Tories can be feminists. They just might not be your kind of feminists

All social equality movements have their separate strands. Right-wingers aren't the enemy, any more

The recent refocusing of the feminism debate as a matter of left vs right might feel regressive, as hammily retro as a poor, pointed illustrative gag. But there's more to the partisan approach than over-simplistic team-picking.

What began as an attempt to nail Tory feminists to their cross -- first by Gaby Hinsliff in the Observer -- metamorphosed into a full-blown battle of ideology, with the somewhat surreal sight of Nadine Dorries standing up in Parliament to challenge BBC sexism on Monday. How could Dorries, a woman who only days before was proposing we teach girls in school to keep their legs crossed as a method of birth control, now be demanding an inquiry into the lack of women's representation in the media, citing research from her arch-enemy, the Guardian, as she did it? Suspending disbelief for a moment, it is possible that Dorries wasn't co-opting a "women's issue" for her party's purposes. Even if the BBC is hardly the worst culprit, her point about media sexism was still valid. But the left wouldn't have it, and as Laurie Penny, pitted against Louise Mensch, put it rather bluntly on Newsnight, some kinds of feminism are just plain wrong. The irony of one woman telling another what to think was not lost on the Twittersphere. Here, it triumphed, was proof of feminism's inherently flawed logic: a movement striving for women's rights championed by women that cannot agree on what is right.

All social equality movements have their separate strands. But perhaps the fact that mainstream debate has never really come to terms with the notion of "feminisms" has something to do with the sheer number of revolutionary turns the women's rights movement has taken (even popular discourse manages to talk of feminism's "waves"), and the fact that women are, paradoxically, a majority minority -- a group whose life experiences, personal and social needs are about as diverse as you'd expect from half the world's population. It's no wonder, then, that left and right can't agree. Of course, Mensch and Penny, Harman and May, right-wing think-tanker Charlotte Vere and Labour MP Stella Creasy (who had a politely aggressive exchange on Twitter earlier in the week) are striving for some common goals. But if one of you thinks more women in the work place is a matter of economic, rather than self-validating necessity, your ideas for how you not only end, but determine sexism, are obviously going to be pretty different. Sometimes it's what the left and right do agree on that highlights best the discrepancies in their thinking -- the issue of sexualised imagery, for example -- and the fact that consensus on the what disempowers women, if not the why, can be reached. (Of course, there are always going to be libertarian feminists like me who worry about the potential censoriousness of female sexuality that might arise if we start painting figleaves on every gazed-at lady -- but that's a whole other nit-picking debate, and not the primary issue of the porny-society one.)

Tories can be feminists, then. They just might not be your kind of feminists. As Mensch pointed out on Newsnight, historically, the women's movement is full of self-identified feminist right-wingers. But what the Tories have never been terribly good at is recognising the significance of intersectionalism on feminism -- the notion that class, economic and social status, race, educational background and disability status might just affect the severity of inequality women face -- and what powers they have to do something about it. A single mother and female heiress wanting to sell jewellery from a Chelsea boutique two days a week and a single immigrant mother on a Wakefield council estate wanting to work in the local supermarket two days a week might both face childcare issues due to male absenteeism. The means they have to tackle it are obviously going to be quite different. So when Mensch cited Conservative MP Nancy Astor as the first woman to take a seat in the Commons, what she forgot to consider was that Astor could combat the pure sexism she encountered (and there must have been some) with money, connections, and class privilege.

And don't let's forget the Man Question -- which as the heat generated by Nicky Woolf's post on the Staggers a couple of weeks ago proves, is usually where feminism reaches boiling pot. Intersectional feminism, it turns out, is pretty good at dealing with that too. If all women aren't equally affected by sexism, it stands to reason that men won't always automatically be the "oppressors".

Tories aren't the enemy then, any more than men are. Residual patriarchy, lack of legal rights and socio-economic privilege, meanwhile, remain worth fighting. For that, feminism needs a whole palette of combative colours.

Nichi Hodgson is a 28-year-old freelance journalist specialising in sexual politics, law and culture.

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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Brexit is the beginning of the end for Northern Ireland

The age-old bid for a unified Ireland is now wearing utilitarian clothes. 

Brexit has presented British politics with something akin to a "reverse West Lothian Question". Instead of worrying why Scots should get a vote on English laws, we now have English voters telling Scotland and Northern Ireland they must leave the European Union, despite the people in both small countries opting to stay. 

Sinn Fein could hardly believe its luck that 56 per cent of Northern Ireland’s voters chose to remain in the EU, but are nevertheless being forced out by the weight of English votes for Brexit. Their immediate call for a "border poll" on Irish unity is opportunistic and will, for now, go unheeded. 

What is different, though, is their age-old bid for Irish re-unification now comes wearing neutral, utilitarian colours, responding to a genuine, contemporary issue. Moreover, the threat of Brexit to Northern Ireland has seen the Irish establishment, in the shape of Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and his opposite number, the Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin, echo calls for an (eventual) poll on Irish unity.

Brexit is, indisputably, a game-changer. We are now plausibly witnessing the beginning of the end of Northern Ireland. Not least because the economics of leaving the EU are so utterly disastrous for it. 

Back in March, Northern Ireland’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment calculated that the risks of Brexit would be much more serious for Northern Ireland than the rest of Britain. Whereas Britain’s economic losses will be measured in the region of 0.1-4 per cent of GDP, for Northern Ireland that increases to up to 5.6 per cent.

In short, if Britain catches a cold by leaving the EU, Northern Ireland will get flu. Even if Theresa May eventually manages to negotiate ongoing single market access, the loss of agricultural subsidies and regeneration cash will be an unmanageable burden for the fragile cross-community executive to deal with.  

Last year, the devolved assembly's enterprise committee commissioned a report that showed the province received £2.4bn from the EU between 2007-13, and that continued funding deals up to 2020 are "central to Northern Ireland[s] economic and innovation strategies".

The report's author, Dr Leslie Budd from the Open University, argued that as well as damaging Northern Ireland's attractiveness as an entry route into the single market, transaction costs for trading into the EU would "rise significantly" and inhibit economic co-operation with the neighbouring Irish Republic. 

This is important because the Northern Ireland Executive plans to harmonise corporation tax rates with it in 2018. It is hoped the move will make the North a leaner competitor to the South in the foreign investment stakes, however it will still fall short if the Republic remains in the single market and Northern Ireland does not. 

Worries about any deterioration in North-South relations and being cut-off from the EU are very real. The Northern Ireland Chambers of Commerce have recently signed a ‘formal affiliation’ with Chambers Ireland to bolster all-Ireland business co-operation "in the current period of uncertainty." 

Meanwhile, there has been a rush to apply for Irish passports, so much so, in fact, that it’s said Belfast’s post offices have run out of application forms. Indeed, no less a figure than Democratic Unionist MP, Ian Paisley Junior, suggested his constituents should think of applying for one. A genuine "through the looking glass moment" to hear that from a Paisley.

The obvious effect of Brexit-inspired instability in Northern Ireland is that it will become an even larger burden on the British Exchequer. Already, one in three works in the engorged public sector and its fiscal deficit is so large the Treasury has to pump in £9 billion a year. Will hard-pressed English taxpayers prove willing to continue to bail out a place of which they know and care little?

But this is only half the story. If these are the obvious pressures as a result of Northern Ireland leaving the EU, what, then, are the benefits of joining with the Irish Republic? 

A major US academic study by the University of British Columbia last year modelled various scenarios and concluded that Irish unity could drive out €36bn euros of value during the first eight years, with the benefits disproportionately felt in Northern Ireland. 

So a clear, existential economic problem has emerged and with it a convincing, evidence-based economic solution. The only snag with Northern Ireland, though, is the politics.

The principle of consent, that there can be no change in its constitutional status unless a majority wishes it, is hardwired into the Good Friday Agreement and there is, so far, precious little interest among unionists in joining the Irish Republic.

But as the old saying goes, unionists are not so much loyal to the Crown as the half-crown. Maybe they will look more positively on the idea after suffering the very real economic effects of Brexit for a few years. A decision Eurosceptical unionists voted for in large numbers.

And in a decade’s time, perhaps we will look back and see these past few weeks were the beginning of the end for Northern Ireland.
 

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.