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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where, I wonder, did she get that idea?

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

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

And that wasn’t my only question.

‘The inevitable barrage of misogyny’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purity politics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the frame 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prostitution/sex work: framing the debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Party Lines

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

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

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

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

WE: the beginning

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

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

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

WE policies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can WE do?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Catherine Mayer of WE responds….

Dear Holly,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours in gratitude,


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


Jeremy Corbyn: Two views


Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour party has sparked heated discussion amongst feminists about whether or not the new Labour politics is good news for women. Here we publish two pieces which take opposing views of this question.

Cartoons by the amazing Angela Martin.


The rise of the dick-swingers?

Rahila Gupta argues that knee-jerk feminist anti-Corbyn reactions are unwarranted and misplaced.

Feminists of all persuasions seem to be divided about whether or not the rise of Jeremy Corbyn is a blessing or a curse for women, and much of the negative reaction seems to come from a historical suspicion of the male left. However, I have been particularly dismayed by the kneejerk reaction of some radical feminists to the rapid ascent of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to the Labour leadership and shadow chancellorship, who have portrayed this phenomenon as ‘the rise of the dick-swingers’. As far as I am concerned, the recent outcome of the labour leadership election, and the debate that has accompanied it, is one of the most exciting developments in the last 40 years and has enthused me about British parliamentary politics in a way that I didn’t think possible. But this enthusiasm hurts, accompanied as it is by the fear that this challenge to the consensus may be strangled at birth. We have seen how the powers that be in Europe have attempted to stunt the growth of Syriza and Tsipras. The knives are out for Corbyn from every possible direction – the media, the Tories and apparently most of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The last thing corbyn_bandwagonwe need is for feminists to jump on this bandwagon. Some of the anti-Corbyn positioning, from radical and socialist feminists alike, is predictably about the jobs (or lack of) for women in the shadow cabinet. Whilst I agree that there should be visibility, equal opportunities and representation for women, surely we should go beyond identity politics and also be asking questions about the policies espoused by the women we choose. I voted for Corbyn and Watson as his deputy on the basis of their record and their politics. Watson was like a hound dog in his determination to expose child sexual abuse in the Westminster elite and holding the Murdoch empire to account. None of the women inspired a similar confidence although I would have dearly loved to give one of them my vote. When the first four shadow cabinet jobs were announced, they had all gone to men, so the clamour grew about this being the same old left politics. When the entire cabinet appointments were announced and slightly more than half were given to women, this was still not enough to please the naysayers.

Radical feminists have been particularly vocal in their anti-Corbyn commentary, arguing that that his decision not to appoint a woman to any of the four top positions is indicative of how he intends to engage (or rather, not to engage) with feminist concerns. I actually buy Corbyn and Mcdonnell’s view that foreign affairs being perceived as more important than health or education (both these portfolios went to women) is a colonial hangover when Britain is playing a much smaller role in the world. This is the NEW politics. Given the mountain that Corbyn has to climb to build party unity, two of the jobs were kept by Blairites (Hilary Benn and Lord Falconer) who were already in post. John McDonnell, who became shadow chancellor, is absolutely the best person for the job. As MP for Hayes and Hillingdon where Heathrow airport is located, he is indefatigable in his support for refugees and immigrants both at an individual and at a policy level. He is in tune with Corbyn, perhaps even more left-wing than him and if he were to ever become chancellor, I can think of no other person in Parliament who would make the funds available to implement some of the most ambitious pledges to end austerity and deal with violence against women.

Much of what I have seen from feminists appears to be based on ignorance of his policies for women as laid out in his Working for Women document. Here are just a few of Corbyn’s pledges:

  • Work towards providing universal free childcare
  • Recognise women’s caring roles through tax and pension rights
  • Reverse the cuts in local authority adult social care and invest in a national carers strategy, under a combined National Health & Care Service
  • Properly fund Violence Against Women and Girls Services and make it easier for women to be believed and get justice.

corbyn_landslidesThey want to restore cuts in legal aid which have massively damaged women’s access to justice and ensure that women asylum seekers get proper access to health services. Dawn Foster has written about the potential for positive impact of Corbyn’s policies on women on the Open Democracy site at length so I won’t rehearse all the arguments here. We know how austerity has disproportionately affected women and none of the other Tory-lite candidates had much to say about it until they were pushed to a more progressive position by Corbynmania. By pushing the knife into Corbyn, feminists are damaging their own best interests.

That is not to say that there is nothing to worry about in Corbyn’s pro-feminist politics. I have written about the gaps in his manifesto, namely around religious fundamentalism and the sex industry. I attended a hustings at Ealing Town Hall in August in order to challenge him about these issues. As I was there as a journalist, I didn’t get to ask any questions in the hall. Fortunately, a colleague, Sukhwant Dhaliwal from Southall Black Sisters (SBS) urged him to make a statement against religious fundamentalism because it was antithetical to human rights, rocked the foundations of democracy and had a devastating impact on women. He gave an untypically woolly answer saying, ‘we’ve all got views on this’ and invited SBS to contribute to the document.

