Why feminists sometimes forget to say thank you

We have to change the mindset that says women's choices must be “won” or “awarded”.

A few years ago – albeit still within the 21st century – my partner received an essay from a male student, the subject of which was women in the middle ages. Said student noted that while life was hard for ladies in days of yore (what with there being no internet, the black death AND sexism), things were better nowadays, not least because “we allow women to vote and to help us in the workplace”. My partner, ever restrained, merely wrote “who’s ‘we’?” in the margin. The student’s equally concise response?  “Us”. Yes, “us”. And by that I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean just himself and my partner. It’s an “us” that included both them, and billions of others, but not me, nor anyone else who wasn’t a cis man. Even so, perhaps we – the “not-us” – ought to be grateful for what we have. 

Men – by which I mean wealthy, white, cis, heterosexual men - are apparently the unsung heroes of feminism. According to a piece in the Spectator (by self-described male feminist Lloyd Evans) “feminism is largely a male achievement”. So, yes, thank you, patriarchy! If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’d be uneducated, without my own income or property, perhaps into my twentieth pregnancy (unless I’d died in childbirth or through a backstreet abortion)… Basically, absolutely everything would be crap! Ta very much, chaps!

Of course, I’m exaggerating. It’s not as though Lloyd Evans really means what he says. He isn’t really a feminist. No one who describes the ultimate outcomes of feminism in the following terms could possibly be one:

Women are smarter, sleeker, richer, better educated and bigger-boobed than they ever were. They get drunk more easily. They have sex more readily. Sometimes they even pay for dinner as well, ‘to assert their independence’. And do we stop them? No, Madame Chairperson, we do not. We’re feminists too, of course, and we make that pledge not because we’re shamed by the historic plight of women but because we’ve learned that it’s a great aphrodisiac.

Ha ha, liberated women! The joke’s on you! You’re not having it all, you’re doing it all – tee hee! It’s a familiar Daily Mail/men’s rights narrative. With feminism, not only have women shot themselves in the foot, but without men they’d have achieved nothing. And what men have given, they can also take away. The only reason they’ve not withdrawn their favours yet is because it’s useful for the ladies to be “liberated” – for the time being, that is.

On one level Evans’ piece is simply misogynist trolling. This is a man who doesn’t like women – one who finds the idea that men, himself included, still don’t shoulder their share of unpaid work simply hilarious – being given a public forum in which to express his bigotry. That’s a shame, but hey, that’s the Spectator. So Evans doesn’t get what feminism has achieved. So he doesn’t realise that economic equality isn’t about posh ladies paying for his dinner, but the attempt to reach a situation in which no woman has to choose between destitution or spending her entire life subject to the whims of a man such as Lloyd Evans – or worse. To me, that’s worth fighting for. But is someone like Lloyd Evans worth fighting? Perhaps not, at least not on his own. However, when Evans claims that the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act are “primarily male reforms, by the way, because men in the Commons at that time outnumbered women by 30 to one”, I start to feel alarmed. He might be joking, but many people – people who, on the surface, are more reasonable than he – believe this.

It’s not as though this is killer logic. It’s the logic of a five-year-old – my five-year-old, to be precise. He recently stole a balloon from his brother and gave it to a stranger’s child in the park. Afterwards he sauntered up to me, beaming: “Wasn’t I kind, Mummy?” I pointed out that it would have been kind to give his own balloon, not his brother’s. I said “it’s not kind to give things that weren’t yours in the first place”. He was crestfallen: “But giving is kind, isn’t it?” That’s all he could see – it might not have been mine by rights, but look, I gave it, didn’t I? Why isn’t everyone grateful? I see this logic – this bafflement at the lack of gratitude displayed by those who are given things by people who didn’t own them in the first place – in the attitude of my partner’s student. I see it in the words of Conservative MP Amber Rudd, who speaks glowingly of the way in which David Cameron and George Osborne are “naturally thoughtful about women”. I see it, too, in Christy Wampole’s New York Times blog post about the Newtown shootings, in which she casually links Adam Lanza’s actions to “the decline of the young man”:

Can you imagine being in the shoes of the one who feels his power slipping away? Who can find nothing stable to believe in? Who feels himself becoming unnecessary? That powerlessness and fear ties a dark knot in his stomach. As this knot thickens, a centripetal hatred moves inward toward the self as a centrifugal hatred is cast outward at others: his parents, his girlfriend, his boss, his classmates, society, life.

If we ignore the flowery language for a moment, it’s worth musing on what this “power slipping away” actually means. Who tells men that this power was ever theirs? And what is it that makes them – and women such as Wampole - believe it still?

In How To Be A Woman Caitlin Moran offers up the thesis that men had more power because in the past women were, basically, a bit shit:

I don’t think that women being seen as inferior is a prejudice based on a male hatred of women. When you look at history, it’s a prejudice based on simple fact.

Thus Britain’s “leading feminist” is not a million miles away from Evans, with his description of how men “were merely responding to Mother Nature’s uneven distribution of responsibilities which made sexual inequality a fact of life for hundreds of thousands of years” (to be honest, Evans is more generous than Moran). The truth – if it is possible to get to a single “truth” in all this – is more complex. Even now it’s difficult to point out that historical narratives, of the kind Evans and Moran offer up, are distorted, at least not without being accused of distorting the “edifice” of history itself. So much of the history of power – and by extension, the history of those who “deserved” power – is still written by the “us”. Some future historians still believe in the primacy of the “us”. This is true even of young men, of those who write essays and hand them in and can’t understand why others don’t see how enlightened they’ve been (another male student of my partner’s posed the intriguing question “was Empress Matilda a victim of sexism or was she just a stroppy mare?” A classic conundrum, you’ll agree).

We feminists – we women – are not the “us”. We’re still excluded from the discourse that defines rights and how they are bestowed. For many people – male and female – what choices women have must be “won” or “awarded”; it’s not as though they were ever stolen. And this mindset continues to threaten whatever advances we make. Changing it has to be central to feminism as a movement. On the surface we might be demanding freedom from violence, freedom from political exclusion, freedom from sexual, psychological and financial abuse. But we’re doing so because women are human beings. This world – these choices, these bodies, these thoughts - are ours, too. What’s more, they always were. 


What men have "given", men can take away. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.