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.

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If the left leaves it to David Cameron, we'll have Brexit for sure

Only an upbeat, leftwing case can keep Britain in the European Union.

After months flapping and hesitation, and with much of the reporting and detail so dull that it has barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who speak the language of ‘directives’ and treaty provisions, the EU referendum is upon us. With David Cameron signalling concrete outcomes for negotiations, we seem to be set for June, whatever the protests from opposition parties about the date being too close to local and national elections.  

Cameron’s deal, whose most substantive element consists of denying in-work benefits to European citizens, exemplifies the kind of debate that Conservative strategists want to create: a tedious, labyrinthine parochialism, blending the EU’s procedural dullness with an unquestioned mythology of the little Englander. Try actually reading the various letters, let alone the draft decisions, that Cameron extracted from Donald Tusk, and the agreement turns to putty in your head. But in summary, what Cameron is negotiating is designed to keep the EU debate as an in-house affair within the right, to continue and formalise the framing of the debate as between two strains of anti-migrant sentiment, both of them backed by big business.

The deal may be reactionary, but it is also mediocre in its scope and impact. The worries that many of us had in the leftwing pro-In camp, that Cameron’s deal would push back freedom of movement and working and environmental protections so far that we would be unable to mobilise for continued membership of the EU, can now be put to bed. Quite the opposite of allowing Cameron's narrative to demoralise us, the left must now seize an opportunity to put imagination and ideas back at the heart of the referendum debate.

The British political landscape in which that debate will play out is a deceptively volatile environment. Party allegiance is at a nearly all time low. Inequality is growing, and so is the gap between attitudes. The backbone of the UKIP vote – and much of the Out vote – will come from a demographic that, sometimes impoverished by the legacy of Thatcherite economic policy, sees itself as left behind by migration and change. On top of the class war, there is a kind of culture war underway in today’s Britain: on one side those who see LGBT rights, open borders and internationalism as the future; on the other side, those who are scared of the future. About the only thing these groups have in common with one another is their anti-establishment instincts, their total disdain and mistrust of politics as usual.

The only political movement to have broken through the fog of cynicism and disillusionment in British politics has come from the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour has unleashed something new - and while large parts of the press, and some Labour backbenchers, have portrayed this rise as a crusade of the “croissant eating” metropolitan elite, the reality is very different. The rise of the new Labour left has given voice to a renewed socialist and working class politics; its explicitly radical, outsider approach has given it traction across the social divides – among the young looking for a future, and among Labour’s old base. 

A politics of hope – however vague that term might sound – is the only real answer to the populist Euroscepticism that the Out campaign will seek to embody. Radical politics, that proposes an alternative narrative to the scapegoating of migrants, has to find voice in the course of this referendum campaign: put simply, we need to persuade a minimum wage worker that they have more in common with a fellow Polish migrant worker than they do with their employer; we need to persuade someone on a social housing waiting list should blame the privatisation of the housing market, not other homeless families. Fundamentally, the real debate to be had is about who the public blames for social injustice: that is a question which only the left can satisfactorily answer.

The outsider-led volatility of British politics gives the EU referendum a special kind of unpredictability. For voters who have lost faith in the political establishment – and who often have little materially to lose from Brexit – the opportunity to deliver a blow to David Cameron this summer will be tempting. The almost consciously boring, business-dominated Britain Stronger In Europe campaign makes a perfect target for disenfranchised public sentiment, its campaigning style less informed by a metropolitan elite than by the landed gentry. Its main weapons – fear, danger and uncertainty – will work on some parts of the electorate, but will backfire on others, much as the Better Together campaign did in the Scottish referendum.

Last night, Another Europe is Possible held a launch meeting of about a hundred people in central London - with the backing of dozens of MPs, campaigners and academics across the country. It will aim to provide a radical, left wing voice to keep Britain in the EU.

If Britain votes to leave the EU in June, it will give the Right a mandate for a renewed set of attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants and freedom of movement. But without an injection of idealism and radicalism,  an In vote will be a mandate for the status quo - at home and in Brussels. In order to seize the real potential of the referendum, the left has to approach the campaign with big ideas and demands. And we have to mobilise.