Feminism's biggest challenge for 2012: justifying its existence

No one likes being told what to do.

"The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist," says Verbal Kint at the end of The Usual Suspects. As we approach the beginning of 2012, feminism's greatest trick must be to convince the world it should still exist.

This morning, because I am apparently constitutionally unable to take a holiday, I asked my Twitter followers what I thought was a simple question: "What is the biggest, most important single issue for feminists in 2012? What should we get angry about?" My reasoning was that with limited attention spans and resources, any movement has to have a focus; and with feminism now so diverse (and its different strands sometimes so combative) it would be interesting to see what the biggest issues were.

Perhaps I should have predicted the first wave of answers: pandas. It was a reference to yesterday's teapot-storm about the BBC choosing a female panda as one of its "Faces of the Year - Women". I'd had a mild grump about this, and then a larger grump at people telling me that I shouldn't be grumpy when famine and disease were going on. (It's all about proportion. Yes, it's important not to get endlessly bogged down in trivial crap, but it's not as if I would have spent the time I used on those handful of tweets to further the Middle East peace process. But that's a post for another day, to be entitled: I CAN CARE ABOUT MORE THAN ONE THING AT ONCE, YOU KNOW.)

After that, an incredibly diverse range of answers began to flow in, including: women's rights in Saudi Arabia; the mistreatment of women in Egypt by the security forces; the disproportionate effect of the coalition's cuts on women; the low number of female MPs; gender stereotyping in advertising; under-representation in the media; lapdancing clubs; rape; "slut shaming"; abortion rights . . . the list goes on. Have a look at the #fem2012 hashtag for more.

These are all fascinating topics, and give the lie to the idea that Western feminists are only interested in opposing pink Lego to the exclusion of the graver issues faced by women in theocratic and developing countries. (Again: it's possible to care about more than one thing at once.) But soon, two common complaints emerged alongside the suggestions.

The first was that feminism needed to find a way to be less "angry". Now, this was partly down to the phrasing of my original question (as one person suggested: Why didn't you ask what feminism should try to achieve in 2012?) and I accept that. No one likes being lectured all the time.

The trouble is, of course, that feminists do have to be angry - or passionate, to use a less loaded term. I don't know how you can expect anyone to campaign against, say, female circumcision without getting just a little bit cross that girls who haven't even yet reached puberty are told their bodies are dirty, that sexual pleasure is sinful, and then forced to undergo excruciating, dangerous and unsanitary DIY operations to "cure" this. Yep, I'm feeling pretty shrill right about now.

The bigger problem, however, is to justify that anger when it's not directed at issues which are so obviously, manifestly wrong. And that's a particular challenge for Western feminists, because some huge battles have been won: I love voting. I love being able to drive (OK, only on Forza, but I could totally do it on the roads if I can just learn to tell my left from my right reliably under pressure). I love that I went to university. I love that nobody is approaching me with a pair of rusty scissors.

The battles that remain involve telling people -- often, but not exclusively, men -- that I don't like things they like, and I wish they didn't like them either. I'm sorry, I know that you enjoy sexist jokes on TV panel shows, but they make me uncomfortable. I'm sorry, I know that you read lads' mags, but I find them deeply depressing. I'm sorry, I know that you don't think it's a problem that women are under-represented in parliament, in science and in the media, but it is.

As a bleeding heart liberal, I feel hugely uncomfortable with trying to dictate other people's tastes -- and I certainly wouldn't try to "ban" jokes or magazines or adverts or toys (or whatever) that I disagreed with. But fundamentally, feminism is about trying to change people's minds. It just is. I am a killjoy. The last time I can remember someone trying to make feminism fun, it was Geri Halliwell jiggling around in a Union Jack dress burbling about "girl power" to flog a few more records for Simon Fuller. The only hope I can offer is that living in a more equal word will make everyone happier, on average -- but the truth is that for some people, the current world is working out very well, thank you very much.

Which brings me to the last, and biggest point. One of the most thought-provoking responses to my original question was this: "IMHO, [the] single biggest issue should be to work out why vast majority of women don't think feminism represents them." Is it because the big battles have been won? That must be something to do with it. Is it because first-world feminists don't talk enough about the struggles of women elsewhere? Probably, but I can care about being allowed to use "Ms" and the withdrawal of abortion rights.

Is it because feminism doesn't seem very fun? Undeniably. We've just got to do it anyway.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Getty
Show Hide image

Benn vs McDonnell: how Brexit has exposed the fight over Labour's party machine

In the wake of Brexit, should Labour MPs listen more closely to voters, or their own party members?

Two Labour MPs on primetime TV. Two prominent politicians ruling themselves out of a Labour leadership contest. But that was as far as the similarity went.

Hilary Benn was speaking hours after he resigned - or was sacked - from the Shadow Cabinet. He described Jeremy Corbyn as a "good and decent man" but not a leader.

Framing his overnight removal as a matter of conscience, Benn told the BBC's Andrew Marr: "I no longer have confidence in him [Corbyn] and I think the right thing to do would be for him to take that decision."

In Benn's view, diehard leftie pin ups do not go down well in the real world, or on the ballot papers of middle England. 

But while Benn may be drawing on a New Labour truism, this in turn rests on the assumption that voters matter more than the party members when it comes to winning elections.

That assumption was contested moments later by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

Dismissive of the personal appeal of Shadow Cabinet ministers - "we can replace them" - McDonnell's message was that Labour under Corbyn had rejuvenated its electoral machine.

Pointing to success in by-elections and the London mayoral election, McDonnell warned would-be rebels: "Who is sovereign in our party? The people who are soverign are the party members. 

"I'm saying respect the party members. And in that way we can hold together and win the next election."

Indeed, nearly a year on from Corbyn's surprise election to the Labour leadership, it is worth remembering he captured nearly 60% of the 400,000 votes cast. Momentum, the grassroots organisation formed in the wake of his success, now has more than 50 branches around the country.

Come the next election, it will be these grassroots members who will knock on doors, hand out leaflets and perhaps even threaten to deselect MPs.

The question for wavering Labour MPs will be whether what they trust more - their own connection with voters, or this potentially unbiddable party machine.