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 The only reason they’ve not withdrawn their favours yet is because it’s useful for the ladies to be “liberated” – for the time being, that is.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
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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

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.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder