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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The Brexit ministers who just realised reducing immigration is a problem for them

Turns out there's a teeny tiny hiccup with reducing immigration...

On 27 December 2015, the then-backbencher MP David Davis declared he was "voting out" in the forthcoming EU referendum. Among his reasons was the "disastrous migration crisis". 

Fast forward 14 months. Now the minister responsible for Brexit, Davis has been spotted in the Latvian capital of Riga, with a slightly different message

He admitted it was not plausible that Brits would immediately take jobs in the kind of low-paid sectors like agriculture and social care currently staffed by migrant workers. 

Immigration restrictions "will take years" to be phased in, he added. 

Davis is only the latest minister in the Brexit government to realise that immigration might be down to more than some pesky EU bureaucrats. Here's when the penny dropped for the others: 

Andrea "Seasonal Labour"  Leadsom

During the EU referendum campaign, Brexit charmer-in-chief Andrea Leadsom told The Guardian that immigration from EU countries could “overwhelm” Britain, and that her constituents complained about not hearing English spoken on the street. 

But speaking to farmers in 2017 as Environment secretary, Leadsom said she knew “how important seasonal labour from the EU is, to the everyday running of your businesses”. She said she was committed to making sure farmers “have the right people with the right skills”. 

Sajid “Bob the Builder” Javid 

The Communities secretary Sajid Javid backed the Remain campaign like his mentor George Osborne, but when he was offered a job in the Brexit government, he took it.

Javid has criticised immigrants who don’t integrate, but it seems there is one group he doesn’t have any qualms about - the construction workers who build the homes that fall under his remit.

As early as September, Javid was telling the FT he wouldn’t let any pesky UK border red tape get between him and foreign workers needed to meet his housebuilding targets.

Philip “Citizen of the World” Hammond

So if you can’t kick out builders, what about that perennially unpopular group of workers, bankers? Not so fast, says Philip Hammond.

Just three months after Brexit, he said the government would use immigration controls “in a sensible way that will facilitate the movement of highly-skilled people between financial institutions and businesses”. 

As a Chancellor who personally backed Remain, Hammond is painfully aware of the repercussions if the City decamps to the Continent. 

Greg “Brightest and Best” Clark

The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy secretary backed Remain, and has kept his head down since winning the meaty new industrial brief. 

Nevertheless, he seems willing to weigh in on the immigration cap debate, at least on behalf of international students. Asked whether the post-study work visa pilot should continue, Clark said the government wanted to attract the brightest and best.

He continued:

"We have visa arrangements in place so that people can work in graduate jobs after that, and it is important that they should be able to do so."

Jeremy "The Doctor" Hunt 

The Health secretary kept his job in the turmoil of the summer, and used his conference speech to toe the party line with a pledge that the NHS would rely on less foreign medical staff in future.

The problem is, Hunt has alienated junior doctors by imposing an unpopular contract, and even those wannabe medics that do sign up will have to undergo half a decade of studying first.

Asked about where he plans to find NHS workers in Parliament, Hunt declared: “No one from either side of the Brexit debate has ever said there will be no immigration post-Brexit.” He also remained “confident” that the UK would be able to negotiate a deal that allowed the 127,000 EU citizens working for the NHS to stay. 

So it turns out we might need agriculture and construction workers, plus students, medics and even bankers after all. It's a good thing the government already has a Brexit plan sorted out...
 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.