Monthly Archives: October 2015

Bringing up the body

Maddy Coy reviews Alison Phipps’s book The Politics of the Body, and finds it partial in both senses of the word

By Alison Phipps’s own account, her book The Politics of the Body sets out to ask ‘questions about how contemporary discussions of issues to do with women’s bodies reflect how we conceptualise embodiment’. Each chapter picks out a particular issue, or set of issues, relating to this general theme: the topics examined are sexual violence, gender and Islam, the politics of the sex industry and the reproductive regimes of birth and breastfeeding.

On the plus side, it’s good to see a feminist book that’s critical of the way neoliberalism has normalised ‘the politics of personal responsibility’ and conferred feminist status on any choice a woman makes, regardless of the constraints of social structure. It’s good to see someone examining discourses and debates around women’s bodies, and drawing on academic research to support, or dispute, what have become normative frameworks at best and incontestable truths at their most divisive. But it’s disappointing and frustrating to see this much-needed analysis marred by blind spots, misunderstandings and a thorough, seemingly deliberate hatchet-job on radical feminism.

For me, the book’s best and most accessible chapter is the last one, on birth and breastfeeding – the ‘new reproductive regimes of truth’. How, Phipps asks, has the ‘natural’ become so idealised, often robbing women of medical, technological advances that have made modern motherhood less painful and frankly, more convenient? When practices of attachment parenting and ‘the breastfeeding mafia’ are both lauded and decried by the mainstream media, even to suggest that there might be a place for epidurals, caesareans and formula milk as means for women to reclaim and re-inhabit a maternal body is no small stake in the ground.

Not that this is necessarily Phipps’ aim: rather she presents a careful argument about how choosing a ‘normal’ birth and the ‘self-sacrifice’ of breastfeeding is inextricably linked to privilege. In ‘attempt[ing] to apply the principle of intersectionality’, she calls out the way campaigns, initiatives and organisations that promote less intervention and ‘normal’ birth have become yardsticks by which to judge, as ill-informed and selfish, the choices made by the working class and minority women who are more likely to opt for pain relief and formula feeding. She unpicks the gender essentialisms behind these maternalist ideals, and how they have pushed women’s bodily autonomy aside in favour of ‘prescribed practices’. Never mind that research shows most women experiencing some form of ‘birth trauma’ have had ‘normal’ deliveries, or the inconsistencies in the evidence base on the benefits of breastfeeding. She points out that ‘only women who know they are able to give birth safely are able to reject the trappings of technology’, thus making a structural link with the romanticisation of natural birth in many parts of the world where there is little or  no access to medical care. This, as she astutely observes, illustrates the ‘shift from rights to choices’.

Nor does the merchandising industry that has sprung up around managing labour pains, aiding ‘natural’ birth, breastfeeding and kangaroo care-style attachment parenting, escape her forensic gaze. How neat that a movement supposedly empowering women to do what comes naturally requires relentless consumerism! Here Phipps identifies the way feminist goals have been co-opted by a neoliberal fetishization of personal responsibility. It’s the kind of incisive analysis many feminists will have been hoping for.

The chapter on sexual violence also starts promisingly, with a critical account of the controversies that swirl around Julian Assange, his refusal to answer questions about allegations of sexual assault in Sweden, and the similar defences of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Roman Polanski. The lefties who vocally supported Assange are painstakingly exposed. That powerful men have been allowed to abuse women with impunity has perhaps never been so publicly evident than at present, in the aftermath of the Jimmy Savile revelations and the arrests of various celebrities. Phipps shows that responses to Strauss-Kahn, Polanski and Assange were similarly revealing, and she distils these cases to explore ‘rape apologism’.

However, I am less than convinced by her argument that a central problem on the left is ‘an assumption that left-wing men are above misogyny’—not because I doubt that this assumption exists, but because it elides sexual violence with men’s hatred of women rather than their abuse of power. Some left-wing men might well be misogynists, but as feminists have long known, they can also be capable of abusing gendered power in ways that jar with their awareness of classed power. In this chapter on sexual violence (and the politics of victimhood), men’s entitlement to women’s bodies is discussed only once, with reference to Adrienne Rich, when surely it is central to any understanding of how all of these men were variously excused and idealised. Nor is there any reference here to the huge body of feminist work (much of it radical feminist) which relates to the debate on victimhood. It was after all Kathleen Barry who introduced the concept of ‘victimism’ in 1979 in her book Female Sexual Slavery.

