If you are a woman of a certain inclination, google “Calm Down Dear” and wind back the footage to April of last year. David Cameron, more cocksure than he is at present, directs the phrase at Labour MP Angela Eagle during Prime Minister’s Questions in a debate over health policy. He says it more than once, so bowled over is he with his own Wildean wit. It’s a shame really since it’s actually a catchphrase of that peculiarly mega-loaded film director, Michael Winner. Still, this being the House of Commons, Cameron’s own frontbench are convulsed. Beside him is a man not quite as beside himself as the others – Nick Clegg, looking as he so often does, wistfully wishing he were elsewhere. The Liberal Democrat leader may have few senior women in his own party but in that hollow where his heart used to be, he intuits this is not the way to address female colleagues.
Many of us do. Many of us don’t feel calm but angry and perturbed that the humour embraced by Fragrant Dave is that of a previous generation (Benny Hill?). That may well be what being a conservative means: conserving the worst of things as well as the best of them.
I speak, of course, as a humourless “feminazi”. Anyone who takes offence at being patronised should “grow some” as they say. Tory MP Louise Mensch’s visible frustration at not being moved up party ranks and subsequent resignation meant that, despite her high profile, duller yet controversial men like Jeremy Hunt are still seen as less risky promotions. Our supposedly modernising Prime Minister, who once aimed to appoint women to a third of cabinet positions, ensured that out of twenty-two senior jobs available in the latest reshuffle, only four were given to women.
That aspiration, for representative democracy to be more representative, went very quickly out of the window. As did his promises about the environment. We shall have to hope that climate change doesn’t really happen and that women just try a little harder. Keep calm and carry on. You can’t have everything.
Indeed half the population already know that and some of us have been seeing red for quite some time about just how quickly we are slipping backwards. According to the equality campaigning organisation, the Fawcett Society, we are currently ranked fifty-seventh in the world when it comes to cabinet-level posts. That might be worth thinking about as Samantha Cameron shows us how to wear Zara or Michelle Obama has to tell us about how much she loves Obama.
Does it matter? Just possibly. Every statistic available shows that women and children are being hit hardest by this recession. Women are losing more jobs than men in the public sector (65% of public sector workers are female) and the services they consume the most are also being cut back. Many women now find themselves as unpaid carers with no remuneration whatsoever. Meanwhile, a parliament of men can still legislate over the bodies of women. Indeed Hunt, the new Secretary of State for Health, wants the limit on abortion to be twelve weeks. Despite polls in support of women’s right to choose, the law is whittled away by continual attacks on time limits. A tiny number of women have abortions past twenty-four weeks, 147 in the year before last. Late abortions for “social reasons” do occur, and if you can read some of those case notes you have a stronger stomach than I. If you are raped by a member of your own family and then beaten with an iron bar while pregnant, you may well not want that baby.
Abortion, we are told, is an issue of conscience. No, it is an issue of control. It is fundamentally about whether the state can control the bodies of women. Obviously, not all women feel the same way about this because we are all different – you know, rather like men. Funny chaps, women! Many of us don’t fight for more women in power in politics or in the board room because these women somehow speak for all of us but because it is simply insane that such a power imbalance remains. At the current rate of change, the Fawcett Society estimates a child born today will be drawing her pension before she sees equal numbers of men and women in the House of Commons. Either meritocracy works or it doesn’t. We can conclude women are not as good at running banks or government departments or that they just aren’t “hungry” enough. We can say it might better if we didn’t go in for the baby malarkey, which is a real downer on career prospects. Or we could be cold, hard and livid that this remains the case.
All those tired but wired women that you see with a briefcase and a snatched bag of M&S ready meals. Are they really having it all? It’s not just the double shift of work and domestic duties that women do. There is now a third shift – we must keep ourselves sexually attractive forever. This requires more “work” in the form of surgery. When breasts became bouncy castles for male enjoyment, the imploding implant scandal was waiting to happen. Every woman who has it done claims they are doing it for themselves, their self-worth residing in a body to be used by others. If cutting yourself up as “empowerment” seems a little too much, then just inject yourself with poisonous Botox. I always say the best filler is cake.
These are the most conservative times for women I can remember. But why are we not saying “Enough, already”? Why are we not telling our inbred overlords that we are not as nice as we look? Partly because we are afraid of our own anger. It’s not a pretty sight. Seeing red and letting go is, for many women, a dangerous activity. We are only ever a few HRT pills away from being a monstrous regiment. Women’s rage is also never seen as what we say it is actually about. It is inchoate, unreadable and uncontrollable. It is, of course, also totally thrilling. Feminism as “a movement” has collapsed in the West, in the way of most collective struggles. We can call this postmodern, we can say neoliberalism appropriated feminism simply so that wage slaves could equally be male and female, but it’s not so simple. It hasn’t gone away. The recasting of feminism as only of interest to a few middle-class white women is a media trope. Outbursts of anger, politicised and scalpel sharp, are everywhere we look. The Respect party leader Salma Yaqoob recently resigned over issues of “trust”. Clearly she could no longer tolerate her colleague George Galloway’s attitudes towards women and rape, given his remarks about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The allegations of rape against Assange were dismissed as a plot or simply poor “sexual etiquette” .
The sight of the hard left coalescing around Julian Assange is indeed sore. Yet again, those most vociferous about human rights seem somehow not to see women’s rights as part of the same conversation. Elsewhere, Pussy Riot, young and able to use the net to spread the word about Russian President Vladimir’s Putin’s slide into dictatorship with the backing of the Orthodox Church, achieved far more than earnest politicking has done by performing their “Punk Prayer” for less than a minute in knitted balaclavas. “What we have in common is impudence, politically loaded lyrics, the importance of feminist discourse …”, they said. That three of them are in prison for two years is a disgrace. That even Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, is calling for their release shows their message is hitting where it hurts.
Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee. Photo:Getty
Women are, of course, hurt whenever they stand up to repressive regimes. Sometimes by their own “comrades”. The widely documented sexual assaults on many young Egyptian women who joined their “brothers” in the Arab Spring protests show that the position of women remains vulnerable. Nonetheless, women continue to remind us that feminism isn’t all Naomi Wolf-style fanny gazing. Look at a Nobel Peace Prize winner, the Liberian Leymah Gbowee, who brought together women determined to find peace in a country torn apart by religious divides and civil war through demonstrations, sit-ins, even sex strikes. “We have to be our own Gandhis, our own Kings, our own Mandelas,” she said. What started as groups of women just sitting together in the fish market in white T-shirts led to the eventual demise of the war criminal Charles Taylor and the election of a female president.
While some kinds of feminism meld well with the logic of late capitalism, others challenge it. The stark facts are as follows. Wherever women become educated, they have fewer children and when they become financially independent, the model of monogamous marriage breaks down. Freedom is neither easy or easily defined. And we must be alert to how easily it can be threatened. In this country, the red warning lights were flashing at the last election when women were largely invisible except as trophy wives. Women’s “issues” are still something to be tacked onto another ministerial department. The ideas of quotas is still abhorrent to those born to rule: white men. Those who refute social engineering are themselves the products of the best social engineering money can buy: public school and then Oxbridge. Oh yes, I know there are token women and the Top Trump always remains Margaret Thatcher. Having often featured myself as a token woman, I find the role an insult in 2012. At a dinner with Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions charged with reforming the benefits system, I heard him telling the assembled guests what it was like being a single parent, I sat silent, waiting to be asked my views, as I am one. A scarlet flush was spreading across my chest. This was far from post-coital colour. My blood was rising. The anger could not be swallowed. I left the table.
This kind of action is not fashionable. We cloak our vitriol in humour. I get it. I do it too. Caitlin Moran’s bestselling How to Be a Woman is a brilliantly funny read because it is so warm and not really very angry towards men. We can all be dudes. But former Sex Pistol John Lydon’s chant , “anger is an energy”, is still my cri de coeur. The cliché is that female anger is always turned inwards rather than outwards into despair. We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual. We are angry that men do not do enough. We are angry at work where we are underpaid and overlooked. This anger can be neatly channelled and outsourced to make someone a fat profit. Are your hormones okay? Do you need a nice bath? Some sex tips and an internet date? What if, contrary to Sex and the City, new shoes do not fill the hole in your soul? What if you aspire to another model of womanhood than the mute but beautifully groomed Kate Middleton? What if your anguish is not illogical but actually bloody spot on?
Maybe your man can read Men’s Health and use the “11 ways to deal with an angry woman” advice. Eye contact and admitting you are were wrong come into it! Who knew? Those more vulnerable, the women in our midst going without dinner so the kids can eat, are they going to be helped by talking of anger as an issue of intimacy? The Etonian clones abandoned these women long ago and are producing policies that directly target them.
Those hazard lights should be flashing: women can’t be wooed to vote by being shown the nice handbag of a politician’s wife. I see my daughters’ generation written off as pretty much everything I took for granted is being systematically stripped away from them. Jobs, housing, free education. The expectation that these young women would have the same choice or more even than their mothers is being shattered. They have less. This is why so many of us are seeing red. The signs flicker all around, whichever side of the political divide we are on. We see red, not as a mist but clear and scarlet. Cherish it, for this is how the future will be made.
As Gwobee says “Anger is like water: the shape it takes comes from the container you put it in.” Let it flow.
This piece originally appeared in Red, The Waterstones Anthology edited by Cathy Galvin. Available at Waterstones.com
Suzanne Moore is a journalist who has written for everything from Marxism Today to the Mail on Sunday. She is the author of two books of collected journalism and is currently a columnist for the Guardian. Suzanne has three children and no hobbies.