Treachery and sisterhood: What does it mean to "betray" feminism?

The whole notion that today's young women have somehow betrayed the "true" feminism is a bit of a muddle - who are these women who are letting the side down?

Today’s young women have betrayed feminism, we were told this week, and not for the first time. The nature of the betrayal may change but the message remains the same: you have deviated from our destined, laid-down path, and we’re not sure there’s any way back now. Pesky capitalism.

This time we are traitors because we are, apparently, far too interested in the Duchess of Cambridge’s pregnancy, and "hundreds of thousands of young, female undergraduates want Kate’s life, and luck".

Do they? Do they really? They may want her £38 spotty Topshop dress but is any young woman today really lusting after that level of media scrutiny, the ceremonial bollocks, the eccentric family? To accuse today’s young women of a Cinderella complex is to forget that they are multifaceted human beings with wit, intelligence, ambition and autonomy. We are not some kind of monolithic force of Princess-loving, Bridget Jones-obsessed bimbos, as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown suggested in yesterday’s rant, but a diverse set of individuals whose burgeoning power in the world was undercut by the increasing commercialisation of every aspect of our lives. It isn’t simply that young women are "squandering the hard-won achievements of original feminism" (and that in itself is debateable: we are voting, we are using contraception, we are working, we are writing and talking and even sometimes shouting) but that we saw your feminism and, in the face of so much shiny shiny coming from different sources, we weren’t sure that we wanted it.

We do not, as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown argues, blame the baby boomers. The Old Fems, as she calls them, did their best. But they just couldn’t fight the tides of consumerism, even the ones who tried their hardest. Even the most tenacious of mothers, the ones who weren’t quite knackered enough to stop trying, couldn’t. These mums who stood in front of Xtina in her leather chaps and her little red knickers and tried to explain about these "common narratives" that are so regressive and anti-women were asked to get out of the way.

Is that a betrayal? It probably feels like it, to the old guard, who worked to create a coherent movement from the chaos of contradictory voices and demands. There is no coherent women’s movement now: to pretend otherwise would be false. Instead there are a number of fights being undertaken on different fronts, by fashionable looking young women who listen to hip hop and even wax their legs when they can be arsed, and refuse to feel guilty about that or any other bigger perceived transgressions they may or may not have committed. And in the face of so much pre-packaged femininity being marketed at us from all directions, we’d say that was a triumph.

Women will never want what their mothers wanted. Not exactly. That is a fact. But this idea of treachery is interesting. What does it mean to betray feminism? If we are to believe Brown, it is through failing to resist market forces: by buying 50 Shades of Grey, or by watching "internet porn sewage". Yet she speaks of women in Birmingham who are struggling to look after their kids. Can these women not do these things too? Who are these women who are letting the side down? These women who will ‘talk of little else’ when the Royal baby is born, who are they? Do they exist? And so what if they do? Is it inherently anti-feminist to like babies now?

This whole notion of betrayal is a bit of a muddle, complicated as it is by notions of false loyalty to a sisterhood that doesn’t exist, as though by sharing certain gender traits we should all somehow be telepathically backing one another, all the time. This week we criticised the journalist Polly Vernon, who ten years ago wrote an article for the Observer about how great it was to be thin that was so disturbing (and encouraging) that many of our generation still remember it today. Several women who were recovering from eating disorders at the time said that it sent them back into a tailspin, one said she printed it out and had it on her wall. Vernon’s reaction to the criticism, aside from being spectacularly immature, was to say that at least she never attacks other women, which the Vagenda does all the time, obviously.

But of course, many of us know that criticism should occur irrespective of gender. This idea of a sisterhood is a false interpretation of feminism. It is not a betrayal of an entire gender to criticise a woman’s actions when she is doing something damaging. It is equality. It is challenging shitty behaviour in the same way that you would a man’s, and that is a positive step, though it may seem a negative one.

As this piece was being written, we received a message on Twitter from one of Vernon’s supporters. It said "maybe your self-esteem issues have nothing to do with another women’s weight and her decision to write about it". Or maybe they have everything to do with it. This failure to understand context is exactly the same problem that Brown has in her piece. You are not a betrayal to women if you read 50 Shades of Grey, or watch Bridget Jones’ Diary, or care about the Royal baby. You are a betrayal only if you fail to realise that your words and actions have the power and the potential to injure others, to send them backwards, to make them weaker and not stronger. You are a betrayal if your pursuit of individualism is such that you have forgotten completely the needs and vulnerabilities of those around you. You are a betrayal if Cinderella has won.

Those women, those women should be condemned absolutely. 

Campaigners at a rally organised by UK Feminista at Parliament in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

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

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may reaffiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that most firefighters are not Corbynites. The reaffiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.