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

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.