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.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.