Maria Miller's "information packs" for the parents of daughters won't end inequality

Sexism in society isn't the result of individual women failing to have ambition. And as benefit systems are slashed and women are disproportionately affected, the parenthood pamphlet and the boardroom dream seem small compensation.

This weekend, something strange and uncomfortable happened to us: for a brief moment, we both agreed with Louise Mensch. For sure, we’ve had our ups and downs with the romance-novelist-turned-Conservative-MP-turned-fashion-blogger who now occasionally publicly ruminates upon feminism. She may or may not have left a post on The Vagenda last year (hastily deleted) making it clear that she isn’t our number one fan. She describes herself in earlier years as already "idolising Thatcher" behind a huge pair of geek chic specs at the age of 14. She runs advice pieces on her blog entitled "What Men Want". And yes, she seriously tried to rival Twitter with a social network named after herself. But when she said that British internet feminism can often become an inward-looking, self-flagellating rabble of voices in danger of achieving very little, we nodded along.

Mensch advocates a return to "reality-based feminism" - one that concerns itself with specific goals and campaigns, rather than getting tied up in linguistic arguments. So far, so sensible. Of course, examining your language can be very important - take, for instance, the casual sexual terms deployed by teenagers which have increasingly violent undertones: "I’d hit that", "I’d smash her", "I’ll destroy you", or the routine referral to women as "pussy" and nothing more. Discussing this sort of language with the people who use it can challenge many a shitty status quo. Twitter arguments centred around theoretical nuances, on the other hand, ultimately end up challenging very little in the spheres where feminist discussion might do the most good.

However much we might agree on the "reality" part of Mensch’s article, though, "Conservative feminism" - that persistent oxymoron - isn’t going to convince us any day soon. The individualistic, money-oriented idea of gender equality so beloved by Tories has never sat well with us: it almost always ignores history and context. It sees financial power as the only meaningful kind of power. And often, it implies that sexism in society can be explained by an endless stream of individual women failing to have the ambition to fight their way to the top. Like Michael Douglas claiming that his oral cancer was caused by marathon cunnilingus sessions, it wilfully ignores a hell of a lot of the evidence that other people might have considered first.

So we’re not altogether delighted about the announcement which came hot on the heels of Mensch’s comment piece: coalition government ministers are planning to put together information packs for the parents of daughters, advising them on how to bring up "aspirational" young women. This in turn should apparently go a long way towards redressing the balance in boardrooms and businesses across the country in future. Like Mensch’s "just pull yourself up by your bootstraps" Tory feminism, this strategy seems to imply that women aren’t at the top because they just don’t quite want it enough, and are in need of training in their girlhood. And despite the fact that the huge proportion of men in the most coveted positions of power probably also have something to do with the absence of women, there are no information packs planned for the parents of sons. 

Maria Miller et al are implementing this plan because the government is clearly going to miss its target of 25 per cent female representation in FTSE 100 boardrooms by 2015. Representation stagnates at 5.6 per cent right now, and it seems pretty clear to all of us that it’s already 2013. After an enthusiastic beginning which saw much talk of a female business revolution, the numbers stalled - which probably has more to do with the recession and the glass ceiling than a shortage of 14 year olds idolising Thatcher enough to "really go for it". And it’s worth bearing in mind that percentages in boardrooms can never tell the full story. Who says that the lives of everyday women will improve with a further few female faces at the helm of Britain’s most profitable companies? Who says that banning cunnilingus will get rid of cancer?

Strangely, Carla Bruni has done a good job of continuing the discussion in her recent interview with the Observer. Having once been forced to apologise for declaring that France doesn’t need feminism, she’s an unlikely character to have waded into women’s rights - especially mere column inches after declaring again that the F word isn’t going to become part of her repertoire any day soon. Jezebel memorably summarised the entire profile as "kind of depressing as shit", and Bruni’s claim that "I’m not someone who would go and fight for something" (really? Nothing at all?) certainly seems to paint a bleak picture. But her claims about domestic labour are on the money: "I think [stay-at-home mothers] should be paid... It’s such a hard job - and on top of that they are not admired. You go to a dinner party and someone says, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Oh, I take care of my three children’ - and they turn away."

In this short description, Bruni summarises a culture of disregard at the dinner table, embarrassment and double standards in the home, shame and power in the workplace. Domestic labour and childcare has traditionally been viewed as "women’s work", and this sort of work remains unpaid and unequal. A fairer division of this work, or financial recognition of it, is just as important an aim as equalling out the boardroom. If we have to concede that money means power and respect, the least we can do is focus on all women - most women - rather than the multimillionaires at the very top of the food chain. Surely this would be the true "reality-based feminism".

Modern feminism is certainly a balancing act, requiring specific and goal-oriented campaigns alongside recognition of - but not obsession with - the various social prejudices which might be working against us. Forget the campaigning, and you risk becoming mired in endless academic discussion which goes nowhere. Forget the context, and your campaigns won’t do any good. Talk about why feminism needs to return to reality while running a blog that details "what men want" and why you should dress for them, and you may not get taken seriously. Declare that you are most certainly not a feminist before bringing up gender equality, and you may well have proven yourself wrong.

Meanwhile, there’s one thing that we’re certain about: neither of us are going to be following the government’s leaflet on how to raise a daughter any time soon (and it’s not because both of us have yet to procreate). After all, Cameron hasn’t exactly been imaginative with his attempts to reach girls and women in the past: the last couple of times he tried to bolster the female vote, he staged an interview with Glamour magazine and appeared in a music video with One Direction. And as benefit systems are slashed and women are disproportionately affected, the parenthood pamphlet and the boardroom dream seem small compensation. We need people like Maria Miller to say to young girls and boys alike what Carla Bruni did, while working toward the solution through education.

It’s a much more powerful message than "just get a little more ambitious, or quit whining’" and it’s "reality-based feminism" at its best - with or without the accompaniment of Harry Styles.

A woman holds a placard aloft during a Slutwalk march in Melbourne in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.