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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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.