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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Blow-dried and supplicant, Ivanka shows the limits of the power women are allowed in Trumpworld

A new book by the US President’s daughter has surpisingly strong echoes of medieval royalty.

Exactly 500 years ago this month, the apprentices of London rose up, ­angry with Flemish immigrants and the bankers of Lombard Street. The race riot was quelled only when a couple of dukes sent in their private armies. Hundreds of looters were arrested and some were hanged, drawn and quartered. But some rioters were as young as 13 and the city’s residents felt sorry for them.

Henry VIII wanted to look magnanimous, but not weak. And so, at the trial in Westminster Hall on 7 May, ­Cardinal Wolsey first asked for mercy on the youngsters’ behalf. He was refused.

And then three women came forward: Henry’s queen, Catherine of Aragon, and his sisters Mary and Margaret, the widowed queens of France and Scotland. Faced with three women on their knees, the king relented. “It was a scene straight from the pages of chivalry,” writes Sarah Gristwood in her history of Renaissance women and power, Game of Queens. “An intercessory function, of course, had been traditional for queens, from the biblical Esther and Bathsheba to the Virgin Mary.”

Whenever contemporary politics gets too depressing, I take refuge in history. I always hope I will gain some perspective from people whose problems are very different from my own. Yes, climate change is terrifying; but at least I don’t have scrofula! Yet modern life has a way of creeping back. Late-medieval Europe was full of resentment for “aliens”, for example, who were felt to be prospering at the expense of native populations, even if those tensions were often expressed in religious rather than nationalist terms. It was Catherine of Aragon’s parents, Isabella and Ferdinand, who expelled all Jews from Spain in 1492.

Nonetheless, I was surprised to find such strong echoes of medieval royalty in Ivanka Trump’s new book, Women Who Work. I won’t waste your time by attempting to review this seminal tome, especially as it’s largely constructed out of bits of other self-help books. The advice boils down to: be “multi-dimensional”; don’t be afraid to use “architect” as a verb; feel free to turn down Anna Wintour, when she offers you a job at Vogue straight out of university, because your true passion is real estate. If it’s a busy time at work, as it was for Ivanka on the campaign trail, go into “survival mode”. (“Honestly,” she writes, “I wasn’t treating myself to a massage or making much time for self-care.”) Something for everyone.

Still, Women Who Work gave me the chance to contemplate the point of Ivanka Trump. I’ve seen her far more than I have heard her, which is no surprise, as her role in the administration is largely symbolic. What is Ivanka if not a Renaissance queen, tearfully pleading with her lord to show mercy? She is, we are told, his conscience. When his daughter’s clothing line was dropped by the US retailer Nordstrom in February, Trump tweeted: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person – always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”

Two months later, her name was invoked again. The First Daughter was distraught – “heartbroken and outraged”, she tweeted – at the sight of Syrian children gassed by the Assad regime. This prompted her father to bomb an airbase to atone for the slaughter of what his statement referred to as “beautiful babies”. “Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence,” her brother Eric told the Telegraph. “I’m sure she said: ‘Listen, this is horrible stuff.’”

This is the power that women are granted in Trumpworld: softening, humanising, empathetic. Their tears moisten the oak-like carapace of great leaders, showing them that sometimes it’s OK to be kind – but obviously not too kind, because that’s a bit soppy and girly and gay. Women are naturally prone to emotion, of course, unlike sturdy, ­rational men, who get so cross about the way TV news is reporting their firing of the FBI director that they start sending unhinged tweets implying they have incriminating “tapes” of White House conversations.

In this structure, however, the limits of women’s power are sharply circumscribed. The tears of both Ivanka and Catherine of Aragon only provided cover for something that their lord and master wanted to do anyway. (As New York magazine urged acidly on 13 April, “Someone Please Show Ivanka Pictures of Starving Yemeni Children”.) Ivanka’s whole book is designed to render female power unthreatening by making it “feminine”; merely a complement to male power instead of a challenge to it.

To reassure us that she isn’t some frumpy bluestocking, Ivanka has crafted an image of expensive, time-consuming perfection: perfect white teeth, perfect blow-dried hair, perfectly toned body. Her make-up, clothes and home are all styled in unobtrusive neutrals. Together it says: let me in the room and I promise not to be a nuisance or take up too much space, even on the colour wheel. It’s noticeable that no woman in Trump’s orbit has “let herself go”, even though his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has the complexion of a body that’s been found after two weeks in the water. I somehow doubt he ever makes “time for self-care”.

And don’t come at me with all that garbage about a nice frock and a manicure being “empowering”. Look at Donald Trump, the one with his own military: he has a fat arse and uses Sellotape to hold his ties in place. A president is allowed to have appetites – for women, for food, for power. His supplicant daughter gets to peddle platitudes about how you should “bond with your boss”. (Being a blood relative helps, although, sadly, Women Who Work is silent on what to do if he also fancies you.)

Is this how far we’ve come in 500 years? Ivanka Trump might try to sell herself as a modern woman, but her brand of female power is positively medieval.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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