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 Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.