8 March 1991: What feminism means to me

Diana Quick, Margi Clarke, Vanessa Redgrave and others.

Jenni Murray, presenter, “Woman’s House”

The day I became a feminist was when I was refused social security benefits on the grounds that I had a husband who would keep me.

I am sick of hearing the word post-feminism. This is not a post-feminist era, we don’t have equal pay, the streets are not safe for women, and we still have to juggle our lives. The battle will not even begin to be won until boys start asking how they can combine their work and their family life. As for younger women, take up the cudgels and bring the boys along with you!

Anna Ford, broadcast journalist

The aim of my sort of feminism is to make sure that every woman has the opportunity to realise her chosen potential without harassment or discrimination and stands up for women who are still referred to as deserving minority groups. Women in America find our continues emphasis on such basic rights and recognition almost impossible to believe. What we still have to achieve, they have taken for granted for 20 years.

Claire Rayney, broadcaster and writer

Feminism means everything if you care at all about people, if you care about women. I’m concerned about women’s status and women’s rights and women’s needs, because until they are satisfied, neither are the needs of men and children. I never lie about my age; it’s a very anti-feminist thing to do. Expecting women to be coy about their ages, and colluding in it, implies women are only interesting when they’re fizzy with oestrogen. I’m 60 and splendid.

Julie Burchill, newspaper columnist

Feminism means being able to do what you want.

Diana Quick, actor

Feminism has had a lasting impact on my life. What has helped me most are de Beauvoir’s ideas about not authenticating yourself in terms of other people’s reactions to you, but doing things on your own account. The thing that bothers me most today is the unequal burden of domestic labour. But when people ask me if I am a feminist, I say, no, I’m a working woman; partly out of cowardice, but also our of irritation at having to meet up with those set of prejudices that the tag now implies.

Lurline Champagnie, first black woman Conservative PPC, Islington North

Feminism? I personally don’t care for it. I like the elegance and flattery of being a woman but it hasn’t prevented me from doing things that some women might wait for the man of the house to do. I know what I want to do and I get on with it. There may be barriers in society but it’s up to women to break them down.

Margi Clarke, actor

Feminism is belonging to the earth and being in rhythm with feminine forces; and any man who doesn’t understand feminism will come back with a cunt next time.

Zeinab Badawi, newsreader

Feminism is the freedom to choose. I work and I always will, but my mother would say she is a professional mother. We are in a post-feminist era. Discrimination is not embarrassing for the perpetrator, whereas a few years ago their assumptions would have gone unchallenged.

I am wary of the feminist label because it can lead to western cultural chauvinism. What I may define as my freedom may not be what my counterparts in Khartoum would want.

Patsy Chapman, editor, “News of the World”

Building society managers used to turn women down, including me, in case they got pregnant. And an editor once refused me a job when he learned I was married – because I would have to be home at six to put the potatoes on.

Sara Parkin, national speaker, the Green Party

I’ve been most inspired by third world women who could not be described as feminists, like Wanjari Maatti, the Kenyan who founded the Green Belt movement or Vandana Shive one of the Indian women who set up their own bank.

Vanessa Redgrave, actor

Have women not got more urgent problems on their minds?

The Indonesian military celebrate Kartini Day. Photo: Getty Images.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide