Louise Mensch deserves our solidarity

I know what it’s like to be a woman with an opinion in a man’s world. I think Mensch does too.

Louise Mensch is currently making news because she’s been the target of misogyny. After she journeyed to every TV studio in London to voice her ill-advised support for Rupert Murdoch, some unpleasant individuals took to Twitter to brand her a slut, a whore, a bitch and other unedifying terms. In response, Mensch meticulously documented all those inveighing against her, and took to Twitter (where else?) to denounce them using the hashtag #feminism.

Never being one to miss out on a chance to fruitlessly commentate, I wanted to share with you my own experience of Mensch. You see a couple of months ago; I ended up having coffee with her at Portcullis House after we had a rather public spat about feminism. To be honest, I was apprehensive when she suggested we meet. because I feared the meeting would be so convivial I’d end up sympathising with her politics. I needn’t have worried: Mensch is every inch the Tory. She spoke about David Cameron in only the most effusive terms. At one point she even called him a feminist, which is frankly amazing to me. She never strayed once from the party line, and defended Tory policies to the point of nonsense. In that sense, Mensch is not the maverick she is made out to be. She’s a line-toer: a bog-standard, run-of-the-mill Tory.

But she’s also a Rottweiler. That combative, forthright thing she does on Newsnight isn’t a persona; it’s what she’s like. After we had our rendezvous I left feeling like I’d been savaged. That side of her, the side that’s always on the offensive, is where I think her feminism comes in. Because what I saw in Louise Mensch was a person who felt the need to defend her position – who felt she had fight for a place even in our argument. I suspected she’d had to fight really hard just to get the same hearing her male colleagues probably don’t even question.

During our meeting, Mensch was at her most passionate and sincere when she talked about feminism; especially in terms of how women are perceived by society. She was frustrated with the way women are constantly hemmed in by their gender; that we’re often made to feel as though womanhood is a thing we have to overcome in order to be taken seriously. I’m sure I’ll be accused of naïveté, but sitting there talking to her, I felt she was talking with the sort of depth that only comes from personal experience.

Now Mensch is being accused of using the misogyny she’s encountered to claim some sort of victim status. Well I’m sorry, but I just don’t think that’s true. Whenever I have suffered misogyny as a result of an argument I have made, I’ve never thought, ‘oh good, here’s something I can use.’ I feel depressed, because yet again I’m not being listened to. Yet again I’m being judged simply for having an opinion – for not being the pure, submissive, obedient ideal I’m supposed to be. The idiots who call opinionated women whores and sluts aren’t giving those women ammunition to deflect valid criticism; they’re oppressing them using the same rotten tropes women are exposed to from the moment the doctor says ‘it’s a girl.’

Anyone who casts doubt on Mensch’s insistence that she is sharing her experience because she refuses to feel ashamed simply doesn’t understand that shame is integral to misogyny. We women are often cast as the raw materials of body hair, madness, and sexual urges, which we must then wax, tame and abstain into social acceptance. Whenever we stray away from the ideal society has constructed for us, we’re judged as lapsing back into an unrefined natural state, like Lady Macbeth, Moll Flanders or the madwoman in the attic. When I’ve been called shrill or a slut, I often don’t tell people because I’m afraid that even the mere association with those terms might encourage others to think that maybe I am those things. And that will make me dirty and repellent.

I’m tired of feeling like that. I want to be judged on my words and actions, like men are. I’m tired of my uterus tying me to a whole set of arbitrary and suffocating standards that men will never have to worry about. I don’t have a window into Mensch’s soul, but I’m sure she’s tired too: tired of always having to be a woman and not a person – tired of the constant feeling of shame. I think that’s why she spoke out.

We could argue the toss about Mensch’s feminism. I’ve heard many feminists say that a woman whose party is closing down domestic violence shelters cannot consider herself a feminist. That’s an opinion I can understand. To be honest I don’t know how anyone with a shred of decency could join the Tory party, let alone identify as a feminist in the process. And I don’t know how Mensch can talk about Rupert Murdoch without picturing him dislocating his jaw and swallowing a human infant whole, but that’s just me. But I do know this: I know what it’s like to be a woman with an opinion in a man’s world. I know what it’s like to be cascaded because you don’t know how to be delicate or submissive. I think Mensch does too. And for that, I will put our political differences aside and offer her solidarity.

Ellie Mae O'Hagan is a freelance writer living in North London, contributing mainly to the Guardian. You can follow her at @MissEllieMae

Conservative MP Louise Mensch speaks during the launch of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee report 'News International and Phone-Hacking'. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Sheepwrecked: how the Lake District shows up World Heritage's flaws

Here's hoping future statements about farming and the environment aren't quite so sheepish.

“Extremists like George Monbiot would destroy the Lake District,” tweeted Eric Robson, presenter of Radio 4’s Gardener’s Questions. But he’s “just standing up for nature”, others shot back in Monbiot’s defence. The cause of the clash? The park’s new World Heritage status and the continuing debate over the UK’s “sheep-wrecked” countryside.