Phipps does explore how the women abused by these men were interrogated by the media and found wanting, and links this insightfully to the way choice, agency and personal responsibility have come to dominate understandings of human behaviour. Yet her passing concern at how little attention is paid to the choices and agency of perpetrators is mirrored by the chapter itself. The argument here that only women’s choices have been ‘responsibilised’, especially with respect to sexual violence, leaves an echoing silence about men’s actions. The chapter ends with an ambivalent account of the controversy surrounding ‘Slutwalks’, celebrated as an initiative that rejects victim-blame and personal responsibility, but criticised at least in part because of concerns voiced by Black women about the racialisation of the term slut.

In the end, this chapter felt like a missed opportunity – a set of expectations raised and dashed, not least because of the sledge-hammer approach to radical feminism, which is repeatedly accused of an unholy alliance with neoconservative moralism, and used as the scapegoat for the deep suspicion with which left wing movements now regard victimhood.

Radical feminism: an enemy within?

In a book where every assertion is meticulously referenced, a strange and telling absence is the total lack of any reference to sources when repeating the assertion that radical feminism has embraced a ‘neoconservative gender essentialism’. So striking is this absence that it comes to define the author’s point of view. The refrain that there is a ‘convergence of radical feminism with neoconservative and neo-conservative law and order agendas’ is sprinkled throughout the entire text, sometimes on almost every page. In a couple of places ‘trafficking’ is invoked as an example of this alliance, but with no specific examples (of campaigns, support services or research) which might substantiate the point. In a book of this scope and potential, containing a thoughtful and sophisticated discussion of how neoliberalism and neoconservatism are defined and understood, it’s a pity Phipps fails to offer readers even the most basic definition of a strand of feminism that she repeatedly vilifies. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this omission is deliberate, for fear of giving radical feminist politics any intellectual legitimacy. Instead she reinforces every stereotype and myth (I’m sure you can reel them off without too much thought) in ways which ultimately diminish the intellectual integrity of her own position.

Taken at its most basic, radical feminism identifies men’s privilege over women as the root of women’s inequality, exercised particularly through entitlement to women’s bodies, and thus many activists on violence against women and girls trace the way we understand violence back to radical feminism. Many of the issues she engages with in the book – sexual violence, prostitution, crimes in the name of honour – owe their public profile to these very activists and the framings they use.

This is not to question the legitimacy of critiquing any political position, or the need to challenge the ways in which intersections with race and class have been less prominent than they should have been in some aspects of radical feminist theory and practice. But there is a disconnection throughout this book from the grassroots feminists who work on violence against women and girls. At times this is more of a shadow cast by the now familiar refrain about radical feminists jumping into bed with neocons, but it is also explicitly articulated, nowhere more obviously than in the chapter on gender and Islam.

For instance, Phipps insists on using the term ‘female genital cutting’ (linking the word ‘mutilation’ to an ‘Orientalist framework’) and when she uses the full term ‘female genital mutilation’ (FGM), she adds ‘[sic]’ to distance herself from it. There are interesting and legitimate debates about the meanings of the word mutilation, and particularly what it means for women who have undergone this form of violence to be labelled ‘mutilated’. Some use the term FGM/C to denote the complexities of finding language that does not alienate whilst also naming and defining. I would have welcomed discussion of this. But five seconds on the Internet would have told Phipps that many of the grassroots women’s organisations who specialise in campaigning against FGM (e.g. FORWARD, Daughters of Eve), led by women from practising communities who identify as survivors, use the term ‘mutilation’. This links the procedure to other forms of violence against women and girls. By insisting on using the term ‘cutting’ instead of ‘FGM’, Phipps manages at one stroke to decouple FGM from VAWG, placing herself at odds with international human rights approaches, and inadvertently slipping into both cultural relativism and colonial feminism.

It jars more than slightly for a privileged academic (Phipps refers to herself as ‘a white, western, able-bodied and cisgendered woman married to a man, living a fairly conventional middle-class lifestyle’) to reject the language that activists from the most respected and prominent NGOs use to frame the experiences of women in communities that practice FGM. I found myself wondering if Phipps deliberately rejects this framing because she views these organisations and survivors as under the umbrella of the radical feminists who are in turn in thrall to neocon law-and-order agendas. If so, then this example illustrates another way in which the intellectual positioning of this book, and Phipps’ wilful misrepresentation of radical feminism, leaves her arguments circulating within the rarefied sphere of the academy and totally detached from contemporary activism.

Not only is the term ‘female genital cutting’ used in this chapter, but the similarly problematic ‘wife-beating’ (with no ‘[sic]’ to suggest that it is someone else’s term with which she disagrees). There is a short section in this chapter on constructions of honour killing, which succinctly addresses the ways in which ‘culture’ (conflated with Islam?) is used as justification and explanation, whilst the motivations of ‘white’ men who kill women are not attributed to notions of honour. However, once again, to devote less than a page to violations of women’s bodies in a chapter of this potential scope, and instead spend most of its space on veiling, is wholly inadequate. What the key issues are for a political sociology of women’s bodies with respect to Islam depends on perspective; in the media it is indeed about veiling, and the contentions around ‘banning the burqa’. For those of us in the VAWG sector, there are deeper questions about the violations of women’s bodies, and representations of the Black woman’s body in relation to honour-based violence. There is, of course, a broad argument made here about the challenges facing feminism. But language matters, and ideas matter, and Phipps has chosen to position herself at one remove from specialists in the field and from many feminist activists.

The chapter on the sex industry reinforces this. Trafficking is only referenced in relation to that now rather tired old refrain about rad fems cheering on neocon rescue industries, a charge levelled at feminist organisations providing support to women who have been trafficked. Elsewhere, this slur is more insidiously used to suggest that such NGOs exaggerate the extent of trafficking. Again, my point here is not that the notions of rescue do not feature in the framings used by some of those that support victims of trafficking. I would have welcomed a discussion unpicking and evidencing this. Unfortunately, Phipps manages to problematise critical feminist perspectives on trafficking while providing no evidence for what is often a lazy pejoration.

The main thrust of this chapter, however, is a deconstruction of the ways in which arguments about women’s agency have been used to make the voices and experiences of the most privileged women in the sex industry the loudest. The wonderful term ‘sex work glitterati’ is deployed to great effect, exposing again how the appearance of cool liberalism privileges women who already enjoy social and economic capital, yet have become the ‘authentic’ voice of the sex industry. There is brief acknowledgement of how structural inequalities result in women choosing to commodify their bodies, which is then plated with a seemingly impenetrable veneer of voluntarism. The gendered asymmetry of prostitution is recognised, and ‘whorephobia’ – an accusation levelled noisily at most of us who critique the social institution of the sex industry – is identified as an example of the ‘politics of recognition’ which chooses to ignore structural inequalities.

So why might this otherwise trenchant critique be so disquieting? The first reason is relatively superficial – she insists on using the term ‘sex work’ throughout, language inextricably associated with the position that she critiques, rarely used by women in the sex industry (except by the ‘sex work glitterati’ that she discusses) and of course rejected by those of us with a more critical engagement. Secondly, in the binary of philosophically incompatible positions that Phipps discusses – sex radicals who celebrate the empowering potential of the sex industry and radical feminists for whose position she provides no explanation – she draws entirely on sex radical writing and research. Fair enough for a chapter aiming to interrogate this position. But it seems disingenuous to write a chapter on the politics of the sex industry which does not acknowledge any of the feminists who have for decades developed our thinking and empirical knowledge about it. It effaces our history, doubly so because it allows her to claim radical feminists’ arguments as her own.

Let us take a couple of her examples. (1) Evidence of trauma in ‘sex work’ – referenced to her own review of literature on this, not the radical feminist-inspired original research by Melissa Farley and her colleagues. (2) Failure of sex radicals to make the link between wider commodification of women’s bodies, especially in heterosexual exchanges? I can think of several pioneering – and radical – feminists who first put forward these very arguments. Kate Millett, Andrea Dworkin, Catharine Mackinnon and Sheila Jeffreys all developed analyses which linked heterosexuality, the social institution of marriage, women’s economic dependence and men’s entitlement to women’s bodies. Yet they are invisible here.

We all build on the work of others, of course, and sometimes we may be unaware of some of these influences and omit to credit those who first say new things. However, combined with the constant belittling of radical feminism, the omission here seems less the self-absorption of which we can all be guilty and more a conscious attempt by Phipps to make the work of those with critical views of the sex industry invisible, and thus unimportant. I think of my students, who might take this chapter as a measured and balanced discussion of feminist politics on prostitution, and how they might finish it with no sense of the richness and complexity of radical feminist critiques; instead they will have a fist full of references for writers on the sex industry from a different position, and be left with a completely unbalanced view of the history and present shape of this debate. A deeper analysis would have considered the argument that there is nothing ‘sex radical’ about accepting that men need access to the bodies of the world’s poorest women and girls for sexual release. Phipps seems again unable to critique men’s actions and the choices they make to use women’s bodies.

As a treatise on how progressive movements, with progressive goals, have been co-opted by neoliberal agendas, this book will be a thought provoking and uncomfortable read for many. Phipps identifies some hugely important questions, not least the problem for feminism of figuring out how it got itself into a kind of ideological impasse: caught between a libertarian position, which holds to questionable notions of agency, and an experiential position which runs the risk of being cast as moralistic and authoritarian. The disappointing thing is that Phipps herself reinforces this dichotomy, uncritically reproducing the caricature version of a materialist feminism which is at the root of most activism around violence against women. For those of us that locate our politics of the body in radical feminism, however loosely, this book will cause discomfort because of the way it dismisses or misrepresents our thinking and political activism.

Alison Phipps, The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neoliberal and Neoconservative Age. Polity Press, 2014.

Taking Ourselves Seriously: An Update

Earlier this year we reprinted an article by Jalna Hanmer, first published in 1996, about the state of feminist archives in the UK.  The piece included an account of the successful feminist campaign to prevent the break-up of the Fawcett Library collection and the proposed cherry-picking of historically ‘important’ texts by the LSE in 1976.   Despite this important achievement, now nearly 20 years ago, the Fawcett collection has finally been acquired by the LSE.  In this update, Jalna reflects on this outcome, reviews the current state of feminist archives, celebrates the achievements of the Feminist Libraries and Archives Network, and rearticulates the need for feminists to be more proactive in preserving our own history.

Feminist and Women’s Libraries and Archives have some good news to report, but the story is not an entirely happy one, as this article will reveal.

Amongst the most positive developments is the setting up of the UK Feminist Libraries and Archives Network (FLA) in February 2014:  The first task which FLA has embarked on is to locate all the feminist and women’s libraries and archives in the UK. This process is an ongoing project, and faces significant challenges as it relies on individual women, or those groups already involved in FLA, identifying relevant resources. A major reason for these difficulties is that in the move of the Women’s Library from London Metropolitan University to LSE, a valuable resource, Genesis, was deleted. Genesis was a free online resource for women’s history containing a catalogue of archive, library and museum collections across the British Isles and a guide for women’s history researchers.

There were a number of early participants in FLA, including Unfinished Histories, the Women’s Liberation Music Archive, the Nottingham Women’s Centre Library, Archif Menywod Cymru, Glasgow Women’s Library, the Feminist Archive North & South, and the Feminist Library in London. Here is a brief account of each of these archives, with links for further information:

Unfinished Histories, the history of alternative theatre in Britain, 1968-88, through interviews and the collecting of archive material from innovative individuals and companies involved:

Women’s Liberation Music Archive records and celebrates the wealth and diversity of feminist music making in the 1970-80s. It has a substantial web presence and keeps its archive of physical objects in the Feminist Archive South in Bristol:

Nottingham Women’s Centre has a growing feminist and LGBT library from the 1970s onwards with archival material that is both specific to Nottingham and from around the country. The library catalogue can be viewed here:

Archif Menywod Cymru / Women’s Archive Wales, founded in 1997 aims to raise the profile of women’s history in Wales. It promotes projects to seek out documents and to record people’s memories for present and future generations. The photographs and documents are deposited in the county archives throughout Wales and the National Library of Wales:

Glasgow Women’s Library is a lending and reference library, an archive and accredited museum. It works across Scotland and houses Scottish and UK materials including the Lesbian archive. It is an award winning fully independent enterprising charity with 22 staff working with 100 volunteers each year:

Feminist Archive North and South, located in Leeds and Bristol universities, houses national and international collections relating to the history of feminism from the late 1960s to the present day. They include documents relating to the many issues and activities of the Women’s Liberation Movement, including oral histories, film, banners and badges.

The Feminist Library in London, run entirely by volunteers, is a large collection of Women’s Liberation Movement material, mainly dating from the late 1960s onwards. It contains over 7,000 books, including 2,500 works of fiction, poetry and drama, 1500 periodical titles from around the world, archives of feminist individuals and organisations. Our collections of pamphlets and ephemera are now housed at the Bishopsgate Institute:

In addition to this, there is a growing list of interested groups and individual women in FLA, including two new feminist collections in Liverpool and Sheffield, but a major missing participant is the Women’s Library, a funded national archive on women, which includes the 19th century Fawcett suffrage collection along with more recent collections, currently housed at LSE.

The Women’s Library

In my article, Taking Ourselves Seriously, first published in 1996, and recently republished on the T&S website, I wrote of a historic moment in 1976, when feminists achieved an important victory in preventing the break-up of the Fawcett collection with a view to ‘important’ books being culled for inclusion in the Library at the LSE.

It is with great regret, therefore, that following the recent move of the Women’s Library from London Metropolitan University to the LSE, they have not replied to the invitation to participate in FLA. This is a cause of major concern for the following reasons:

The move from the London Metropolitan University to the LSE was resisted by many women who feared its open access and other resources would be eliminated. LSE has a history of an unsuccessful attempt to acquire the Fawcett suffrage collection dating from 1976[1] which is one part of the background to women’s concerns.

