Women make up 23 per cent of MPs in a country where we are more than 50 per cent of the population. Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty
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Stuff your revolution if it doesn’t include treating women as people

If you want radicalism in politics, it has to start with feminism.

Being a feminist is boring sometimes, and the principal bore in feminism is having to deal with the same scanty responses over and over again. These can all be contained in one of the following three categories: 1) What About The Men, 2) Ah But What If Women Choose To Be Oppressed, and 3) Some Women Are Bad So Feminism Must Be Wrong. So, for example, if you wanted to raise a discussion about the heinously unrepresentative ratio of men to women in parliament, the responses would go like this: 1) all-women shortlists discriminate against men, 2) if women wanted to go into parliament they’d already be there, and 3) well you already had Margaret Thatcher and that didn’t work out so well, did it? 

None of those rhetorical weaselings challenge the underlying injustice of the fact that women make up less than 23 per cent of MPs in a country where we are more than 50 per cent of the population. None of them are supposed to. Instead, they announce respectively that the under-representation can’t be changed, doesn’t matter, and anyway even if it did matter and could be changed, you wouldn’t like the outcome. They are counsels of conservatism, all three. However, there is a criticism to be made of the simple case for increased representation in parliament, and it’s this: simply introducing more women into a male-dominated environment isn’t very likely to make things better for woman on its own.

In her book The Myth of Venus and Mars, Deborah Cameron revisits some of the expectations pinned to the arrival of 120 women MPs in 1997 (due in part to Labour’s all-women shortlists). This doubled the House of Commons’ female population overnight. For some observers, this was an opportunity for a new style of government to develop. The seething machismo between the green benches would give way to a more gentle, collaborative way of doing business. The combative would be softened by the collegiate. A woman’s touch would come to Westminster. In actuality, none of this happened: instead, research by Sylvia Shaw showed that the female MPs simply adopted the habits and manners of their male colleagues.

The only distinction of female parliamentarians in general was that, as “interlopers”, they lacked the confidence to break the rules and interrupt other speakers. More likely to be punished for illegal interjections than a man committing the same infraction (both formally by the speaker, and informally by sexist jeering), female MPs kept their braying between the lines. And why shouldn’t they? It is not, after all, incumbent on women to play nursemaids wherever we go, not even to new forms of democracy. The women MPs were imported into situation where the conventions against them were already well established. Given the choice between playing along and being tolerated, or walking out of the game altogether, most understandably chose the first option – which was really the only option.

Interestingly, women played a much more equal part in the newly established Scottish parliament: it was turgid masculine tradition, not any inherent quality of their sex, that kept Westminster’s women down. And if 120 women couldn’t change a pre-existing culture in 1997, how much more absurd to say that one woman alone should have transformed everything in 1979. It is an achingly obvious point to make, but if Margaret Thatcher had been a women’s libber, she would never have been able to become prime minister. Her novelty as a powerful woman had to be paid for with a scrupulous obedience to the forms of feminine deference: the headscarf, the handbag, and of course, a cabinet full of men. She was a permissible exception, so long as the rules of male supremacy continued to stand.

What, then, is the point of any reform that leaves these underlying rules untouched? We don’t need different demographics in the same old institutions: we need to remake our institutions entirely. What is the good of discussing any kind of radical change at political meetings where men do the talking and women meekly, mutely fall in to do the dogwork of washing up and clipboard carrying (a scene that I suspect will be familiar to any woman who’s been involved in any kind of mixed sex activism)? How can anyone claim to be a revolutionary if their revolution is one where men retain all their power and women remain barely human? For as much of history as we can know, male power has been the default condition; female subjugation takes many local forms, but it’s been a reliable constant across time and culture. The original class division, as Shulamith Firestone pointed out, is between men and women for the purposes of breeding. There is nothing in the world so profoundly conservative as seeing women as fuck-objects and helpmeets.

Russell Brand, clown that he is, is taken seriously by an awful lot of young men who see any criticism of the cartoon messiah’s misogyny as a derail from “the real issues” (whatever they are). The fans claim they love Brand despite the fact that he talks about women as poisoned birds of paradise, sucubus-like vultures or material accoutrements of wealth (“Are you reading this on a yacht, through your Ray-Bans, with, I dunno, a pair of glistening Russian sisters,” Brand asks his implicitly male reader at the start of his atrocious Revolution). I think the fans are dishonest: the sexism is part of the sell. If you know what power feels like, even if you have ever so little of it, how many people could commit to a new order with none at all?

The men who love Brand love him because his “revolution” promises with chirpy vagueness to overturn every hierarchy – apart from the hierarchy of men over women, which Brand specifically and concretely reinforces. In Brand’s coming kingdom, a geezer can still lay claim to his bird. That is no revolution at all. Any politics that women are forced to take on their backs – whether we’re being told to shoulder the burden of tedious labour, or lie down and get screwed – is just the same politics we’ve always had. If you want radicalism, it has to start with feminism. There are still few more revolutionary statements than this one: women are not a resource to be exploited or things to be possessed. Despite millennia of being told otherwise, women are people. There’s a statement to really shake up The Man.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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