In this week's New Statesman: The weaker sex

Natasha Walter | Jonathan Rutherford | Jeanette Winterson | Jenni Murray | Naomi Wolf | Liz Jones |

the weaker sex

The meaning of the F-word

For this special New Statesman Sex issue, we ask 19 writers, activists and politicians: if feminists could campaign on only one issue over the next year, what should it be? The responses include:

Jenni Murray, presenter, BBC "Woman's Hour" Childcare

I find that the personal drives my political priority for campaigning. It was in 1972 that the women's liberation movement included 24-hour, free, quality childcare in its seven demands. Let's be pragmatic: maybe 24 hours is a little excessive. Most important, let's emphasise that this is a demand made not just by mothers, but by parents, because the care of children is not solely a woman's job.

Jeanette Winterson, author Getting into the boardroom

Get women on to boards. Men pretend that what they do is so hard . . . They should try walking in a pair of Louboutins while giving a presentation and running a family. (How about having a national Men's High-Heel Day, where we send them about their business as normal but in heels?) Just put women on the boards! We will soon find our way. No more excuses from the men. Change it now.

Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow Personal safety

From fears about cuts to services for victims of rape or domestic violence to the impact of turning off street lighting and raising car parking charges and discomfort at the way in which women are portrayed in modern culture, the responses astounded us all. Some of these problems pre-date the coalition but bringing them together highlights how women are now under pressure from many different directions. It must be our choice to challenge this.

Naomi Wolf, author and political consultant Uphold the bill of rights

Feminists should campaign to end the department of homeland security and repeal the National Defence Authorisation Act and the Patriot Act, because there won't be any feminism or dissent of any kind if there ain't no bill of rights. First things first.

Liz Jones, columnist, Daily Mail Be honest about airbrushing

Women are being assaulted as never before by images of perfection. We need laws on retouching, with the unadulterated original posted on the internet as a sort of Dorian Gray flashback. Lack of self-esteem ruined my life, so let's stop it ruining any more.

Louise Mensch, Conservative MP for Corby Trafficking

Let the police, the CPS, the courts and politicians recognise what sexual trafficking is and the difference between prostitution and gang rape. It is part of the overall culture of hand-washing on sexual violence against women. Traffickers are slavers and rapists and they should go to prison for their entire lives, in recognition of the lives of the girls and women they have stolen.

Rob Delaney, comedian Education

Women outnumber men on our planet. And women create life inside their bodies. Yet misogyny and sexism, whose twin engines are fear and ignorance, continue to exist. We must deprive them of their fuel and that begins by educating women and men. The good news is that women and men start out as girls and boys, who are more fun to be around.

How to be a man: Jonathan Rutherford versus Natasha Walter

In the NS Cover Story, "The weaker sex", the editor of Soundings journal, Jonathan Rutherford, and the writer and campaigner Natasha Walter debate whether feminism has left masculine identity in the 21st century in crisis.

Rutherford argues that, in just over a single generation, the tenets of traditional male identity have collapsed:

Millions of skilled working-class jobs that once gave men status and purpose have gone. The male solidarity that was the backbone of the labour movement has gone. So has the family wage, and increasingly men can no longer follow their fathers and grandfathers in the role of family breadwinner. Old-fashioned, maybe, but any parent of the bride wants to know the prospects of their future son-in-law.

All these social changes - especially for those at the top and bottom ends - have had the effect of "a prolonged form of masculine adolescence without obligations of paternity or responsibility for others".

Rutherford finds that in politics, too, masculine identity has been stifled:

Last year when the party's Blue Labour tendency argued for a politics of masculinity, accusations that the idea was anti-women abruptly ended public discussion. As one tough-minded male Labour member advised the party, "Men do not debate feminism with women."

Responding to Rutherford, Natasha Walter, author of Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism, questions how we are to know whether feminism has been successful:

Are we to assume that feminism has done its job because it has increased the numbers of Labour MPs - or because men are now doing as much childcare as women at weekends? It is dangerously easy to pick out a small example of progress and use it to gloss over the enormous evidence of continuing inequality.

With latest figures from the Fawcett Society showing that women's unemployment is at a 25-year high, Walter argues that austerity measures are hitting women hardest:

Women's supposed emotional affinity for new kinds of service-sector work, which may start with their greater readiness to smile at customers but may translate into a greater readiness to wipe bottoms or clean lavatories, may be born of necessity rather than some natural ability to empathise or serve.

She ends with a warning that the debate cannot be turned into a competition to decide who feels most pain:

This is not the time for nostalgia for the good old days when men were worn down by being non-stop breadwinners and women by being non-stop unpaid homemakers. This is a time to try to find a more equal sharing of the burdens and the rewards of paid and unpaid work.

Jemima Khan: The marriage business

Also for the Cover Story, Jemima Khan reports on the booming business of arranged marriages in the UK.

With Muslim men bringing 12,000 women to Britain as spouses from the Middle East, career women are increasingly electing to become "co-wives":

[Mizan Raja, who runs a Muslim matrimony service in east London,] reckons he gets between five and ten requests every week from women who are "comfortable with the notion of a part-time man" . . . There is someone for everyone, but if you're female and over 30 or divorced, you may have to share. The same rules do not apply to men.

Khan finds that the online marriage scene, too, is flourishing - more than two million members use shadi.com, one of the world's largest portals. Unlike ordinary dating sites, these "seem designed to repel any skulking commitment-phobes". Khan notes:

Those registering are asked upfront: "Would you like to get married soon or within 12 months?" Users are asked to rate their religiousness, family status, class, complexion ("fair, medium, dark or wheatish"), income and, brutally, their weight - in exact kilograms.

