Feminism doesn’t mean learning to play the game - it’s a total game-changer

Women shouldn't have to "emulate male behaviour" to get ahead.

Another day, another columnist demonstrating just how warped the public perception of "feminism" is. 

Today in The Guardian, Hannah Betts revealed that "Feminism and flirtation are by no means unlikely bedfellows". Thanks Hannah. I’d no idea.

Apparently, joint research from the University of California, Berkeley and the London School of Economics demonstrates that women who use "feminine wiles" get ahead better in life – to be exact, used in negotiation, the use of these "wiles" improves one’s "prospects of brokering success by up to a third". So far, so depressingly uncontentious; Betts herself refers to Catherine Hakim’s Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital - a book which, like Betts’s article, does nothing to challenge gender norms, and everything to teach women how to play the game.

According to Betts, an ability to play the game and deploy "the theatricality of femininity", could "prove one of feminism’s chief weapons" – if only the dour, naysaying, “dungaree”-wearing crowd would just let us chicas get our flirt on.

So what’s the issue? Should the dungarees just slip into something more sexual?

Short answer, no.

Firstly, this type of reductive, lazy stereotyping is debate at its most disingenuous. Betts creates and dispenses with her mythical adversary by undermining her – and, by extension, anyone else who actually genuinely exists and genuinely disagrees with Betts’s argument. "Oh, you disagree with me?" Betts snidely says. Well, I’ve dealt with your sort – you’re that mythical ‘Seventies’ feminist, and I’ve already pointed out that you’re too vested in your dungarees to bother arguing with – you’ll ‘never be happy’.

Betts’s choice of words is telling here – she doesn’t say that this type of feminist will never agree, she says they’ll "never be happy" with the type of "feminism" she proposes. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. By presenting those who oppose her version of "feminism" as unhappy rather than disagreeing, she undermines the position from which they disagree. It is presented as emotion, rather than logic – women are emotional and illogical – where have I heard that one before? Or maybe it was here? Even more insidiously, Betts’s image of the unhappy feminist in a shapeless onesie buys into the decades-old patriarchal dismissal of feminists as joyless, sexless crones, who exist only to ruin everyone else’s fun. So, who wants to align themselves with illogical killjoys? No, me neither. Betts / Patriarchy 1: Feminism: 0

Betts quotes research director Dr Laura Kray, who said that, “Feminine charm is a strategic behaviour aimed at making the person you are negotiating with feel good in order to get them to agree to your goals.” Betts extrapolates from this:

"According to Kray and her team, charm evolved to meet the vexed issue that, while being perceived as too masculine is disapproved of in women, failure to meet masculine norms means that they are considered less competent. A little light flirtation allows women to emulate male behaviour, while creating an alluring diversion."

So, Betts reasons, by being critical of this type of behaviour, feminists are preventing women from getting on in life – and who could argue with that?

Let me try.

The fundamental problem with Betts’ argument is that she has a woefully short-sighted vision of what feminism could achieve. Feminism isn’t against women using sex because feminists are sexless, feminism is against women using sex because it is indicative of the prevailing inequity which means that women have to use sexual attraction in order to "divert" men, and enable them to "emulate male behaviour". Betts points to the use of flirtation by Elizabeth I and Margaret Thatcher – two women who, against all sexist odds, came to power. Betts herself says of Thatcher, "If Alan Clark and his cronies were going to objectify her, then she was going to work it." And that "if" is crucial: Thatcher flirted because they objectified her. It was a tactic, deployed in order to deal with sexism. So the use of "feminine wiles" by these two women is not something to be celebrated; it is something to be deplored.

Betts attempts to illustrate the reasonableness of her point by presenting flirting as the female counterpart to "rhetoric". She says that like this ‘”manly” art', flirtation relies on sprezzatura. But Betts is being disingenuous here – and she must know it. Rhetoric was one of the key elements of Renaissance Humanism; it was, and remains, intensely cerebral, and the dichotomy between male rhetoric and female flirtation harks back to the ancient principle that aligned the man with the mind and the woman with the body. Using rhetoric displays your mental agility, your ability to dazzle your adversary with your words; flirting relies on your sex-appeal. Therefore, Betts’s clumsy attempt to use Camus’s assertion that ”Charm is a way of getting the answer yes without asking a clear question” is, like her throwing around of Butler and de Beauvoir, in itself a diversionary tactic – designed to distract us from the reality that her argument merely rehearses centuries-old gender disparities, rather than attempting to challenge their foundations. If she were dead. Butler would be turning in her grave to be thus co-opted.

Betts is not wrong to suggest that feminine "wiles" help women get what they want. But she is wrong to suggest that this type of behaviour should be the natural ally of feminism. Feminism doesn’t mean learning to play the game: it’s a total game-changer.

Caroline Criado-Perez has just completed at degree in English Language & Literature at Oxford as a mature student, and is about to start a Masters in Gender at LSE. She is also the founder of the Week Woman blog and tweets as @WeekWoman


A couple flirting beside a Christmas tree, December 1955. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.