, political engagement was unnecessary; a retreat to the individual and a critical gaze turned inwards were the logical next steps. Liberation became personal: a state of mind, a stance of being a liberated or empowered women. The material reality will take care of itself; the wage gap will gradually narrow, political representation will gradually increase, the glass ceiling will gradually dissolve, male violence will gradually decrease.

Well, none of these things has happened. Progress on all equality measures – and many others such as division of labour in the home, civil liberties for women across the Global South and so on – has either stalled or gone into reverse. The first half of Bea Campbell’s new book End of Equality sketches in devastating detail just how stuck the progressive agenda is: the wage gap has been the same for years; men have added just one minute a year to their share of housework; male violence against women is static and unchanging on any measure – against a backdrop of dramatic and prolonged drops in other forms of violent crime – except in Asia where it is devastatingly on the increase in the form of female feticide and dowry murders.

Unfinished revolution

As is often the case with the best of feminist writing, this slim volume makes clear something which has been stubbornly inexplicable: what went wrong for the feminist movement? Why was our revolution unfinished? How could we have failed so badly (we think) when seemingly so close to achieving our goals? Two generations of feminists have wrestled with these questions, quite often wrestling with each other in the process. Recrimination and antagonism was bred from a frustrating failure of the liberal paradigm to explain the backlash of the 80s and beyond. If history always marches towards greater equality, and we are not seeing that equality manifest for women, then the fault, the thinking goes, must be in us: we have failed to be inclusive; we have failed to understand race; we have failed to take the correct attitudes to sexuality, marriage, domestic labour, sex work.

In contrast to this soul-searching, Campbell locates the seeming retreat of feminism in a squarely material framework. The reassertion of capital’s power after its brief post-World War II retreat rolled back or arrested not only feminist politics, but the civil rights movement, the student rebellions and other political liberation movements that were active in the 60s and early 70s. What she terms the ‘neo-patriarchal’ paradigm congealed around and in support of the neoliberal economic and political turn in global affairs in the last third of the 20th century. Not just Britain and the US, but countries as politically diverse as China and India went through processes of ‘liberalisation’ beginning in the 70s, and the impact of these changes on women has often been profoundly regressive.

In China in particular, the retrenchment of government support for childcare, healthcare and retirement has resulted in what Campbell calls the greatest redistribution in history – from women to men. But that redistribution is present elsewhere: here in the UK, Parliament’s own research has shown that 72% of the current government’s budget cuts were taken from women’s pockets. Women financed the bank bailout; women carry the cost – in money and labour – of the retrenching welfare state. And the load is getting greater: research shows that, contrary to expectations, women do much more hours of childcare now than they did in the halcyon days of the patriarchal fifties.

We are being deliberately squeezed at home and abroad, and in many countries (Campbell concentrates on Japan and Korea, but this is the case in Italy and other European countries as well) women are responding by withdrawing their labour. Literally. Birth rates in many advanced economies are significantly below replacement rates and the looming crisis of elderly care is enormous – and likely to play out almost entirely at the expense of women. Paid less for doing the same jobs and, crucially, taking on the majority of severely underpaid part time work, women’s pensions are on average half those of men upon retirement.

It is refreshing to read a book that places the blame for the ‘unfinished revolution’ somewhere other than the revolutionaries. Apart from anything else, there is something deeply intellectually unsatisfying about the notion that with the election of Margaret Thatcher, feminists just kind of stopped; that the second wavers became gullible and immediately bought into the radical individualism of the Me Decade (they didn’t – their daughters and granddaughters did), or that they suddenly lost a weight of power and influence they had previously possessed. The latter in particular is nonsense. Feminists have never run a single government, dominated a single board, been the majority of any judiciary. To conceive of backlash politics as a retreat of feminist influence – or even as a kind of counter revolutionary reaction from a conservative groundswell – is to ignore the wider political context and to pretend that, in the favourite atomistic idiom of neoliberalism, social movements and liberation politics happen as discrete events with no contextual relationship to the wider socio-political environment. In the final analysis, this breathtakingly infuriating book simply makes sense – and helps us make sense of what the next move of feminist politics can and should be.

A call to arms

Bea Campbell may not thank me for saying this, but this is a book for the Twitter age: terse but perfectly formed sentences tumble over each other in breathless rapidity, making one want to reach for one’s phone at a rate of three times per page. It’s also a book crammed full of facts – enraging facts, sad facts, alarming facts, frustrating facts. But the bleak blandness of exhaustively referenced numbers is borne along on a stream of beautiful, heart-swelling prose.

The biggest philosophical difference between neoliberal, patriarchal politics and feminism is that the former is profoundly pessimistic. Human nature in the neoliberal reading is base, selfish, violent and grasping – and incapable of reform. All radical politics is embedded in a confidence that people will strive to cooperate, coexist and care for each other if the material conditions they find themselves in don’t militate against it.