Also in the Sex issue

In the NS interview, Mary Roach, the American author of Stiff, Spook and Bonk, talks about the science of sex; the NS reports on attempts by politicians and religious leaders to control our sex lives; Nichi Hodgson asks whether feminism is sexist, and Helen Lewis explores OkCupid, the dating website whose data reveals some unexpected prejudices.

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

All this plus Tim Montgomerie, founder of ConservativeHome, on his frustrations with the Tory party in an interview with George Eaton; Mehdi Hasan on Ken Livingstone's tax avoidance; Nelson Jones argues Cardinal Keith O'Brien's apocalyptic rhetoric on same-sex marriage shows he knows the argument has already been lost; Laurie Penny reports from Washington, DC on Rush Limbaugh, and in Critics, the leading historian Richard J Evans eviscerates A N Wilson's Hitler: a Short Biography.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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In her first interview of 2017, I pressed the Prime Minister for Brexit clarity

My week, including running out of cat food, reading Madeleine Thien – oh, and interviewing Theresa May on my show.

As the countdown to going live begins in your ear, there’s always a little rush of adrenalin. Especially when you’re about to launch a new Sunday morning political programme. And especially when you’re about to conduct the Prime Minister’s first interview of 2017. When you hear the words, “Cue Sophy,” there’s a split-second intake of breath – a fleeting moment of anticipation – before you start speaking. Once the show is under way, there’s no time to step back and think; you’re focused on what’s happening right now. But for that brief flicker of time before the camera trained on you goes live, you feel the enormity of what’s happening. 

My new show, Sophy Ridge on Sunday, launched on Sky News this month. After five years as a political correspondent for the channel, I have made the leap into presenting. Having the opportunity to present my own political programme is the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s a bit like having your own train set – you can influence what stories you should be following and which people you should be talking to. As with everything in television, however, it’s all about the team, and with Toby Sculthorp, Tom Larkin and Matthew Lavender, I’m lucky enough to have a great one.

 

Mayday, mayday

The show gets off to a fantastic start with an opportunity to interview the Prime Minister. With Theresa May, there are no loose comments – she is a cautious premier who weighs up every word. She doesn’t have the breezy public school confidence of David Cameron and, unlike other politicians I’ve met, you don’t get the sense that she is looking over her shoulder to see if there is someone more important that she should be talking to.

In the interview, she spells out her vision for a “shared society” and talks about her desire to end the stigma around mental health. Despite repeated pressing, she refuses to confirm whether the UK will leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. However, when you consider her commitment to regaining control of immigration and UK borders, it’s very difficult – almost impossible – to see how Britain could remain a member. “Often people talk in terms as if somehow we are leaving the EU but we still want to kind of keep bits of membership of the EU,” she said. “We are leaving. We are coming out. We are not going to be a member of the EU any longer.” Draw your own conclusions.

 

Women on top

This is probably the kind of thing that I should remain demurely quiet about and allow other people to point out on my behalf. Well, screw that. I think it’s fantastic to see the second female prime minister deciding to give her first interview of the New Year to the first woman to front a Sunday morning political show on television. There, I said it.

 

Escaping the bubble

In my view, every journalist should make a New Year’s resolution to get out of London more. The powerful forces that led to the political earthquake of 2016 came from outside the M25. Every week, I’ll be travelling to a different part of the country to listen to people’s concerns so that I can directly put them to the politicians that I interview. This week, it was Boston in Lincolnshire, where the highest proportion of people voted to leave the European Union.

Initially, it was tricky to get people to speak on camera, but in a particularly friendly pub the Bostonians were suddenly much more forthcoming. Remain supporters (a minority, I know) who arrogantly dismiss Leave voters as a bunch of racists should listen to the concerns I heard about a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights. Politicians are often blamed for spending too much time in the “Westminster bubble”, but in my experience journalists are often even worse. Unless we escape the London echo chamber, we’ll have no chance of understanding what happened in 2016 – and what the consequences will be in 2017.

 

A room of one’s own

Last December, I signed a book deal to write the story of women in politics. It’s something I’m passionate about, but I’ll admit that when I pitched the idea to Hachette I had no idea that 2016 would turn out to be quite so busy. Fitting in interviews with leading female politicians and finding the time to write the damn thing hasn’t been easy. Panic-stricken after working flat out during the EU campaign and the historic weeks after, I booked myself into a cottage in Hythe, a lovely little market town on the Kent coast. Holed up for two weeks on my own, feeling a million miles away from the tumultuous Westminster, the words (finally) started pouring on to the page. Right now, I’m enjoying that blissful period between sending in the edited draft and waiting for the first proofs to arrive. It’s nice not to have that nagging guilty feeling that there’s something I ought to be doing . . .

 

It’s all over Mao

I read books to switch off and am no literary snob – I have a particular weakness for trashy crime fiction. This week, I’ve been reading a book that I’m not embarrassed to recommend. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by the Canadian author Madeleine Thien, tells the haunting story of musicians who suffered during the Cultural Revolution in China. It’s also a chilling warning of what happens when anger towards the elite is pushed too far.

 

Political animals

However busy and exhilarating things are at work, my cat, Ned, will always give me a reality check. In the excitement of the first Sophy Ridge on Sunday, I forgot to get him any food. His disappointed look as he sits by his empty bowl brings me crashing back down to earth. A panicked dash to Sainsbury’s follows, the fuel warning light on all the way as I pray I don’t run out of petrol. Suddenly, everything is back to normal.

“Sophy Ridge on Sunday” is on Sky News on Sundays at 10am

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent for Sky News.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge