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A new wave of feminist manifestos address women and power

Can books by Jessa Crispin, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Catherine Mayer and Jess Phillips harness a wave of popular energy?

In a recent lecture the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard cogently argued that public ­attitudes to women in power have altered frighteningly little over the centuries. Even though there has been a shift as a minority of women have climbed to positions of greater public and corporate influence over the past few decades, the hostile treatment meted out to figures as diverse as Hillary Clinton and Caroline Criado-Perez would be familiar to the creators of Medea, Clytemnestra and Antigone. But this dep­ressing lack of change now needs to be set against the astonishing rise of new forms of female protest, with millions of women galvanised globally to rise up against the new misogyny and the old injustices.

The obvious challenge is how to channel this explosion of popular feminist energy in order to defeat the burgeoning forces of populism decisively. The worry is that feminist protest will be self-limiting, drawing its life force from women’s deep, almost instinctive familiarity with outsiderness: the same “exteriority” to power (stemming from both outer hostility and inner reluctance) that Beard sees running throughout history. It could be, she suggested, that women today are already exercising a novel, network-based, collaborative form of power, one that relies less on individual notoriety and risk.

Such themes lie at the heart of these four books, all very different from each other, published to coincide with International Women’s Day – proof at least of the presumed commercial buoyancy of the new feminism. Each tackles the question of power: how and why women lack it, how they might take it, how to personalise it and even, in one case, how to refuse it. What fresh insights and resources of hope do they offer? Quite a lot, I think, and often within a tough, but refreshingly realist frame.

Everywoman announces itself, like its author, the Labour MP Jess Phillips, in a blast of “no-nonsense” noisiness on the cover. There’s loud black and red lettering, and a picture of Phillips in an arms-crossed, lips-pursed pose of bemused self-defence. The book, we are assured, is all about trusting her to tell us the “truth”. This, after all, is the woman bold enough to tell Diane Abbott to “f**k off” and Jeremy Corbyn that if he failed to keep his promises she would stab him in the front, not the back: a warning somewhat mitigated by attacks on Corbyn now being something of a national sport.

Wisely, Phillips – an MP only since 2015 – puts Labour divisions largely to one side. In fast, furious and often funny prose (Every­woman really does read as Phillips speaks), she recalls her own unusual journey from wayward Birmingham teenager to domestic violence campaigner to parliamentary champion, particularly of women’s interests. She paints a vivid picture of the price of public life for women, from “paternalistic shushing” and constant anxiety/abuse about our appearance (“I urge you to think about the men and boys you know. Are they knockouts?”) to multiple online threats of rape and mutilation and, in Phillips’s case, an understandable nervousness about conducting constituency surgeries after the murder of her friend and fellow MP Jo Cox.

For all that, Phillips is determined to encourage women to stand up and stand for office – and even to “relish your unpopularity”. If we really want politicians that look like “us”, she writes, then the public has to accept that it won’t be getting perfect people. She writes honestly about her brother Luke’s drug problems and her own screw-ups, in and out of politics, and in one lovely passage she anatomises human imperfection in general: “Everyone I know has something dark in their lives or in their family history . . . Our lives are full to the brim of stuff we wish we hadn’t done and people we really wish we could forget. It shouldn’t control our futures; it should only enhance them.” Amen to that, especially if it encourages even one reluctant woman to try her hand at public life.

Catherine Mayer has gone a step further than most women fed up with the “skewed” status quo. She started her own political party as a kind of dare after a debate held during the 2015 election campaign. The Women’s Equality Party (WEP) draws its populist power in part from its media connections (Sandi Toskvig, its highest-profile supporter, occupies a position close to that of national treasure), the continuing frustration of millions of women at the failure of mainstream politics to address their concerns – and now Trump terror.

Attack of the Fifty-Foot Women is a companion piece to the WEP agenda: its aim is to sketch out Equalia, as Mayer calls her promised utopia. An engaging and sharp journalist, she updates the case for equality with fresh research and insights into the sexual politics of everything from domestic life and new technology to cinema and the boardroom. She also gives us a candid insight into the WEP’s attempts to make itself a truly intersectional party, as well as its internal debates on transgender questions, pornography and prostitution.

But who exactly, I wonder, is this weighty book aimed at? Won’t those who are drawn to Mayer and the WEP already have a good grasp of the issues and be perhaps more interested in activism than in a broad roll-call of gender injustice? Mayer has an answer to this, too, which she elaborates in one of her later chapters, on Iceland. This small nation is, in its own way, a pioneer of gender equality, a movement kick-started by the extraordinary “women’s day off” in October 1975, when Iceland’s women downed domestic tools and showed, in 24 hours, how much the country depended on the hitherto invisible labour of women. The WEP is planning a similar Women’s Day Off strike for the UK in 2018, a brilliant idea for an action that someone should have organised years ago.