It is no coincidence, in this view, that we live in an age of war without end; an unintelligible series of local skirmishes and conflicts in which women, and the cooperative, relational social capital they nurture, are often the hardest hit, not as accidental ‘collateral damage’ but through deliberate acts of mass rape and disenfranchisement that hit purposefully at the heart of social existence. Violations of human rights, in Campbell’s phrase, ‘are not side effects, but a decisive methodology’. Feminism’s project, in her view, is to bear witness to the ‘wit and heroism that makes up everyday life amid chronic violence’.

This is a hard picture of the world to face up to, to take responsibility for; but it is also a call to arms. In calling for a new revolution, Bea Campbell arms us would-be revolutionaries with an explanatory framework and a set of milestones to strive towards in order to achieve the fundamentally optimistic, life-loving aims of a world free of degradation and destruction. So by all means, let’s live-tweet this book. Let’s send all of it out there into the world to enrage and inspire us all. Now is the right time, and we are the right people. I’ll end with a quote from Campbell herself:

Imagine men without violence. Imagine sex without violence. Imagine that men stop stealing our stuff – our time, our money and our bodies; imagine societies that share the costs of care, that share the costs of everything; that make cities fit for children; that renew rather that wreck and waste. This is women’s liberation. It is do-able, reasonable and revolutionary.


Marina S blogs at It’s Not a Zero Sum Game. Find her on Twitter at @marstrina

See Beatrix Campbell talking about End of Equality here

Time for a rethink – why the current government definition of domestic violence is a problem. 6

Liz Kelly and Nicole Westmarland consider the consequences of changing definitions of domestic violence which have progressively disguised, diluted and distorted the reality of gender based violence.


On March 8th the government announced the national roll out of ‘Clare’s law’ – the right to ask (and for agencies to tell) if a partner has a history of being abusive – and with much less publicity but more potential of Domestic Violence Protection Orders which give police the power to remove an abuser from the home, which if confirmed by a magistrate can last for 14-28 days.  This government, like the previous one, has made domestic violence a legislative priority, whilst at the same time failing to secure specialist support services, but there is a critical problem with how domestic violence is defined.

The term ‘domestic violence’ emerged in the mid 1970s in the UK to describe violence and abuse within intimate relationships (‘battering’ in the US).   It was not always defined in a specific way, but most women’s groups providing support would note that it was a variable combination of physical, sexual and psychological abuse and it was widely understood to be ongoing: what in law is termed a ‘course of conduct’.

When domestic violence forums and specialist police units began to proliferate in the 1990s, a variety of definitions emerged.  In the early 2000s, central government began to develop policy but there was no cross government definition. This coincided with demand from women’s groups for an integrated strategy to deal with violence against women. An existing definition of domestic violence was expanded in 2005 to include FGM, honour based violence and forced marriage.  For some BME women’s organisations this was progress as it brought these forms of violence into the mainstream, others saw it as a sleight of hand: a way of avoiding developing an integrated approach to violence against women.   This cross-government definition, in Box 1 below, was also studiedly gender neutral.

Box 1: 2005 Westminster cross government definition of domestic violence

 Any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between adults who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality. This includes issues of concern to black and minority ethnic (BME) communities such as so called ‘honour based violence’, female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage.

(HM Government, 2005)

In March 2013, the government expanded this definition even further, including more information about the tactics that underpin partner violence, but not limiting the definition to this (see Box 2).

Box 2: Westminster cross government definition of domestic violence 2013

 Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse:

  • psychological
  • physical
  • sexual
  • financial
  • emotional
  • Controlling behaviour is: a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.
  • Coercive behaviour is: an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.
    * This definition, which is not a legal definition, includes so called ‘honour’ based violence, female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage, and is clear that victims are not confined to one gender or ethnic group.

(HM Government, 2013)


The three key changes introduced here are a) reducing the age from 18 to 16; b) including coercive and controlling behaviour within the definition; and c) adding the ‘pattern’ to the existing ‘any incident’ approach. It is not these specific changes that we have a problem with, more that a set of problems that were evident in 2005 have been made worse, because the changes have brought confusion and conflation rather than clarity.

 It obscures at best, and denies at worst, a gendered analysis of male violence against women. While we do not deny that violence also occurs against men (by women or by other men in same sex relationships), it is now well established that gender-based violence is both a cause and a consequence of women’s inequality (United Nations, 1993). To pretend this is not the case to avoid a more complex analysis is a backwards step. This definition is entirely disconnected from that in the government violence against women and girls strategy, which uses the UN definition of violence: violence that takes place ‘because she is a woman or happens disproportionately to women’.

