Ten ways to survive as a woman on the left

We’re supposed to be the good guys, so let’s get it right on gender equality.

 

So I'm a woman, trying to survive on “the left”- that  strange world populated by institutions with mission statements, equality policies and progressive solutions. Don’t get me wrong: there are still great individuals, groups, movements and even institutions that continually give me hope and inspire me, but I rarely experience men - and women - on the left practice what we preach in terms of gender equality.

Everyday sexism both conscious and unconscious is against everything that we stand for, but it is still much too common. It crushes our freedom, self-fulfilment and undermines people and our potential. But still I find myself on a daily basis reminding people who think of themselves as progressive – or “on the left” – of some basic aspect of gender equality, from expecting women to do the washing up, to holding all-male panels on issues where there are an abundance of female experts.

Here are my top 10 tips for survival on the left as a woman.

1.  Don't take it personally

It’s not you, it's them. Every time I am in a meeting or at an event and a man interrupts me or worse when I suggest something and then a man re-phrases what I just said and it's all of a sudden "Mike's great idea"- I remind myself of two main things. Firstly, that it's not me that's done something wrong, it’s them. Secondly, that what just happened was probably unintentional and a result of the society we live in. When I am in meetings run by men, full of men or in events with only men on panels and only men asking questions from the floor I remind myself it's definitely not because women aren't as good as men. It's because of the institution of the left and that many people may believe in democracy and equality but often don’t know or accept that they are pushing the opposite agenda. The left is full of good men and women, but that doesn’t mean that sexism and patriarchy don't exist.

2.  Call it out                            

Talking about sexism on the left is great but I usually leave conversations feeling deflated. Calling out sexism by men and women who I admire and who are my peers isn't easy and it's definitely not fun but how on earth is the culture going to change on if we don’t at least call it out? Yes, it’s awkward the first few times. At first I felt so nervous, but with time and practice I've found it very empowering and very often those at fault apologise and learn from it. A few months ago I called out a senior female peer for not helping me out when men in the room were clearly flexing their muscles of patriarchy at me. I asked her why she ignored it and she said she was tired of the anger and fighting back and things not changing. But my calling it out united our anger and frustration into a supportive and empowering friendship that helps both of us survive in our leftie circles.  

3. Don't rely on gender quotas

If I let the anger show on my face every time I heard someone reduce the problem of gender equality to the answer of forced quotas I would have a very different face. Quotas haven't yet stopped my experiences of everyday sexism on the left. So when someone suggests quotas, go a bit deeper. Ask how enforcing quotas will change the culture of sexism, or stop forcing women to choose between our families and our careers. Don't hate on quotas too much - after all they have their place, but they definitely are not the miracle cure to the age old question of what are we going to do about the lack of women in power.  So when faced with the inevitable problem, think about long-term cultural tactics of change, not just outward-facing quick wins. If we are going to survive as women on the left, we need to be thinking of long term solutions to be heard, seen and listened to as equals.   

4. Find support

It's tough out there, so find some support. And not just online support, real life people support. I am lucky (and resourceful enough) to have lots. Some feminist friends, sympathetic peers, women on my work’s trustee board all help make an amazing support network for me to talk to, make mistakes with and take action with. I actually think without my support networks I could just crumble under the weight of everyday sexism and patriarchy on the left. One simple thing I've done is organise a group for women in progressive organisations which don’t have progressive practices in terms of gender equalities (ie a group of women who are sick of the same things as me). Once a month we meet up and have structured discussions about sexism at work that we have experienced and how we could have dealt with the situation (if only we had a time machine). We chat about what our dream gender policies would be (flexible working, 360-degree appraisals including issues around sexism) and whether wearing makeup is good or bad for the cause among many other things. This group has kept me sane since entering the world of party conferences, left-wing think tanks and compulsive politics magazine reading.

5. No (wo)man is an island

As the saying goes, "Human beings do not thrive when isolated from others". I think most lefties agree that the key to making change is doing it together and that we can't win battles on our own. So same rules apply. To really make long term, sustainable changes we need to work together. Holding grudges, shaming people into corners won't help create allies and will only alienate people (although sometimes I do find naming and shaming to be the only way to kick start change). Make sure to build allies and remember this fight is too big on your own.

6. Find some stats

Everyone loves stats. In meetings, note down the number of times women speak, are interrupted, are even present. Are they given air time to pontificate about politics and economics or are they squashed into a single issue box of childcare or abortion. How many women are published, retweeted, presenting, advising those in power- you name it, write it down and reveal it. The look on people's faces when I announce at the end of a meeting the amount of times women have been asked or allowed to speak in a meetings is one to see for yourself. No amount of training or excuses can argue against the cold truth that sexism exists in the left and it just happened, within the last hour. I personally am looking forward to doing this at the party conferences if anyone wants to join me.

7. Think before you speak - but speak!

I dread to think how many times I have wanted to say to peers, to people in power, in meetings “why aren’t any women authors on this publication” or “did no one notice everyone assumed I would wash up the coffee cups and not my male peer?” and many, many more examples. I haven't, because I'm scared of offending my peers and those who I look up to. Because I don't want to look stupid or be ostracised. Because I think I'm being over sensitive or wrong. So before you say that thing- just replay it in your mind, practise it to see what it feels and sounds like. Think about if what you are going to say will get through to people or alienate them. Some people turn immediately defensive if you say the “s” word (sexism) so maybe use equality instead. We have to be tactical about this. But remember, whatever you do – say something! Whether it's in the moment, in an email or to sympathetic ears – say something or the culture will never change.

8. Cherish the small victories

The small victories are what keep me going. Like when a man notices he has interrupted me, stops and lets me carry on. When my boss says no to a panel and suggests a fantastic woman instead. When I look at the New Statesman or the Guardian and see female authors writing in the politics or economics sections and not just on women's issues. When a female MP steps down and the main story isn't that she is stepping down to raise a family. I still get butterflies in my stomach when I ask the chair of an event to make sure to take questions from the floor equally – a woman, then a man, and so on. Even an act as small as making sure there are spaces for women to speak at events is a victory and I cherish each one.

9. Learn from your mistakes

I make them every single day. I have interrupted men and women, enabled sexism passively and actively – everything in this article I am guilty of doing in the past. No one is perfect but the key is to be aware that “equality mistakes” happen. Learn from them, try not to do it again and reflect on why they happen. A few weeks ago in a meeting I said “man power” to which a colleague gave me a watch your language look. I was mortified for my struggling sisters and to myself, but guilt is not a useful emotion. Admitting mistakes and learning from them is definitely useful. As long as you are aware and trying to “be the change you want to see in the world” then there is no reason to beat yourself up about making mistakes. Where I work at Compass, we definitely have a long way to go in terms of gender equality but we are taking active steps to help us on our journey within our staff, Management Committee and members. Survival out there in the big bad leftie world is hard enough, but if you clutter your mind with guilt, no one benefits.

10. Don't worry about the haters

If you stand up to sexism on the left, some people won't like you for it because you are challenging their fundamental beliefs that they are the “good guys” (and girls) because they are on the left and therefore could not possibly be enabling gender inequality or sexism. So be prepared for a bit of back lash, for being labelled things, for being an outsider on this issue from both men and women (I wonder how many pro-equality lefties will hate this article) Last week I called up a very “progressive” and prominent left-wing think tank to ask why they hadn’t had any women on their panel for two events. The conversation was quickly turned around to a man telling me it was my fault. He definitely hated me for calling out the fact that this beacon of progressiveness had no women on their panel. I'm over it now but I was pretty upset. So with a sigh I moved on to the next well-known think tank who “didn’t have a gender equality policy” or any women on their panel. But for everyone who shows some hate, there is a man or woman who tells me on the sly, while washing up mugs or in an email: “Thank you, I feel the exact same way”. 

 

Feminist activists protest at Parliament Square for women's rights and equality in London on 24 October, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Rosie Rogers is National Coordinator at Compass and an active member of UK Uncut and UK Uncut Legal Action.

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The fall of Milo Yiannopoulos: Only the mainstream right has the power to stop the populist right

The lessons of the provocateur's sudden fall from grace.

Alas, poor Milo Yiannopoulos, we hardly knew ye. Well, actually, that's not true. I first encountered Yiannopolous in 2012, when he tried to slut-shame a friend of mine, sex blogger Zoe Margolis, after she criticised his tech site, the Kernel.  "We write about how tech is changing the world around us," he tweeted. "You write about how many cocks you've sucked this week. Back off."

It was a typical Milo performance. Flashy, provocative - and steeped in misogyny. 

Fast-forward five years and he had managed to parlay those qualities into a gig with Breitbart, a public speaking tour, and until yesterday, a $250,000 book deal with Simon & Schuster. But last night, that was cancelled, "after careful consideration". Yiannopolous's invitation to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference had been cancelled hours before. Over the years, CPAC has hosted Ronald Reagan, George W Bush and all the Hall of Fame right-wing blowhards: Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity. 

What changed CPAC's mind? On 18 February, the organisation had tweeted that "free speech includes hearing Milo's important perspective".

Milo's important perspective on what was left unanswered, because it is unanswerable. Does anyone, really, think that Milo Yiannopoulos has deep and rigorously researched convictions? That his statements on feminism, on transgender people, or his criticisms of Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones, spring from some deep well of evidence and sincerity?

Do me a favour.

Yiannopoulos was invited to CPAC to do what he does: be outrageous. To give the attendees a frisson of excitement at being in the presence of someone so notorious, someone willing to "say the unsayable". To outrage the left, and remind those watching of the gulf between them and the people waving placards outside.

Except the provocateur is finding out that some things really are unsayable. Some things - all his previous things, in fact - are extremely sayable, as long as you have the protection of the mainstream right and a media industry which craves - and monetises - attention. But a few are not.

So what did Milo Yiannopoulos actually say to prompt this outbreak of condemnation, and the withdrawal of lucrative marketing opportunities? The first thing to note is that the comments which kicked off the latest row are not new. After he appeared on Bill Maher's show improbably dressed as Like A Virgin Era Madonna (in an appearance up there with Jimmy Fallon rustling Trump's tawny locks on the Vom-O-Meter), old YouTube videos surfaced which, in the BBC's words, "showed him discussing the merits of gay relationships between adults and boys as young as 13". He said that the age of consent was "not this black and white thing" and relationships "between younger boys and older men … can be hugely positive experiences". 

He has since denied endorsing paedophilia, said that he is a survivor of child abuse himself, and added that the videos were edited to give a misleading impression.

In the tweet announcing that he had been dropped, CPAC accused him of "condoning paedophilia". But he argues that elsewhere in the video he said that the US age of consent was in the correct place.

For those on the left, the overwhelming reaction to all this has been: why now? Why these comments, not the ones about "preening poofs", or lesbians faking hate crimes, or the danger of Muslims, or the harassment campaign against Leslie Jones which got him permanently banned from Twitter? (Do you know how consistently and publicly awful you have to be to get banned from Twitter???)

There's only one answer to that, really: yesterday marked the moment when Milo Yiannopoulos ceased being an asset to the mainstream right, and became a liability.

***

On 8 February, Jan-Werner Muller wrote a fascinating piece for the FT in which he argued that the populist right was not, as the narrative would have it, an unstoppable grassroots movement sweeping the world. Instead it should be seen as an outgrowth of the mainstream right, which fed it and gave it succour. 

These colourful images are deeply misleading. Mr Farage did not bring about the Brexit vote all by himself. He needed two mainstream Conservative politicians, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. More important still, the Leave vote was not just the result of spontaneous anti-establishment feelings by the downtrodden; Euroscepticism, once a fringe position among Conservatives, had been nourished for decades by tabloid newspapers and rebel MPs.

President Trump did not win as an outside candidate of a third-party populist movement either. Where Mr Farage had Messrs Johnson and Gove, Mr Trump could rely on the blessing of establishment Republicans such as Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani."  

This is unarguably true in the case of Milo Yiannopoulos: he started his career at the Telegraph, once the newspaper of choice for retired colonels eating marmalade in the shires. Iain Martin, a colleague of his there, yesterday jokingly acknowledged that he was "partly to blame".

A quick look at Nigel Farage's experience during the EU referendum is also instructive. The Vote Leave campaign worked hard to shut him out of the public discussion in the weeks before 23 June - reasoning that his overt anti-immigration broadsides would turn off swing voters. They even accused broadcasters of "joining the IN campaign" by inviting Farage to debate David Cameron. To understand Farage's bewilderment at this treatment, read his speeches from the time, or his grumpy appearance on TV the morning after the victory, where he said the £350m NHS claim was a mistake. The guy felt betrayed.

And it's not surprising. A significant number of Tory Eurosceptics in parliament had, until Cameron announced the referendum would happen, found Farage's existence extremely useful. There he was - a living, breathing, chainsmoking reminder that MPs (and voters) could move to Ukip if Britain didn't get a say on membership of the European Union. But once the campaign began, they found him an embarrassment. The "Breaking Point" poster was repellent. He was turning off moderate voters. And so he was frozen out. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove suddenly discovered that - hey, this guy says some pretty outrageous things!

A similar dynamic happened with Donald Trump. We now know he performed on 8 November about as well as a generic Republican after eight years of a Democratic president. Certainly no better - had he run as an independent, that small core of Trump-lovers would be a speck within a wider population, instead of being held up as the vanguard of a new kind of politics. Throughout the campaign, GOP grandees like Paul Ryan struggled to condemn him, reasoning that a Republican president - any Republican president, even one who didn't seem to believe in most of the alleged values of the Republican party - was better than a Democrat. Trump was boosted and bolstered by significant portions of the mainstream right, and even the centre: CNN employed his former campaign manager as a pundit. Fox, a mainstream news channel owned by a huge corporation, gave him waves of adoring coverage. 

***

What's in all this for the mainstream right? Two things. The first is that the populist right are useful generators of heat. They say outrageous things - black people are lazy! Muslims are terrorists! - putting their opponents in a bind. Do you let such assertions go, on the basis that those voicing them are a tiny fringe? Or do you wearily condemn every single instance of bigotry, making yourself look like a dull Pez dispenser of condemnation? Either way is debilitating, either for public discourse broadly, or for the left's appeal to disengaged people. 

Secondly, the populist right are useful outriders. Sheltered by the mainstream right - would anyone read Katie Hopkins if she had a blog, or Piers Morgan? nope - these "provocateurs" can push extreme versions of narratives that many on the mainstream right feel to be true, or at least to contain a kernel of truth worth discussing. If Breitbart says "black crime" is a distinct phenomenon, then it's much more acceptable for Trump to threaten to "send in the Feds" to Chicago, or to describe inner cities as wastelands in need of a strong hand. If Katie Hopkins writes about migrants drowning in the Mediterranean as "cockroaches", she dehumanises them - turning them from fathers, mothers, children into a faceless mass, not like us, and therefore not deserving of our pity. That makes it much easier for the government to stop taking child refugees. After all, didn't I read somewhere that they're all 45 and just pretending to be children, anyway?

The populist right are extremely good generators of memes - those little bits of information which move virally through society. Take the grooming gang in Rochdale. It gets invoked every time feminists try to have a conversation about male violence. Um, did you condemn Rochdale? By the time you reply, wearily, that yes you did, it's too late. The conversation has been derailed for good. What about FGM? Well, yes, of course I'm agains-- oh, too late. We've moved on. 

***

The "alt right" - the online version of the populist right - loves to talk about left-wingers being "triggered" or "snowflakes". This is clearly a rhetorical tactic to delegitimise any criticism of them. I don't write about misogyny because I'm upset by it; I write about it because it's wrong. But it's a playbook that works: look into examples of "political correctness gone mad" and you'll often find a story that has been exaggerated, twisted or straight-up invented in order to paint the left as dolorous monks intent on killing fun. But anyone with any strong beliefs, anyone who holds anything sacred, will react when some shows disrespect to something they care about. The right has just as many shibboleths it is unwilling to see violated. (If you don't believe me, try burning a poppy or the American flag.)

The strangest part of yesterday was seeing Milo Yiannopoulous's increasingly sincere Facebook posts, as the awful realisation dawned on him - as it dawned on Nigel Farage during the referendum - that the sweet shelter of the mainstream right was being withdrawn from him. When he had attacked his female peers in the London tech scene, when he attacked transgender people for being "mentally ill", when he attacked an actor for the temerity to be black, female and funny in a jumpsuit, he was given licence. He was provocative, starting a debate, exercising his free speech. But yesterday he found out that there is always a line. For the right, it's child abuse - because children, uniquely among people who might be sexually abused, are deemed to be innocent. No one is going to buy that a 13-year-old shouldn't have been out that late, or wearing that, or brought it on himself. 

I would not be surprised if this isn't the end of Milo Yiannopoulos's career, and I will watch with keen interest what strategies he will use for his rehabilitation. He's still got his outlaw cachet, and there are still plenty of outlets where the very fact that people are objecting to a speaker is assumed to mean they have something that's worth hearing. And there are plenty more ideas that some on the right would be happy to see pushed a little further into the mainstream - with plausible deniability, of course. If that's the extreme, then the mainstream shifts imperceptibly with every new provocation. Because he's not one of us, oh no. They're not, either. But you see, they must be heard. And provocateurs are useful, until they're not. But it's not the left who decides when that is. Only the mainstream right can stop the extremists on their flanks.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.