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
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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