However, we spotted him outside the hall and detained him for further questioning much to the unhappiness of his son and campaign manager. Apparently an ear infection had temporarily affected Jeremy’s hearing and he had not quite heard the question on religion. He made it clear that he was a secularist and saw no place for religion in politics or in the public sphere such as the provision of violence against women services. I have written about this trend elsewhere when the Home Office contract to POPPY for running a refuge for trafficked women was handed over to the Salvation Army.

I asked whether he would pull the plug on funding faith schools which gave him pause for thought. He felt the system was too entrenched, that perhaps the answer was to deal with it through a change in admissions policy although he accepted that admissions could not tackle the inherently discriminatory nature of faith schools, their lack of commitment to gender equality and the absence of sex education and PHSE classes. He suggested that strengthening local education authorities and their role in defining and providing education in local areas could be another way of tackling this issue.

On the question of prostitution, Corbyn seemed open to persuasion. Niki Adams, of the English Collective of Prostitutes, delightedly claimed that Corbyn opposes the Nordic model which calls for the criminalisation of those who buy sex, the decriminalisation of prostituted women and the development of exit strategies for them. I have not seen any statements by Corbyn himself on it. The fear that Corbyn is typical of many men on the left who see it as ‘sex work’, a trade union issue and an industry which can be cleaned up with the right laws and proper implementation is justified. This is John McDonnell’s Achilles’ heel too. However, Corbyn agreed that without tackling demand, trafficking of women would increase, seemed concerned that the majority of women enter prostitution as children (average age of 15) and offered to meet with survivors of prostitution to talk further about the issues involved. We shall certainly take him up on that offer.

We need to engage with this new force in the Labour party not stand on the side-lines and throw brickbats at it.


After the revolution?

Delilah Campbell ponders the rise of Jeremy Corbyn: is it a triumph for feminism or the triumph of hope over experience?

Last week, I watched the fourth and final episode of the historian Amanda Foreman’s TV series The Ascent of Woman. The episode’s title was ‘Revolution’, and it traced a recurring pattern in the history of modern revolutions, from Paris in 1789 to Cairo in 2011. Women stand beside men (or sometimes in front of them) in the fight for freedom, only to be comprehensively sold out by the leaders of the new regime, who have no interest in the liberation of the female half of the human race: more often they are determined to prevent it. In France, the feminist Olympe de Gouges was executed during the Terror, and French women soon found their position redefined by the Napoleonic code, which was even more restrictive than the pre-revolutionary law. In Russia, Alexandra Kollontai was given the power to make a difference for a while, but ultimately she was removed from her position and forced into exile. Variations on this pattern have been repeated time and time again.

corbyn_revwindowThe ascent of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party is hardly to be counted among the great revolutions of world history, but as I watched Amanda Foreman lay out her depressing thesis, I couldn’t help thinking that British feminists are enacting a miniature version of the same old story, enthusiastically supporting a male-led leftist coup without making that support conditional on any kind of commitment to meeting our political demands. Not that such a commitment would necessarily be honoured, of course, but in this case I’m embarrassed by how little feminists seem to expect, and how eager many have been to defend Corbyn whatever he does or doesn’t do.

I would not say I am anti-Corbyn, and I’m certainly not criticizing the feminists who voted for him in the Labour leadership election. Most of the feminists I know who voted did vote for him: though a couple preferred to support what they considered the best, or least worst, of the women candidates, Yvette Cooper, most felt that women’s interests would ultimately be better served by the anti-austerity politics which only Corbyn represented. What I’m ‘anti’ is the idea that feminists have a duty to act as cheerleaders for the new regime, and that we are not entitled to hold it to account when it acts in ways that do not serve our interests as we define them. For instance, all the feminists I know who voted for Corbyn also voted for Stella Creasy as deputy leader. It isn’t Corbyn’s fault that she wasn’t elected, but if he cared what feminists thought he should have offered her a decent job.

Also, while we’re on the subject of jobs, I’m afraid I don’t buy that line about health and education (portfolios he did give to women) being more important than those pompously named ‘Great Offices of State’ (Chancellor, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary). To me that sounds like a classic piece of spin, invented to do the same job as the hasty elevation of Angela Eagle when the media started shouting about the absence of women at the top. When that happened, feminists joined in with the chorus of ‘stop carping and give him credit for appointing a Shadow Cabinet that’s half women’. Sorry, but I don’t think feminists should give anyone points for that. Surely in 2015 we ought to be able to assume that any group of people appointed purely on merit will be approximately 50% female. We should cry sexism when that isn’t the case, not say ‘wow, congratulations’ when it is.corbyn_lowexpectation

Before he was elected, Corbyn put out a policy document on women’s issues which has been positively received by many feminists, and which does tick some important boxes. But it doesn’t cover all the issues that matter to radical feminists, and those of us old enough to remember when the Left Corbyn grew up with had power—in local councils, in trades unions, in the Labour Party—have reasons for thinking we can’t just trust him to do what we consider the right thing. The sexual liberationism of Corbyn’s generation of leftist men has frequently brought them into conflict with radical feminists in the past, and there’s potential for that to happen again in future. John McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest ally and now his Shadow Chancellor, is a vocal advocate for legalizing the sex industry: how long before he tries to make that Labour policy? Corbyn himself was MP for Islington during the time when children in council care were being sexually exploited and abused. It’s not illegitimate for feminists to wonder what he knew, what he did, and what he thinks should be done about it now. But we’re told to keep quiet, because raising these concerns would be a gift to the Tory press; we’d just be helping to keep the heartless greedy bastards in government forever. And of course, no one wants to do that.

