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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.