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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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.