But does it really follow that our support for the Corbynistas has to be unconditional, our loyalty absolute? The Labour movement has been in the habit of depending on women’s (and other oppressed groups’) loyalty, reasoning that we have nowhere else to go. But that’s what’s so frustrating: women are not a minority, so why haven’t we created somewhere else to go? It’s noticeable, for instance, that more young women seem to have been galvanized by Corbyn’s campaign than have been inspired by the founding of a new Women’s Equality Party. So far, the WEP has looked pretty moderate and middle-of-the-road, but just as the Corbynistas have shaken up the Labour Party, so women joining the WEP en masse could redefine what it is about. It’s true that without proportional representation the WEP is doomed to remain electorally on the margins, but it could be to feminism what the Greens are to environmentalism (or what UKIP, unfortunately, is to racism)—a force that the mainstream parties must respond to in their own thinking and policymaking.

But I’m not really expecting that to happen. There has never been a feminist revolution: a revolution planned and led by women that put women’s interests front and centre. And there probably never will be, because not enough women would support it. Most women think it’s selfish and unfair to put their own interests ahead of men’s, and most still seem to believe that men are better equipped to lead. So we go on putting our faith in men, and we go on being surprised and disappointed when they do what we refuse to—put themselves first.

Refugee crisis: where are the safe havens for women?

In the last two weeks, groups of ordinary people across Europe have declared ‘refugees welcome here’, and called on their governments to do more. But the particular problems faced by women are still going unacknowledged, and where policies do exist, there is a crisis of implementation. Women deserve better, says Jackie Turner.

Over recent months there has been increased media attention to the plight of tens of thousands of people attempting the hazardous crossing of the Mediterranean in unseaworthy or overcrowded boats. Many have no doubt paid a premium to unscrupulous smugglers; others will have fallen victim to people traffickers ready and willing to exploit their desperate need to flee war zones and other hostile and violent conditions at home. The media attention is welcome. It has exposed a serious humanitarian crisis although, regrettably, it has also exposed an EU leadership in disarray. Search and rescue missions are scaled down, and then scaled back up. Governments bicker about who is bearing the brunt of the financial burden and where these thousands of displaced people should go. There is ready conflation of refugees and migrants, people smugglers and human traffickers.

Even so, something is missing from all the coverage. What remains largely unreported and is absent from most policy responses is the particular plight of women and girls.

There is nothing new in this. Women are regularly written out of history or relegated to the footnotes; this despite decades of international, regional and national laws intended to promote the human rights of women. Violence against women, in particular, is acknowledged to be a consequence of inequalities between women and men. Yet amidst the extensive media reports of hardships at sea and the appalling loss of life, representations of women are few and far between, their voices rarely heard and their stories even more rarely told. Nor are they attracting much government attention.

Yet the women fleeing violence at home do not leave that violence behind them. It travels with them right up to and into countries of destination. And very often this is gender-based violence: violence against women because they are women. Such violence is all too prevalent in times of peace: domestic violence, early and forced marriage, female genital mutilation, lives lived in the shadow of ‘honour’. In times of war violence against women, including rape and other sexualised violence, increases exponentially. It is an ever-present reality, in their homes, in refugee camps, during travel, at staging posts and in countries of destination.

Migration is a particularly hazardous undertaking for women, yet even here they are often hidden populations, viewed as a residual category of those ‘left behind’, or those crossing borders as dependent family members. Such notions do little to capture the complexities of women’s lives, the push factors which drive them from their homes, and the extent of the dangers and the dangerous masculinities they face every step of the way.

In 2014 the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) found that almost four of every five people who have fled Syria in the last three years are women and children. According to a report by the International Rescue Committee (2014) many end up in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, but many more live outside of formal camps. Here, social norms place restrictions on women’s mobility, leaving them less able to access humanitarian aid or engage in economically fruitful activity. If and when they do find paid work, they are vulnerable to sexual exploitation by employers, just as they are vulnerable to sexual predation by landlords who demand more than rent if women are to keep a roof over their heads and the heads of their children. Sexual harassment means that mothers are afraid to send their daughters to school, resulting in girls being deprived of education. Yet women and girls in formal camps scarcely fare better. Sexual harassment and exploitation is again commonplace where women and girls are forced to exchange sex for aid, or where collecting water or visiting latrines is fraught with the dangers of sexual assault and rape.

Conflicts elsewhere in the region or in North and sub-Saharan Africa have forced countless more women from their homes, compelling them to embark on hazardous dessert and sea crossings. Here, the boat trip from Libya to Europe is just one more of the numerous dangers they face as they flee the armed conflicts in which they are held hostage to power struggles among men. Yet during flight they are confronted with other dangerous men and with the dangerous masculinities which dominate the trade in women. However much or little money they have is extorted, they may be sold en route, or forced to sell sex to pay for the next stage of the journey, while also facing gang- and multiple rape by fellow travellers and the men they have paid to secure their passage. There is invariably little food and water and certainly no safe and equal system for distributing what few resources are available. Pregnancy offers no protection against this violence and many women give birth to babies which result from rape.

These atrocities have been well documented by international NGOs and by UN bodies in current and previous wars. The international community is well aware of the disproportionate burdens women bear in armed conflicts and of the escalation of physical and sexual violence against them. It expressly gave voice to this in UN Security Council Resolution 1325, passed in 2000. Since then there have been a number of further related UN Security Council Resolutions and international events such as the 2006 International Symposium on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Beyond in which participating states vowed to ‘strengthen our shared commitment and action to prevent and respond to sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations’. In 2012, the former UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, launched the ‘Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative’ (PSVI) with the Special Envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie. The campaign aims to address the culture of impunity, prosecute more perpetrators and ensure better support services for survivors through greater international cooperation, and by increasing political will and the capacity of states to do more. It was followed in 2013 with the adoption by G8 Foreign Ministers of the Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, subsequently endorsed by 155 countries. The Declaration recognises that violence against women is inextricably linked to inequality between women and men. It commits to offering no safe haven to perpetrators of sexual violence against women in war zones.

But what of safe havens for women? For those who do make it to the shores of Italy, some end up hidden away in detention centres. There, as Lauren Wolfe of the Women’s Media Centre, documents in her blog of 24 July 2015, these ‘missing women’ are illegally detained, often for weeks or even months with access to only the most basic levels of care and medical help. There is no sign of ‘better support services’ for these survivors, who have been traumatised by their experiences of violence and by the violence and deaths they have been forced to witness. Other women, living beyond the walls of detention centres, are often left with little choice but to engage in what the UN calls ‘survival sex’, while others again are forced into prostitution by their traffickers. Family members may be held hostage while women are required to sell sex to pay off debts accumulated during journeys to Europe but which, in fact, are never paid off. Women who had no choice but to face dangerous men and masculinities in countries of origin and in transit, are still having to contend with dangerous men and masculinities in countries of destination.

Women who come to the UK fare no better. Here, they face a tough and complex asylum regime which systematically discriminates against them, as Caroline Criado-Perez details in her new book ‘Do It Like A Woman – And Change the World’. Their stories of trauma, risk and threats are met with a ‘culture of disbelief’ among Home Office decision-makers. Even those who are eventually given asylum face an uncertain future. Leave to remain is frequently granted only for short, fixed terms and can be reviewed at any time. An early morning knock on the door, the sudden removal to a detention centre and brutal deportation are constant threats and realities for many women and their children.

For several decades now we have had international treaties, conventions, platforms for action, resolutions, directives, initiatives and campaigns to combat and prevent violence against women. But still it continues unabated, with no sign of any abatement in the culture of impunity which affords men their safe havens. The international community has long faced a crisis of implementation when it comes to taking effective and decisive action to end violence against women. The three pillars of Security Council Resolution 1325 – protection, participation and prevention – have a particularly hollow ring. But dangerous men and dangerous masculinities are not products of armed conflicts. Violence against women in times of war cannot be addressed without addressing violence against women in times of peace.

The time for rhetoric and lip service has long passed. Women facing and fleeing violence across the world deserve better. They cannot continue to be relegated to the ranks of ‘the missing’ or absent from media and policy debates. Their voices and their stories must be heard and the international community, as well as individual governments, must confront this crisis of implementation. It is time to stop passing paper laws and resolutions and, instead, to act with resolve. The crisis in the Mediterranian is a humanitarian crisis but it is also a gendered crisis. It is time to move from ‘aims’ to concrete actions. It is time to demand greater international cooperation and increased political will and it is time to demand safe havens for women.

Doing it like a woman 2

In her new book Do It Like A Woman…And Change the World, the journalist and campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez tells the stories of women around the world who are fighting injustice and pushing against the limits their societies impose on them. In this extract from her book she talks to Meltem Avcil, a Kurdish woman she met at a demonstration protesting against the detention of women who claim asylum in the UK.

It all started for Meltem Avcil when she was four years old. She fled with her family from the village they lived in in Turkey. ‘I remember bits and pieces of village life,’ she says. ‘Women doing their chores; girls bringing tea.’ Her family were Kurds, and they faced persecution as a result. Like many refugees, Meltem and her family first fled to Germany – but they were refused asylum. They arrived in the UK when Meltem was about eight years old, finally being settled in Doncaster as the Home Office reviewed their case. Meltem attended school and dreamed of becoming a doctor.

Officials first arrived to take Meltem and her family from her home when she was eleven. ‘I knew what was happening,’ she tells me. ‘Because I was the only English speaker, so I was always on the phone to the solicitor. I knew what was happening. But, I wasn’t really aware… I was in between.’

By the time of their second detention when Meltem was 13, she wasn’t in between any more. She was fully aware and knew enough about the system to want to act as her mother’s translator. ‘The translators are… for some reason, I didn’t trust them. And I could translate properly, because I was sharing my mum’s pain.’ The pain of being blindfolded by Turkish police and being beaten until her ear bled and her eardrum burst, of being taken away from her home by soldiers at six in the morning and driven to a forest, of the ‘unsuitable stuff ’, the ‘ugly things’ that were done to her in this forest. I ask her about taking on this role when she herself was still so young. Meltem hesitates. ‘What else would I do in Yarl’s Wood? Go and play badminton? And pretend like everything’s OK when I’m locked up? I chose to be in it.’ She’s fiery now. ‘I chose to take my psychology and my mum’s psychology on me, so that I could be sure that something good would happen in the end.’

But despite Meltem’s translation of their story, they were not believed. They were collected at three in the morning from their cells. ‘That’s when they pushed my mum onto the ground,’ she continues. ‘They hit her face with the handcuff, they forced her up the aeroplane steps. They kicked her, they punched her. They kicked me, they punched me, they pinched me, and all the time, the immigration officer was saying to me and, keep in mind I was thirteen, “If you resist, if you shout, if you scream, we will tie your hands and legs, and no one will know.” He said this to me five times.’ Meltem pauses. ‘They handcuffed my mum and they put a towel over the handcuffs, because it’s not right to handcuff anyone who hasn’t done anything, right? And they kept on blackmailing me all the way [to the airport]. And a female officer said to me, “Oh you have your GCSEs this year, don’t you?” And then she started laughing.’

I ask her how she felt. Her answer sounds like calm panic. ‘I just had one thing on my mind: what can I do about this? I let them speak, I let them speak into my ear, so many mean things on the way, and I didn’t say anything. Because I was busy thinking of what to do, how not to go back to a country I’ve not grown up in and don’t know. I had so many questions going round my head: tomorrow, where am I going to be? What’s going to happen?’

As Meltem screamed for help, saying the guards were twisting her hands, her fellow passengers began to record the incident. The pilot stopped the plane and ordered the guards to remove Meltem and her mother, who were taken to the hospital. They were visited by the Children’s Commissioner and moved to Newcastle. A new home, a new school. More waiting, more whirling questions.

For six years Meltem was moved unceremoniously around the country, taken in and out of detention. She had to register with the police every week and each time was made to wait. ‘For them, it might be that they’re short on staff and they need someone to just bring out the paper and say, “OK, sign.” But for you, it’s a different thing. All the time you’re thinking, what’s going on, are they going to take me, are they going to deport me…’

Eventually, Meltem and her mother were granted indefinite leave to stay, but she is still haunted by her experience. ‘You know, I’m still in fear,’ she says. ‘When someone bangs on the door very hard, I will just shake.’ Meltem has a British passport but, she says, ‘I still think, can they take it away from me? Can they lock me up again?’ She tells me about a morning not long after they received leave to remain. ‘The door knocked really hard, really really hard and I jumped up, and I said, “Mum, is it them.”’ I can’t help noticing it’s not a question.

A culture of disbelief

Disbelief is not only a common theme in these women’s stories – it’s a common theme in the statistics too. Report after report finds a virulent strain of cynicism within the UK Border Agency (UKBA) that manifests as a ‘culture of disbelief ’. Things are so bad that an investigation was carried out by Asylum Aid specifically into the quality of decisions made by the Home Office on women asylum seekers. The report found that, on average, 28% of all initial Home Office decisions that went against asylum seekers were ultimately overturned on appeal; when it came to women asylum seekers, this figure shot up to 50%. Clearly, something isn’t working. Assessments of the credibility of the women whose applications are initially being turned down are repeatedly found to be inaccurate and ill informed. Put baldly, the UKBA officials don’t believe these women – and the ignorance and callousness displayed in the illustrative cases are shocking.

One case worker had never heard of the term ‘female circumcision’. Another decided on the basis of ‘an article from the American gossip website www.gawker.com’ that a lesbian from Uganda did not have any reason to fear the death penalty if she were returned. A woman who was forced into an abusive marriage at the age of fourteen, and who was abused by her father when she tried to return to her family home, was refused on the basis that she had remained in the marriage for thirteen years. This apparently proved that she was not at risk. A victim of sexual assault was asked if she had tried to stop a man from raping her. As if she had asked for it if she couldn’t physically prove that she didn’t want it. An Amnesty report found that photos of scars were not being accepted as evidence of torture. What price evidence in the face of this solid entity, ‘disbelief’?

Some of the decisions seem to move beyond ignorance to outright deceptive manipulation: one woman who feared ‘honour’ killing if she were returned to Iraq was refused asylum on the basis of a report that detailed the support available from local police. The very same report also detailed the danger of sexual assault such women faced from the police themselves if they approached them for help. Somehow, that factor was not considered relevant to the case.

Home Office officials have been told to get rid of 70% of these pesky asylum seekers, and these targets are backed up with the reward of shopping vouchers or the threat of being presented with a ‘grant monkey’, the toy gorilla that is put on the desk of any UKBA official who allows a claim. It is attitudes like these that have led Frances Webber, an immigration barrister, to damningly conclude, ‘UKBA officials sometimes give the impression that their purpose is to catch asylum seekers out – they seem to work from the premise that most asylum seekers are opportunistic liars, an attitude strongly fostered by the media and sometimes by government ministers, although it is very far from the truth.’ As one female asylum seeker explains, ‘They don’t believe you. They ask you five hundred questions and they ask the same question in a slightly different way and if you don’t answer them all exactly the same, they say that you are lying.’

