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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage