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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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