That doesn’t explain why the burden of being disbelieved is falling so disproportionately on the shoulders of women. For the answer to that, we have to look further back, to the wording of another one-size-fits-all solution: the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

The Convention was drawn up in the aftermath of World War II by well-meaning men. The intentions were noble, even beautiful. A person had a right to claim asylum if he or she had a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’. It’s not enough to be persecuted – it has to be for these specific reasons. And we can already see that there is a glaring omission in this list, because a woman may well be persecuted for reasons of race, religion, or indeed any of the reasons for which men are persecuted. But she is most likely to be persecuted for the simple fact that she is a woman.

It is the fact that she is a woman that means her body is most likely to be used as a weapon of war. It is the fact that she is a woman that means that her sexuality is deemed to be dangerous and sinful, and that therefore her genitals, or those of her daughter, must be cut off and sewn up. It is the fact that she is a woman that means she is likely to be raped, beaten, murdered to preserve the ‘honour’ of her family if she commits the crime of behaving in any way that approximates the behaviour of a free man – and it is the fact that she is a woman that means if she reports this to the police, she is as likely to be attacked again as she is to be protected.

A Women for Refugee Women report found that the number one reason female asylum seekers gave for their persecution was ‘because I am a woman’. But only since 1999 has the UK accepted that women can be considered to belong to ‘a particular social group’, or, sometimes, to hold a ‘political opinion’, if they have chosen to defy the social norms that restrict so many women’s lives. Previously, women did not constitute a social group, and nor did rebelling against limiting female social norms reflect a political opinion. Nevertheless, although we’ve taken our time to get there, the precedent has finally been set. But most women who claim asylum don’t realise that this is the case – and staff at the UKBA seem to be in no hurry to inform them.

It is for the women who are still detained, who are still suffering behind barbed wire and eight metal doors, that Meltem continues to fight. This is why she started the petition that had us all gathered outside the Home Office on a February night. At the time of writing, the petition contains 48,000 signatures. I ask her what she thinks her chances are of succeeding. ‘I have no idea. All I’m doing is just hoping for people to understand more about detention centres and what it is like. I just want them to understand that the detention centre is a prison and no one deserves to be locked up in there’.

Caroline Criado-Perez’s Do It Like A Woman: … And Change the World is published by Portobello Books.

Find more information on the ‘Set her free’ campaign (and the online petition Meltem Avcil started) here.

Let’s have a heated debate! 5

As the General Election looms, Debbie Cameron wishes people would stop talking nonsense about women doing politics differently.

Last Wednesday on The World at One, the BBC’s Martha Kearney interviewed two politicians about their parties’ newly-launched manifestos. The first interview was a bit of a gladiatorial contest, with the participants competing to set the agenda. Though Kearney cut in frequently in an attempt to stem the flow, she was often defeated by the time-honoured tactics of the experienced politician—raising the pitch and volume of your voice and continuing to say what you came to say, whether or not it’s an answer to the question you were asked. There was a lot of simultaneous speech, and at times it got quite heated. But the interviewee stayed on-message, and ultimately in control.

The second interview was different. It began as a polite, almost stilted exchange, with none of the overlap that is normal in conversation. The interviewee allowed Kearney to direct the proceedings, waiting for her to finish each question before starting to speak, and sticking to the terms of the question. At times the answers were rather halting, but Kearney showed no impatience. A few minutes in, though, she asked a question which elicited some obvious waffle. At that point she did interrupt: her guest tried to keep going, and the exchange turned into something more like the first interview, with both speakers raising their voices and talking over each other. The interviewee became increasingly flustered, and struggled to respond to Kearney’s challenges. If you judged it as a contest, then Kearney won on points.

If I asked a random sample of people to tell me who they imagined these interviewees were, most would probably say that they imagined the first one as a man and the second as a woman. If I asked them to explain their reasoning, they might point out that men are generally more assertive and less intimidated by adversarial situations; they tend to take up more speaking time, and they frequently interrupt and talk over other people, especially when those people are women. Women, by contrast, are less assertive and more supportive, more respectful of others’ speaking rights and more attentive to their contributions. They don’t typically enjoy verbal duelling, and may not perform well in situations that demand it.

These differences between men and women have been a recurring theme in the 2015 election campaign. The campaign has been a multi-party affair: neither of the main parties is expected to win the election outright, so more attention than usual has been given to the smaller parties they may have to rely on for support. Three of those parties are led by women: the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. Their profiles have been raised by their appearance in televised debates, and it is widely agreed that they have performed well. Many positive comments have focused on their style of debating. ‘Look’, people say approvingly, ‘these women are showing us that political debates don’t have to be competitive shouting matches. They’re listening to their opponents rather than constantly interrupting them. They’re not just hurling insults or trying to score points, they’re engaging constructively with the arguments. How civilized! What a refreshing change! Let’s have more women in politics!’

