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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.