I suspect that Jessa Crispin would give short shrift to Phillips or Mayer, with their belief in working inside the system and making men partners in change. But then Why I Am Not a Feminist is a provocation, a hand grenade of a publication, as its opening epigraph makes clear: “A book should open old wounds, even inflict new ones. A book should be a danger.”

Crispin takes as her role models second-wave feminist outliers such as Shulamith Firestone and Andrea Dworkin (the often reviled and long-neglected Dworkin has become a heroine for a new generation) and targets what she calls “universal feminism”, from consumerist to corporate variants. But the book was presumably written before the definitive rise of Trump, and so Crispin’s hostility to shiny, successful, insider feminism already feels like a tussle with a disappearing past. Naming no names, she reviles women who “line up behind female politicians, their support thrown behind them almost solely because they share a gender”:

Despite a long history of supporting military intervention, I watch women talk about these politicians’ natural diplomacy and how they’ll keep us out of war . . . Despite a long history of money grabbing and corruption, I watch women talk about these politicians’ sense of fairness and economic justice.

In Crispin’s world-view, women who take political power are bound to corrupt their own ideals, taint their own principles. Perhaps this is part of the answer to the eternal puzzle of why conservatives are more successful in promoting female leaders. Women on the right, with their belief in the power of capital, monarchy, nation and authority, have fewer internal ethical barriers to breach in order to exercise power, at least as it exists today.

Crispin has acute insight into the narcissism of so much “self-empowerment” guff and the blind alleys of “outrage feminism”, on and offline. But there remain odd notes in her provocation, such as her refusal to name names or make specific references, leaving her lurching from one generalised complaint to the next, like a tipsy bar bore. Very occasionally, she touches on a real-world example, as when she rightly criticises the summary hounding out of Professor Tim Hunt from University College London after he made a series of ordinarily silly remarks about women in science.

There is also something unsettling about Crispin’s tone in the chapter “Men Are Not Our Problem”, where she tells her potential male readership: “I don’t give a f**k about your response to this book. Do not email me, do not get in touch. Deal with your own shit for once.” Yet later, in that same chapter, she avers that “softness, vulnerability, nuance, compassion and care . . . are absolutely vital qualities that [women] should not be ashamed of”.

What does Crispin ultimately demand? Inasmuch as she spells out what she stands for, as opposed to what she abhors, it is a form of communitarian solidarity, a concern for peace and justice and fairness for all, a refusal to worship at the shrine of money. I may be wrong but I think we used to call this “socialist feminism”.

If we are to believe a recent Vogue profile of the novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie might be just the kind of feminist of whom Crispin disapproves. Her high-fashion collaboration with Dior on the creation of a “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirt was much paraded during Paris Fashion Week 2016. Did this project represent selling out or reaching out? Unsurprisingly, Adichie ­robustly claims the latter.

And now here comes another ­attractive, marketable commodity from Adichie – the slight but beautifully produced Dear Ijeawele, a succinct and lyrical manifesto for the next generation embodied in 15 (very pragmatic) “suggestions”, addressed at different points to Chizalum Adaora, the baby daughter of her close friend Ijeawele, or to those who are raising her.

In some ways, Adichie, a Nigerian writer who divides her time between the United States and West Africa, embodies the intersectionality and inclusiveness of modern feminism. Her critique of Igbo traditions and other Nigerian customs has not a whiff of apology about it, at the same time hinting at some startling differences in class relations, as when she urges her friend to teach her daughter that “the household help is human just like her” and that she should “always greet the driver”.

Dear Ijeawele reminds us that, in the history of feminist writing, it is often the personal and epistolary voice that carries the political story most powerfully – think of Sheila Rowbotham’s groundbreaking Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World of 1973, or Oriana Fallaci’s Letter to a Child Never Born (1975). It also reminds us that not much is new. Adichie touches on many of the enduring maxims of women’s liberation, mingling this with a more contemporary, tough-it-out realism. Marriage, she urges, should never be presented as an achievement for a girl (but “romance will happen, so be on board”); gender roles should always be questioned; language matters; ­difference should be respected; sex should be discussed, often. And, in a direct echo of Phillips, she warns that women must firmly reject the snares of likeability.

For me, the most powerful sentence in the book is its simplest, and comes in only the third paragraph. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie urges Ijeawele to remember to transmit to her daughter “the solid unbending belief that you start off with . . . Your feminist premise should be: I matter. I matter equally. Not ‘if only’. Not ‘as long as’. I matter equally. Full stop.”

Such an assertion does not directly answer the problem Mary Beard posits about women and power. Yet there is no doubt that if we raised all of our daughters to believe completely that they “matter equally”, to trust what they feel and think and to worry less about how they look and come across, we would soon find new ways to challenge the multiple injustices and indignities that still limit, and even wreck, so many women’s lives.

Jess Phillips and Catherine Mayer will be in conversation with Helen Lewis at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 23 April

Everywoman: One Woman's Truth About Speaking the Truth by Jess Phillips is published by Hutchinson (242pp, £14.99)

Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa Crispin is published by Melville House (153pp, £12.99)

Attack of the Fifty-Foot Women: How Gender Equality Can Save the World! by Catherine Mayer is published by HQ (352pp, £20)

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is published by Fourth Estate (66pp, £10)

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain

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A year in my life as a Brexit bargaining chip

After Brexit, like many other EU citizens in Britain, I spent a year not knowing what my future held. Here's what that was like.

I moved back to the UK in January 2016. I like to say “move back”, because that’s how it feels – I loved living in London so much during my Erasmus year that I always intended to come work here after graduation. 

I am French, and a journalist, and live in north London. I refer to the UK as “home”. By all appearances, in January 2016 I am part of what budding Brexiteers call the “liberal elite”, even though I rent a single room and my most expensive possession after my laptop is a teapot.

But by June, I have been given a new label. I am now one of the 3 million “EU citizens in the UK”. As Britain heads toward turbulent negotiations to leave the European Union, following a referendum in which I did not have a vote, I have become a “bargaining chip”. 

This is my account of that year.

April 2016

Moving back includes chores such as getting a UK phone number, a National Insurance number and opening a bank account – three tasks that go even smoother that I thought they would. For the bank account, I have been advised to go to Lloyds Bank, which makes it “easy for Europeans”. (A thread on Twitter recently proved it also is more inclined to help refugees than other banks.)

I also eagerly register to vote – another right of mine in the UK under EU rules, for local and European elections. And I am excited: I will have a vote in the London mayoral election.

I closely follow the referendum campaign. “Vote Remain” signs and stickers are omnipresent in my  neighbourhood.  I feel reassured. So do the other EU nationals quietly passing me in the street. “I don't recall seeing any Leave Campaign. It made me think it would be an easy win,” echoes Tiago Gomes, 27, a Portuguese musician.

In the pub, I get into a testy exchange with an acquaintance who holds French and British passports and is proudly campaigning for Leave. I struggle to understand why. Maybe, just like Ukip leader Nigel Farage, he knows he has a way out, if it all goes to shit.

Worried that people could wrongly see me as a Brexiteer because of my Union Jack Converses, I put a “I’m IN” sticker on each roundel.

May 2016

I vote in the London mayoral election. I have voted many times in France, but this is different – I am almost a Brit! I even take a happy selfie with my polling card, like a proud 18 year-old.

This turns out to be the only UK election I will ever have a vote in, as a friend will note a few months later.

June 2016

Jo Cox MP is murdered on the streets of her constituency. I report on the murder all afternoon and when I get the tube home, I feel shaken. A Leave supporter enters the tube carriage with an England flag. I want to ask him: "Do you even know what happened?" But I say nothing.

The violent turn taken by the campaign is felt in London, too. Samir Dwesar, a 27-year-old parliamentary assistant, remembers the abuse he suffered while campaigning for Remain: “I was called a p**i, and told to go back to ‘your f’ing country'.” Samir is British and has lived all his life in Croydon, South London.

Yet I am hopeful on 23 June 2016. I blow up “I’m IN” balloons, taste EU referendum cupcakes from my local bakery. I’m living history.

And it is history. I doubt anyone in Britain, and especially the country’s EU citizens, will forget the nightmarish morning of 24 June 2016. My heart sinks as I read the BBC news alert informing me I am no longer home – not really. On my wall, a poster of the Private Eye cover “What Britain will look like after Brexit”, which I found hilarious in April, looks like a doomed omen.

The mood is low among all Europeans. For Nassia Matsa, 27, a Greek woman from Athens who has lived in London for 9 years, it is even worse: 24 June marks her birthday. “Nigel and Boris ruined my birthday,” she says.

At least in London we are not alone. I discover many Brits identify as European. When I finally leave my house, my neighbourhood is still plastered IN signs and EU flags. “I found myself offering support to my British friends,” says Matsa. “Were talking about Brexit with an Italian, Swiss, Croatian, French and me, and all of us Europeans were comforting a Londoner who was ready to cry.”

July-August 2016

I go to France for a summer holiday. Everyone keeps asking what my situation will be in the UK after Brexit. My answer is always the same, and still hasn’t changed: I have no idea. My dad spends months repeating that Brexit will not happen: “They’ll realise it’s a mistake.” (They don’t.)

Bad adverts with Brexit puns bloom on the Tube. "We're Out," proclaims one for a city lifestyle app. I don’t laugh. But at least I don't have any Facebook friend boasting about Brexit. Mikael David Levin, a 24-year-old Italian who has lived in London for 16 years, does. "Their statuses frustrate and irritate me," he says. "They do not know how 'lucky' they are to be born in the UK."

After David Cameron’s resignation, the Tory leadership election and Theresa May’s premiership, the discussion focuses on when to pull the trigger, and what to do with people like us in the meantime. We are now, officially, bargaining chips.

September 2016

I start flying with my passport when I visit my family in France, even though I know my French ID is still valid until Britain officially leaves. At Stansted airport, the limited life expectancy of the “EU only” line makes me gloomy. Alex Roszkowski, a 27-year-old Polish-American who has lived in London for a year and a half, tells me he may now carry both his passports on every trip, as well as “copies of [his] lease, numerous old envelopes with [his] name and address, [his] business card".

Those EU citizens arriving in the UK have surreal experiences too. Joseph Sotinel, 28, who moved to London from Paris in September, encounters a bank official, who tells him: “Thanks for coming to the UK, you are still welcome no matter what.”

“It was as if I had done something heroic,” he says. “It was absurd.”

October 2016

Registering all EU citizens in the UK could take 140 years, according to a cheery statistic.

We are seeking an early deal to secure the rights of EU citizens, says the British government. Companies employing EU workers must provide a list of their employees, says the British government. Companies employing EU workers won’t have to provide a list of their employees, says the British government. EU citizens will need a “form of ID” in post-Brexit UK, says the British government.  EU citizens must be prepared to leave, says the British government.

Literally no one knows what will happen to EU citizens.

November- December 2016

EU nationals who have decided to apply to permanent residency or British citizenship start receiving letters urging them to leave the country. I fear mine could follow and think about it every time I get post. I read an article advising EU citizens to collect proof of living in the UK. As I am a lodger currently working freelance, I start keeping every single one of my shopping receipts in a box, and consider asking British friends for reference letters.

Matt Bock [unrelated to this journalist], a German freelance renewable energy project manager, worries about how to provide documentation showing he was living in the UK before Brexit too: “I don’t have an employer, I am outside the UK for a large amount of time for work, I am a freelancer largely paid by my own German company, I don’t have private health insurance, I am not married and I haven’t even been here for the prerequisite 5 years.”" He has chosen not to apply to right to remain because his chances of success are "remote", and says he is "ready to leave if need be."

As I, like Matt and many EU citizens, start thinking about moving back home, others rush to move to the UK. Alexandra Ibrová, 26, a Czech PhD student, moves to London on 28 December, worried she could not get a National Insurance number after 15 March. “I was trying to get the appointment before that date because it is actually the only official document that proves that you have been living here before the cut off date,” she says.

January- February 2017

Gina Miller’s legal challenge forces the government’s Brexit bill to go to a vote in Parliament. I am hopeful, for about five minutes, that the Labour MP Harriet Harman’s amendment to secure my rights has got a chance. It doesn’t. I complain about Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s three-line whip to my local Labour councillors during their Sunday canvassing. “As a traditionally left-wing voter, I'm more angry with Corbyn's Labour than with the Tories,” echoes Marta Maria Casetti, 39, from Italy, in London since 2006.

March 2017

The day before the triggering or Article 50, the Haringey LibDems send me a letter in “support” of EU nationals. I am now a bargaining chip and a stat on a micro-targeting list.

On 29 March, Theresa May officially begins the Brexit negotiations, even though 2017 is the worst possible time to leave the EU. It has almost been a year that 3 million people living in the UK have been left in limbo.

I don’t own a house or have children at school in the UK. Many EU citizens do – they have built their family life in this country, and now fear they may lose it all overnight.

Adriana Bruni, 44, an Italian who married an Englishman and has lived in Chelmsford for six years, says her family would not exist without the European Union: “From today [29 March], a family like mine will never be formed in the same way again.” Bianca Ford Epskamp, a Dutch national and school governor who has lived Dorset since 2001, adds: “Both my children are born here, go to school here, have made friends. I've always been employed, contributed, paid taxes, do voluntary things. Morally, it’s draining.”

Elena Paolini, 51, an Italian translator married to Brit who has lived in London for 27 years, says she doesn’t believe EU nationals will be deported, but she is concerned about her access to the NHS, pensions or bank accounts. She asks out loud the question that has been floating in all our minds for months: “Will I be considered a second rate citizen?”

As for me, I used to say I wanted to be British. I don't say that any more.

Update on 23 June 2017

Last night, Theresa May told EU leaders in Brussels the UK government would offer the same rights as Britons to EU citizens who arrived "lawfully" before Brexit. I can't help but think that it took a year to guarantee rights me, and the other 3 million, already had and took for granted up until 23 June last year.

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