Glossing over: women’s magazines are “as intent as the average sexist in the street at making women feel bad”
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Germaine Greer: the failures of the new feminism

“Feminism in Britain has had two strands: as a media phenomenon and as an academic discipline. The vast realm of reality that lies between remains unaffected by either.”

The Vagenda
Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
Square Peg, 296pp, £12.99

Everyday Sexism
Laura Bates
Simon & Schuster, 384pp, £14.99

The most curmudgeonly old feminist has got to be glad that in February 2012 two young women set up a blog raging about the insidious nastiness of the women’s press and got seven million hits in its first year of operation. The hope springs up that there might be sufficient angry women out there and they might be sufficiently angry to bring about actual change. But then we’ve thought that before and before any difference could be made to anything, we were told that it was over and that feminism was a dirty word again. Feminism in Britain has had two strands: as a media phenomenon and as an academic discipline. The vast realm of reality that lies between remains unaffected by either.

Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, who set up the Vagenda blog, have now uttered a book of the same name. The title was meant to be an ironic version of the portmanteau words adopted by the lower end of the women’s press – a compound of “vagina” and “agenda” – but, like much of the wordplay on the blog and in the book, it doesn’t really work, being neither amusing nor informative. “Vagina” is a vile name for any female orifice, because it means “scabbard”. No feminist could in conscience adopt it despite the never-ending afterlife of the ghastly Vagina Monologues. A similar insensitivity besets The Vagenda, the book. The jacket design is as offensive as anything ever seen in print. It is based on the logo for the blog but with a hideous refinement; the image of a nude female from waist to nearly knee, now photographic, has a chunk ripped out of it, extending from hipbone to hipbone to below the mons pubis, forming a gaping black triangle, in which appear the words “The Vagenda” in Barbie pink. The page design is almost as brutal as the cover.

The writing style of the book takes its cue from the hyperbole of the magazines that are under attack and struggles to outdo it. Baxter and Cosslett (who also write the V Spot blog on the New Statesman website) tell us that, in their personal experience, “Losing your hymen is about as pleasurable as having someone rap your knuckles with a frozen veggie sausage.” Do they seriously wish us to believe that their hymen somehow got lost and that they were aware of its getting lost at the time? That is no more likely than that someone, anyone, would have rapped them on the knuckles with a sausage of any kind, much less vegetarian, much less frozen. To refer to a first episode of penetrative sex as hymen loss reveals a level of ignorance that is positively medieval.

For both writers then to cast themselves in this fictitious double devirgination episode is part of a pattern in which they allege their own behaviour as evidence for the rightness of their arguments. They know! They’ve been there, they chorus. “Let’s face it,” they shriek, “the absence of a bra only feels like freedom if you’ve got the kind of boobs that can stand on their own two teats.” What is the meaning of “stand” here? What is it we’re being asked to face, exactly?

Baxter and Cosslett have no doubt that, “A lot of lactating women do want to get jiggy with it, whether or not they accidentally squirt their sex buddy in the eye while changing positions” – a vision that seems to be derived from the behaviour of playful farmhands in the milking parlour. (The human breast, like the bovine udder, will not squirt unless compressed.) “Of course we all know that [a particular] kind of mock-satin static-inducing pants . . . would have your vag steeped in crusty discharge faster than you can say pH imbalance,” they yelp. Can these two young experts really believe that “crusty discharge” is caused by pH imbalance, as if the vaginal introitus were packed with potting mix?

As the reader flounders through a morass of soiled underwear, amputated body parts, obscure beauty treatments and minor surgery, the figure of the target male, like Moby Dick, appears only to disappear again. He is blamed for all of it, when he is probably as unaware of most of it as Moby Dick would be. Men did not make women wear thongs or Louboutins or false eyelashes or breast implants. Men don’t make women spend money on Glamour magazine or even Cosmo. Men exist in The Vagenda solely as mute sexual partners, sometimes mentioned as “the boyfriend” or “a boyfriend”.

Baxter and Cosslett took a leaf out of the golden notebook of Arianna Huffington when they accepted submissions to their blog and published them without payment or full credit (the Vagenda’s policy is to include the author’s initials but not their full name). When the Huffington Post was sold to AOL for $315m, a small group of investors, including the Stassinopoulos family, shared the money; the army of unpaid bloggers who helped to create the asset received nothing. Some writers for the Vagenda blog have challenged Baxter and Cosslett on their insistence on contributor anonymity. The six-figure advance paid for the book will presumably not be shared with those who helped to build the brand. Well, as the late great black feminist Florynce Kennedy used to say way back in the 1960s, if you’ll fuck for a dime, you can’t complain when somebody else gets a mink coat.

The Vagenda will hit the bookstalls at the same time as Everyday Sexism. This book, too, began life as a blog, set up in April 2012 by the “diminutive, blonde, beatifically lovely” (in the words of the Telegraph) Laura Bates, born in 1987. Bates invited women to upload their experiences of sexist behaviour and by December 2013 there were 50,000 contributions. The thesis of Everyday Sexism, according to the cover copy, is that: “From being harassed and wolf-whistled at on the street, to discrimination in the workplace and serious sexual assault . . . sexism had become normalised.” This is not what the blog revealed; it revealed not that sexual assault was an accepted part of daily life but that behaviour defined as criminal was rife. All the examples given were of men invading women’s personal space, touching them, intimidating them, assaulting them and raping them.

Though gay men are far more likely to be viciously harassed, bullied and assaulted in the workplace than women, they were not invited to contribute to the Everyday Sexism project. Gay-bashing is regarded in many communities as a rite of passage and the perpetrators are unlikely to be viewed as criminals even when the facts of the case are known. That is true normalising.

Sexism should mean discrimination against any individual on the grounds of sex. Women haven’t abused men solely because of their sex since the legendary Amazons bit the dust; nowhere in the real world are women in a position of sufficient power to enable them to persecute men just for being men. Only women suffer discrimination on the grounds of their sex (as distinct from their sexual orientation) and not only from members of the opposite sex.

Sexism is here a misleading name for misogyny, which is distrust, hatred and contempt of women. And it’s not just men who feel these feelings and act on them. Women persecute other women, humiliate them and discriminate against them. They may not grab their tits or threaten to rape them; women have more effective ways of doing other women in. “Horizontal hostility”, another gem from the Flo Kennedy thesaurus, is a by-product of oppression. Oppressed people don’t dare denounce the actual oppressor; instead they betray the people alongside them. They see their shared suffering as the consequence of a defect within themselves. What should be anger becomes guilt and self-blame.

This process can be discerned clearly and repeatedly in the caseload of the Everyday Sexism project. Though much of what is reported is criminal behaviour and not normalised at all, as the victims persist in imagining that whatever happened was their fault, there can be no access to redress. They should be furious but are terrified and ashamed instead. As long as a rape victim is considered to need anonymity, she is expected to shoulder shame and self-hatred as a consequence of someone else’s behaviour. Enough. Enough. Simply coughing up outrage into a blog will get us nowhere.

This curmudgeonly old feminist has argued for years that victims of sexual assault should refuse to feel shame and should not avail themselves of offered anonymity. She has also argued that, because under the present code the burden of proof is too onerous and guilt too difficult to establish, sexual assault should be reclassified under the general law of assault. If you turn up at a police station with a black eye, you are not going to be asked what you were wearing or whether you consented to the assault, but then your assailant won’t be sent away for ten years either.

What Bates’s book should demonstrate is that offences against women are not outrageous or extraordinary; they are par for the course. They are committed with total impunity and at the same time made to appear exceptional. A man who cops a feel on a crowded Underground train does nothing special but he tells himself that he is a helluva fella who has pulled off some kind of a coup. Mere fiddling about becomes exploit. What is truly weird about the degree of impunity assailants enjoy is that everyone is carrying a mobile phone; there are surveillance cameras everywhere and still the offenders get away with it. How hard can it be to track them down?

A woman who is insulted should be prepared to talk loud and draw a crowd, to kick ass and take names (Flo again); she should also be supported by the women around her. Unpacking your heart with bitter words to an anonymous blog is no substitute for action. Years ago I suggested that women who had been abused on a date denounce the perpetrator online. (Remember that most – almost all – rape victims know their assailant.) The immediate response was that the accusations might not be true and innocent men might suffer. (The remedy to a false allegation would be a face-to-face confrontation.) What I was pretty sure of was that most of the individuals who would be named would be repeat offenders; the point would be to protect women from the hazard represented by such men, which is also the most compelling reason for reporting sexual assault to the police.

Everyday Sexism, with its iterated narrative of bewildered pain and grief, is a hard read. Vile behaviour to women has become a fashion among young men and there are some who blame “equality” as the cause. But sexual equality has not been achieved and sexual liberation has not even been glimpsed. As Baxter and Cosslett remark in The Vagenda, “The feminist revolution never came. We are in no way a post-feminist society.” We are still caught in the nightmare of bitterness and misunderstanding that leaves two women a week in Britain dead at the hands of their partners or ex-partners.

The emergence of three young women who are not afraid to give voice to rage could be a sign of a mass movement on the way. In the first half of 2013, sales of Cosmopolitan fell by 15 per cent, of Glamour by 14.8 per cent, of Vanity Fair by 12.2 per cent, of Grazia 11.6 per cent, of Elle 10.2 per cent and of Marie Claire 9.4 per cent. So far the downward trend appears to be continuing. Part of the explanation of the fall in hard-copy sales has been a rise in digital sales but those figures, setting out as they do from a low base, are no match for the lost hard-copy sales.

Women’s glossy magazines are as intent as the average sexist in the street on making women feel bad. We can do without both. What we need is a women’s press that interprets the “malestream” information for its female readers – that explains how Cameron’s gift to working spouses leaves unsupported mothers at a crushing disadvantage, how Amanda Hutton came to let her four-year-old child die, why so many women are given custodial sentences for minor offences, why there is never sufficient funding for care homes or for carers whether for children, the infirm or the aged, or why a woman is six times more likely to die in childbirth in Britain than she is in Estonia or why it took so long to stop Shipman. Bitching and whingeing have their place but without the truth we never shall be free. We need a genuine women’s press. Now that it can exist online, we could afford to run it without having to pimp for the glamour industry.

Germaine Greer’s most recent book is “White Beech: the Rainforest Years” (Bloomsbury, £25)

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

Getty/Julia Rampen
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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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