In addition there is a conflation between family violence and intimate partner violence. Since all agencies and local coordination forums (many of which now take a violence against women approach) are encouraged to adopt this definition, this conflation means that data they use, including that from the police, will not allow us to identify the most basic component of a gender analysis: who is doing what to whom.

The new definition downgrades forms of violence disproportionately experienced by minority women.   The 2005 definition included FGM, forced marriage and honour based violence in the main text, but the new definition makes it a footnote.  The gender neutrality of the definition is especially bizarre with respect to FGM.  Everything else in the new definition about tactics of coercion and control is drawn from work on partner violence.  This plays into the ‘othering’ of forms of violence that mainly affect minority women, which many women’s organisations have struggled to challenge and overcome. It may also play a part in a development that some black women have noticed, that many cases of partner violence are now being recorded as honour crimes.

It assumes that the dynamics in intimate partner violence (IPV) are the same as those of violence by family members (e.g. between siblings, between parents and children).  We were amongst those who argued for the inclusion of coercive control, but in relation to violence by intimate partners, where this has been researched and documented.  This definition suggests that these tactics are equally relevant to violence between family members (which we doubt), FGM, forced marriage and honour based violence (which may or may not be the case, but we have not analysed or researched these forms of abuse in this way).    Coercive control is a concept developed to make sense of the many subtle and not so subtle ways in which men impose their will in heterosexual relationships, and it draws on cultural norms about both masculinity and femininity.  This cannot be simply read across into other relationships which are often generational, in which the issues of gender and sexuality play out differently.

The inclusion of ‘incident’ or ‘pattern’ continues to obscure the reality of intimate partner violence. We now have the option of  ‘any incident’ or ‘a pattern’ – made necessary by the inclusion of forms of violence which are usually single incidents (FGM and forced marriage), but which fails to address the critique that IPV is a pattern of coercive control.  It is precisely the repetition and the web of forms of power and control which make it so harmful – the whole is so much more than the sum of its individual parts.  This fudge means that prevalence data from the Crime Survey England and Wales – our only national level domestic violence self-report victimisation study – will remain confusing and misleading.  The ‘any incident’ definition  means that a single push, slap, or incident  of emotional or psychological abuse such as name calling will be given the same weight in the survey as  repeated, and arguably more dangerous acts, such as strangulation and threats to kill.  It is this ‘any incident’ definition, and the analysis that follows from it, which produces the finding that women are almost as violent in interpersonal relationships as men.  Jeff Hearn has argued persuasively that what he calls ‘incidentalism’ reproduces how men talk about their violence: it was a ‘one off’; not that ‘serious’; not ‘really violence’.  Defining and analysing IPV as a pattern would mean that the gendered distribution of victimisation and perpetration, which all services including the police see in their data, would reappear.

The definition continues to marginalise rape and sexual violence. Here it is limited to violence experienced by people over the age of 16, committed by a current/ex partner, or potentially a family member.  But the majority of sexual violence against girls in the family occurs before they are 16.   This is yet another example of how government definitions continue to fail to get to grips with the sexual violence and the many contexts in which it occurs.

The list of forms of violence and abuse is vague and arguably out-dated. It is not clear how emotional and psychological abuse differ or overlap, nor how these differ from the acts constituting coercion and control. It may have been worth making more visible the frequent use by abusive men of online and mobile technology for surveillance and threats.

The conflations and confusions in the current government definition of domestic violence mean it has become a hindrance rather than a help. It is a lazy effort at inclusion of a range of forms of VAW in response to prior criticisms – symbolic recognition of an ‘integrated approach’ at the cost of accuracy. We suggest a new discussion is needed.  Whilst we both support the integrated approach to violence against women as an equalities and human rights issue, within this we also need recognition and definition of each specific form of violence and the contexts in which they occur.

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

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.

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


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.

Gigantic timber-framed house in Labour’s eye 1

OMG!!! A Tory says it’s OK to not rent a room to gay people!!! Labour says this is BAD!!! Tories are EVVILL!!!

According to the Telegraph article:

Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, said: “Chris Grayling is proposing that the Conservatives pass legislation allowing business people to discriminate against homosexuals. David Cameron should either back him on this or sack him.”

Because it is NOT RIGHT!! for religious fundamentalists or even moderate Christians to prevent gay people from renting a room in a B&B.

But apparently it’s OK to deny women their basic right to health care:

Pharmacists across the UK have been told they can continue to refuse to prescribe items that might clash with their personal religious beliefs.
A revised code of conduct from the new industry regulator will allow staff to opt out of providing items such as the morning-after pill and contraception.

If a woman has a prescription, pharmacists should be obliged to fill the prescription, and should not be allowed to impose their religious beliefs on their customers. If they can’t do this, they should leave the profession.

Get the fucking beam out of your eye, Labour, and do something about this travesty.

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?