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 The only reason they’ve not withdrawn their favours yet is because it’s useful for the ladies to be “liberated” – for the time being, that is.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.

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.