Tension is such you can almost hear Cumbria’s Vikings chuckling in their hogback graves – for sheep farming still defines the Lakes as much as any poem. Hilltop farmers, like Lizzie Weir and Derek Scrimegeour, have sweated the landscape into shape over generations. And while Wordsworth may have wandered lonely as a cloud, a few hundred pairs of pricked ears were likely ruminating nearby.

UNESCO’s World Heritage committee now officially supports this pro-farm vision: “The most defining feature of the region, which has deeply shaped the cultural landscape, is a long-standing and continuing agro-pastoral tradition,” says the document which recommends the site for approval. 

And there’s much to like about the award: the region’s small, outdoor farms are often embedded in their local community and focused on improving the health and quality of their stock – a welcome reminder of what British farms can do at their best. Plus, with Brexit on the horizon and UK megafarms on the rise, farmers like these need all the spotlight they can get.

But buried in the details of the bid document is a table showing that three-quarters of the area's protected sites are in an “unfavourable condition”. So it is depressing that farming’s impact on biodiversity appears to have been almost entirely overlooked. Whether you agree with the extent of George Monbiot’s vision for Rewilding or not, there are clearly questions about nibbled forests and eroded gullies that need to be addressed – which are not mentioned in the report from UNESCO’s  lead advisory body, ICOMOS, nor the supplementary notes on nature conservation from IUCN.

How could so little scrutiny have been applied? The answer may point to wider problems with the way the World Heritage program presently works – not just in Cumbria but around the world.

In the Lake District’s case, the bid process is set-up to fail nature. When the convention was started back in the 1970s, sites could be nominated under two categories, either “cultural” or “natural”, with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) advising on the first, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the second.

Then in 1992 a new category of “cultural landscape” was introduced to recognise places where the “combined works of nature and man” are exceptional. This means such sites are always evaluated principally by ICOMOS, giving them more resources to research and shape the verdict – and limiting the input IUCN is able to make.

Another weakness is that the evaluation bodies can only follow a state’s choice of category. So if a state nominates a site as a Cultural Landscape, then considerations about issues like biodiversity can easily end up taking a back seat.

According to Tim Badman, director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, this situation is in need of redress. “The way in which this separation of nature and culture works is increasingly out of tune and counter-productive,” he says. “Every natural site has some kind of relationship with people, and every cultural site has some major conservation interest, even if it might not be globally significant. We should collaborate much more to make that a virtue of the system.”

The more you think about it, the madder the notion of a “Cultural Landscape” sounds. Landscapes are, after all, inherently scoped out by man, and there is little in the natural world that humanity has left untouched. Especially those in Western Europe and especially those, like Cumbria, that have been felled and farmed by a succession of historic invaders.

Relationships between advisory bodies are also not the only failing in UNESCO’s approach; relationships between nations and the convention can be problematic too. At this month’s meeting of the committee in Poland, it was decided that the Great Barrier Reef would, once again – and despite shocking evidence of its decline – not be on UNESCO’s “In Danger” list. It prompts the question, what on earth is the list for?

The reluctance of many nations to have their sites listed as In Danger is a mixed blessing, says Badman. In some cases, the prospect of being listed can motivate reform. But it is also a flawed tool – failing to include costed action plans – and causing some governments to fear attacks from their domestic opposition parties, or a decline in their tourism.

On top of this, there is the more generalised politicking and lobbying that goes on. Professor Lynn Meskell, an Anthropologist at Stanford University, is concerned that, over the years, the institution “has become more and more political”. At the most recent session of the World Heritage Committee earlier this month, she found nominations being used to inflame old conflicts, a continuing regional dominance by Europe, and a failure to open up many “at risk” sites for further discussion. “All Yemen’s sites are in danger, for instance” she says, “yet they couldn’t afford to even send one person."

Perhaps most challenging of all is the body’s response to climate change. At the recent committee gathering, Australia raised the subject by way of suggesting it cannot be held solely be responsible for the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. And Turkey attempted to water down a reference to the Paris Climate Agreement, claiming the language used was overly “technical” and that the delegates present were too inexpert to comment.

According to Tim Badman, climate change is certainly an area that needs further work, not least because World Heritage’s present policy on the subject is now a decade old. Even the most ambitious interpretation of the Paris Climate Agreement would still see very significant damage done to Heritage sites around the world, Badman says.

There is hope of change, however. For the most polite yet sturdy response to Turkey’s objections – or, as the chair ironically puts it “this very small ecological crisis” – I recommend watching these encouraging reactions from Portugal, Phillippines and Finland (2h30) -  a push-back on technical objections that Meskell says is rare to see. IUCN will also be producing the second edition of their World Heritage Outlook this November.

Positions on the Lake District’s farms will also hopefully be given further thought. Flaws within World Heritage’s approach may have helped pull wool over the committee’s eyes, but future debate should avoid being quite so sheepish.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.