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 The only reason they’ve not withdrawn their favours yet is because it’s useful for the ladies to be “liberated” – for the time being, that is.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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.