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?

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

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.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle