Feminism is not about women, it is about power imbalances

To change Britain for the better, we must dispute the right's depiction that feminism is about "issues".


It used to be said a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Surely then Conservatives claiming to be feminists is like Nemo competing in the Tour de France. But before the left dismisses those on the right who call themselves sisters, we should ask what we are doing to offer women in Britain an alternative and progressive claim to their future. We also have to remind some on our own side of the rewards to all in the pursuit of a more equal society.
Having more Tory women MPs in parliament has changed the political landscape. When giving anonymity to those accused of rape was first mooted, we worked across the House to stop the proposals proceeding. Their enthusiasm for this debate is a welcome sign concern for gender inequality is now perceived as mainstream.
Yet if we welcome their interest in feminism we also query their interpretation. They actually mean simply talking about women, not equality; hence their warm words are not matched by a commitment to action to address inequality. Tory feminism at its worst is about attracting female voters and liking the Spice Girls, a twisted take on the ethos of the film Working Girl. At is most consistent it reduces feminism to a series of yes/ no questions. Are you pro-life or pro-choice, pro-tax credits or pro-marriage, pro-Top Totty beer or po-faced?
Making feminism a 'pick and mix' of issues however important - whether genital mutilation, access to childcare or pornography - disaggregates each of these concerns from the other and the 'big thing' which underpins them all. For progressives, feminism is not about women per se. It is about this 'big thing'; the power imbalances within society that mean 50% of our population struggle to achieve their potential - and the benefits to us all of acting to break these down.
These barriers appear in many different and connected ways. Whether economic - the persistent pay gap or lack of women in boardrooms, social - the provision of services to fit a stereotype of what family life should be, cultural - the proliferation of 'lad mags', personal - debates around body image, or even political - the lack of women in decision making. The thread that runs through all these issues is not who is affected, because we all are, but how the exercise of power enables exclusion and its consequences.
Seeing these concerns as separate allows Tory feminists to choose what is a 'women's issue' and what is a 'personal matter'. This helps square the circle of an interest in social inequality and being in thrall to free markets. So whilst they speak out about a lack of female TV presenters, they are silent when it comes to the impact of the universal credit on female incomes. It also allows them to discount the variety of women's lives, so ignoring how gender intersects with social class, ethnicity, sexuality and disability. Attempts to argue those on low incomes have different needs or are affected by cuts differently are rejected as disempowering. That the women who do manage to break through the glass ceiling are predominantly from privileged backgrounds reinforces the need for an alternative perspective that recognises we all miss out when anyone is blocked from contributing to our shared future. So whilst we all may say we want women to be free to live the lives they wish, and that sexism is wrong, Conservative feminists offer at best warm words of encouragement - and at worst pass judgment those who struggle in today's society simply aren't trying hard enough
Progressive feminism sees the problems and the solutions differently. We understand discrimination comes in a variety of forms and so requires a multitude of actions. That a cartoon woman in a bikini and bunny ears on a beer pump plate denote a society where a woman's appearance is given higher priority than her ability. That this is in turn part of a global culture in which a woman's reproductive capacity is used to objectify her. That 'little things' like airbrushing photographs and ignoring women sports players help make 'big things' like denial of democratic or human rights easier because they help devalue the status of women as equal citizens.
We also know our task isn't just to identify these links, but redistribute the power and resources required to overcome these inequalities for the benefit of all. Having started the battle for a fairer society we must continue to pursue it or risk others appropriating it to their own ends. If the right wishes to argue money doesn't matter and all anyone needs is ambition and a sharp suit, the left must fight for the greater prizes to be won when we all work together to break down inequality in its many forms. This is not just about changing a parliament when men still outnumber women 4 to 1. Societies with more equal distributions of power in all its forms are also more prosperous for all their citizens.
That means taking on not only those who want to turn the clock back but those who want to go no further - whether on left or right. Our challenge isn't just to promote the timeless case for equality. It is to deal with the outcomes of our '80/20' society where "some" women in a boardroom or Westminster or a narrowing pay gap is taken to be 'enough'. The stubbornness of this ratio in defining our modern gender divide is compounded by those who think they are on the losing end - whether within our party, business leaders or Tory women -- and so seek to check any further moves forward.
To tackle this we not only have to highlight existing achievements but also how barriers to equality have moved or mutated -- whether via the impact of the internet, Beyonce, or Arab Spring - even if the power underpinning them remain as ever doggedly defined by gender. In taking on popular culture's depiction of femininity, the growing risks to personal safety or in the resistance to change in workplaces, progressives need to engage and empower a new generation of men and women who may call themselves "feminists" but believe the gains we have made are as far as it goes -- and as good as it gets.
In doing so we should work with the Government where we can - and hold them to account for the things they don't want to talk about, including policies that perpetuate, exacerbate or ignore inequality or disregarding the cumulative impact of the cuts on women. Whether reducing access to legal aid for victims of domestic violence, resisting equal pay audits or moves to curb access to abortion, women are paying a heavy price under the Coalition.
Progressives understand the value of a society in which women from all walks of life are supported to achieve their potential because of the benefits this will bring to us all. That includes championing how the changes we secured transformed Britain for the better for both men and women and the returns to come from further advances. To secure these we must ensure feminism isn't only for women and dispute the right's depiction it is about 'issues'. As we celebrate International Women's Day we should not calm down, dears. Sisters and brothers who want a more socially just, fairer and prosperous world for all: we only have our bikinis and bunny ears to lose. Girl power indeed.

Stella Creasy is the MP for Walthamstow.

MPs elected in 2010 pose in Westminster Hall. Photograph: 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.