Julie Burchill, yesterday.
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The uses and abuses of intersectionality

If there's one thing I've learned about feminism, it's that we should all try to be better; but we should also acknowledge that perfection is impossible.

Intersectionality! Boo! Are you scared yet? Are you already edging your cursor towards another browser tab (possibly to check  whether I'm getting flamed for this on Twitter yet, or people are merely shaking their damn heads)?

Don't. I've read Julie Burchill's piece in the Spectator, and I'm not here to double down on it. With respect to the ardent feminists at the Spec (I mean, Fraser Nelson is basically Harriet Harman with a Scottishish accent), I'm not sure they ever intended her essay as a Glorious Moment in the advancement of Wimmin's Rights. Rather, I believe they were participating in one of their favourite pastimes: winding up the Left.

So, here I am, underneath the bait, steadfastly not rising to it. But when I saw Burchill's piece, I realise that I thought: god, I had better not talk about this in public, or even acknowledge that I have read it. Then I thought: wait, what? In the last year or so, it feels like intersectionality has become a subject that it is too painful to talk about online, too mired in grievance and counter-grievance. And that serves no one: when an issue becomes toxic like this, the only people willing to talk about it are the dogmatists at either end of the spectrum, and the attention-seekers. (What does Katie Hopkins think about this? Only time will tell.) There is no room for the interested onlooker, the apathetic do-gooder, or the plain old undecided and unsure.*

And the funny thing is, that the more I read about intersectionality, the more interesting and useful I find it. But the more I notice its limitations. 

First, its usefulness. The original description of the term comes from this 1989 paper by the law scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. In it, she describes how black women laid off by a car manufacturing company were not permitted to bring an unfair dismissal lawsuit - because "black women" were not recognised as a class which could suffer discrimination. They could bring a lawsuit based on race discrimination, or gender discrimination, but not a combination of the two. 

Crenshaw concluded that "feminism must include an analysis of race if it hopes to express the aspirations of non-white women". Two years later, she developed the theory in relation to domestic violence shelters, describing the case of a woman who was not admitted to one because her spoken English was not deemed to be of a high enough standard. In that situation, both the woman's gender and her race were contributing to the situation she faced; the challenges of one could not be solved without dealing with the other. 

Two final examples from Crenshaw. In this interview, she talks about the double bind that black women face, at the "intersection" of two types of discrimination. 

"I have a story I tell a lot. A member of our study group at Harvard was the first African-American member of a previously exclusive white club. He invited the rest of the group - me and another African-American man - to visit him at this club. When we knocked on the door, he opened it, stepped outside, and shut it quickly. He said that he was embarrassed because he had forgotten to tell us something about entering the building. My male friend immediately bristled, saying that if black people couldn't go through the front door, we weren't coming in at all. But our friend said, "No, no, no, that's not it - but women have to go through the back door." And my friend was totally okay with that. 

I understand that we can all stand together as long as we think that we are all equally affected by a particular discrimination, but the moment where a different barrier affects a subset of us, our solidarity often falls apart."

She then tells the story of Harvard's attempts to recruit more women and ethnic minorities: "the school responded with two committees. One was a gender committee that studied women candidates; the other was a committee that studied candidates of colour. Not too surprisingly, women of colour seemed to fall through the cracks."

That quote came back to me last week when I was writing about all-women shortlists. Diane Abbott criticised these for being "all white women shortlists", and as a blog we'll be publishing soon from Orchid Vishkaiy will show, she has a point. Until 2005, not a single black or Asian women was elected on an AWS. Only 1 per cent of Parliament is both non-white and female. The "double bind" described by Crenshaw is alive and kicking in Britain today. And more broadly, questions of intersectionality should inform all aspects of feminist campaigning. Are you holding your meeting in a room which isn't accessible to wheelchairs? Congratulations, you just founded an all able-bodied feminist campaign group by default.

But . . . . (deep breath, I'm going in) this approach is not without its problems. Because people are not perfect, and they do not have unlimited time and resources. I've given the example of disability, because I think most people would agree that obviously any public meeting should be accessible to wheelchairs. But what about the deaf? The blind? Should a group of feminists starting their own meet-up in a university hall enlist someone proficient a sign-language in case that's needed? Should they print their leaflets in braille? 

In the real world, people would apply some common sense (I hope). They would probably generally signal their commitment to accessibility then if a deaf or blind person contacted them, they would do everything they possibly could to ensure that they were included. Equally well, a group of deaf feminists might decide that it's better for them to form a group of their own, and sign together at meetings. 

On the internet, this spit-and-sawdust, muck-in-and-do-your-best approach rarely materialises. Instead, it's more likely that first, a problem is diagnosed, perhaps even in the abstract rather than by anyone actually affected; and second, the feminists involved in setting up the event are personally decried as over-privileged whateverphobes. Behind a screen rather than face-to-face, there is little acknowledgement of the idea that organisation is hard, and its results always imperfect; it's always easier to throw bottles from the back (as a journalist, I speak from some experience on this score). 

The more I think and write about feminism, the more the idea of perfection comes to mind. The pursuit of perfection is a prison we trap women in; it must be destroyed. Why are we surprised that a prominent feminist doesn't share exactly our views on every single issue? Why is there such a sense of betrayal - and why must she then be cast into the fiery pit, with all her writings on every subject now tainted by that one unpalatable view? Because we still want - demand - of women that they be perfect, in a way which is never expected of men.

Take a male columnist, say Simon Jenkins. He has a range of views, some of which I love, and others that make me want to spit. No one seems to have a problem with that. But if I say the same about Julie Burchill? Then suddenly I am a Bad Feminist, a bogeywoman.  Being identified as One Of Those Feminists gives licence to misquote and misrepresent my view on everything; a straw woman is built and I am invited to watch her burn. Of course this deters people from engaging in debates: the only way to be perfect is to be utterly passive.

This is Hilary Mantel's much-misunderstood appraisal of Kate Middleton's public image:

Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character. She appears precision-made, machine-made . . .

Now, I'm absolutely sure that somewhere there is a Kate Middleton who laughs when the dog farts extremely loudly, who calls Prince William some horrendous pet name, who does all the things that women do, no matter how many LK Bennett kitten heels and blow-dries their life involves. But I agree with Mantel that the real person has been carefully hidden behind a mask which looks exactly like Kate Middleton, only glossier and tidier. Perfection is a defence, a withdrawal: think of Nigella Lawson walking into court without a hair out of place. 

But it's always a lie. And this is where I come back to intersectionality. 

Intersectionality shows us that everyone could do better; that every attempt at rolling back discrimination could work harder and be more inclusive. But it should also remind us that people themselves are more than a simple label: "white feminist"; "middle-class man"; "posh boy"; "Twitter bully". Here are some of the things I know that the kind of feminists regularly decried for their privilege have had to deal with, in private: eating disorder relapses; rape; the stalking of their children; redundancy; clinical depression; the sectioning of a family member; an anxiety disorder that made every train ride and theatre trip an agony. (Yes, one of those descriptions is me.)

None of this is to say that feminism shouldn't be open to criticism. When Caroline Crampton and I got together our bloggers last year for a New Statesman debate about feminism, the response was . . . well, there were two responses. There was criticism that was constructive: for example, the deviously persuasive Karen Ingala Smith managed to parlay her disappointment that we didn't talk enough about rape into making me join the board of her VAWG charity. And there was criticism that was destructive, aimed at wounding us for not representing every possible permutation of womanhood. (I laughed when one particularly enthusiastic deconstructor, when asked: "Well, how can you possibly make a six-person panel totally representative of half of humanity?", came back with, "Oh, that's why I don't believe in panel discussions.")

I'm rambling now, aren't I? This is getting a bit chucking-out-time-at-the-pub (And the thing ish, I wash trying shoh hard...). So I will close by saying: I want my feminism to be more intersectional. I don't think it's a dirty word, although it is not an attractive-sounding one (I say this as someone who said "synergise" yesterday and promptly wanted to die), and it's one that very few people in the population at large even know, let alone understand.

We need more voices, with different experiences of life, and we need to have uncomfortable conversations. (For example, I think that "internet feminism" brutally ignores the problems of older women, who are more likely to live in poverty than men, and who often get landed with caring for their parents in the same way they did the lion's share of the childcare.) And I understand why people feel unhappy at the hand they've been dealt, particularly when I stand up and talk about discrimination with two Aces nestling snugly in my palm. Yes, I'm failing. But you're failing too. Don't be the internet equivalent of the entitled prick who shouts at the call-centre staff, as if it's their fault the wifi doesn't work.

What we will never have is perfection. We're all just trying. 

 

 

* I am aware there will be people who are angry that a feminist who is white is writing this. If you are such a person, ask yourself: are you also angry I have not written it earlier? Have you ever tweeted about the failures "white feminists" to engage with intersectionality? Then maybe have a cup of tea. 

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.

Photo: Getty
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Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

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