While at the London Metropolitan University, near Aldgate tube, access was easily available. All could walk in without prior notice, look at the extensive exhibitions, go to the café, read part of the collection on open access and request other items in the reading room. All of this changed with the move to LSE. Now one must register for access to the Women’s Library, limited to three months unless you have donated material when it is for one year. Women with children, the under 18s, and other groups who frequented the previous location cannot get in at all. The exhibition area is greatly reduced but accessible without registering, no café, limited material on open display, and other items must be requested in advance. However, once in the Women’s Library, the staff is friendly and helpful.

While this access to material is standard archival practice, the Women’s Library at London Metropolitan University promoted open access and continued to add current material from women and groups. At this point the accession policy at LSE is unknown, but a question is whether it is as extensive as before. The Women’s Library, once having registered, is on the 4th floor of the library and there is still no meeting room for events. While LSE could have obtained the purpose-built facilities from London Metropolitan University, this was rejected.

An example of changing access was the official opening event at LSE in March 2014. 300 people were invited and many more were not allowed to attend. There was a demonstration and a leaflet produced which was handed out to invitees, including the keynote speaker, Mary Robinson, Ireland’s first woman president and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. While she referred positively to the leaflet in the opening event, none of the points raised in this leaflet have received a reply.

The achievements of the Feminist Libraries and Archives Network

The FLA network has agreed ambitious aims to work together on a series of goals. These are both internal to the network and directed at a wider audience. The goals include:

  • Improving communications between feminist and women’s libraries and archives as a means to develop and strengthen connections within the network
  • An outcome of improved communication to promote mutual support and the sharing of knowledge and expertise
  • Working together to provide a platform to reach a wider audience and to highlight the importance of feminist and women’s libraries and archives
  • Collective action through establishing a network to ensure continuity

FLA also plans to create and maintain links with other women-friendly archiving projects which chronicle progressive social movements and the wider feminist activist community

The initial activities of FLA included the creation of a directory of feminist and women’s libraries and archives as a resource for FLA and external audiences. A first issue of the Directory with 48 entries was published in October 2014, but awaits funding to be updated and reprinted. We also held regular events for networking and knowledge sharing. FLA meetings are held every four months, mainly at Nottingham Women’s Centre. FLA also held a session on feminist libraries and archives at the 2014 Feminism in London Conference. We intend to grow the planning group with more women and feminists who will share in developing this network. FLA has a website: and a twitter account: @networkFLA

A matrix to establish the current state of the libraries and archives participating in FLA is being processed. With the exception of Glasgow Women’s Library, participant organisations in FLA are volunteer-led and unfunded with some universities offering support through premises and other aspects. Questions are being asked about financial sustainability, volunteers, staffing, digitisation, the environment for collections and resourcing, the building security, income generating activities, equipment, training programmes and governance. Major questions are how secure now and over time are feminist libraries and archives? What problems do they face? What are their needs? Where are the gaps? How serious are these issues?

There are growing links with other networks in Europe and internationally. From the very beginning interest in FLA was expressed by countries outside Europe, including Japan and Turkey. Atria, formerly IIAV, the oldest women’s library and archive in Europe, is holding an 80th anniversary conference in December 2015 which FLA participants plan to attend and contact is being made with WINE, the Women’s International Network Europe.

While these achievements, including links with international libraries and archives, are heartening, the non-involvement of the Women’s Library in FLA is a major obstacle affecting the coherence and comprehensiveness of women’s archives in the UK.

 The Future – How will Women’s History be Maintained?

 Who cares about women’s past? Those who have studied any history know that there is little about women. It is his story. Why should we think it will be any different in the future? The past offers no examples of serious collecting other than through women’s efforts. If we want women’s history of activities on behalf of women, through groups, organisations and campaigns to improve the position of women individually and in society, it is up to us.

Taking ourselves seriously involves collecting, donating, volunteering, financially supporting and keeping up to date on women’s libraries and archives. They have websites and welcome those who express interest. Nothing is forever and marginal groups, women’s libraries and archives in the voluntary sector, are especially vulnerable. Your interest and help are needed.

FLA is concentrating on setting up the organisational structure and continuing to implement the manifesto. If any reader knows of a library or archive collection that could be approached by FLA or would like more information or would like to be involved in any way, please contact

[1] See Women’s Report Volume 5 (1) November-December 1976 for the first attempt by LSE to acquire the 19th century Fawcett Collection.

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.