Is there still a place for women’s pages in the media?

Not for us ladyfolk the stern black and white logic of the business pages! Not for us the brain-taxing Sudoku, with its spiky numbers and glaring empty boxes, says Natalie Guest.

This week, the Telegraph has unveiled its new women’s pages, entitled (CRINGE ALERT) “Wonder Woman”; a section offering “irreverent and intelligent writing about politics, business, family, life and sex.” An introductory blog explains:

All too often ‘women’s content’ is either lipsticks and handbags or BMW - bitching, moaning and whining about the ‘plight of being a woman’ – a tone of coverage this generation of women rarely identify with or enjoy reading.

Wonder Women, with its raft of brilliant writers defined by their reactive, witty and honest style, aims to articulate views which will get both women and men fired up, shine a light on individuals, issues and stories people will want to discuss with their mates down the pub and crucially, make readers laugh too.

Definitely a laudable goal, and one which those of us sick of “lifestyle” pieces about dieting and manicures can certainly identify with. But is there still a place for so-called women’s pages, and isn’t there something a little regressive about the entire concept?

The argument most often raised against women’s pages (along with women’s television programmes, and women’s radio shows) is that they are necessarily divisive, bringing with them an implication that women aren’t welcome amongst the other pages of the paper, and must be relegated into their own glossy pull-out harem. Not for us ladyfolk the stern black & white logic of the business pages! Not for us the brain-taxing Sudoku, with its spiky numbers and glaring empty boxes! No, the women need their own special place, full of pretty pictures of shoes (ALL WOMEN LOVE SHOES) and tearful confessions about lost love (ALL WOMEN LOVE TEARS).

As Wonder Women rightfully points out, the view of womanhood espoused by these pages is all-too often a patronising and outmoded one. We’re still dealing with a 50s housewife hangover, where every article is built around how to please a man, or make a good pavlova. Pavlovas have no place in modern-day society. I mean, what even IS a pavlova?

In an ideal world, of course, the media (and, indeed, society at large) would have embraced diversity enough for us not to need segregated content. Unfortunately, that’s a long way off – and if we said goodbye to the women’s page, many important topics simply wouldn’t be covered at all. And with current policies disproportionately affecting women and threatening to erode female bodily autonomy, drawing attention to women’s issues remains as important as ever – which includes covering the superficial as well as the serious.

The difficulty lies in changing the editorial view of what a “women’s page” is; whilst the Telegraph’s manifesto for Wonder Women hits all of the right notes, we’re only two days into publication and they’re already making missteps and lapsing into old bad habits. Take the “Board Babe” series, for example; a weekly column penned by an anonymous high-powered business woman, which raised eyebrows and prodded gag reflexes in the Twitter-sphere today on the publication of their very first article: Secret Diary: Our Board Babe on Naked Ambition. Go ahead and read it; I’ll wait.

Pieces like this are misogyny masquerading as empowerment: the “Board Babe” is set up as a challenger to the patriarchal status quo of the business world, whilst simultaneously being patronised and belittled (in this case, mostly by the sub-editor who chose the headline, although the article is fairly problematic in itself). Despite our writer having ascended to the top levels of the boardroom, she’s still referred as a “babe”, a term that both sexualises and infantilises at once. Her ambition is “naked”; as is she, underneath that trouser suit - because just in case you’d forgotten, women are there to be looked at. And (despite the fact that she presumably has a high degree of expertise and business savvy within her field), the piece is marketed as a titillating “confessional”, as though she’s moonlighting as a high-class hooker in her lunchbreak.

But it doesn’t have to be like this – and there are some real rumblings of change. With the growing popularity of blogs such as Vagenda, Jezebel, The F Word and Bad Reputation, we’re seeing a real desire for writing that deals with the issues of being a woman in a way that’s genuinely funny, fierce, intelligent and empowering (let’s call it the Caitlin Moran school of feminism, for now). From the Vagenda team’s six-figure book deal, to the success of Lena Dunham’s smash HBO hit Girls, to Moran’s own How to Be a Woman, all signs point to the fact that the more mainstream press is sitting up and taking notice of what we’ve known for a very long time: that women are hungry to read things that matter to them, written by people that they identify with.

So, is there still a place for women’s pages? For me, the answer is an unequivocal “YES” - but they need to be progressive, not regressive. Let’s see more women’s pages focusing on what we are, and what we want to be, instead of on what we used to be made to be. Ladies of the world take note: the time for pavlova is over.

The photo is from Flickr, used under a Creative Commons licence. You can view the original here.

In the future, there will be no pavlova. Image from Flickr/AnnCN, used under Creative Commons.

Natalie Guest is a London-based blogger, writing about feminism, current affairs and pop culture; just like all the other girls. Follow her on twitter @unfortunatalie

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.