For some of us this is déjà vu all over again. In 1997, when the landslide Labour victory brought a record 119 women into Westminster, we were told that their civilizing influence was going to change the culture of politics and make the House of Commons ‘less of a bear-garden’. Gisela Stuart, the Labour MP for Edgbaston, declared that female politicians were a good thing because ‘democracy is about consensus rather than imposing will’. Over in Swindon South, her colleague Julia Drown opined that ‘women are more co-operative: they’re not so into scoring points and more interested in hearing different points of view’.

As a feminist I am broadly in favour of female politicians. But these observations about their more co-operative, more ‘civilized’ style of speaking make me want to bang my head against a wall. Why? First, because they’re factually wrong; second, because they’re patronising; and third, because the thinking behind them is sexist to the core.

Women in the debates: how did they really speak?

I have struggled to reconcile my own observations of the female party leaders with the comments made by other people on their behaviour. The suggestion that these women’s approach is less adversarial than the men’s—that they don’t compete for the floor or talk over other speakers or try to score points off their opponents—is so inaccurate, I can only understand it as a case of what scientists call ‘confirmation bias’, the tendency to pay attention to things that match our expectations while overlooking things that conflict with them. We expect women to be different from men, so we look for differences and pass over similarities. We think certain behaviours are typical of women, so examples of those behaviours—even if there are very few—get noticed and remembered in a way the counter-examples don’t.

Consider, for instance, one of the most memorable moments in the first TV debate that featured seven party leaders. The UKIP leader Nigel Farage made some racist, scaremongering remarks about immigrants with HIV, and Leanne Wood told him—to applause from the studio audience—that he should be ashamed of himself. This was a highly adversarial move. Wood jumped in to deliver, in tones of unmistakable disgust, a highly effective put-down. Her behaviour contrasted starkly with that of the three male politicians, Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, who were conspicuously silent. She deserved the applause for her guts and her presence of mind. But how can anyone who watched this intervention maintain that women ‘aren’t into point-scoring’? What did her comment to Farage have to do with being constructive or preferring consensus to conflict?

Nicola Sturgeon is seriously into point-scoring. The most experienced of the three women, and for many people the most impressive, she is also the one with the most consistently adversarial debating style. In the second, ‘challengers’ debate (involving five opposition party leaders, but not the leaders of the governing coalition parties), she provided one of the night’s main talking points when she confronted Ed Miliband about his unwillingness to work with the Scottish Nationalists. In this section of the debate it was Sturgeon who took the initiative, forcing Miliband onto the defensive. She did it by issuing a series of challenges, putting him on the spot with a direct command or request (‘tell me, Ed…’ ‘so are you saying…?’). Rather than listening politely to his responses, she rarely allowed him to finish his turn uninterrupted. She repeatedly talked over him, and refused to stop speaking when he did the same to her.

Sturgeon wins points not only because her arguments are good, but also because she doesn’t shy away from attacking her opponents, and she doesn’t give ground when they attack her. She is not only a skilful exponent of the adversarial style, she is also a highly competitive one: there’s no doubt she’s in it to win it. In fact, I would say she’s a more competitive debater than either Miliband or Farage (who comes across as combative because the substance of what he says is often inflammatory, but whose discourse style is actually not particularly adversarial).

Some commentators have pointed out that the women have been very supportive to one anotherBRITAIN-POLITICS-VOTE-TELEVISION—agreeing with each other’s points, not challenging each other, and engaging in a group hug at the end of the second debate. All that is true, but I think it has more to do with party politics than female solidarity. The women have nothing to gain by challenging one another, because their parties are not in competition for the same votes. The two nationalist parties are only contesting seats in Wales and Scotland respectively, and the Greens are not a serious rival in either territory. On the other hand, they do have something to gain by supporting one another, because the main platform on which all of them are fighting this election is opposition to austerity. So, it makes sense for them to amplify that message by maintaining a united front, and it would equally make sense if they didn’t all happen to be women. Would they show the same supportiveness to women who were not their political allies? I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t: if UKIP were led by a British Marine Le Pen, I don’t think she’d have been invited to join in the group hug.

But we don’t have to speculate here. I’ve already described an extremely adversarial encounter between one of the three female leaders and another woman. Contrary to what you may have assumed, the first of Martha Kearney’s two interviewees, the one who dominated their exchange and resisted Kearney’s attempts to take control, was not a male politician. It was, in fact, Nicola Sturgeon.

You’re all individuals

The second interviewee, the one who initially deferred to Kearney’s authority but then got flustered and defensive when she challenged his waffling answers, was a male politician: he was UKIP’s Patrick O’Flynn. And if your reaction to that is ‘Who?’, you’ve anticipated my next point. It’s always a mistake to treat individual men and women as generic representatives of their gender, and to assume that any difference between them must be a gender difference. In the case of O’Flynn and Sturgeon I think it’s pretty clear that gender is a red herring. The key difference here is experience: Sturgeon has done far more political interviews than O’Flynn, and is therefore a much more confident and skilful performer.

The point that individuals are not generic men and women isn’t just something to bear in mind when making cross-sex comparisons. One reason why it is problematic to talk about a female style of speaking is that female speakers aren’t all the same. Some differences among women are produced by the intersection of gender with other social divisions like ethnicity and class; others reflect variation at the level of individual personality or life experience. It’s true that ‘female politicians’ is a much smaller and less internally diverse category than ‘women’. Even so, it cannot be assumed that they have a single style of speaking. In fact, it’s obvious they don’t: even among the three female party leaders I’ve been discussing there are clear individual differences.

There is a particularly striking contrast between the most experienced of the three, Nicola Sturgeon, and the least experienced, Natalie Bennett. Bennett is more reticent, more formal and less spontaneous; she’s much less inclined to challenge others directly or to take the initiative in the way Sturgeon did with Miliband (or Wood did with Farage). Apart from the difference in experience, the two women have different personalities and are differently positioned in terms of political influence (it’s a big advantage to Sturgeon that everyone expects her party to be a serious force in Westminster after the election; Bennett has no such leverage). The cumulative effect of these differences is large: you would no more confuse their debating styles than you would confuse their hairstyles, or their accents.

But the problem isn’t just that commentators make sweeping generalizations about women. The specific ways in which women are said to differ from men (more supportive and less aggressive, more into consensus and less into point-scoring, etc.) could come straight from the pages of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. These are hoary old gender stereotypes, which in other contexts feminists would decry as crude and sexist. Yet in the context of the election campaign they are being dusted off and trotted out as if they constituted a feminist argument. ‘Look, women are different from men, that’s why we need more of them in politics’. There is an excellent feminist case for equal political representation. So why use an argument whose basic assumption is that women deserve a place because they’re from Venus rather than Mars?

The burdens of civilization

Telling women they’re different, and that in some ways their difference makes them superior to men, has always been one way of consoling them for their inequality and powerlessness. It has also served as a convenient excuse for perpetuating that inequality: women demanding entry to some male-dominated institution can be told that they’re unsuited to it, or too good for it. The latter was a popular argument with Victorian anti-suffragists, who were fond of asking why the angel of the house would want to dabble her pristine wings in the sewer of politics.

At a certain point, when the angel’s demands can no longer be denied entirely, the argument changes tack: women can be allowed in after all, but not simply because they, like men, are people. Rather, because women’s distinctive qualities and ways of doing things are needed to civilize the institution. Like wives putting up curtains in their husbands’ sheds, women in politics, or business, or the Church, will use their feminine touch to smooth off the male rough edges, and everyone—men as well as women—will benefit.

This is exactly what was said about the women MPs who went to Westminster in 1997. Evidently their civilizing mission was not successful: eighteen years later, here we are again. Which, when you think about it, is no surprise: you can’t be expected to change an institution’s culture if your position within the institution is one of structural powerlessness. And the women MPs (or ‘Blair’s Babes’, as the Labour ones were different-but-equally called) were in exactly that position.

It wasn’t just that they were heavily outnumbered, though they were. The linguist Sylvia Shaw, who did research in the House of Commons a few years after the 1997 election, found that the men did not treat their female colleagues as equals, they treated them as interlopers. The women were subjected to sexist barracking when they rose to speak, and sanctioned for breaking the arcane rules of Parliamentary debate while men were allowed to break the same rules with impunity. As a result the women got less speaking time and had less influence in debates. They didn’t struggle with the adversarial debating style of the House of Commons; what they struggled with was the sexism of the men in the House of Commons.

This is another reason why I get angry when people say that women don’t shine as public speakers because the adversarial style doesn’t suit them: they aren’t into point-scoring, they’re not interested in power, they’re natural consensus-seekers who shy away from conflict. This implies that women are unequal in public life because they’re different, when really it’s the other way round. If women aren’t allowed to participate on equal terms, any differences we see are more likely to be effects of sexism than of sex. We can’t know what difference their sex makes until we see how they behave in conditions of sex equality.

That’s what makes the election debates so interesting. They’ve offered a rare opportunity to watch politicians performing in conditions of near equality (in one debate there were four men and three women, in the other three women and two men; all participants had the same status as party leaders; they were all bound by the same rules and had an equal number of pre-allocated turns). And under those conditions what I think we saw was not a male-female stylistic divide. There were differences between individuals, but no clear division by sex.

You might be thinking: but surely there are good feminist arguments for a less adversarial style of political discourse? I’m not sure I agree. I do agree that some of the conventions and rituals of Westminster have little to contribute to modern democratic debate (the cheer-and-jeerfest that is Prime Minister’s Questions comes to mind). But I have never bought the argument that adversarial discourse itself is a ‘male’ thing, and serves only as a vehicle for macho posturing.

Since conflict is an integral part of politics, I think adversarial discourse will always have a place in it. It’s not the only game in town—deliberation and negotiation are also important—but I can’t imagine a political movement or a democratic assembly that wouldn’t require its members to engage in debate. Saying that women are too civilized to get involved in the adversarial stuff is like saying that angels shouldn’t dabble in sewers. It’s saying that women can’t do politics at all. And if that’s a feminist argument, I’m a banana.